Digitization in ASEAN: Role of India and China

By – Dr. Sampa Kundu;


Digital revolution has altered the economic, social and geo-political landscapes in Asia. It has changed the way we have looked at communications, Ed-tech, Fintech, digital health or e-health, logistics, transportation, e-commerce, digital payments and so many other services. Artificial Intelligence, robotics, big data, cryptography etc. are not new words in the lives of Asian citizens anymore. Digital revolution has touched the space technology, maritime resource management and disaster management and security related issues. It has transformed the labour-intensive economies into technology-enhanced and digitized societies. Southeast Asia is not an exception in this case. Table 1 represents the basic information about the digital profiling of the Southeast Asian countries. Both India and China are part of ASEAN’s journey towards digital transformation- but at different paces and volumes. This commentary seeks to explore China and India’s official positions on ASEAN’s digital transformation in the recent years. 

Digital Profile of ASEAN: 

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has walked a long way towards digitization. It has taken multiple initiatives and programmes towards digitalization and Industrial Revolution 4.0. ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint 2025, Master-plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025, E-ASEAN Framework Agreement, ASEAN ICT (AIM) Master-plan 2020, ASEAN Digital Master-plan (ADM) 2025, Consolidated Strategy on the Fourth Industrial Revolution for ASEAN, ASEAN Leaders’ Statement on Advancing Digital Transformation in ASEAN 2021 are some of the official documents that have noted down the importance of digital transformation and indicated the ways and means to achieve it.

Table 1: Digital Profile of ASEAN Members

Country Population (Million) Urban Population (%) Rural Population (%) Internet User (Million) Social Media Statistics (Million) Cellular Mobile Connections (Million)
Lao PDR 7.43 37.6 62.4 3.80 3.80 5.91
Myanmar 55.02 31.8 68.2 25.28 20.75 73.48
Cambodia 17.06 25.1 74.9 13.44 12.60 22.06
Brunei 443.5* 78.8 21.2 421.3* 516.5* 572.3
Vietnam 98.56 38.7 61.3 72.10 76.95 156.0
Thailand 70.01 52.8 47.2 54.50 56.85 95.60
The Philippines 111.8 48.0 52.0 76.01 92.05 156.5
Malaysia 32.98 78.2 21.8 29.55 30.25 42.11
Indonesia 277.7 57.9 42.1 204.7 191.4 370.1
Singapore 5.92 100.0 5.45 5.30 8.70

*Taken in‘000

Source: Kundu, Mekong Ganga Policy Brief

There are a total of eight strategic areas identified in AIM2020. It covers economic integration and transformation, people’s integration and empowerment through ICT, innovation, ICT infrastructure, human capital development, ICT in ASEAN single market, new media and content and information security and assurance. AIM2020 visualizes to create a trustworthy digital ecosystem which is affordable, available and accessible by the ASEAN people.  ADM2025 too has identified few key tactical areas to focus on- digital transformation; resilience, trust and security; digital policy, regulation and standards; and cooperation and collaboration. In order to ensure the formation of digital ecosystem and digital transformation, ASEAN has also established several mechanisms for institutional frameworks. It includes ASEAN Digital Ministers’ meeting, ASEAN Digital Senior Officials’ meeting, ASEAN Digital Senior Official’s Working Group, ASEAN Network Security Action Council, Working Group on Digital Data Governance, ASEAN Telecommunications Regulator’s Council (ATRC), ATRC Working Group and so on.

China-ASEAN Cooperation in ICT and Digital Transformation of the Region: 

