The ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement (AIFTA), which came into force earlier this year, is undoubtedly a milestone in the burgeoning relationship between India and Southeast Asia. Yet the future of ASEAN-Indian relations is unlikely to be comprised solely of mutually beneficial policies. In order to reap the full benefits of bilateral cooperation, both sides will have to navigate formidable challenges, think strategically about how to expand the relationship, and display courage and vision in their foreign policies.
Southeast Asia and India are by no means strangers. Their civilizational and cultural links date back thousands of years and are still visible today in Southeast Asian architecture, food, pop culture and religion. But ideological differences precluded the development of close political ties for most of the Cold War. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao decided to engage Southeast Asia via the "Look East Policy", as part of a broader effort to liberalize the country's economy in an increasingly globalized world.
The ASEAN-India relationship has made great strides since then. Cooperation began in the economic realm in 1992 but quickly broadened to include the political and security fields when India was accorded full ASEAN Dialogue Partner status in 1995. India subsequently became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996 and of the East Asian Summit in 2005, and signed on to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2003. New Delhi has also inked bilateral free trade agreements with Singapore and Thailand and sub-regional initiatives like the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation Initiative (MGCI) and the India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation.