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India, Asean to step up maritime cooperation

PM Narendra Modi says India shares Asean’s views on a rules-based order for the seas

Last Published: Thu, Jan 25 2018. 09 50 PM IST

Elizabeth Roche

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Asean leaders at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Thursday, ahead of the Asean-India Commemorative Summit. Photo: PTI

New Delhi: India and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Thursday agreed to step up maritime cooperation and outlined a road map for future partnership. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India shared the bloc’s views on a rules-based order for the seas, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described India as playing a major positive role in regional stability.

The two leaders were speaking at the India-Asean Commemorative Summit to mark 25 years of bilateral partnership in New Delhi. Since 2014, India has significantly upgraded its “Look East” policy of engagement with Asean to an “Act East” policy that has seen an intensification of ties.

India’s outreach to Asean comes as the world and countries in Asia in particular are looking warily at the rise of an aggressive China. With China being a major trading partner of the 10-member grouping and many of the Asean members locked in maritime disputes with Beijing, Asean nations seem keen to broaden their linkages with countries such as India.

The commemorative summit also comes at a time when India, the US, Japan and Australia have held a round of talks on possible cooperation and coordination in the Indo-Pacific region—a large swathe of land and sea between the West Coast of the US and Africa.

On Friday, all 10 Asean leaders will be chief guests at India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations—an unprecedented break with tradition for India, which usually invites the head of government of a single country as the Republic Day chief guest.

Given that its theme was Shared Values, Common Destiny, it was natural that cooperation in the maritime domain was a key focus of discussions between Modi and the leaders of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei—specially during the retreat session.

In his speech at the summit, Modi said India shares “Asean’s vision for a rules-based order for the oceans and seas. Respect for international law, notably UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) is critical for this.”

“We remain committed to work with Asean to enhance practical cooperation and collaboration in our shared maritime domain,” Modi said, adding that the two sides discussed cooperation in the maritime domain as one of the key focus areas in the growth and development of the Indo-Pacific region.

In his remarks, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country Singapore is the current chair of the Asean, said the grouping believed that “India makes a major contribution to regional affairs, helping to keep the regional architecture open, balanced and inclusive”.

“There is much more we can do to take the Asean-India dialogue partnership forward,” Lee said, as he identified trade and connectivity as two other focus areas as India and Asean look to the future.

“One step we can take is to increase our trade and economic cooperation. There is significant potential for further growth. South-East Asia and India represent a quarter of the world’s population—about 1.8 billion people—and a combined GDP of more than $4.5 trillion,” Lee said.

“The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement that is currently being negotiated by Asean, India and other partners... represents a historic opportunity to establish the world’s largest trading bloc, which would enable our businesses to harness the region’s true potential,” he said.

Expanding connectivity in the areas of air, land, maritime, and digital “will reinforce business and people-to-people links between both sides and benefit both our peoples,” Lee added.

The Delhi Declaration issued at the end of the commemorative summit said that the two sides had agreed to “further strengthen and deepen the Asean-India Strategic Partnership for mutual benefit, across the whole spectrum of political-security, economic, sociocultural and development cooperation...for the building of a peaceful, harmonious, caring and sharing community in our regions”.

The Declaration also reaffirmed India-Asean commitment “to work closely together on common regional and international security issues of mutual concern and ensure an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture through existing ASEAN-led frameworks and mechanisms”.

On trade, the declaration called for an intensification of Asean-India economic relations, “including through the full utilisation and effective implementation of the Asean-India Free Trade Area” and intensifying efforts in 2018 toward “the swift conclusion of a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)”.

In the critical area of connectivity, it called for “the early completion” of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and it’s extension to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam.

Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College, said that India and the Asean identifying maritime cooperation as a crucial area of future cooperation “showed a great degree of convergence” on this issue.

If India needed to be a balancing factor vis-a-vis China in the region, India and Asean would have to engage in give and take in areas of lesser convergence—trade being an example, he said.

India views the Asean region as an economic partner, given its high growth rates, and its approximately 600 million people as a market. New Delhi has targeted $200 billion in bilateral trade with Asean countries by 2022. India is also looking at Asean as its development partner, especially with regard to improving economic conditions in its insurgency-wracked North-east. Singapore has set up a skill development centre in Assam


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