“There was a wrong hegemonic discourse that the northeast was a region of conflict,” Mahendra P. Lama, founding vice-chancellor of the Central University of Sikkim, said while speaking at a session on “Promoting cross-border trade with Asean: Capitalising on comparative advantage”, held as part of the eighth edition of the Delhi Dialogue here.
“Now, the northeast is the bridge to southeast Asia,” he said.
The Delhi Dialogue is a premier annual track 1.5 diplomatic event to discuss the politico-security, economic and socio-cultural engagement between India and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Pointing out that 98 percent of the borders of the northeastern states are with neighbouring countries, Lama said the government’s Act East policy provided a brilliant opportunity for the northeast to be integrated with the Asean market.
“And the best part is that the people of the northeast today want to be globalised,” he said.
Calling for investors from Asean nations to invest in projects in the northeast, he said the region, which is the centre of the Indian power pool, should be integrated with the power pool of the Asean region.
Observing that trade was an important component of the India-Asean engagement, Shiv Siddhant Kaul, president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC), said connectivity was the key to bring goods from the Asean countries to India and vice-versa.
“Maritime connectivity is essential and the Kaladan project (in Myanmar) will give access to the northeast,” he said.
“In terms of road connectivity, India’s east and the northeast should be given due weightage.”
Describing Asean as the most successful trading group after the European Union, Swarup Roy, founder and chairman of Asean Affairs, Thailand, said that the regional bloc was “a very hospitable terrain”.
“There are three characteristics of the Asean way: very discreet, holding lots of meetings and non-interventionist in nature,” Roy said.
According to Rajaram Panda, former senior fellow of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), China’s claims over the South China Sea calls for closer cooperation between India and the Asean countries.
Mukul Sarkar, chief general manager and head of credit group in EXIM Bank, said China, India and the Asean bloc were the three engines of growth in Asia and India-Asean trade stood at over $76 billion in 2014-15.
He said India needed to invest more in manufacturing value chains in the Asean countries.
“The CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) favour very well in terms of power and labour costs,” Sarkar said.
“India can also think of setting up an SEZ (special economic zone) in the CLMV countries,” he added.