The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in collaboration with ASEAN India Centre (AIC) at Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) organized a two-day International Conference to commemorate thirty years of India-ASEAN relations on the theme “Geopolitical shifts and Opportunities: New Horizons in India-Southeast Asia Relations” on 20-21 July 2022. The seminar had more than forty speakers from think tanks, academic institutions as well as former diplomats from India and ASEAN countries.
The Inaugural Session of the International Conference was held in-person at Sapru House on 20 July 2022. Remarks were made by Amb. Vijay Thakur Singh, DG, ICWA and H.E. Mr Simon Wong Wie Kuen, High Commissioner of the Republic of Singapore to India. Special Remarks were made by Dr C Raja Mohan, Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, New Delhi. The keynote address was delivered by Dr Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, Hon’ble Minister of State for External Affairs, Government of India.
MoS Dr Rajkumar Ranjan Singh stated that ASEAN-India relationship is one of the key pillars of India’s foreign policy which has helped drive India’s vision of a wider Indo-Pacific. South East Asia has truly emerged as the economic and geo-political centre of gravity of the world of 21st century. ASEAN unity and centrality is an important pillar of the evolving architecture in the region. Geopolitical shifts have underscored the importance of strengthening regional cooperation for ensuring security and growth of the region. India and ASEAN need to expand their cooperation to new horizons with focused practical cooperation. India-ASEAN cooperation is a factor for stability in the region.
H.E. Mr Simon Wong Wie Kuen, High Commissioner of the Republic of Singapore to India stated that the recent India-ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting charted the path to engage more strategically for a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Stagflation, flattening of global trade, supply chain disruptions, demand disruption, youth unemployment, US-China competition, prolonged war in Ukraine are among the inter-locking challenges before India and ASEAN. India and ASEAN can strengthen their partnership through digital payment connects, link-up of start-up and fintech ecosystems, collaboration in skill centres and university development, and cooperation in green energy, health and pharma sectors.
Dr. C Raja Mohan, Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute stated that the Indo-Pacific construct places the ASEAN at the very heart of the region and, therefore, ASEAN centrality becomes more important. The Quad is not here to replace the ASEAN but to work in tandem. India and ASEAN need to develop more security cooperation to overcome their dependency on the idea that US and China are needed to ensure the region’s stability. India and ASEAN have to work together on defence and security cooperation both collectively and bilaterally. The answer to current geopolitical ferment and US-China competition is more cooperation, not less, between India and countries of Southeast Asia.
The technical sessions of the conference were held in virtual mode. The first session on “Regional and Global Trends”, was chaired by Amb Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, Mumbai and Former DG, ICWA, New Delhi. The speakers in the session were Dr. Kuik Cheng-Chwee, Head and Associate Professor, Centre for Asian Studies, Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), National University of Malaysia (UKM), Bangi; Dr. Rahul Mishra, Director, Centre for ASEAN Regionalism, Universiti Malaya (CARUM), Kuala Lumpur; Prof. Shankari Sundararaman, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi; and Prof. B. R. Deepak, Professor of Chinese and China Studies, Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. The session discussed key global and regional trends which define the current geopolitical scenario including COVID-19 pandemic, US-China confrontation, Indo-Pacific and the Ukraine crisis. It was observed that Indo-Pacific is a broader construct than Quad which includes economic and non-traditional security. Quad is not opposed to ASEAN and current geopolitical trends make a case for stronger ties between India and South East Asian countries.
The second session on “Between Past and Present: Tracing India’s Footprints in Southeast Asia” was chaired by Prof. Baladas Ghosal, Former Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. The speakers in the session were Prof. Joefe Santarita, Professor of Asian Studies, Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman and President, ASEAN Studies Association of the Philippines, Manila; Dr Nalina Gopal, Social Historian and Heritage Curator, Singapore; Prof. Suchandra Ghosh, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad; and Dr Rajiv Ranjan Chaturvedy, Associate Professor, Nalanda University, Nalanda. The session discussed the civilisation aspects which connect India and Southeast Asia and its relevance for contemporary realities. This session elaborated upon the cultural and historical ties between India and Southeast Asia. It was observed that equal emphasis needed to be put on the study of Indic influences in South East Asia and the influence of the cultures of South East Asian nations on India. The need for renewed vigour in promoting tourism, Indian development assistance in restoration of heritage sites in Southeast Asia, and collaboration among museums was emphasized. The session noted that the pluralist nature of both India and Southeast Asia provided the firm foundation for their friendly and close ties.
