Pressure builds for a separate Indian mission to ASEAN
Will there be a separate Indian mission to ASEAN? That’s what the influential regional bloc has been batting for a long time, but India has so far demurred.
The demand has recently picked up momentum, after being one of the top recommendations in the report by the 15-member ASEAN India Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to the ASEAN leaders and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month in Phnom Penh.
The report says that India should “establish its separate diplomatic mission with an ambassador accredited to ASEAN residing in Jakarta to facilitate further the enhanced dialogue partnership cooperation in all three pillars of ASEAN community”.
The proposition is significant, as officials said that the EPG report would be the basis for the Vision Document which would be unveiled at the ASEAN-India commemorative summit in Delhi on December 20-21.
“This is a suggestion right now, but it definitely has weight now by virtue of being included in the EPG’s report,” said a senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The Indian members of the EPG included heavyweights like former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, economist Isher Judge Ahluwalia and advisor to PM, S Ramadorai. India has been increasingly giving attention to its south-eastern neighbours, which began with the ‘Look East’ policy of prime minister P V Narasimha Rao.
Currently, trade between India and ASEAN countries stands at over $80 billion, with the free trade agreement in services expected to be signed during the summit, to give it a further boost. According to sources, ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta had been long asking for India to open resident embassy only accredited to the regional organisation. “They have been really keen that their dialogue partners, which include India, should have exclusive ambassadors, and not just have their embassy in Indonesia looking after work with ASEAN,” said an official.
So far, United States, China and Japan have resident missions to the 10-member organisation, with South Korea opening its first embassy just last month. Australia also has a separate ambassador to ASEAN, but based in Canberra. Interestingly, two members of ASEAN do not have separate envoys, besides their resident ambassadors. “The current chair, Cambodia and Myanmar do not have any separate mission to ASEAN,” the official said. India doesn’t have any separate envoys to regional organisations, with resident ambassador in the country where the headquarters is located being concurrently accredited. For example, the Indian envoy in Brussels is also the country’s representative to the European Union.
There are, however, separate Indian ambassadors to multilateral organisations, in addition to an ambassador to the host country. Geneva plays host to three Indian ambassadors, who are separately accredited to the United Nations, Conference of Disarmament and World Trade Organisation. All of them are in addition to the consul general posted to the city, as well as the Indian ambassador based in Bern. Interestingly, the first Indian ambassador to ASEAN was not Jakarta-based, but rather the then secretary (east) N Ravi in 2009. After his retirement, the Indian envoy to Jakarta was concurrently accredited—a practice which has been followed ever since.
Speaking to The Sunday Standard, Ravi said that it would be a good idea to have a resident mission to ASEAN. “If you have more eyes, then it will be easier to grab the newer areas of cooperation,” he said.
Despite being perennially short-staffed, there is not expected to be any shortage of takers in the MEA if India does open a separate embassy in Jakarta. “There are always enough takers for multilateral posts,” said a senior MEA official, noting that one of the attractions is that there will be no consular work.
The main hurdle to creating a new embassy could, however, be the financial crunch, with austerity being the byword in the corridors of power. “It takes a lot of money to put in the infrastructure to set up a new embassy from building to staff. It will not be an easy decision to have a new resident mission,” said another senior official.