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Eminent Scholars discuss India-ASEAN Engagements through Video Conference

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“We look at India as a very good, close friend. We should continue to work to reenergise the bilateral relationship and need to focus on strengthening people-to-people contact”, said H.E. Dato Nazirah Hussain, who formerly served as Malaysian Ambassador to Thailand and as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. She was speaking at the Video Conference on “India-ASEAN Trade and Geopolitical Engagements” organised by the Society for Policy Research and Empowerment (SPRE), a New Delhi based think tank, on May 30, 2020.

Ambassador Hussain is a distinguished diplomat and has also served in the Malaysian Embassy in China and Singapore. She was also the Director General of the ASEAN Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia. She shared her experiences of participating in the ASEAN-India meetings. She also emphasised that even at the level of leaders, they need to talk directly on contentious issues and resolve them. Ambassador Hussain also lauded India’s role in the pharmaceutical sector saying that India has been the father of generic medicines.

The session was moderated by Dr. Faisal Ahmed, a leading trade and geopolitical expert on the Indo-Pacific, and an Associate Professor of International Business at FORE School of Management. Dr. Ahmed welcomed the speakers and the participants and presented his initial remarks. He said that ASEAN is an economically progressive, culturally vibrant and a geopolitically significant congregation. He said that India and the countries of ASEAN share a strong civilizational and cultural ties. Dr. Ahmed cited some trade statistics to emphasise on the volume of trade. He mentioned that in 2018-19, the merchandise trade between India and ASEAN stood at $97 billion. The services trade accounted between them accounted for $45 billion.

In his welcome remarks, Dr. Ahmed specifically mentioned about some key frameworks including Act East Policy, and also India-ASEAN FTAs in goods and services. He also emphasized that India and ASEAN are mutually important in terms of resources, sea routes, defence, investments, value chains, regional connectivity, and cultural cooperation, as well. Geopolitically too, he said that, India and ASEAN are indispensable for each other as they share the Indian Ocean resources and the security architecture therein. Moreover, in the Indo-Pacific construct too, he stressed that ASEAN Centrality plays a strategic role. Dr. Ahmed maintained that both India and ASEAN are strategically and geo-economically significant for each other.

After Ambassador Hussain, the next eminent speaker was Prof.Rajaram Panda. Heserves as Lok Sabha Research Fellow, and is also a Member of the Governing Council of Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA). He is an eminent scholar and also served as Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) Chair Professor at Reitaku University in Japan.

Prof. Panda maintained that India’s relation with ASEAN has a long historical past characterised by civilizational linkages. Talking about security and political dimensions, he emphasised that India is a strong participant in East Asia Summit, ADMM+ and other such institutional arrangements and has been playing a very constructive role. He also talked about the South China Sea geopolitics and said that the Sea has emerged as a hotspot. He stressed that China’s aggressive and assertive posturing in the South China Sea is threatening the security of several ASEAN countries including Vietnam. He talked about the 2016 verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration which rejected China’s historical claims in the South China Sea. Also mentioning the nine dash line, he said that India should not feel shy of coming out in support of the ASEAN countries.

Further, Prof. Le Van Toan, an erudite scholar who serves as a Professor in Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics in Hanoi, Vietnam, presented his views on Vietnam-India relations. Prof.Toan, who headed the Indian Studies Centre in Vietnam and has been engaged in several policy level and Track II dialogues with India, said that the future of India-Vietnam relations will depend on what we do today.

Prof.Toan maintained that so far Vietnam has contributed very responsibly in global affairs. He also said that we need to look into the cultural traditions which have shaped India-Vietnam relationship over the years. Speaking about comprehensive strategic partnership, he said that Vietnam already has diplomatic relations with 198 countries in the world, however, it has entered into comprehensive partnership only with three countries viz. India, China and Russia. He said that the relationship between Vietnam and China is a very sensitive one wherein China puts threat and pressure on Vietnam, while Vietnam has always tried to respond amicably. But as far as India is concerned, he said that among the three comprehensive partners, India is the most trusted friend for Vietnam.

