Asean, India urged to press on with economic integration

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (centre, in red) speak to performers at the gala dinner for the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (centre, in red) speak to performers at the gala dinner for the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENGPHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and (beside him, in red) Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj with performers at the gala dinner last night for the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and (beside him, in red) Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj with performers at the gala dinner last night for the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj at the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference yesterday. She said the Asean region is at the heart of India's Act East Policy.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj at the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference yesterday. She said the Asean region is at the heart of India's Act East Policy.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Leaders pledge to work more closely together as S'pore pushes for regional economic partnership

Ministers called on Asean and India to press on with economic integration, with Singapore's leaders plumping in particular for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact as a key way to do so.

Leaders also highlighted the enormous potential for greater cooperation between Asean and India, and pledged yesterday, the final day of the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference, to work more closely together.

The annual conference, which celebrates the achievements and contributions of the Indian diaspora, was held with an Asean theme this year, to mark 25 years of dialogue partnership between India and the regional bloc. Singapore, the Asean chair, hosted the meeting.

"India and Asean can benefit greatly from greater economic integration and greater openness, especially with our economies and people. We need to build more bridges, not walls, between us," said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in his opening address yesterday.

His Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj also outlined her vision for the region: "For India, Asean leadership and centrality is essential to peace and prosperity for a rapidly changing Indo-Pacific region."

She noted that their dialogue partnership had evolved into a strategic one over the past 25 years, and said the Asean region is at the heart of India's Act East Policy.

"With each South-east Asian country, we have growing political, economic, defence and cultural relations," she said.

Ms Swaraj added that India's trade agreements with Asean were among the most ambitious with any region, without naming specific deals.

 
 
 
 

But Dr Balakrishnan singled out the RCEP - spearheaded by Asean and involving six of its key partners, India included - calling it a historic opportunity to set up the world's largest trade bloc.

If it comes to fruition, the RCEP would cover half of the world's population and a third of its gross domestic product.

At the gala dinner, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean pledged that Singapore as Asean chair will do what it can to secure the support of India and all the other RCEP countries to advance negotiations.

Earlier at a panel discussion, Ms Preeti Saran, a senior diplomat in India's Ministry of External Affairs, addressed what she called a perception that India is being defensive on RCEP talks. "India remains very strongly committed to RCEP and will be happy to have it negotiated and concluded soonest," she said in response to a question on the pact.

"However, what we are looking for is a balanced outcome which takes on board the concerns that India is expected to lower its tariffs at a huge cost to a developing country that will lose a huge amount of revenue... There has to be some comfort that should be provided to the other sectors as well," she added.

She pointed out that India was expected to lower its tariffs substantially to the tune of 50 to 60 per cent, saying: "Of course, India is a very attractive market if it opens up that much. But please remember that India also has its sensitivities."

Apart from trade, Asean and India's leaders also highlighted other areas for cooperation like tourism.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal also gave a speech pitching north-east India - specifically his state, whose biggest city is Guwahati - as Asean's gateway to India, highlighting its advantages like a youthful work force.

The leaders also highlighted challenges to tackle together, such as generating jobs in an age of disruption. On the security front, Mr Teo said he was heartened that defence cooperation between India and Asean has intensified. India, which is located strategically along important sea routes from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, is integral to the security in the region, he noted.

"Asean and India share a common interest to keep these vital conduits of trade and economic exchange open," said Mr Teo. "It is crucial that we continue to uphold our shared principles of the freedom of navigation and respect for the rule of law," he added.

Asean and India could work together to uphold a world characterised by integration and mutual respect, said Dr Balakrishnan.

He added: "If India and the other superpowers agree to construct an interdependent world, to lower barriers and build more bridges, then a new golden age awaits us."

• Additional reporting by Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2018, with the headline 'Asean, India urged to press on with economic integration'. Print Edition | Subscribe