JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - During his visit to attend the Asean-India Commemorative Summit in India later this month, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo needs to engage in an honest exchange of views with his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to pinpoint why economic relations between the regional trade grouping and the world's second-most populous nation have not been growing faster and are often cited as having huge "potential."
Despite its huge population, strong economic power, large domestic market and highly educated human resources, India is left behind neighbours like China, Japan, South Korea and Australia in tapping Asean's lucrative economy. India is late in paying attention to Asean, having long focused more on its global role.
It seems India in the past regarded Asean, established in 1967, more as a US-created group to counter growing communist power in the region during the Cold War.
Later, it realised it needed to match others in courting the steadily growing trade block. Delhi has a long history of relations and influence in Southeast Asia in terms of culture and religion, and the region hosts some six million members of India's diaspora.
India became a sectoral dialogue partner for Asean in 1992 and joined the Asean Regional Forum as a full dialogue partner in 1996. The Asean-India Free Trade Area was signed in August 2009. In the last two years, Asean accounted for about 10.4 per cent of India's total exports and 10.6 per cent of its overall imports.
Asean has also included India, along with China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership plan, which will cover nearly 50 per cent of the global population, 30 per cent of global GDP and 40 per cent of global trade activities.
India seems rather reluctant about the plan, fearing its effect on domestic trade policies, such as tariffs.
As Indonesia is the de facto leader of Asean, Jokowi and Modi could also share the experience of the two countries in positioning themselves in their respective regional organisations.
India is the largest member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, established in 1985. They can learn from each other.
The key to Asean's progress in the last 50 years has been Indonesia's refusal to act as big brother to the other members, which allowed all members to grow together.
This is one lesson that may be useful for India and its smaller neighbours.
The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.