Why are ASEAN Leaders Thronging India on 26th January, Republic Day 2018?

On 26th January 2018, 10 ASEAN Leaders will be the Guest of Honour at the Indian Republic Day 2018. This is the first time in the History of Indian Republic Day that all ASEAN Leaders or so many World Leaders will be sharing the stage on one occasion i.e. Indian Republic Day 2018. 

With the term “Indo-Pacific” gaining momentum worldwide in both scholarly and official circles, thanks to US President Donald Trump,  New Delhi’s foreign policy moves are being watched with interest across the world.

At the same time, countries across the world, and especially in Asia, are adjusting to the rise of China. The ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are no different. Many of them have huge trade volumes with China, while some are embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing. It thus comes as no surprise, that they are all looking at increasing their foreign policy options. The rise of India has given many ASEAN leaders, and states, a compelling option.

Read: 36,000 People Evacuated from Border, Are India and Pakistan Heading for a War?

New Delhi has long had historical ties with ASEAN member countries, though the ties were botched during the Cold War days. However, with the opening up of the Indian economy in the early 1990s and the launch of what was then called the “Look East Policy”, things have been looking up for India-ASEAN ties. After the Modi government came to power in 2014, the “Look East Policy” was re-christened as the “Act East Policy.”

The upcoming visit of the ten ASEAN leaders of state and government, to India, for New Delhi’s Republic Day  2018 celebrations, on January 26, is going to be a landmark event for India’s Act East Policy.

Why are ASEAN Leaders Thronging India on Republic Day 2018?

First, India and ASEAN celebrated 25 years of their diplomatic partnership last year. Since 1992, much water has flowed down the Ganges! Now there are 30 dialogue mechanisms between India and ASEAN, including, as the Indian Ministry of External Affairs put it, “a Summit and 7 Ministerial meetings in Foreign Affairs, Commerce, Tourism, Agriculture, Environment, Renewable Energy and Telecommunications.”

Second, connectivity is the key issue these days for both India and ASEAN. India is constructing the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) trilateral highway, which will extend all the way from Moreh in Northeastern India to Mae Sot in Thailand. It is expected to be completed in 2020.

Third, India has not participated in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Although ASEAN nations are participating in the BRI, they would like to keep their options open with regards to connectivity initiatives emanating from India and some are also keen on investing in infrastructure projects within India. At the same time, it needs to be stressed here, ASEAN nations do not have any territorial disputes with India; New Delhi is thus largely seen as a benign power in the region.

Read: China and India Battle for Global Influence with OBOR and NSTC Projects

Areas of Concern for ASEAN Leaders?

However, things are not all rosy in the equation. There are quite a few loose ends that need to be tied. First, trade levels have been much lower than their potential. In 2016-2017, ASEAN-India trade stood at $71 billion, which was just 10.85 percent of India’s external trade.

Second, tourism is another area that has not lived up to its potential. Although the number of outbound tourists from India to ASEAN countries has increased, India only accounts for 3 percent of tourist arrivals to the ASEAN region. Thus the number of tourists from ASEAN countries to India is not of significance or notable.

Third, trade negotiations are at a delicate stage over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). New Delhi has certain reservations with regards to RCEP, while ASEAN nations would like India to sign in.

This visit of the ten ASEAN leaders of state to India will give these nations, and New Delhi, a unique opportunity to find solutions to some of the issues that have been plaguing their ties. The time has come for New Delhi to take some bold initiatives so that it walks the talk when it comes to its ties with ASEAN nations. If New Delhi loses this chance, it may repent later. At the same time, for ASEAN countries, this represents a chance to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket!

Read: ASEAN Summit: India-US to Boost Defence Relationship, Squeeze China

Security Arrangement for ASEAN Leaders on Republic Day 2018?

The Indian police forces have made massive security arrangements for this year’s Republic Day parade celebrations where leaders of 10 Southeast Asian nations are expected to attend as chief guests.

Officials have said, apart from huge deployment of security forces in the national capital, commandos and snipers will be stationed along the route of the Republic Day parade – Rajpath facing Rashtrapati Bhawan (president’s official residence) – on Jan. 26.

“Threat perception is high, that’s why we have taken all precautions. Rooftops along the route of the parade have been sanitised and commandos stationed,” B.K. Singh, additional commissioner of Delhi Police, told the media.

Another senior security official said on Monday, that the focus would not only be on protecting the 10 heads of state from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but also ensuring they reach the venue on time from their luxury hotels, without any hassle.

“The stage where the 10 world leaders will seat alongside Indian President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be fully enclosed by bullet-proof glass and the elite Special Protection Guard will be in close quarters of Modi,” he said.

India is geared up to celebrate it’s 69th Republic Day 2018.

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