|By Nilova Roy Chaudhury||Published: February 2018|
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the ASEAN Heads of State/Governments and ASEAN Secretary General, at the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit, in New Delhi on January 25, 2018.
New Delhi. That they all made it on time, within minutes of each other in a well-coordinated manner, dispelled protocol fears that India’s 69th Republic Day parade would be delayed. Fortunately, the eager heads of the 10 ASEAN states arrived on schedule, allowing the military parade to begin, as always, on time.
Everything about the 25th India – ASEAN commemorative summit, held in New Delhi on January 25, and the presence of 10 leaders from the Association of South East Asian Nations as Chief Guests for India’s National Day celebrations January 26, was conducted with military precision, coordinated to the last detail.
First, the leaders of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were treated to a display of India’s military might, primarily indigenously produced military hardware like the ‘Rudra’ and ‘Dhruv’ helicopters, the ‘Netra’ early airborne warning system, the ‘Tejas’ LCA and the ‘BrahMos’ cruise missile.
This was followed by specially conceived tableaux showcasing India’s diversity and religious harmony. India has chosen particularly to leverage its Buddhist heritage to cement linkages with its Southeast Asian neighbours at the summit marking the 25th anniversary of the ASEAN-India Dialogue Partnership.
After their day-long deliberations, including a ‘retreat’ at the Presidential palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan, maritime cooperation and security emerged as the critical focus of their discussions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi , with the leaders of ASEAN by his side, made a strong pitch for nations to follow the international law of the seas (United Nations Convention for the Law of the Seas – UNCLOS) in the Indo-Pacific region. Though it remained unnamed, the intended target was clearly China, which has been accused by most of its neighbours of violating the rule of law in the South China Sea.
“India shares the ASEAN vision for rule-based societies and values of peace,” Mr Modi said in his opening remarks at the plenary session of the Commemorative Summit, themed “Shared Destiny, Common Values.”
Mr Modi held bilateral meetings with all the guests: Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Singapore Prime Minister Lee, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, Prime Minister of Lao PDR Thongloun Sisoulith and the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah.
Cambodian Premier Hun Sen stayed on for a bilateral visit on January 27, during which he held delegation level talks with Mr Modi.
“We are committed to work with ASEAN nations to enhance collaboration in the maritime domain,” the Prime Minister said, calling for respect for international law, especially the UNCLOS, while reiterating that the ASEAN lies at the centre of India’s Act East Policy.
Mr Modi’s comments assume special significance given China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea and India’s intent to play a more significant role, of a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The Indo Pacific region is increasingly seen as a connectivity pathway – much of the world’s trade passes through these oceans,” External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said earlier.
“These waters must not only get better connected, but remain free from traditional and non-traditional threats, that impede free movement of people, goods and ideas,” she said, adding that “Respect for international law, notably UNCLOS in ensuring this is, therefore, imperative.”
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the Plenary Session of ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit
India and the ASEAN countries are maritime nations, the EAM pointed out adding, “As a mature and responsible nation, one of India’s foreign policy interests, is to evolve a regional architecture based on the twin principles of shared security, and shared prosperity.”
The joint Delhi Declaration issued after the summit said both sides reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, and other lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce and to promote peaceful resolutions of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), and the relevant standards and recommended practices by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO)”.
“In this regard, we support the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and look forward to an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC),” the statement noted.
All the participants agreed to “strengthen maritime cooperation through existing relevant mechanisms including the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) to address common challenges on maritime issues”.
The summit also comprehensively condemned all forms of terrorism, including cross border terrorism and countries that provide sanctuaries to terrorists. Notably, several of the ASEAN members have faced terrorist attacks.
India and the ASEAN agreed to “deepen cooperation in combating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, violent extremism and radicalisation through information sharing, law enforcement cooperation and capacity building under the existing ASEAN-led mechanisms”.
Earlier, speaking at the Raisina Dialogue, jointly organised by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the Ministry of External Affairs, outgoing Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar identified China and terrorism as two “disruptive forces” in the world.
India, he said, was “part of the solution” to the disruptions threatening global peace and had stood like a “buffer,” against the spread of terrorism from West Asia from spreading to Southeast Asia.
At the summit, Prime Minister Modi, speaking of another crucial link between them, that of commerce, said, since its inception, the nature of the ASEAN-India partnership had evolved significantly.
“Our trade has grown 25 times in 25 years. Investments are robust and growing. We will further enhance trade ties and work towards greater interaction among our business communities.”
Both India and ASEAN share a common vision for global commerce and the maritime domain, and India aims to work closely with the regional bloc in a range of activities like developing a blue economy, coastal surveillance, building off-shore patrolling capabilities, hydrographic services, and information sharing for increased maritime domain awareness.
Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, which has assumed the ASEAN chair this year, said that India and the regional bloc have to increase trade and economic cooperation.
“The RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) being negotiated represents a historic opportunity to establish the world’s largest trading region,” he said.
RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the 10 ASEAN member states and the six countries with which the ASEAN has FTAs: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
The joint statement said both sides agreed to “further strengthen ASEAN-India economic relations, including through the full utilisation and effective implementation of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area, and intensify efforts in 2018 toward the swift conclusion of a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)”.
Lee also stressed the importance of boosting land, air and maritime connectivity between India and Southeast Asia. In a significant development, India and Singapore signed an agreement last November to allow India the use of the Changi naval base.
Singapore and Vietnam, particularly, have sought an enhanced security role for India in the Indo-Pacific region, to balance the growing Chinese influence in the region.
In fact, all ASEAN members sought “greater involvement” and urged India to play a more pro-active role in the region, Preeti Saran, Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, said after the summit. India has, at their request, already been raising its role and profile as an emerging security provider in the Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, she said.
Improving connectivity in the region was another priority, with the joint statement saying both India and ASEAN “encouraged the early completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project” and extend this Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam.
It was important for both India and the ASEAN to very publicly display their growing engagement with the very successfully conducted, high on optics summit, given China’s continuing belligerence in the region.
While Beijing cautiously “welcomed” India-ASEAN closeness, New Delhi must begin to deliver on its commitments to enhance security cooperation and strengthen the 3 ‘Cs’ which are at the core of the partnership: Connectivity, Commerce and Culture. And finally, completing the long overdue trilateral highway project and the Kaladan multi-modal project in Myanmar would be a great way.