The next speaker was Dr. Rajan Sudesh Ratna who is an Economic Affairs Officer in the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) in New Delhi. Dr. Ratna, who earlier served in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India for twenty years, including his stint as the Joint Director General of Foreign Trade, discussed about his experiences of negotiating the India-ASEAN framework agreement in 2003. He said that the entire Early Harvest Program (EHP) of India-ASEAN Framework Agreement was dropped because India wanted a very stringent rules of origin (ROO) from ASEAN, fearing that trade would circumvent from China through ASEAN to India. He also maintained that when we started negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2010, we were of course aware about such issues related to negotiating with China. He believed that perhaps it did not reflect good on our negotiations that in 2019, we were still not ready to join the RCEP.

Dr. Ratna, who served as a Professor at the Centre for WTO Studies in Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi, also mentioned that China is the cheapest supplier in the world. If we buy most of our import requirements from other suppliers at a higher cost, our ability to export finished product at a competitive price will also suffer. He gave an example from pharmaceutical sector and said that the sector is dependent on China for its Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) imports. Talking about services, Dr. Ratna said that the major problem is not market access, but Mutual Recognition Agreement by which qualifications can be mutually recognised by India and ASEAN governments. Also, he emphasised that the supply chain of inter-linking services with goods did not happen between India and ASEAN. For instance, he said that during the 2000s, ASEAN was a manufacturing hub of hardware and India specialised in software, yet a mutually beneficial inter-linking between the hardware and software could not be established.

Presenting a perspective from Thailand, eminent scholar Prof.Jaran Maluleem, Professor of Political Science in Thammasat University, Bangkok talked on several issues ranging from trade to education. He said that since the beginning of the 21st century, the relationship between India and Thailand has enhanced to a large extent. Mentioning about the Thailand-India trade agreement, he said that it helped eradicate obstacles to bilateral trade and increased the trade volume between the two countries. He also discussed on the positive role played by the industry chambers in both India and Thailand for enhancing bilateral relations.

Prof.Maluleem also emphasised on the historical and cultural relationship between the two countries, and stressed on the potential for cooperation in tourism, science and technology, investments, strategic and military affairs, and other areas. Being a leading figure in establishing the Indian Studies Program in Thailand, Prof. Maluleem also talked about the educational cooperation between India and Thailand and said that there is a very huge potential for educational exchange and future cooperation in this sector.

Another speaker Dr. Mohd. Faheem, Lecturer, Pridi Banomyong International College at Thammasat University in Bangkok, emphasised on the connectivity issues. He presented his views on the opportunities and challenges of physical connectivity between India and ASEAN. He said that immediately after India embraced economic reforms in 1991, it decided to focus on Southeast Asian countries and adopted the Look East Policy in 1992. Later, the Look East Policy was transformed into Act East Policy. Dr. Faheem further emphasised that Thailand is very strategically located to enhance the connectivity between India and ASEAN. India’s neighbourhood diplomacy, he said, has helped improve focus on sub-regional groups in the region, in which Thailand has a significant role. He maintained that through connectivity, we can improve trade and economic integration, and also enhance people’s mobility between India and ASEAN countries.

During his talk, Dr. Faheem also focused on the importance of engaging youths to enhance bilateral relations. He said that more than half of the ASEAN population is under the age of 35, which provides good opportunity for future cooperation. Dr. Faheem, who is basically a geographer, said that the two most important geographies pertinent to India-ASEAN connectivity projects are Northeast India and Myanmar. He cited the example of two connectivity projects namely Kaladan multimodal project, and, the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral Highway as being crucial and significant for both India and ASEAN.

Taking forward the deliberation, Dr. Mana Southichack, an international trade economist and Executive Director of Lao Intergro, a Vientiane based consulting firm in Lao PDR, presented his views on Laos-India engagements. He said that Laos is a small, landlocked country, with a population of 7 million. On India-Laos bilateral relation, he said that it has been growing in the recent years in economic as well as strategic aspects. He stated that Laos has gradually gained from the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community. He emphasised that the level of development in Laos has been increasing in recent years at a satisfactory rate. Also, he said that human resource infrastructure in Laos need to harmonise its system with ASEAN. After joining  ASEAN, he said, Laos experienced some changes in trade and investment and it was good for its economic development. As a land-locked country, he maintained that Laos is trying to enhance the pace of its development by attracting investment. He cited an example of a project on high-speed train connecting China. He said that China is 2nd largest trading partner for Laos, while Vietnam stands at third place; and India is 4th largest export market for Laos. He stressed that the economic relationship between Laos and India is good and improving.

