Today, 1.25 billion Indians will have the honour to host ten esteemed guests – leaders of ASEAN nations – at India’s Republic Day celebrations in our capital, New Delhi. Yesterday, I had the privilege to host the ASEAN leaders for the Commemorative Summit to mark 25 years of ASEAN-India Partnership. Their presence with us is an unprecedented gesture of goodwill from ASEAN nations. Responding to this, on a winter morning, India has come out to greet them in a warm embrace of friendship.
This is no ordinary event. It is a historic milestone in a remarkable journey that has brought India and ASEAN in a deepening partnership of great promise for their 1.9 billion people, about one-fourth of humankind.
India-ASEAN partnership may be just 25 years old. But India’s ties with Southeast Asia stretch back more than two millennia. Forged in peace and friendship, religion and culture, art and commerce, language and literature, these enduring links are now present in every facet of the magnificent diversity of India and Southeast Asia, providing a unique envelope of comfort and familiarity between our people.
More than two decades ago, India opened itself to the world with tectonic changes. And, with instincts honed over centuries of interaction, it turned naturally to the East. Thus began a new journey of India’s reintegration with the East. For India, most of our major partners and markets – from ASEAN and East Asia to North America – lie to the East. And, Southeast Asia and ASEAN, our neighbours by land and sea, have been the springboard of our Look East and, since last three years, the Act East Policy.
Along the way, from dialogue partners, ASEAN and India have become strategic partners. We advance our broad-based partnership through 30 mechanisms. With each ASEAN member, we have a growing diplomatic, economic and security partnership. We work together to keep our seas safe and secure. Our trade and investment flows have multiplied several times. ASEAN is India’s fourth largest trading partner; India is ASEAN’s seventh. Over 20% of India’s outbound investments go to ASEAN. Led by Singapore, ASEAN is India’s leading source of investments. India’s Free Trade Agreements in the region are its oldest and among the most ambitious anywhere. Air links have expanded rapidly and we are extending highways deep into continental Southeast Asia with new urgency and priority. Growing connectivity has reinforced proximity. It has also put India among the fastest growing sources of tourism in Southeast Asia. Over 6 million strong Indian diaspora in the region – rooted in diversity and steeped in dynamism – constitutes an extraordinary human bond between us.
India and Myanmar share a land-border of over 1600 kms as well as a maritime boundary. Religious and cultural traditions flowing from our deep sense of kinship and our common Buddhist heritage bind us as closely as does our shared historical past. Nothing illuminates it more gloriously than the gleaming tower of Shwedagon Pagoda. The cooperation to restore Ananda Temple in Bagan with assistance of the Archaeological Survey of India also is emblematic of this shared heritage.
During the colonial period, political bonds were forged between our leaders, who displayed a great sense of hope and unity during our common struggle for independence. Gandhiji visited Yangon several times. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was deported to Yangon for many years. The clarion call of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose for India’s independence stirred the souls of many in Myanmar.
Our trade has more than doubled over the last decade. Our investment ties are also robust. Development cooperation has a significant role in India's relations with Myanmar. This assistance portfolio is presently worth over $1.73 billion. India's transparent development cooperation is in line with Myanmar's national priorities and also builds synergy with the Master Plan of ASEAN Connectivity.
And India and ASEAN are doing much more. Our partnership in ASEAN-led institutions like East Asia Summit, ADMM+ and ARF are advancing peace and stability in our region. India is also an eager participant in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, seeking a comprehensive, balanced and fair agreement for all 16 participants.
The strength and resilience of partnerships come not just from arithmetic of numbers, but also from the underpinnings of the relationship. India and ASEAN nations have relations free from contests and claims. We have a common vision for the future, built on commitment to inclusion and integration, belief in sovereign equality of all nations irrespective of size, and support for free and open pathways of commerce and engagement.
ASEAN-India partnership will continue to grow. With the gift of demography, dynamism and demand – and with rapidly maturing economies - India and ASEAN will build a strong economic partnership. Connectivity will increase and trade will expand. In an era of cooperative and competitive federalism in India, our states are also building productive cooperation with Southeast Asian nations. India’s North-East is on a resurgent path. Links with Southeast Asia will accelerate its progress. In turn, a connected North-East will be a bridge to ASEAN-India ties of our dreams.
As Prime Minister, I have attended four annual ASEAN-India Summits and East Asia Summits. These have reinforced my conviction in ASEAN unity, centrality and leadership in shaping the region in this vision.
This is a year of milestones. India turned 70 last year. ASEAN reached the golden milestone of 50 years. We can each look to our future with optimism -and to our partnership with confidence.
At 70, India exudes the spirit, enterprise and energy of its young population. As the fastest growing major economy in the world, India has become the new frontier of global opportunities and an anchor of stability of global economy. With every passing day, it is easier and smoother to do business in India. I hope that ASEAN nations, as our neighbours and friends, will be an integral part of New India’s transformation.
We admire ASEAN’s own progress. Born when Southeast Asia was a theatre of a brutal war and a region of uncertain nations, ASEAN has united ten countries behind a common purpose and a shared future.
We have the potential to pursue higher ambitions and address the challenges of our times: from infrastructure and urbanization to resilient agriculture and a healthy planet. We can also use the power of digital technology, innovation and connectivity to transform lives at unprecedented speed and scale.
A future of hope needs the solid bedrock of peace. This is an age of change, disruptions and shifts that comes only rarely in history. ASEAN and India have immense opportunities – indeed, enormous responsibility – to chart a steady course through the uncertainty and turbulence of our times to a stable and peaceful future for our region and the world.
Indians have always looked East to see the nurturing sunrise and the light of opportunities. Now, as before, the East, or the Indo Pacific Region, will be indispensable to India’s future and our common destiny. ASEAN-India partnership will play a defining role in both. And, in Delhi, ASEAN and India have renewed their pledge for the journey ahead.
The writer is the Prime Minister of India. The commentary was initially published online on the 70th anniversary India’s independence.