As a strategic partner of ASEAN, China has, on multiple occasions, demonstrated its willingness to help ASEAN achieve the digital transformation goals and targets. In 2003, ASEAN and China signed a MoU on Cooperation in ICT. The ASEAN-China ICT Cooperative Partnership for Common Development was also adopted as early as in 2005 by the ICT ministers and authorities from Beijing and ASEAN capitals. In 2013, China and ASEAN had signed another MoU on cooperation in ICT. This MoU, while setting the future trends for deepened cooperation in ICT between ASEAN and China, covered multiple areas such as industries, human resources, infrastructure development, information exchange and new technologies. ASEAN and China had declared the year 2018 as the ASEAN-China Year of Innovation and aimed at enhancing cooperation in the emerging areas under Industrial Revolution 4.0. In November 2018, at the 21st ASEAN-China Summit, both sides declared a Joint Statement on Science, Technology and Innovation Cooperation. In December 2018, the 13th ASEAN Telecommunications and Information Technology Ministers Meeting (TELMIN) with China was held in Bali, Indonesia where the MoU was extended as a cooperation framework.  Later, the year 2020 was identified as the Year of ASEAN-China Digital Economy Cooperation by both sides. Since then, both China and ASEAN have taken a host of initiatives to strengthen their cooperation in the field of digitalization. In July 2021, the ASEAN-China Digital Economy Development Cooperation Forum was arranged intended at sharing of best practices in areas related to digital economy cooperation, cross-border e-commerce and digital trade. China has also expressed its commitment to help ASEAN in building smart cities with the help of digitalization and innovation. Many of these projects are supported by ASEAN-China Cooperation Fund (ACCF) and ACCF Project Management Team, which is positioned in Jakarta. At the special summit between ASEAN and China to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their dialogue relations in 2021, they issued a joint statement which covered areas like 4IR and ICT Cooperation. It was mentioned that China and ASEAN will “enhance cooperation in digital economy, smart city development, artificial intelligence, e-commerce, big data, 5G use cases, digital transformation, and cyber and data security as we embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).”

India-ASEAN Cooperation in ICT and Digital Transformation of the Region: 

Compared to China, India’s official and institutionalized endeavors with ASEAN in the arena of digitalization and digital revolution are considered less in number and volumes. India has, however, in several official statements and documents, expressed its sincerity towards helping ASEAN for its digital transformation. As a strategic partner, India has participated in ASEAN deliberations on issues relating to ICT, cyber-security and new technologies. India is also part of East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) and participated in the meetings and forums to discuss about digital technologies, cyber crimes and other threats to cyber security domain in the region. As part of India’s efforts to narrow the developmental gaps within ASEAN (Initiative for ASEAN Integration- IAI), India has set up software development and training centers in CLMV i.e., Cambodia-Lao PDR, Myanmar-Cambodia. In 2022, India and ASEAN have announced a Digital Work Plan to share knowledge on applications, Internet of Things (IoTs), 5G, advanced satellite communications and cyber forensics. This plan was approved at the 2nd ASEAN Digital Ministers’ Meeting with India in January 2022. India’s Ministry of External Affairs has also begun to organize a Track 1.5 dialogue with ASEAN to discuss about cyber-security cooperation. 


For a successful digital transformation, ASEAN needs to ensure that its daily life goes digital. It implies a cashless society; becoming the global leader in smart cities; borderless digital services; digitization of 100% firms; smart manufacturing, 100% digital literacy; digitized ID for all citizens, and 100% financial inclusion. This might take time. During the Covid-19 pandemic, internet users in every part of the world have increased. In Southeast Asia itself, 40 million new internet users were added in 2020 itself. This speaks a lot about the potential of future collaborations in applications, IoTs, big data, encryption, and other facets of digital transformation and cyber-security. Many start-ups are coming affront to work in collaborative projects beyond the national boundaries. Governments of the ASEAN member states, India and China need to tap on these potential areas to continue their digital partnerships. The year 2022 is designated as ASEAN-India Friendship Year as the dialogue relations have reached the 30th anniversary milestone. This can be used as an opportunity to explore and exploit new vistas of cooperation in the area of digitalization and IR 4.0 between India and ASEAN. E-health, Ed-Tech, Fintech and many other new areas can be mapped as part of ASEAN-India partnership for the coming years.

Dr. Sampa Kundu is currently working as a Consultant at ASEAN-India Centre (AIC) at Research and Information System for Develping Countries (RIS), New Delhi. Prior to this, she has taught at Amity University, Noida and Symbiosis International University, Pune. Dr. Kundu has worked with New Delhi based think-tank, MP-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses as well. She has research interests in Southeast Asian geopolitics, Indo-Pacific and ASEAN-India relations. She can be reached at sampa.sun@gmail.com

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