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Why engagement with ASEAN should be high on the priority list for India

India's 'Act East' policy is a core tenet of its Indo-Pacific vision. This was underlined at the special Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)-India foreign ministers' meet hosted by New Delhi on June 16 to mark the 30th anniversary of India's ties with Asean.

In his keynote speech at the security conference, Shangri-La Dialogue, in 2018 in Singapore, Narendra Modi had stressed on Asean's centrality and unity 'at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific'. When India launched the Indo-Pacific Oceans' Initiative at the 2019 East Asia Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam also became India's partners in this initiative.

Asean, in trying to balance relations between US and China, is also making an effort to engage with other potential like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific The strengthening of relations in the geopolitical sphere has also given a push to the India-Asean economic ties, with Asean now India's fourth-largest trading partner engaging in bilateral trade in 2019-20 worth $86.9 billion. India already has a free trade agreement (FTA) with Asean, spanning goods, services and investment.

These ties took a hit when India walked out of the China-inclusive Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in November 2019. Though many have argued that RCEP is a China-centric economic framework, the Asean countries believe it to be an Asean-led mechanism. So, when India decided not to be a part of this initiative, India-Asean relations were hit. India already has FTAs with 13 of Asean's 15 members. India now has to actively engage with the grouping in trade and investment so as to ensure that it considers this region as a potential economic partner, and that New Delhi's decision to pull out of RCEP was based on the singular fact that the latter was not meeting the objectives India hoped for.

The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) has four pillars: trade; supply chains; clean energy, decarbonisation and infrastructure; and tax and anticorruption. Barring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, other Southeast Asian nations are part of IPEF. With this initiative launched on the sidelines of a Quad summit, most Asean countries agreed to be a part of IPEF, notwithstanding their concerns that mechanisms like the Quad may impinge on Asean centrality. This presents another opportunity for India, alongside Quad member-countries, to work with the Asean countries towards establishing sustainable and diversified supply chain networks from an overly China-dominated one.

Read more at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/opinion/et-commentary/why-engagement-with-asean-should-be-high-on-the-priority-list-for-india/articleshow/92345264.cms

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