India’s relations with South-East Asian Nations – Strengths, Challenges and the Path ahead

| Chandrashekar TS
  • South-east Asia is very important to India from economic, political, social, defence, maritime trade and security. 
  • ASEAN is India’s fourth largest trading partner and the mutual trade stands at about US$ $78 billion in 2021, which is approximately 10% of India’s overall trade.
  • Southeast Asian nations are under direct attack from China through debt trap diplomacy, forceful droughts, support to anti-democratic regime, illegal fishing in the region’s waters, violation of internationally agreed boundaries in land, air and water.
  • Common issues like terror financing, radicalism, training, export of terror, separatism, control over maritime boundaries have brought India and South-east Asia closer.
  • Tourism, education, sustainable development, biodiversity, climate change, disaster management, public health, women empowerment, people-to-people contacts have deepened the India-ASEAN relations. 

South-east Asia comprises Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam. It covers about 10.5% of Asia with a population of 655 million, nearly 8.5% of the world’s population. It is the third most populous geographical region in Asia. The region is culturally and ethnically diverse, with hundreds of languages spoken by different ethnic groups. Ten countries in the region are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional organization established for economic, political, military, educational, and cultural integration amongst its members. Presently India and ASEAN are celebrating three decades of relationship as ASEAN-India Friendship Year starting in October 2021.

Historical Ties 

India’s Relations with South-east Asia has been historic, encompassing ties in religion, trade and culture. Kingdoms like Srivijaya, Sailendra, Mataram, Kediri, Singhasari, Majapahit, Funan, Champa, Chenla to name a few have had historical ties with India. The ties have roots in civilizational values and religious texts of India. Sanskrit texts and epics have had a deep influence in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian politics was Indianised with influence of the Hindu-Buddhist mandala in their policies which led to the emergence of city states and confederacies. 

South East Asia is very important to India from economic, political, social, defence, maritime trade and security. ASEAN is India’s fourth largest trading partner. India’s trade with ASEAN stands at about US$ $78 billion in 2021, which is approx. 10% of India’s overall trade. India’s exports to ASEAN stand at 11.28% of our total exports. Investment flows are also substantial both ways, with ASEAN accounting for approximately 18.28% of investment flows into India since 2000.  India mainly exports organic chemicals, minerals, ships and boats, iron and steel, pharmaceuticals, cotton and tobacco to ASEAN countries. Top products imported by India from ASEAN include coal, palm oil, telephones, light vessels and electronic circuits. Oil reserves make this region vulnerable to big power political games.

Chinese Threat

Today, Southeast Asian nations are under direct attack from the big neighbor China through debt trap diplomacy, forceful droughts with control over water, supporting anti democratic regimes in the region, illegal fishing in the regions waters, violation of internationally agreed boundaries in land, air and water. Common issues like terror financing, radicalism, training, export of terror, separatism, climate change, control over maritime boundaris have brought India and SouthEast Asia closer. Rules based order and freedom of navigation in South East Asia is completely violated by China’s threat. China has even ignored Law of the Sea Conventions and repeatedly questioned the International Court of Justice in the Philippines. It has illegally entered Vietnam and Philippines seas and has weaponized Islands. 

Further, challenges lie in strengthening ties amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a heightened rivalry between the United States and China that threatens peace and stability in the region. War in Ukraine, crisis in availability of food, fuel, medicines, fertilizer, prices of commodities prices, logistics and supply chain disruptions will devastate the region in coming days.

Path Ahead

In view of the threats and challenges, the relation with India and South Asia has to be strong and trusted. India and ASEAN have upgraded their ties to a strategic partnership. India has been attending annual meetings of this forum since 1996. The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) is the highest defence consultative and cooperative mechanism in ASEAN where India participates too. India-ASEAN trade and investment relations have been growing steadily, with ASEAN-India Free Trade Area, ASEAN India Business Council (AIBC) bringing key private sector players from India and the ASEAN countries on a single platform for business networking and sharing of ideas.

Recently, India signed several agreements with Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam as external affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar had a series of bilateral engagements on the margins of the special ASEAN-India foreign ministers meeting. For the first time India hosted such a special meeting to mark the 30th anniversary of relations with the ASEAN. The foreign ministers agreed on several initiatives to drive ASEAN-India ties. To support cooperation activities between ASEAN and India, Govt of India has created three funds: (i) ASEAN-India Cooperation Fund (AIF), (ii) ASEAN-India Green Fund (AIGF) and ASEAN-India Science and Technology Development Fund (AISTDF) this shows India’s keenness of Act East.

Jaishankar and his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi held the bilateral joint commission meeting. The ministers discussed international and regional issues, including the Indo-Pacific. Jaishankar expressed solidarity with Indonesia for its chairmanship of the G20 and supported its priorities. Jaishankar and his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah witnessed the exchange of notes for mutual recognition of Covid-19 vaccination certificates. They decided to give fresh momentum to relations, with the focus on economic and trade ties in sectors such as palm oil and hydrocarbons. Vietnam’s foreign minister Bui Thanh Son and Jaishankar held a meeting at the new chancery building of the embassy of Vietnam and discussed a range of bilateral issues, and regional and global developments.

Following the meeting, an MoU on cybersecurity between India’s Cert-In and Vietnam’s VNCERT was exchanged. In his meeting with Brunei’s foreign minister Dato Erywan Pehin Yusof reviewed bilateral relations. The ministers agreed to strengthen cooperation in trade and investment, hydrocarbons, space, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. 


Tourism, education, sustainable development, biodiversity, climate change, blue economy, smart cities, Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET), disaster management, public health, women empowerment, people-to-people contacts, connectivity and narrowing development gap have deepened the India-ASEAN relations. Both are moving strong in the future to help each other to have a peaceful world for mutual prosperity and growth. The ASEAN has appreciated India’s US$ 1 million contribution to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, as well as for its in-kind contribution, particularly humanitarian relief items that were delivered to Myanmar through the AHA Centre in November 2021. For now the relations have matured to move forward by several steps.

Foreign Minister Jaishankar met his Singapore’s counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan and discussed different aspects of bilateral relations, including trade and investment, the digital economy and fintech, green growth and connectivity. They also discussed global geopolitical challenges and regional developments, and agreed to give the bilateral relationship a new impetus. The special envoy of Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Pornpimol Kanchanalak, also met India’s Foreign Minister. The Delhi Dialogue allows participation of think tanks, academics and prominent civil society persons from both India and the ASEAN region, in addition to government representatives, with the objective of contributing ideas and perspectives to furthering the India-ASEAN strategic partnership.

India’s Foreign Minister Jaishankar said “India fully supports a strong, unified, prosperous ASEAN whose centrality in the Indo-Pacific is fully recognized,” he said. Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said rivalry between the US and China has direct implications for all of Asia. In the two-day meeting marking the 30th anniversary of India’s dialogue relations India emphasized the need for strengthening land and sea connectivity with ASEAN member states. The upgrade of the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway is part of the ASEAN-India Connectivity initiative once all this is achieved the ancient and medieval and modern relations with these nations will become true and natural. 

(Views expressed are author’s own)

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