Finally, Dr. Mahjabin Banu, President, SPRE, and Visiting Fellow with the Centre for Vietnam Studies in New Delhi, presented her perspective on Vietnam, ASEAN, and India-Vietnam relations. Starting her talk with history and culture of Vietnam, she emphasised that Vietnam carries a good reputation for successfully hosting global and regional dialogues. It has a shown long standing commitment for ASEAN integration. She said that in 1998, Vietnam hosted a ASEAN summit, and called for enhanced cooperation among the member countries.

Dr. Banu discussed about the Hanoi Plan of Action which called for macroeconomic and financial cooperation, harmonisation of customs procedures, and trade liberalisation. She mentioned that the Hanoi Plan of Action also called for enhancing efforts for the resolution of South China Sea dispute. Specifically, she stressed that if we are talking about the ASEAN region, we cannot escape Vietnam’s concerns about the South China Sea dispute. She said that in recent months, China has illegally entered into the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam several times. She called for quicker implementation of the code of conduct in the South China Sea.Dr. Banu also discussed about India-Vietnam bilateral cooperation in education sector as well as in defence and strategic issues.

After the technical session, the moderator Dr. Faisal Ahmed opened the video conference forum for Q&A session. It included active participation by delegates and speakers joining from India and abroad including those from Vietnam, Lao PDR, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal, Jordan, Switzerland, South Korea, Ethiopia, and the United States.

(SPRE may be contacted at: spre.india[at]gmail.com)

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Southeast Asia

From October to October: Youth and politics in Thailand

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When I think of the 6th and 14th of October, I think back to my years as an elementary school child, when my parents would take my sister and I to events commemorating those days at Thammasat University. At those events, we would meet people who were trying their best to keep the stories alive, keep the history going, so that no one would forget what happened in Thailand.

October was a month that made me feel like I was living in a parallel world; outside of these events, it seemed as if the nation had completely forgot what had happened. None of my friends understood what was going on. I think I only had two history teachers ever make a comment about the 6th or 14th of October.

It was a month of great importance for my father. Every year, as we got closer to those dates, he would start talking about the events. He would give interviews, be involved in talks and lectures and projects, and yet, it seemed as if absolutely no one else in the country had any clue what was happening.

He asked us every year if any teacher or text book mentioned what had happened in October, and every year, the answer would be the same: no.

Sometimes I worried it hurt his feelings, but he never deterred. It seemed, at moments, he and his friends were speaking into an empty void. But one year, when I was in high school, a middle school student attended one of my dad’s lectures and told my father he was interested in learning more about October, and why it was important to Thailand. My dad talked about that student for days after, even encouraging me to add him as a friend on Facebook.

Years later, when I look back to that time, I realize the reason he kept on pushing was quite simple: if he could teach one young person about what happened, if he could get one person to even care about October, if he could make sure younger people kept learning about it,it would be successful in paving the way for change.

If he had ever feared that the movement would not get passed on to the younger generation, this past month has proved him wrong.

The power of young people has always been underestimated in Thailand. But there is nothing more powerful than the thought of having no say in our future, of seeing other countries move forward in ways we can’t because we haven’t faced the past. There is nothing more frustrating than asking for the chance to draw up what the future should look like for us and getting our requests shot down.

But the baton, it seems, hasnow been passed down from the time my father was speaking into the void; it just kept getting passed around without a receiver. Now, the youth are ready to take on the task of helping others face the past. We are ready to hear about what has had happened in our country’s history, and take on the demands of the youth of the past and move it forward.

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Crisis and Future of the Regime Stability in Southeast Asian Countries

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The world has encountered a crisis several times. In facing a crisis, every nation’s leader will need to strive to prevent the existing disaster from having a major impact on the country’s economy. This is because the economic crisis can have consequences for the reputation and the stability of the political regime itself.

Unlike the crises caused by unregulated economic practices such as during the Great Depression in 1929 or the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the catastrophe that the world currently confronting today is prompted by the COVID-19 virus. This new type of disease has eventually sparked into the global pandemic and already created tremendous negative disruption toward economics and businesses around the world.

Of course, the panacea for this problem is not easy since it takes the extraordinary capability of the state to bear with a load of health costs and prevailing economic burden to its society.

Most of the countries having a really hard time coping with this ‘black swan’ event. While, for some emerging economies with weak public health capacity, and slow policy process has already struggled with the socio-economic impact of the virus.

