Leaders of the Asean, which comprises Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei, are in India for the Asean-India Commemorative Summit. The ten visiting heads of states were also the chief guests at India’s Republic Day celebrations on January 26 – a signal honour granted by New Delhi to its closest allies.
The summit marked India’s 25 years of engagement with Asean, which is key to New Delhi’s Act East policy and the Indo-Pacific strategy.
“India shares Asean’s vision for peace and prosperity through a rules-based order for the oceans and seas,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, emphasising that freedom of navigation will be a key focus area.
“We remain committed to work with Asean to enhance our practical cooperation in our shared maritime domain,” Modi said in his plenary address. He also said “maritime cooperation is an integral part of part of our discourse throughout our commemorative activities”.
The word maritime figured 14 times in the Delhi Declaration issued by the leaders after their summit, the Hindustan Times reported.
The Delhi Declaration called for the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. This assumes significance against the backdrop of growing concern among several Asean members over China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei are engaged in disputes with China in these waters that are home to a crucial trade route.
Experts are seeing this summit in the backdrop of China’s expansionist tactics and growing economic and military assertiveness in the region. They see this as a perfect opportunity for India to present itself as a powerful ally to these countries in the strategic areas of trade and connectivity.
The Asean leaders brainstormed at a two-hour-long informal discussion on “maritime cooperation and security” at a retreat hosted by Prime Minister Modi at the President’s House.
The spokesman for India’s External Affairs Ministry, Raveesh Kumar, tweeted that Modi, in his opening remarks at the plenary, highlighted the importance of India’s strategic partnership with Asean, placing the bloc at the centre of the Act East policy.
Days before the arrival of the 10 heads of states, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said, “The prime minister’s intention that the Look East policy should now be the Act East policy is really taking shape.”
Earlier, Modi proposed that 2019 should be declared the year to promote tourism. He said it was a privilege for India to play a role in the conservation of temples in Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam
He also said India’s trade with the region has grown 25 times in 25 years, and investments too are robust and growing.
“We will continue to work with Asean to enhance our trade ties. The success of recent events, the Asean-India business meetings have shown encouraging results. We will further enhance trade ties and work towards greater interaction among our business communities,” Modi said, according to media reports.
“Our friendship has been nurtured by our culture, our civilisation,” he added.
In a boost for India’s position on terrorism, the term cross-border terrorism, an oblique reference to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, found an approximate mention in the Delhi Declaration, which spoke of “countering cross-border movement of terrorists” as part of a “comprehensive approach” to fight the menace.
The leaders also agreed to build capacity, improve digital connectivity, infrastructure and services, and develop human resources in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) by establishing centres of excellence in software development.
The Indian Express reported Modi discussed issues related to the Indo-Pacific region during the retreat, though there was no mention of “Indo-Pacific” in the Delhi Declaration.
“There was also no mention of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – where there are clear divergences between India and Asean countries. Delhi has consistently opposed BRI, due to its opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). But most of the Asean countries have played along so far,” the report said.
Modi held a series of bilateral meetings with heads of state of Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, among other countries.
During his bilateral meeting with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, the latter expressed interest in Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric database. The two leaders also discussed the menace of “urban terrorism” and “drug trafficking”, and agreed to cooperate on intelligence-sharing and capacity-building.
Bilateral Meets at a Glance
Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and Modi reviewed the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project and plans to extend it to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In July, Thailand will take over the role of country coordinator for India at the Asean.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong discussed stepping up air connectivity, establishing a meaningful smart cities network and harmoninising digital payment systems.
Apart from showing interest in the Aadhar card, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte spoke of stepping up counter-terrorism cooperation and greater coordination on drug trfficking.
Brunei’s Sultan Hassain Bolkiah talked of cooperation in healthcare, human resource development and IT.
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told Modi his government has an “Act West” policy, which complements India’s “Act East” policy. They discussed greater cooperation in defence and maritime issues, and coastal surveillance.
Modi said it was a privilege for India to host leaders of all 10 Asean members for the second time in five years. New Delhi last hosted a similar summit in December 2012. The 10 members of Asean and India have a combined population of about 1.8 billion and a combined GDP of more than US $4.5 trillion.