As Myanmar takes on a long-coveted role as chairman of the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN), it would prove to be central to the Asean-India partnership
for progress and prosperity. It is also of relevance to the maintenance of peace and security in the region.
Myanmar may struggle to cope with the onslaught of meetings, a total of 1,100 this year, however, there are reasons to believe that — despite being new to the chair — Myanmar can do we llto lead the 10-nation group to its economic community goal by 2015.
For almost two decades, Myanmar was isolated. But since 2011, the country has drawn massive international interest for its dramatic political and economic reforms. The government of President TheinSein has released political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and opened the economy to foreign investment. The holding of the Asean gavel thus symbolises Myanmar’s arrival to the global community.
At the same time, it gives Myanmar another opportunity to demonstrate that it is committed to democracy and wider integration with the world outside.
However, doubts have been raised about the country’s ability to steer a group as significant as Asean in a rapidly changing strategic environment in the region.
Myanmar will have to deliberate on three major priorities: to accelerate the economic integration of Asean countries, reduce tension in the South China Sea and prepare the agenda for the future of Asean.
As for India, Myanmar is not just its immediate neighbour but the “natural bridge” to Asean and Southeast Asia. Myanmar is also strategically important, given its proximity to the country’s northeast, its role in countering insurgencies in the region and as an important partner in regional and sub-regional cooperation.
India launched a “look east” policy in 1992 aimed at forging closer links and with a view to developing its northeastern states. India and Asean operationalized a free trade agreement (FTA) in goods in 2010 and trade between the bloc and India reached $80 billion in 2011-12. Both sides have set a target of $200 billion by 2022.
As vibrant South East Asian economies look to coalesce into an economic community by 2015 and India seeks to deepen linkages with it, a key priority will be to ensure connectivity between India and the Asean countries.