Amid fresh controversy over China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) projects in south Asia, India will next week host the first ever Asean-India Connectivity Summit with help, not surprisingly, from Japan, which has emerged as the linchpin of India’s Act East Policy.
The summit, which will be held on December 11-12, has secured participation from all 10 Asean nations, with Vietnam and Cambodia likely to be represented at the ministerial level. Japan will be the only country outside of Asean to participate in the summit, which aims to enhance economic and industrial relations between India and Asean or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Japan, which inaugurated an Act East Forum with India on December 5, will be represented by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO). The forum is meant to expand cooperation with Japan in the northeast, which, according to Japanese ambassador Kenji Hiramatsu, is where Japan’s Free And Open Indo-Pacific Strategy converges with India’s Act East Policy.
The Asean-India Connectivity Summit, which will also seek private partnership, is important for India and Japan as they seek to counterbalance China’s OBOR that has often been accused of following exploitative debt financing practices. As officials here say, India’s development partnership is based purely on needs identified by partner countries and the MEA has tried to accommodate as many requests as possible from these countries as is “technically and financially possible” .
In the present geopolitical situation, Southeast Asia is the most important focal point of India’s foreign policy. By focusing on connectivity, the government wants to make the point that it considers the region a part of its immediate, not extended, neighbourhood, given that it shares maritime boundaries with some countries and also land boundary in the case of Myanmar.
India had, in 2015, proposed a $1 billion line of credit to promote projects with Asean that support physical and digital connectivity. In addition, it has also set up a project development fund of $77 million for developing manufacturing hubs in CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) countries.
The summit will also focus on ensuring better digital connectivity as the government looks to align its initiative with Asean’s Master Plan on Connectivity, 2025, which centres on five strategic areas: sustainable infrastructure, digital innovation, seamless logistics, regulatory excellence and people mobility. The summit will look at regulatory frameworks to support digital technologies, financing of digital infrastructure and use of technology by MSMEs.
India and Asean have just completed 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction and five years of strategic partnership. India has also invited the leaders of all 10 Asean nations for the 2018 R-Day.