Since the initiation of India's Look East policy in the 1990s, economic and security relations between India and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have grown steadily. Total merchandise trade at nearly US$10 billion currently is more than four times its value in the early 1990s. Service transactions, investments, project executions, and manpower flows have also added significantly to the economic exchanges between the two sides. India's relations with the ASEAN nations are also more balanced, with the shares of Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar in total trade increasing significantly, and the once-predominant share held by Singapore is slowly decreasing.
The trade basket has also diversified, with manufacturing goods playing an increasing role. India's role as a dialogue partner of ASEAN, its membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), sub-regional cooperation involving ASEAN members, and on-going bilateral negotiations for closer economic partnership with Thailand and Singapore respectively are providing an institutional basis for closer interactions. India and ASEAN have also agreed on a framework for operationalizing a free trade agreement by the first half of the next decade.
There are several reasons why India is interested in closer relations with ASEAN. Per capita income of ASEAN is twice that of India's, providing market opportunities. ASEAN has a rich natural resource base which could lead to mutually beneficial partnerships. India also perceives opportunities through integrating into the value chain of MNCs located in ASEAN. Finally, some ASEAN countries such as Singapore and Malaysia could potentially become important sources of investments, particularly in infrastructure projects and venture capital. On the security front, India's 1600 km long border with Myanmar and maritime security involving the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits provide additional impetus for engagement with ASEAN.
Since the East Asian crisis in 1997, India has been growing at a somewhat faster rate than ASEAN (during the 1996-2000 period, ASEAN as a whole grew at an annual rate of 1.4 percent while India's rate of growth was 5.7 percent). India is set to become a trillion dollar economy before the end of this decade. It is increasingly acquiring the necessary financial and technological capacities to sustain fairly high levels of economic growth over a long period. This fast-growing economy is on the whole complementary rather than competitive to ASEAN's. In particular, India does not compete with ASEAN in seeking FDI in labor-intensive manufacturing. Indeed, Indian firms themselves are increasingly finding ASEAN a competitive location for manufacturing drugs, motor vehicles and parts, and chemicals, and for tourism related activities. This attractiveness will be enhanced if ASEAN makes more rapid progress in economic integration designed to transform it into a unified market.
ASEAN also needs to diversify its markets, and sources of technology and investments. India's emerging mega-economy can potentially provide such a balance, while simultaneously providing mutual benefits in areas of food and energy security, lowering health costs, addressing the digital divide, and in progressing towards the goals of knowledge economies. India, in short represents a healthy insurance policy against ASEAN's over-dependence on any one country, economic entity or region. Accommodating India's core economic and security interests is therefore in ASEAN's self-interest.
A pre-condition for achieving such an ambitious target, however, is the creation of a mind-set among policymakers, businesses, middle-level bureaucrats, academics, media and other opinion-makers on both sides, which is genuinely disposed towards benefiting from the existing and potential complementarities.
India's Look East policy and the eagerness of its businesses and global Indian professionals to locate in the ASEAN region indicate substantial progress in meeting the above pre-condition. In particular, India's elites have played a constructive role in emphasizing ASEAN's achievements and opportunities. There are however still information and perception gaps about ASEAN in India. More emphasis on encouraging rigorous scholarship and exposure to the ASEAN institutions and elites may help address these gaps. Southeast Asian languages also need to be promoted in India.
Unfortunately, on the ASEAN side, less progress has been made in laying the groundwork for cooperative growth. This represents an intangible but crucial constraint in realizing the potential of India-ASEAN complementarities. In ASEAN, due to the mono-centric power structure, the role of government signaling is much more pronounced than in India where both economic and political power are multi-centric. There are numerous examples where this has prevented the creation of an enabling environment as well as led to lost economic opportunities. Let me however cite just three.
First, the Western countries (and to a lesser extent Japan, Australia, and South Korea) have used India's research and design capacities, and business processes' outsourcing competitiveness to make their firms and economies more competitive. ASEAN companies however have not undertaken such activities in India. Thus, there are practically no commercial firms from Singapore located in the Bangalore IT park which is a flagship project of Singapore in India. Outsourcing activities by large ASEAN firms to India have been minimal. The limited presence of ASEAN banks, investment promotion agencies, venture capital, and private equity funds in India is also striking.
Second, Malaysia's irksome visa rules, and its generally unhelpful attitude in the recent past have meant that it receives a much smaller number of Indian visitors than its rivals. In 2001, Malaysia received only 144,000 visitors, only two-fifths of those visiting its much smaller neighbor Singapore. Its multi-media super-corridor could also receive a boost if an appropriate mind-set is displayed to leverage the strengths of the two countries.
It should be stressed that Singapore and Malaysia are among the two major countries where socio-economic status of their citizens of Indian origin is lower than that of their population as a whole. The Indian elites in these countries have not sufficiently acted upon the self-evident proposition that if they assist India in successfully addressing its economic and other challenges, then it would not only help preserve their own gains, but also provide opportunities for them and their countries. The low socio-economic status of Indians in ASEAN is not a result of some inherent genetic inferiority or class make-up as is often argued in these countries, but due to public policies, and the mind-set of the elite which acquiesces in their low status.
Third, a change in ASEAN's mind-set will be needed to take advantage of a recent decision by four major players in global funding and healthcare (the Global Fund, World Bank, UNICEF, and Clinton Foundation) to source and distribute generic drugs and diagnostics at the "lowest prices" in developing countries. India's international competitiveness in these areas represents an opportunity for some ASEAN countries to partner India (and others) to obtain a share of these funds. Indeed, India-ASEAN cooperation has the potential to lower health care costs for ASEAN's rapidly ageing population.
India must continue to make persistent efforts to favorably change ASEAN's mind-set. It needs to become adept at soft-power skills, and be more strategic in its relations with ASEAN. India also must monitor the extent to which the predominantly state guided media in ASEAN portrays India positively within the region; and the manner and extent to which economic, commercial, and political news about India is covered. Indeed, India's economic diplomacy in ASEAN needs to be more strategic and result-oriented. This will help ensure that Indian businesses are able to operate and compete in ASEAN on equitable terms; and Indian global professionals and other Indians are able to reap the full economic value of their services.
India, on its part, must must continue to effectively address its economic and social challenges. This will require sustained focus on not just economic reforms, but also in improving governance and the quality of life of ordinary Indians.