The invitation extended to the leaders of the 10 ASEAN nations to be chief guests at the forthcoming Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi is a powerful signal of India’s increasing engagement with the region, but it must build on it and add substance, said Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, Professor of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and a former diplomat of the Singapore Foreign Service.
An early and concrete test for India to show its commitment is coming up shortly, he said, pointing to the approaching deadline for signing a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) treaty later this year. RCEP is a proposed Free-Trade Agreement (FTA) between ASEAN and countries such as China, Australia, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India. He was speaking at a meeting organised by the Asia Society, India centre in Mumbai, last evening.
He said it was no secret that among the six other nations with whom ASEAN proposes to sign the RCEP, India was the most reluctant to open its borders for trade. He said the creation of a larger trading area would be a win-win in the long-term, even though there may be a few short-term costs for India. He seemed to be answering the objections voiced in the External Affairs Ministry about the gains emanating from FTA. Former foreign secretary Jaishankar was quoted as saying to a parliamentary panel recently that India ‘should exercise due restraint and not conclude trade agreements which are not to our medium-term advantage.
Prof Kishore Mahbubani traced the emergence of ASEAN from a motley group of nations, who were distrustful of each other and with many bilateral problems, but who were brought together only by the fear of rising communist insurgencies in their neighbourhood in the mid-sixties. ASEAN was formed in 1967 and celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year. Along the way, it has evolved into an economic partnership that has brought collective prosperity and growth to the South-East Asian region and become a model of regional cooperation among developing nations, he said.
Prof Mahbubani had earlier played a key role, as a Singapore diplomat, in getting India aboard as a dialogue partner with ASEAN in 1995, when there was some resistance to that proposal from some member countries.