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India, ASEAN to bolster maritime security ties with eye on China

The summit between India and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) also looked at ways for the speedy conclusion of a balanced and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade pact being negotiated by 16 nations.

india Updated: Jan 26, 2018 00:01 IST
Jayanth Jacob
Jayanth Jacob
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
ASEAN leaders,Narendra Modi,Association of South East Asian Nations
Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his opening remarks at the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit, in New Delhi on Thursday. (PTI)

With an eye on growing Chinese influence in the region, India and the Asean nations on Friday decided to step up maritime and counter-terror cooperation and bolster connectivity plans during a commemorative summit, the second such gathering in a little over five years.

The summit between India and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) also looked at ways for the speedy conclusion of a balanced and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade pact being negotiated by 16 nations.

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. 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.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who earlier joined the Asean leaders for a retreat meeting on maritime cooperation and security, said at the plenary of the summit that India shares the grouping’s view on rules-based order for the oceans and seas.

The word maritime was mentioned 14 times in the Delhi Declaration issued by the leaders after their summit.

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 declaration, which spoke of “countering cross-border movement of terrorists” as part of a “comprehensive approach” to fight the menace. The declaration also spoke about the decision 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”.

“India shares Asean’s vision for peace and prosperity through a rules-based order for the oceans and seas. Respect for international law, notably UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea), is critical for this.

“We remain committed to work with Asean to enhance our practical cooperation in our shared maritime domain,” Modi said in his plenary address. Modi also said “maritime cooperation is an integral part of part of our discourse throughout our commemorative activities”.

The Delhi Declaration 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.” The declaration called for an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. This assumes importance in view of growing concerns among several Asean members over China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea, where Beijing has stepped up the creation of military infrastructure.

Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei are engaged in disputes with China in the South China Sea.

India enjoys the advantage of geography and some countries in the region see it as an alternative to China. India sits along major sea lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific that are also vital trade routes for Asean member states. Both sides share an interest in preserving these vital maritime conduits of trade.

We remain committed to work with Asean to enhance our practical cooperation in our shared maritime domain --- PM Modi

Preeti Saran, secretary (east) in the external affairs ministry, said the leaders had agreed to set up a “mechanism for greater cooperation” on maritime issues, but did not offer details. “The common strain in these meetings is the recognition of India’s positive role in strengthening Asean unity in the regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific. And that they would like an enhanced Indian role,” Saran said when she was asked about a common theme spanning all the meetings.

The leaders also agreed to build capacity, improve digital connectivity, infrastructure and services, and develop Information and Communication Technology (ICT) human resources by establishing centres of excellence in software development.

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 Asean leaders will be guests of honour at Friday’s Republic Day parade and celebrations.

First Published: Jan 25, 2018 23:45 IST