In this backdrop, although countries in Southeast Asian (SEA) regions have already made an impressive economic achievement post-Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, they have to swallow the bitter pill again as their economy agonized from this significant blow.

The countries within the ASEAN have suffered a great economic loss due to the pandemic. According to the latest forecasting report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB),the GDP growth rate of Indonesia and Laos has been contracted to minus 1 percent and 2.5 percent respectively. Other nations such as Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore have been predicted to befall averagely under minus 4 percent. While the Philippines and Thailand have even major severe shocks as their economy sharply contracting in excess of minus 7 percent. Only several states such as Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam, and Myanmar have performed slightly better.

This phenomenon is indeed very upsetting, especially because these countries are highly dependent on foreign investment, trade, and the tourism sector as the main engine to drive economic growth respectively.

The tricky part comes when the state cannot provide its citizen with adequate support and accountability. Apart from the debate about which ideological system is best in dealing with a pandemic, we need to understand well that political turmoil is often triggered by the inability of the state to meet the needs of its people. The public health emergency coupled with the economic crisis, and problematic policy selection can swiftly turn into unrest since the society vigorously looking for justice and protection over their wellbeing.

Compared to other ASEAN member states, Vietnam and Singapore are effectively tolerate the impact of turbulence because of their impressive management of public health systems. While other nations in the region seem to have different stories.

In Indonesia, regime stability has been affected by COVID-19. From the beginning of the outbreak, among other ASEAN member states, Indonesia was the latest one who got struck by the virus. But it turns out that Indonesia becomes a country with the largest infected cases in the region. The lack of government coordination and assistance in tackling the pandemic has made the economic condition of the country worsen. In addition, the most recent enactment of the omnibus law of job creation that predominantly in favor of businessmen and investors has triggered the wide-spread protest toward the government across the archipelago since early October.

Likewise, the Philippines also has to face the fatal economic damage caused by the pandemic as the unemployment number and poverty rates have significantly risen. Despite the government’s extreme militaristic measures to contain the pandemic, the number of infected cases and death ratio still upsurging, second only to Indonesia. Yet, this has sparked both national and international criticism on President Duterte’s repressive approach.

In Malaysia, the government must engage with the second wave of the pandemic. After generally succeed in the first attempt to tackling the outbreak, the infected rate has steadily increased particularly in Sabah, after holding local elections on 26 September. Apparently, the political upheaval began to appear when Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin insist to put the country under a state of emergency. Although in the end the proposal was later rejected by Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah, the declaration to suspend the parliament was roundly condemned by opposition figures in the country and also mounted concern among Malaysians.

Amongst other countries in the SEA region, Thailand currently in the state of a serious political crisis mode provoked by a series of anti-government demonstrations. The Thai people demanding to reform the Thai constitutional monarchy and removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha from his office. This situation has made Thai authorities announced the country to entered the emergency decree. Though the protester vigorously attacked the government solely for the political reform motives, the issue of the economy has virtually played a quite larger part. Previously, the country’s strategy in responding to the outbreak of the disease domestically had relatively efficacious. However, the long period of the lock-down policy has brought down deep frustration on the government since the economic inequality, poverty rate, and desperateness for the job among the young generations have ominously increased.

Conclusively, the pandemics of COVID-19 have become an interesting setting for testing the stability of the political regime in ASEAN. The virus has considerably contributed as a catalyst for the economic crisis. Clearly, the pattern of political turmoil and civil disobedience has gradually begun to appear as the countries started to be overwhelmed by the collision of the crisis.

It’s no doubt that Indonesia and the Philippines will deeply fall into another economic recession which can potentially ignite another massive civil unrest toward the regime. Malaysia similarly could face another heated political situation. Yet, the country’s capacity to handle the crisis still can make the regime to be relatively stable. While Thailand on another hand will face difficult circumstances. As the public has already tired of their flawed constitutional system, civil unrest will most likely continue to take the place. Consequently, the future political-economic outlook of Thailand in the near future will somewhat look worrisome.

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Quad, Quad Plus, and the Indo-Pacific: The Core and Periphery

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Indo-Pacific has been seen as one construct which identifies US strategy and brings in subscribers to the concept; thereby adding value to this concept. At the same time, it has been working on defining political, economic and security contours of this geo-political imagination. Indo-Pacific has defined as the fusion of two oceans -Indian and Pacific. It has brought the regional powers-India, Japan and Australia within the whole narrative. There are issues related to the Indo -pacific and how it will address security and political concerns but given the fact that Chinese aggression has brought in more countries into its fold, the idea is gaining momentum.

