Need to push on with ASEAN-India economic integration: Singapore PM Lee

As ASEAN leaders gather in New Delhi to commemorate 25 years of India-ASEAN relationship, Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong has laid out three promising areas of collaboration for strengthening the relations between India and ASEAN – promotion of trade and investment; greater connectivity; and ASEAN Smart Cities Network.

Writing in an op-ed article in his capacity as ASEAN chairman, Singapore Prime Minister drew the contours of these areas.

Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Thursday. Photo courtesy: Twitter@MEA
Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Thursday. Photo courtesy: Twitter@MEA

“First, ASEAN and India should redouble efforts to promote trade and investment. We need to keep existing pathways up to date and relevant, including the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area(AIFTA),” he said.

“We should work together to conclude a high quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership(RCEP), surpassing the existing AIFTA. This would create an integrated Asian market comprising nearly half the world’s population and a third of the world’s GDP. Streamlining rules and regulations will stimulate investments in both directions, complement India’s ‘Act East’ policy and facilitate ‘Made in India’ exports to the region,” he added.

Expanding on the regional connectivity, PM Lee said, “Our peoples will benefit greatly from greater land, air and maritime connectivity. We appreciate India’s efforts to improve land connectivity, including the extension of the trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway, and India’s USD1 billion line of credit to promote infrastructure connectivity with ASEAN. We look forward to working closely with India to boost our physical connectivity, including by expeditiously concluding the ASEAN-India Air Transport Agreement. This will enhance people-to-people flows across the region and help both Indian and ASEAN carriers tap new and emerging markets, especially for business, investment and tourism.”

“Digital connectivity is another important area of cooperation, and can shape people-to-people connections for the future. India’s Aadhaar system creates many new opportunities, for instance, to harmonise our Fintech platforms or connect e-payment systems,” he added.

Referring to the ASEAN Smart Cities network, PM Lee said, “We continue to look for new synergies. One objective of Singapore’s chairmanship is to develop an ASEAN Smart Cities Network, and here Singapore and India are natural partners. India is rapidly urbanising and has set itself a goal of establishing 100 smart cities. Singapore, an urbanised city-state, is ready to partner India on this journey and help develop urban solutions based on our own experience. Andhra Pradesh’s new capital city of Amaravati is one example.”

Shedding light on the common interests of ASEAN and India, he said, “ASEAN and India share common interests in peace and security in the region, and an open, balanced and inclusive regional architecture. India is located strategically along major sea-lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. These sea lanes are also vital trade routes for many ASEAN member states. Both sides share an interest in preserving these vital maritime conduits of trade.”

Speaking about the ASEAN-India relations, PM Lee said, “ASEAN-India relations were elevated to a strategic partnership in 2012, the 20th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations. Today, ASEAN and India enjoy multi-faceted cooperation across ASEAN’s political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy and 3-C (Commerce, Connectivity, Culture) formula for strengthening engagement with ASEAN speaks to our broad-based cooperation. We have around 30 platforms for cooperation, including an annual Leaders’ Summit and seven Ministerial Dialogues. India has participated actively in ASEAN-led platforms including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, and the East Asia Summit.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys a close bonhomie with Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong. Photo courtesy: Twitter@MEA
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys a close bonhomie with Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong. Photo courtesy: Twitter@MEA

Sounding upbeat about great potential of India-ASEAN trade relations, PM Lee said, “ASEAN and India’s combined population of 1.8 billion represents one quarter of the world’s population. Our combined GDP exceeds USD4.5 trillion. By 2025, India’s consumer market is expected to become the fifth largest in the world, while in southeast Asia middle-class households will double to 163 million.  Both regions are also experiencing a demographic dividend – 60% of ASEAN’s population is below 35 years old, while India is projected to be the world’s youngest country with an average age of 29 by 2020. Asean and India also have fast-growing internet user bases, which will help us grow the digital economy. Against this backdrop, we still have much scope to grow our ties – India accounted for only 2.6% of ASEAN’s external trade in 2016.”

Reflecting on the global trends, PM Lee said, “Major global trends are reshaping the strategic outlook, presenting both challenges and opportunities. The strategic balance is shifting. demographic, cultural and political changes are underway in many parts of the world.”

However, the Prime Minister of Singapore was optimistic about Asia and urged for economic integration of the area. “The Asian story continues to be a positive one. We need to push on with economic integration. We must also be resolute in dealing with emerging transboundary challenges, including terrorism, cybercrime and climate change,” he said.

Singapore Prime Minister delved into the historical relations between India and South East Asia. “While we commemorate 25 years of ASEAN-India relations, India’s ties with southeast Asia date back more than 2,000 years. Ancient trade between India and countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand is well-documented," he said.

“Southeast Asian cultures, traditions and languages have been profoundly influenced by these early linkages. We see Indic Hindu-Buddhist influences in historical sites such as the Angkor Temple Complex near Siem Reap in Cambodia, the Borobudor and Prambanan temples near Yogyakarta in Indonesia, and the ancient candis in Kedah in Malaysia. The Ramayana is embedded in many southeast Asian cultures, including in Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand. Singapore’s Malay name is Singapura, derived from Sanskrit and meaning ‘lion city’,” he added.

Author
Ashraf Jamal
Ashraf Jamal – Senior Writer

Ashraf Jamal brings a rare depth to writing equipped with a degree in journalism, a postgraduate degree in political science, and a degree in law from the Allahabad University. His experience includes editing and publishing the Northern India Patrika and writing for Times of India for almost a decade covering just about any topic under the sun including NRIs and Indian diaspora.

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