The third session on “Building Consensus through Regional Cooperation”, was chaired by Prof. Suthiphand Chirathivat, Professor Emeritus, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. The speakers in the session were Dr. Ravichandran Moorthy, Associate Professor, International Relations & Strategic Studies, National University of Malaysia (UKM), Kuala Lumpur; Mr. Sanjay Pulipaka, Independent Researcher on International Politics and Security, Hyderabad; and Dr Temjenmeren Ao, Research Fellow, ICWA, New Delhi. The session discussed the perspectives towards building synergies between India and Southeast Asia in the Indo-Pacific. As the Indo-Pacific gains traction amongst the ASEAN nations, the need to build on the convergence between the IPOI and the AOIP and collaborate amongst the four main pillars listed under the IPEF’s enhanced economic engagement was emphasized. It was noted that India and Southeast Asia could build resilient supply chains under IPEF.
The fourth session on “Changing Security Dynamics” was chaired by Amb. Anil Wadhwa, Former Secretary (East), MEA, Government of India. The speakers were Dr. Vo Xuan Vinh, Deputy Director, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies(ISEAS), Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS), Hanoi; Dr. Jirayudh Sinthuphan, Assistant Professor, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Dr. M. Mayilvaganan, Associate Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru; and Dr. Udai Bhanu Singh, Former Senior Research Associate, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. The session discussed the changing dimensions of security in the region which included traditional and non-traditional security threats. The session noted that Southeast Asia in general and ASEAN in particular is facing great challenge due to strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region between US and China. ASEAN is a catalyst for peace in the region; the ongoing tensions and challenges require a multilateral mechanism which is provided by ASEAN by bringing together all the major stakeholders in a common platform for a constructive dialogue. ASEAN needs to step up its role to address key security challenges.
The fifth session on “Economic Cooperation” was chaired by Amb. Gurjit Singh, Professor, IIT Indore and Former India’s Ambassador to Indonesia & ASEAN. The speakers were Dr. Mohammed Masudur Rahman, Visiting Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Singapore; Dr. Watcharas Leelawath, Advisor (Hony.), Bolliger & Company, Bangkok and Former Executive Director, Mekong Institute (MI); and Prof. Biswajit Nag, Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT), New Delhi. The session discussed issues and opportunities related to economic cooperation between India and Southeast Asian countries in a post-pandemic world. The need to build connectivity both physical and digital which would help promote trade, commerce and people-to-people ties was emphasized. The immense potential of BIMSTEC master plan for transport connectivity and of Mekong Ganga Cooperation in local capacity building was noted. Textile sector was identified for its potential to develop Global Value Chains in the region. It was also pointed out that infrastructure projects such as the trilateral highway would require the development of industrial zones on the Indian sides to be fully beneficial.
The sixth session on “Development Partnership” was chaired by Prof. S D Muni, Emeritus Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. The speakers were Dr Sithanonxay Suvannaphakdy, Lead Researcher (Economics), ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore; Dr. Somdeth Bodhisane, Institute for Industry and Commerce (IIC), Ministry of Industry and Commerce (MOIC), Vientiane; Dr. Uma Purushothaman, Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Central University of Kerala, Kerala; and Dr. Sampa Kundu, Consultant, ASEAN-India Centre (AIC), RIS, New Delhi. The session discussed the facets of India’s development partnership in Southeast Asia that includes line of credits, scholarships, and heritage site restoration. India has built English language training centres, IT centres, women training centres, etc. in Southeast Asia. India is financing Quick Impact Projects in Mekong countries and, in CLMV countries, the focus has been to enhance physical and digital connectivity. Scholarships are being given to students from ASEAN through Nalanda University, ICCR, ITEC and IITs. Development cooperation has been the mainstay of India-ASEAN relations.
The seventh session on “Charting the New Agenda: Pathways to Beyond Act East” was chaired by Amb. Po Sothirak, Executive Director, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), Phnom Penh. The speaker were Dr. Bradley Murg, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), Phnom Penh; Dr. Sineenat Sermcheep, Assistant Professor, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok; Prof. Amita Batra, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi; and Dr. Prabir De, Professor, ASEAN-India Centre (AIC), RIS, New Delhi & Dr. Tuhinsubhra Giri, Fellow, RIS, New Delhi. The session discussed the new agenda of cooperation between India and ASEAN countries at the bilateral and regional levels. In light of the current geo-political and geo-economic environment, the session highlighted the need to further deepen ties in maritime, supply chain integration, digital connectivity, economic integration and well-being of global commons which would help truly elevate the relations.
The conference came to a close with the vote of thanks proposed by Dr Nivedita Ray, Director (Research), ICWA, New Delhi and Dr Prabir De, Professor and Coordinator, AIC at RIS, New Delhi.