High level meetings like the recent one in Brunei help put the spotlight on major issues ripe for decision that need only acceptance at the top to be materialised. This time, the focus was on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and ASEAN, an ambitious and far-reaching concept which formed part of the agreed Summit outcome
A cluster of events around the annual ASEAN Summit has once more directed India&’s attention towards South East Asia. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took part in the India-ASEAN Summit that served to underline the continuous development of relations between these neighbouring areas and has become an important, almost indispensable annual event that reaffirms Indian commitment to the ‘Look East’ posture it adopted some decades ago. India is not alone in looking to, even courting, ASEAN, for this region has established itself as an area of sustained growth and has drawn attention from many countries across the globe. If anything, India was somewhat slow off the mark in reaching out to ASEAN and was not immediately responsive to what the great economic advances in its neighbourhood meant for its own development. It took a prime ministerial visit to the region, that of Mr Narasimha Rao, to dramatise what the India-ASEAN relationship had to offer, and by degree, looking eastward became a preferred direction for India. Relations have never ceased to thrive since those early days. Mr Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to the region was one of this regular chain of exchanges that have kept the relationship in good repair and have helped develop a good deal of mutual confidence in their shared initiatives.
High level meetings like the recent one in Brunei help put the spotlight on major issues ripe for decision that need only acceptance at the top to be materialised. This time, the focus was on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and ASEAN, an ambitious and far-reaching concept which formed part of the agreed Summit outcome. Once it comes into being, an India-ASEAN FTA would mean that tariff barriers would be progressively eliminated, so as to encourage the greatly enhanced trade that everyone seeks, and bind India more closely to ASEAN. It represents the next step in what is already a well-established commercial relationship. Consider, by contrast, the experience of the regional organisation with which India is most closely associated, SAARC: this body has long been in quest of an FTA that would to unite its members in closer commercial ties but despite frequent high level discussion and a good deal of effort by experts, the goal remains elusive. Evidently, much ground still remains to be covered and significant political decisions taken before such a step can be agreed. Nor can such decisions be kept too long in abeyance: already fresh challenges have taken shape and for ASEAN the next step, as some of its members have been urging, is to advance towards an economic union on the pattern of the European Union. So while SAARC remains slow to evolve, India&’s relationship with ASEAN is progressing well and offers widening opportunities for its ‘Look East’ policy. Meanwhile, India has also invested in the setting up of a Nalanda university that will emphasise its shared heritage with South-East Asia, as it is also trying to develop better connectivity with that region. 
Economic cooperation is ASEAN&’s leitmotif but this has always rested on an agreed political sub-structure between the countries comprising the organisation. Without placing undue emphasis on security and political questions, these cannot be ignored, and from the start ASEAN has been concerned to maintain harmony within its region as an essential part of its approach. The organisation took shape at a time when China was beginning to emerge from self-imposed isolation and the cold war still cast a shadow. Amid the uncertainties of the time, there was clear advantage to the region to try to present a common face in meeting the insecurity that affected them all. There were intra-regional problems affecting some of the members and difficulties between some of them and the emerging giant China. It is part of ASEAN&’s success story that it has been able to help resolve differences within its region by means other than force and belligerence. Not that all differences have disappeared: indeed, the latest Summit just concluded in Brunei was preceded by maritime incidents, and the Summit itself could not agree on how to deal with rivalries between China and Philippines. But notwithstanding such differences, the dialogue between the parties will continue and no break in relations is feared. Nor is there serious indication of outside powers like the USA becoming involved in regional disputes.
Developments in Myanmar demonstrate how ASEAN&’s methods can be efficacious in handling regional divergences. India became part of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) some two decades ago, thus joining a forum designed for the discussion of regional political issues. At the time of India’s entry, ARF was greatly preoccupied with matters of human rights and political legitimacy in Myanmar. The participants, especially the non-regional ones, were pushing hard for strengthened international action against the military junta in Yangon, which repudiated all demands from outside and remained adamant on its chosen course. Despite widespread disappointment, ASEAN preserved lines of communication with the junta and did not break with it. In course of time when Myanmar&’s rulers felt it necessary to change their approach and move towards more representative government, the regional link was there to aid and encourage them. Today Myanmar, once the regional whipping boy, is set to assume chairmanship of ASEAN when Brunei&’s term concludes at the end of this year. On his return journey, Mr Singh paid a visit to Indonesia, the most substantial of ASEAN&’s members and one that is exceptionally well endowed with nature&’s resources. It has a maritime boundary with India that was settled to mutual satisfaction quite some time ago, so this is one neighbour with whom there are no territorial questions awaiting agreement. There have been periods of great togetherness between the two countries, particularly during their parallel and mutually supportive fight against colonialism. Nonalignment was another great shared commitment that brought them closer, and while both continue to adhere to its principles, the nonaligned bond no longer binds as closely as it once did. Yet there are other ideological convergences that are not to be ignored: Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country of the world and is an important example of social and religious tolerance and pluralism. There is obvious community of sentiment and practice with India in this respect and closer understanding between the two countries can be of great benefit to secular sentiments in both. The Prime Minister&’s visit has laid special emphasis on economic factors, and Indonesia has been regarded as a key component of ASEAN, which of course it is, but there is a good deal more in the relationship. Mr Singh&’s visit should re-start a closer interaction between the two countries for they have much to gain from each other.