The annual conference, which celebrates the achievements and contributions of the Indian diaspora, was held with an ASEAN theme this year, to mark 25 years of dialogue partnership between India and the regional bloc. Singapore, the ASEAN chair, hosted the meeting.
The Conference was attended by the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore Mr Teo Chee Hean, Indian External Affairs Minister Ms Sushma Swaraj, Singapore Foreign Minister Mr Vivian Balakrishnan, Chief Minister of the State of Assam (India) Mr Sarbananda Sonowal, Malaysian Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Dato’ S.K. Devamany and the High Commissioner of India to Singapore H.E. Jawed Arshaf. Also present was H.E.Niklish Chandra Giri, the Deputy High Commissioner of India to Kuala Lumpur.
The ASEAN India Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was held on 6th and 7th January 2018 at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. GOPIO Malaysia sent 75 Delegates, including 30 Members of the GOPIO International Youth Movement. The Delegation was led by GOPIO Malaysia President Mr Ravendiran Arjunan and GOPIO International Chairman Mr Selvarajoo Sundram.
In the Conference, Ministers called on ASEAN and India to press on with economic integration, with Singapore’s leaders plumping in particular for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact as a key way to do so. Leaders also highlighted the enormous potential for greater cooperation between ASEAN and India, and pledged to work more closely together.
“India and ASEAN can benefit greatly from greater economic integration and greater openness, especially with our economies and people. We need to build more bridges, not walls, between us,” said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in his opening address.
Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj outlined her vision for the region: “For India, Asean leadership and centrality is essential to peace and prosperity for a rapidly changing Indo-Pacific region.” She noted that their dialogue partnership had evolved into a strategic one over the past 25 years, and said the ASEAN region is at the heart of India’s Act East Policy. “With each South-east Asian country, we have growing political, economic, defence and cultural relations,” she said. Ms Swaraj added that India’s trade agreements with ASEAN were among the most ambitious with any region, without naming specific deals.
Ms Swaraj, who began a tour of Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore last Thursday (Jan 4), highlighted the deep cultural bonds between her country and South-east Asia. “I see the symbols of our ties: on the streets, in life at homes, in the rituals of diverse states, in the symbols and sounds of languages, in the poetry of the dances, in the melody of the music and in the flavours of the food,” she said.
On the second and final day of the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference, ministers and officials spoke about how the overseas Indian Community could help deepen ties between the two sides. Sushma Swaraj also said ASEAN and India could work together towards a shared prosperity with the “familiarity of history and the comfort of culture”. “We have immense resources in the form of our diaspora in South-east Asia, to be the bridge for a new journey on an ancient route,” she said. About a fifth or 6 million of the 31 million overseas Indians, comprising both Indian citizens abroad and persons of Indian origin (PIOs), live in the 10 ASEAN countries, according to figures from India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
Dr Balakrishnan singled out the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – spearheaded by ASEAN and involving six of its key partners, India included, calling it a historic opportunity to set up the world’s largest trade bloc. The Association of South-east Asian Nations-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is the most ambitious regional trade agreement to date, covering 30 per cent of both global trade and the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). It attempts to forge stronger economic linkages across four geographical regions – North-east Asia, Oceania, South Asia, and South-east Asia – and to reinforce economic ties between 48 per cent of the world’s population. As its chief driving force, ASEAN not only seeks to entrench itself at the heart of the Asia-Pacific economy, but also stands to reap economic and political gains from the 16-member mega trade deal. If it comes to fruition, the RCEP would cover half of the world’s population and a third of its gross domestic product. At the gala dinner, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean pledged that Singapore as ASEAN chair will do what it can to secure the support of India and all the other RCEP countries to advance negotiations.
Earlier at a panel discussion, Ms Preeti Saran, a senior diplomat in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, addressed what she called a perception that India is being defensive on RCEP talks. “India remains very strongly committed to RCEP and will be happy to have it negotiated and concluded soonest,” she said in response to a question on the pact.
Apart from trade, ASEAN and India’s leaders also highlighted other areas for cooperation like tourism. Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal also gave a speech pitching north-east India – specifically his state, whose biggest city is Guwahati – as ASEAN’s gateway to India, highlighting its advantages like a youthful work force.
The leaders also highlighted challenges to tackle together, such as generating jobs in an age of disruption. On the security front, Mr Teo said he was heartened that defence cooperation between India and Asean has intensified. India, which is located strategically along important sea routes from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, is integral to the security in the region, he noted. “ASEAN and India share a common interest to keep these vital conduits of trade and economic exchange open,” said Mr Teo. “It is crucial that we continue to uphold our shared principles of the freedom of navigation and respect for the rule of law,” he added.
ASEAN and India could work together to uphold a world characterised by integration and mutual respect, said Dr Balakrishnan. He added: “If India and the other superpowers agree to construct an interdependent world, to lower barriers and build more bridges, then a new golden age awaits us.”
GOPIO Malaysia President Mr Ravendiran Arjunan presented a paper on ‘Being Overseas Indian in India and ASEAN’. The Malaysian Delegation also had a meeting session with Ms Sushma Swaraj during the Conference.
Mr Ravendiran said that matters and thoughts brought up in this ASEAN-India Regional PBD must be implemented or at least initiated before the next PBD. He added that there must be regular Regional PBDs in ASEAN and is lobbying for the next ASEAN-India Regional PBD to be held in Kuala Lumpur. GOPIO Malaysia will provide its fullest support for this.
GOPIO Malaysia Information Bureau.