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   Vol. 17 No. 22
Friday April 13, 2018

A Ribbon Of A New Way

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the ASEAN Heads of State and Governments and the ASEAN Secretary General on the occasion of the release of postal stamps to commemorate the silver jubilee of the India and ASEAN partnership at the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit in New Delhi.

     Better late than never . . . In what can best be described as a move that should have come a few years ago, India has reached out to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
     (Political commentators, however, point out that India’s overtures to the ASEAN was more due to the Chinese presence in the region or, as one commentator mentioned, “An anesthetic solution to China’s growing assertiveness in the region.”)
     Whatever the reason, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to ten leaders from the ASEAN for India’s Republic Day to commemorate 25 years of dialogue partnership has kick-started the relationship. As the Indian Prime Minister pointed out in a signed editorial, which appeared in 27 newspapers and in 10 languages, the relationship had moved from dialogue partnership to strategic partnership.

Business Needs Connectivity

     Indian overtures aside, what emerged at the end of the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit was a firm push towards bringing more connectivity between India and the ASEAN. A move, indeed, in the right direction since quite a few of these nations’ capitals do not have direct commercial flights connecting Delhi (Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, for example).
     It may be mentioned that Narendra Modi also invited Singapore Airlines to expand its operation in India and start flight services to cities like Guwahati in Assam, according to secretary, East, in the external affairs ministry.
     The official also said that Vietnam would soon start direct flight services to India.
     In fact, full service airline Vistara—a joint venture between Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines—will start its international operations by the second half of the calendar year 2018, Chief Executive Leslie Thng announced recently. Vistara will initially start its short-haul international operations connecting South Asian destinations and other Asian destinations that are 2-4 hours away, followed by destinations 3-5 hours away, Thng said.
     The Delhi Declaration of the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit highlights the connectivity issue. The Heads of State reaffirmed a commitment to “deepen cooperation in the area of aviation under the ASEAN-India Aviation Cooperation Framework adopted at the 14th ASEAN Transport Ministers’ Meeting in Manila, on November 6, 2008 [and] establish closer ASEAN-India air links to promote tourism, trade, and enhance greater connectivity between ASEAN and India.”
      The leaders also agreed to “strengthen cooperation in the area of aviation and maritime transport and look forward to the expeditious conclusion of the ASEAN-India Air Transport Agreement (AI-ATA) and the ASEAN-India Maritime Transport Agreement (AI-MTA).”

Long Standing Issues

     The air connectivity issue has been raised time and again, but there has been little action on the ground.
     Way back in 2003, then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had advocated an Open Skies arrangement between the ASEAN and India.
     Five years later, in 2008, the ASEAN-India Aviation Cooperation Framework was adopted—and that was it. The result: Not only has tourism between the ASEAN and India not gone up, neither has trade.
     India has been recording the highest number of air travellers but Indians accounted for only 3 percent of all tourist arrivals in ASEAN. As for trade between ASEAN and India, it was at a low 2.6 percent.
     Connectivity—otherwise described as the “new Great Game” by India’s former Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar—could indeed be the game changer.

Study Cited

     In a study done some time ago by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), it was mentioned that, “though ASEAN-India economic engagements are moving forward in the desired direction, yet there are certain challenges that call for policy interventions. With the signing of the ASEAN India Agreement in Services and Investments, ASEAN and India are likely to benefit from an extended market, where the air connectivity aims to play a pivotal role. The issue of enhancing air connectivity is one of them. The major issues and challenges related to promoting air connectivity between ASEAN countries and India pertain to growing demand for air cargo services; facilitating business and leisure tourists by having more direct flights connecting Tier II and Tier III cities of India…”
Tirthankar Ghosh

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