The pronouncements made by the UK, France and Germany as their approach towards Indo-Pacific shows that there is synergy which might emerge between the Euro- Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did propose that Indo-Pacific should become an inclusive concept and opened a window for China to be included into the configuration. However, this was never reiterated by Modi in the subsequent speeches and it seems that the bon homie between the two Asian powers dissipated because of Chinese aggressive moves in the Indian borders.

The evolution of Quad 1.0 which gave heft to Malabar exercises, and involvement of Singapore and Australia into larger scheme of things dissipated as the Australian government withdrew in later editions after succumbing to Chinese angst. The Quad 2.0 which gained steam in the early 2018 has now come a full circle with Australia again joining the Malabar exercises scheduled to be held later this year in the Indian Ocean. The latest approach has brought strategic momentum. The Quad 2.0 has outlined few of the larger objectives during the Tokyo submit earlier in October, and it is seen that in terms maritime security, space, cyber and encrypted communication networks there are possibilities between the four countries. India has already signed the BECA agreement and there is a possibility of greater understanding in technology sharing and intelligence domain between the four partners.

The Quad 2.0 is seen as having teething problems because of the changing political dispensation in Japan and the US while India and Australia are steadfastly showing their commitment to the cause. However, the Quad needs a blueprint and also a joint status paper which should outline the utility and purpose of this formation. With ASEAN the question of centrality has been resonating and even the former Singapore Permanent secretary has stated that Laos and Cambodia are unnecessary baggage in the ASEAN homogeneity and consensus as the two countries has been acting as surrogates of China. The problem of placing ASEAN centrality in larger objectives of Quad and Indo-Pacific would grow in future.

There have also been proposals of Quad plus which should include South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand for the purpose of expanding the logistics and support network, and undertake concerted measures for protecting maritime commerce and build institutional linkages. While Quad Plus identifies the new players into this circuit but it fails to recognize Indonesia and other such regional players which might be useful in meeting the long-term objectives.

One of the aspects which has been highlighted that Indo-Pacific should work in the field of economic integration and bring about various regions such as South Asia, Southeast Asia into one umbrella of Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor. While digital and scientific cooperation has been envisaged but concerted plan of action for building resilient supply chains among the subscribers of the Indo-pacific might be a good initiative.

Along with Quad and Quad plus there are many trilaterals which have been taking shape and have made a unique strategic matrix. The trilaterals which have been taking shape include France, Australia and India. The other two trilaterals are Track II -Australia, Japan and India, as well as India, Australia and Indonesia, thereby expanding the expanse of the trilaterals acting as nodes in the overall edifice. Therefore, if Quad plus expands and Indo-pacific geographic outlines remains as envisaged then there would be a structural overlap between the two. India within its Ministry of External Affairs has already commissioned a new Oceania division which would look into the work of divisions such as ASEAN, Indo-Pacific and the Southern Asia. 

The need of the hour is to develop the priority areas for the Quad.  One of the areas that Quad can develop capacities is developing maritime security architecture with willing subscribers and logistics providers. Cyber is another area where Quad can develop joint partnerships and also support building better digital architecture. The important aspect is that within maritime security architecture Quad need to develop Quad grid which should integrate ports with facility for the navies of Quad countries to congregate, work out interoperability, and develop cooperation in maritime domain. This should include maritime theatre awareness and conducting joint Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. The maritime Quad grid can comprise of Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Andaman, Darwin, Guam and Okinawa-the big ‘W’ in the Indo-Pacific. Also, developing cooperative mechanisms in sectors such as rare earths, interlinking defence research networks and securing channels of communication through sharing of satellite data would give required teeth to the Quad.

As already discussed, it is likely that Quad plus and Indo-Pacific would run parallel and even develop symbiotic relationship which might expand in political, economic and strategic domains. Quad would address defence and strategic requirements while a possible Indo-Pacific Regional Cooperation institution would address political coherence. In economic field the inclusion of India in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) would help in transition of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation to Indo-Pacific Economic Cooperation. While these propositions are there on the table but the realization would be critical to make these ideas and geopolitical imaginations get a concrete shape.

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