The key to opening the door to economic growth and common prosperity for India and the Association of South-East Nations (Asean) is undoubtedly enhanced connectivity. There was consensus at the 12th edition of the Delhi Dialogue in June, a forum hosted by India annually which serves as the main Track 1.5 mechanism for India-Asean engagement, that India’s efforts to acquire a key stake in the region through infrastructure projects would lead to unleashing of the untapped potential of the partnership. The Indo-Asean partnership, say experts, can be strengthened by aligning technologylinking and digitisation initiatives to the Master Plan for Asean Connectivity which would help build reliable supply chains as New Delhi pivots to making a greater contribution to the evolution of the IndoPacific region. Asean-India ties have suffered from neglect at times in the 30 years since they were formalised.
From 2012, though, when the relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership, policymakers on both sides have been incrementally upping the stakes, all the while keeping a wary eye on China. India’s renewed efforts for greater integration with the economies of the 10 Asean member-states has not gone unnoticed in Beijing. “We are looking at bridges that could become economic pathways for a truly comprehensive strategic partnership between Asean and India,” Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told his counterparts from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia among others at the Delhi Dialogue. Increased connectivity is no longer just an IndoAsean imperative. With the emergence of the IndoPacific as the new centre of geopolitical gravity, it has the potential to be the key driver of regional stability and growth.
The synergies between the Indian and Asean economies which would enable such a push are many ~ a rising consumer class, a vibrant start-up ecosystem and the growing internet economy which all need to be underpinned by greater digital cooperation for the demographic dividend to come into play. As a recent article puts it: “In this changed order of things, the Indian perspective has also shaped around to viewing Asean at the centre of the Indo-Pacific, geographically, culturally and strategically, especially due to its dimension and location which commands wide coverage.” On the other hand, the completion-operationalisation of the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway ~ with a planned eastward extension to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam ~ are exemplars of the push for greater infrastructure-based connectivity. Aligning India-Asean connectivity goals with those of multilateral organisations such as the BIMSTEC Master Plan for Connectivity would, it was suggested at the Delhi Dialogue, provide seamless connectivity from India to the Philippines creating a connected corridor across South and South-east Asia. New Delhi, judging from the discussions at the meet, seems to have twigged.