India-ASEAN caravan rolls on

Himalayan News Service

Vientiane, June 5:

Six months after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flagged off the India-ASEAN car rally on its onward journey from this picturesque Laos capital, its reverberations can still be felt across the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. The result: India’s links with ASEAN are getting stronger by the day. “The rally brought the people of India and Laos closer and deepened bonds between India and the ASEAN countries,” Kheckeo Soisaya, vice-minister of information and culture, told a group of visiting Indian journalists. “It recharged the atmosphere. Many people in Laos vividly recall the Indian prime minister flagging off the rally,” added Malayvieng Vongchandy, an anchor with Lao National Television.

Tsewang Topden, the Indian ambassador to Laos, agreed, “The car rally made a big difference to India’s image in this part of the world. Most ASEAN countries want to deepen their engagement with India.”

Set up in 1967, the now 10-member strong ASEAN regional grouping comprises Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. As relations deepen, the ASEAN-India Partnership of Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity which was singed at their third summit at Vientiane last year has emerged as the guiding document to deepen this friendship. The pact envisages intensive cooperation between India and ASEAN on political and security issues, besides in the economic, science and technology, health and cultural fields. India is a summit level partner of ASEAN and is working on a free trade agreement (FTA) with these countries. Trade, tourism, training, transportation and technology are the five key areas of synergy that’s bound to weld India and ASEAN closer in the days to come, experts say. Relations with the regional grouping have been cemented over the last decade — with India first becoming a dialogue, and then a summit, partner. India now participates in a series of consultative meetings with ASEAN that includes the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Post Ministerial Conferences (PMCs).

Trade relations are growing. Between 1993 and 2003, ASEAN-India bilateral trade grew at an annual rate of 11.2 per cent from $2.9 billion to $12.1 billion in 2003. If all goes well, experts predict a $30 billion target by 2007. “Because of the dynamics of cooperation between India and the ASEAN, India has been admitted to the East Asia Summit to be held in Kuala Lumpur this year,” says Khian Phan Sourivong of the ASEAN department of the Lao foreign ministry. The growing relationship with Myanmar will also be crucial in New Delhi’s ASEAN voyage as it is the only country with which India shares a land border. “Myanmar is an important country for India, specially in view of India’s burgeoning relationship with ASEAN,” said Indian ambassador to Myanmar RK Bhatia. He noted that Myanmar was the first country the India-ASEAN car rally had entered.

Colonel Khin Maung Lay, who heads Myanamar’s directorate of trade in the ministry of commerce, said, “We want to reduce barriers between India and the ASEAN countries. The BIMSTEC agreement, which is currently being negotiated, can act as a bridge in this process.”

Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand make up BIMSTEC — Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation — that aims to put in place its own free trade area by 2017.