Straits Times: Asean and India now strategic partners

NEW DELHI - Asean and India took their relationship to new heights as they marked 20 years of ties yesterday, pronouncing each other "strategic partners" and finalising a free trade agreement on services and investment.

The strategic partnership paves the way for the relationship between the South-east Asian bloc and the South Asian power to move beyond the current emphasis on economics and into deeper political and security cooperation.

The FTA on services and investment, which follows a goods agreement signed in 2009, is expected to boost annual Asean-India trade from the current US$75 billion (S$91.4 billion) to US$200 billion by 2020.

The momentous declarations were made at the Asean-India summit, which saw leaders from the 10 Asean states gathering in New Delhi at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The 11 nations adopted a vision statement pledging cooperation on traditional and non-traditional security challenges, food and energy security, and more frequent dialogue on political issues.

Projects to improve connectivity are also in the pipeline, such as the building of highways between India and Indochina, and negotiations on an air transport agreement. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who co-chaired the meeting, also called for more frequent meetings between transport ministers.

At a time when some Asean states are harbouring unease about China's rise, the elevation of Asean-India ties is expected to have geopolitical significance beyond their regions.

At a press conference later, India was quick to promise non-intervention in the ongoing South China Sea disputes between China and some Asean members.

However, Asean heads of government speaking at a plenary session referred from time to time to "uncertainties" in Asia as well as the regional balance of power - suggesting that the China factor featured prominently in the regional bloc's decision to upgrade relations with India.

The summit commemorates 20 years of formal engagement between the South Asian giant and Asean, after it became the bloc's sectoral dialogue partner in 1992, a full dialogue partner in 1995 and a participant of the Asean Regional Forum in 1996.

In his speech, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the role that it played in supporting and facilitating this engagement. The Republic actively lobbied its neighbours to befriend India.

Like many other speakers, he traced the deep historical and cultural connections between India and South-east Asia - including the Sanskrit origin of the name Singapura.

Today, more than ever, India should assign great importance to its ties with Asean because "as an emerging power, India plays an important role in shaping a balanced regional order", he said.

Dr Singh, too, said that India placed the "highest priority" to its ties with the region.

"India and South-east Asia have centuries-old links. People, ideas, trade, art and religions have long criss-crossed this region," he said. "The breadth and intensity of India's engagement with Southeast Asia is unmatched by any of our other regional relationships."