The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was born in 1967 and was aimed at
promoting regional trade, investment and joint ventures. It proved to be the nucleus of regional
cooperation, was booming and looking for new markets and investment opportunities. It found
India and Vietnam complementary, now attracting investment opportunities. It also perceived
India and Vietnam complementary for strengthening regional political and security profile. Vietnam
had started the process of Doi Moi (Renovation) aimed at liberalisation, privatisation and
globalisation. India on the other hand, adopted the policy of economic liberalisation under the
stewardship of P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, prime minister and finance minister
respectively, in 1991. The new government in India also started initiating the process of liberalisation,
privatisation and globalisation. India too announced tax-free incentives for foreign investors.
These policies encouraged the ASEAN for further consolidation of its co-operation with India.
ASEAN offered sectoral dialogue partnership to India in 1992. Accordingly, four core sectors
of co-operation were recognised, namely trade, investment, tourism, science and technology.
Sectoral partnership was instrumental in establishing the institutional linkage between India and
ASEAN and the partnership proved so useful that the ASEAN upgraded it within two years to
full dialogue partnership in 1995. This facilitated the growth of relationship in different areas with
economic, security and political implications. India was invited to participate in the post-ministerial
conferences of the ASEAN and also in ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the security forum of
ASEAN. Subsequently, both India and ASEAN began to talk of a common vision and a shared
ASEAN-India co-operation committee was established to function as a key institutional mechanism
to provide substantive content to different sectors of co-operation. ASEAN-India working group
was also established to find out the areas for co-operation in science and technology, trade and
investment, human resource development and culture. The Joint co-operation committee
recognised the Indian expertise in the field of science and technology, especially in biotechnology
and IT (Information Technology). Proposals were given to co-operate in food processing, health
care, agriculture, engineering, electronics, communication and service sectors.
The meeting of the ASEAN-India co-operation committee decided to set up the India- ASEAN
fund to develop co-operation in trade, investment, tourism, computer technology, solar energy
and environmental protection. This fund was placed at the disposal of ASEAN Secretariat and
administered by a joint management committee. Joint co-operation committee also agreed to set
up an ASEAN-New Delhi committee consisting of the heads of diplomatic missions of the ASEAN
countries. The then Indian foreign secretary J.N. Dixit announced the scheme of scholarship and
said that each side could offer six post-doctoral fellowships upto six months in the area of science
and technology. India and the ASEAN region also started ASEAN lecture series from eminent
persons under which prominent ASEAN leaders and intellectuals delivered their lectures in India
and vice versa. This has proved useful in the confidence building and objective understanding of
the issues in the foreign policy and diplomacy of the ASEAN vis-a-vis dialogue partners.


BIMSTEC is a sub-regional economic grouping involving Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka
and Thailand. This is the first grouping of its kind in which two ASEAN partners have come
together with three South Asian Countries for economic cooperation. Established in 1998, this
grouping has already identified important areas for cooperation such as communications,
infrastructure, energy, trade and investment, tourism and fisheries. Each country has assumed a
specific responsibility for coordination and important projects under consideration of the forum
have been Asian Highway Link, Asian Railway Network and a Natural Gas Pipeline Grid.
Constituted on the Bay of Bengal Rim, BIMSTEC aims at tapping the vast potential of resources,
both natural and human in this sub region.
BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation) is
endeavoured to provide an economic forum with both private and public sector participation
from member countries to promote a high level exchange of views relating to trade, investment
and economic cooperation. The primary emphasis is on the exchange of views on sectors such
as textiles and clothing, drugs and pharmaceuticals, gems and jewelleries, horticultural and floricultural products and information technology. Economic and Social Commission for Asia- Politic (ESCAP) hosted an expert group meeting in March 1998 at Bangkok to promote private sector participation in the BIMSTEC process. There were more than 80 participants at the meeting from all five countries. The meeting urged the private sector to play a key role in enhancing
economic cooperation and concluded with a series of general and specific recommendations.
A BIMSTEC chamber of commerce and industry was established and decided that there would
be annual meetings of BIMSTEC Economic and Trade ministers to follow up on the implementation
of economic cooperation initiatives. A BIMSTEC Senior Economic Officials Committee (SEOC)
was also established. The responsibilities for the various sectors identified for cooperation were
delegated amongst the five countries, as follows:
Bangladesh – Trade and investment
India – Technology
Thailand – Transport and Communication
Myanmar – Energy
Sri Lanka – Tourism and Fisheries.
It is remarkable that the economic ministers agreed that BIMSTEC should aim and strive to
develop into a free trade arrangement. The new sub-sectors were added to the aforementioned
five sectors for future cooperation and they were the following:
i) Commodities such as rubber, tea, coffee, coconut and spices.
ii) Automotive industries and parts thereof.
iii) Processed food.
BIMSTEC Ministerial meeting in Dacca on 19 December 1998 stated: “We emphasise the need
for establishing a BIMSTEC economic forum which will work as an important engine of greater
economic cooperation and progress within the BIMSTEC sub-region. We reiterate our resolve
to take all necessary steps to making the BIMSTEC economic forum operational for convening
at the next ministerial meeting”. It stated further that, “conscious of the important role that can be
played by transport and communication linkages in enhancing commercial, industrial, cultural and
social interaction and tourism, we reiterate the emphasis that we place on developing rail, road,
multi-modal transport, shipping and air-linkages. This would reinforce complementarities arising
out of the Bay of Bengal rim identity of BIMSTEC”.
The BIMSTEC meeting in Myanmar in December 2001 emphasised the desirability of
strengthening linkages among the think tanks of the member countries. They also agreed to
explore external financing of Mekong-Ganga Co-operation (MGC), a programme of action
involving India and Indo-China states. It was hoped that the flexible nature of the co-operation
agenda, ranging from culture and tourism to transport and communication could enable speedy
progress. MGC involves India with five ASEAN countries, namely Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar,
Vietnam and Thailand. It is endeavoured to build a road linking Thailand to India through Myanmar.
MGC wants to go a long way in developing the infrastructure for transnational trade involving
India’s northeast border, Myanmar, Mekong region and beyond. Located between India and
China, Mekong region is very important for India’s security, peace and trading with East Asian
The first India-ASEAN Summit, which took place at Phnom Penh in November 2002, had
focused attention on relations with the countries in the Mekong region. Prime Minister A.B.
Vajpayee on this occasion spoke about the common visions and designs with the ASEAN. India
extended $ 10 million credit to Cambodia and signed three agreements in the areas of trade,
technical education and maintenance of the 1000-year-old Tam Pram Temple. India also accorded/
granted greater tariff concessions to Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. It was considered
as an important gesture towards the ASEAN.

