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India should give bigger priority to ASEAN: Former diplomat

PTI | Singapore |

India is "underestimating" the value of the ASEAN and should give priority to the regional grouping as it could provide a "strategic balance" amidst growing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, according to an Indian-origin former Singaporean diplomat.

"India is underestimating the value of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) for its long-term interest. It should give a bigger priority to ASEAN," said Kishore Mahbubani, who served in the Singaporean Foreign Services from 1971 to 2004, becoming the country's Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

He is currently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

"India should recover the famous Indian cultural history with South East Asia," he said after launching his new book The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace co-authored by Jeffry Sng, who is also a former Singaporean diplomat.

If India and Southeast Asia re-establish and strengthen the ancient cultural links, it will provide added meaning to the well-known phrase "culture is destiny", wrote Mahbubani.

The ASEAN is a regional grouping comprising ten members: Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Phillippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei.

In December, 2012, the leaders of ASEAN and India declared in New Delhi that the relationship should be elevated to a strategic partnership. As ASEAN comes under a renewed stress from the growing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, India could provide a strategic balance.

The book recaptures the ancient contact between India and Southeast Asia as far back as 3,000 years.

According to the authors, Indian cultural influences penetrated both mainland and maritime Southeast Asia in the form of the Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Java.

In 1983, the Arjuna Wijaya Statues was installed in Central Jakarta. During current times, Bollywood productions have enjoyed extraordinary success in many Southeast Asian countries and television shows such as the Mahabharata was dubbed into Indonesian language and broadcast in March 2014.

The book notes India's drift towards Soviet Camp during the Cold War when the ASEAN countries were clearly pro-American. It points out at the challenges of Singapore having India joined ASEAN as a dialogue partner in December 1995.

"Out of Islamic solidarity, Indonesia and Malaysia felt that Pakistan should also be admitted as a full dialogue partner. The other ASEAN countries baulked at the idea of admitting India and Pakistan at the same time, fearing that their deep rivalry would be carried into ASEAN meetings and disrupt them," the co-authors disclose in their book.

"If this rivalry intensifies, the only power that can provide ASEAN with a geopolitical buffer is India," according to the book.

India has an opportunity to develop a 20-year plan to enhance its relationship with ASEAN. It also calls on India to consider the recommendations of ASEAN-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG) which was established in 2010 to widen and deepen existing cooperation among them.

The EPG has called for a target of USD 200 billion ASEAN-India bilateral trade by 2022, up from USD 65 billion in 2015-16, mutually beneficial business visa regime.