Foreign ministers call for Asean and India to press on with economic integration

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan addressing guests at the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference on Jan 7, 2018.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan addressing guests at the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference on Jan 7, 2018.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Sunday (Jan 7) called for Asean and India to press on with economic integration, pointing out that a massive trade pact in the works offers opportunities never before seen in history.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between Asean and six of its key partners, including India, is a historic opportunity to set up the world's largest trade bloc, he said.

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

"Economic integration is not just a mantra, but it is crucial for the mutual prosperity of the citizens of India and of Asean," said Dr Balakrishnan on the second day of the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference.

The conference marks 25 years of dialogue partnership between the regional bloc and India, and this year was hosted by Singapore, the Asean chair.

Both Dr Balakrishnan and his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj on Sunday spoke about the enormous potential for cooperation between Asean and India.

Dr Balakrishnan said that much of this potential was still untapped.

For instance, the Indian consumer market was expected to be the world's fifth-largest by 2025, and Asean would be the fourth-largest single market in the world by 2030.

But India today accounts for only 2.6 per cent of Asean's total trade and 3 per cent of tourist arrivals to the region, said Dr Balakrishnan.

"There is huge potential for growth in trade, tourism and many other fields," he added.

To grow Asean's ties with India, Dr Balakrishnan suggested more affordable flights, to encourage more businessmen and tourists to travel.

Smart cities in India and Asean could also connect with each other in a smart cities network, said the minister, who also called for better digital connectivity.

Ms Swaraj said that economic, political and cultural ties between India and each South-east Asian country was growing.

India's trade agreements with the Asean region were also one of the most ambitious of any region, she added.

She said: "For India, Asean leadership and centrality is central to peace and prosperity for a rapidly-changing Indo-Pacific region."

Both foreign ministers on Sunday also outlined threats to global order from changes in geopolitics, that they said Asean and India could tackle together.

Ms Swaraj said that Asean and India must work together to meet several common challenges.

These included creating skills for a digital age, generating jobs in an age of disruption, and meeting the needs of rapid urbanisation.

Biodiversity must also be protected and energy sources made cleaner, she added.

Dr Balakrishnan said the world is currently undergoing "a twin revolution of technolgy and a change of the geostrategic balance".

Asean and India could work together to uphold a world characterised by interdependence, cooperation, integration and mutual respect, he said.

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. That is the strategic choice that confronts all of us."