India and South Asia

Southeast Asia is comprised of ten countries namely Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. All these countries are members of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Burma (Myanmar) shares a contiguous land and sea frontier with India while Thailand, Indonesia and other countries in the region share
common maritime frontiers. Needless to say, that they are India’s close neighbors, with whom its relations date back to time immemorial. The history of the ancient Southeast Asian Kingdoms, i.e. Funan, Champa, Cambodge, Pagan, Dwarabati, Srivijaya and Majapahit indicate India’s intimate cultural ties. The art, architecture, epic and language have had similarities and their origin and growth cannot be understood in proper perspective without understanding their Indian counterparts. Ashoka the Great, had sent his emissaries, Sona and Uttara to spread the gospel of Buddhism in the region of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. These nations declared Buddhism as their state religion. The impact of Hinduism still remains as part of their indigenous culture and religion. The ethnic Malays accepted Islam as their religion but the Muslims in Java have not yet disowned their Hindu traditions. Some of them still believe in animism and worship many spirits in different names. Bali remains a Hindu dominated society, and adherents of Buddhism
can be found in all parts of the Southeast Asia.

Malacca, Sunda and Lombok are the important sea-lanes linking East Asia with the rest of the world. Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are industrially advanced. Singapore has an effective service sector in the field of finance, airlines, computers and shipping. Mainland Southeast Asia has diverse mountain ranges and rivers running from North to South, and most of them originate in Tibet. The main rivers are Mekong passing through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Other rivers are Irrawadi, Chindawin and Salween in Burma, Menam Chao Phraya in Thailand,
Song Koi (Red River) and Song Bo (Black Rivers) in Vietnam. These rivers bring rich alluvial deposits regularly to make the land fertile. Most fertile areas created by these rivers are lower Burma, Central Thailand, Tongking and Mekong deltas. Thailand and Vietnam are the largest rice exporting countries in the world. This unit examines various aspects of socio-economic-political features of South-East Asian countries. India’s relations with ASEAN countries are analysed in this Unit. India attaches great importance towards pursuing good neighbourly relations with the countries in Southeast Asia. The policy of “Look East” is the strategy of the Indian diplomacy ever since 1991 and its major thrust has been to improve India’s existing ties with the ASEAN region, and promote trade, investment, tourism, science and technology relations. Indian policies are endeavored to resurrect close historical and cultural ties, which were marred during the colonial period. The Cold War paradigm in the past prevented India to attend various issues in its bilateral relations but the situation changed only after the end of the Cold War. Various initiatives have been taken to rejuvenate our economic, cultural and strategic connections. Total bilateral trade with ASEAN countries has shown increasing trends from 5.98 billion in 1998-99 to 7.98 billion in 2002-03.

ASEAN investments which were dismal during the Cold War period, started coming and confidence was displayed on both sides. Various packages for the promotion of tourism were mooted and now it is not limited only to visit Buddhist sites in Bodh Gaya. India is willing to attract investments from the ASEAN region and they have been advocating liberalisation and free trade. ASEAN is trying to reciprocate the Indian gestures. They recognise the importance of
India as a great market where they find the existence of middle class people in millions. Besides, they have common historical, religious and security interests. Both of them support the policy of democratisation, liberalisation and free trade. Both are opposed to the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism and both are supporting human rights to be universally respected.