The Straits Times says

Hasten journey on an ancient route

The spectacular diaspora conference hosted over the weekend in Singapore by the Indian government highlighted a few things, not the least of which were that fully a sixth of the 31 million-strong overseas Indians live in South-east Asia. Many of them not only enjoy rising levels of prosperity but also bring with them skills that benefit their host nations while lending strength to the mother country as it retakes its position as one of the top economic powers of the world. The venue and theme of India-Asean connectivity - "Ancient Route, New Journey" - are also useful reminders of the key role, often behind the scenes, that Singapore has played in drawing the giant South Asian nation closer to Asean.

The fruits of all this are evidenced in the 30 platforms for cooperation between Asean and India, including an annual leaders' summit and seven ministerial dialogues. It is a happy accident that New Delhi decided to invite all 10 heads of Asean nations as guests of honour to its annual Republic Day parade in a year that Singapore chairs the grouping.

There are no major bilateral issues between any Asean nation and India, certainly none over the touchy topic of territory. Partly because of this, the Indian diaspora has never felt conflicted about being loyal citizens of the nations it is naturalised in and yet retaining strong roots in the land that it, or its ancestors, left behind. If it has had a relatively smaller role in helping in India's modern development, unlike the Chinese and China, it is because New Delhi itself has been slower in opening up compared with Beijing.

Happily, this gap has been addressed in recent years, particularly under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India has not only opened its doors wider to foreign investment, it has also made remarkable efforts to reach out to its diaspora and is swiftly improving the ease of doing business there for all. Yet, there is much unfinished business before Asean and India, which have roughly similar-sized economies. Given the march of the digital economy, the rapid urbanisation being witnessed in both regions and the swift growth in consumer markets, the potential for cooperation is enormous. Connectivity will be key. New Delhi would do well to heed Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean's entirely practical idea of opening up one or two of its airports on a trial basis for an Open Skies Policy with Asean.

Even more vital is trade. While Asean-India trade touched US$58 billion (S$77 billion) in 2016, this is but a fraction of its potential. Without a major push, they are unlikely to reach the targeted US$200 billion level by 2022. This is why Singapore has been urging India to help swiftly conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement. Endorsing RCEP would be the ultimate test of India's Act East policy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2018, with the headline 'Hasten journey on an ancient route'. Print Edition | Subscribe