Building bridges to the East

Print edition : November 07, 2003

AMIT BARUAH recently in Bali, Bangkok and Chiang Mai

THE agenda was entirely positive. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's visit to Bali and then to Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand was all about free trade frameworks and "commercial bridges" to South-East Asia. For Indian diplomacy, long used to scoring points against Pakistan, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)-India summit was a welcome departure from the "norm". It was free from any "historical baggage" and appeared productive.

India signed with ASEAN a "framework" agreement for comprehensive economic cooperation - the most important accord, so far, between the two. Apart from an early harvest programme, it envisages the creation of a free trade area (FTA) by 2011 - with a later deadline for the less developed CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) nations in ASEAN.

In a speech at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit on October 7, Vajpayee pointed out that ASEAN had a well-developed economic relationship with China, Japan and South Korea. "India has lagged behind, for a variety of political and economic reasons, which are now history. However, this situation is changing rapidly," he said.

India and ASEAN also issued a "joint declaration" against terrorism on the occasion of their second summit in Bali on October 8 - four days before the first anniversary of the Bali bombings.

As a signal of "good intent", India acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (China, too, did the same in Bali) with ASEAN. Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal told presspersons that joining the Treaty was a "political step" in fostering close and comprehensive cooperation with ASEAN. On the terrorism front, an issue of intense concern for India, there will be exchange of intelligence, enhanced liaison between agencies and consultations between officials, he revealed.

Both India and ASEAN appeared pleased that they were able to negotiate an FTA "framework agreement" in a record 10 months since their first summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, last November. Given the fact that several ASEAN nations are preoccupied with growth prospects, both as individuals and as a region, the accord with India on the trade front indicated that India would be taken more seriously as a player in the South-East Asian circuit.

In his speech at the ASEAN-India summit, the Prime Minister also announced that designated South-East Asian airlines could operate daily flights to Kolkata, Chennai, New Delhi and Mumbai, without prior bilateral agreements. He said that the designated ASEAN carriers were free to operate an unlimited number of flights to 18 tourist destinations in India.

In his remarks to the business community, the Prime Minister set the target of two-way trade between India and ASEAN at $30 billion by 2007 - a target considered ambitious by some given the fact that current trade is $12.5 billion.

APART from the main summit itself, the Prime Minister used his stay in Bali for bilateral meetings with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, Singapore President Goh Chok Tong, and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. These meetings on the sidelines are sometimes more important than formal interactions. They lend a "profile" to a country's diplomacy and are keenly watched by other countries.

The Vajpayee-Wen Jiabao meeting on October 8 was, perhaps, the most significant one, coming as it did a little over three months after the Prime Minister's successful visit to China (Frontline Cover Story, July 18).

Even before the meeting, the Chinese side informed the Government of India that it would remove Sikkim from the category of "independent nations" on the official website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. That was done.

After the meeting, External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha made it clear that the move on Sikkim was part of a "programme and time frame" indicated to India by the Chinese side. "I have seen a statement from the Chinese spokesperson that it will be a gradual process. They have their own timing and style of doing things. I think we should understand their style of functioning and wait for things to happen," Yashwant Sinha said.

Soon after his meeting with the Indonesian President, in which counter-terrorism topped the agenda, Vajpayee left for Bangkok on a five-day visit to Thailand.

Indians, who pride themselves on their hospitality, have a lesson or two to learn from the Thais. On October 8 night, Deputy Prime Minister Korn Dabbaransi received Vajpayee at the Royal Thai Air Force Headquarters in Bangkok.

On October 9, Vajpayee had one-on-one talks with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and restricted and delegation-level talks with Dr. Thaksin. On the same evening, Dr. Thaksin hosted a banquet in Vajpayee's honour.

The Prime Minister, who travelled to Hua Hin (outside Bangkok) on October 10 for an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was accompanied by none other than the Thai Prime Minister.

On October 11, Vajpayee was personally received at the Chiang Mai airport by Dr. Thaksin, who later hosted a private dinner for the Prime Minister. The next day, the Thai leader was again at the airport to see off Vajpayee from the northern Thai city.

"On all days of his official programme, the Thai Prime Minister met Vajpayee. It went far beyond normal courtesies extended to a visiting leader. We will be hard put to reciprocate such a gesture," an Indian official accompanying the Prime Minister said.

During the visit, India and Thailand signed a "framework agreement" for a free trade area - the first with an ASEAN country. The two countries will shortly reduce tariffs on 84 items of trade.

While pointing to the immense potential for trade between India and Thailand, Vajpayee candidly told a gathering of Indian and Thai business that "complementarities" had not translated into "performance".

India was actively seen pushing for a more robust trade relationship with Thailand - a fact that would not have been missed by other ASEAN nations. Apart from other agreements in the fields of tourism, biotechnology, agriculture and visa exemption for diplomats and officials, the two countries also explored cooperation in space.

India has made an offer to Thailand for the launch of its satellites - an area in which Bangkok is known to be interested. New Delhi is now awaiting a response from Thailand on the offer.

In the joint statement issued after Vajpayee's visit, a specific reference was made to the Thai-sponsored Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD). "The Thai Prime Minister appreciated India's active role in ACD and its offer to contribute $1 billion to the Asian Bond Fund," the statement said.

From the bilateral to the multilateral, the Prime Minister's visits to Bali, Bangkok and Chiang Mai retained their positive note. Clearly, if India wants to be recognised as a player in this part of the world then it must be hard at implementing what has been agreed to on paper.

Since January 2001, Vajpayee has visited as many as seven of the 10 ASEAN countries; only the Philippines, Brunei and Myanmar have not yet figured on his travel itinerary.

It is evident that ASEAN is now taking India's "Look East" policy seriously.

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