India, Asean agree to build on Indo-Pacific convergences to ensure free and open region
India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Thursday agreed to build on convergences in their vision of the Indo-Pacific to work for a free, open, inclusive and rules-based region against the backdrop of China’s assertiveness.
Leaders of the two sides welcomed the adoption of the “Asean-India joint statement on cooperation on the Asean outlook on the Indo-Pacific for peace, stability and prosperity in the region” at their virtual summit. Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed the importance of strengthening convergences between India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) and Asean’s outlook on Indo-Pacific to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in line with international laws.
Modi also called for an early review of the Asean-India Trade in Goods Agreement, which has been pending for long, and this was backed by the 10-member grouping. Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the current chair of Asean, said the review should make the pact more business-friendly to support economic recovery efforts.
“This special role of Asean, India’s Act East policy which is contained in our Security and Growth for All in the Region, i.e. SAGAR policy, India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and Asean’s outlook for the Indo-Pacific are the framework for our shared vision and mutual cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region,” Modi said in his opening remarks at the summit.
Riva Ganguly Das, secretary (East) in the external affairs ministry, said the joint statement on the Indo-Pacific was “one of the very major highlights of this summit”. The statement “charts a way forward for practical implementation of the convergences in our vision of the Indo-Pacific” to ensure peace, prosperity and stability in the region, she said.
Modi also asked Asean leaders to join any of the seven pillars of IPOI. Indonesia is currently a member of the marine resources pillar.
The joint statement seeks to build on maritime connectivity between India and Asean states and work done by the two sides since they became summit-level partners in 2002 and strategic partners in 2012. It embraces Asean centrality, openness, transparency, a rules-based framework, respect for sovereignty, non- intervention and respect for international laws, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
According to the joint statement, the two sides will support Asean community building and strengthen the bilateral strategic partnership in politics, security, economic matters and development cooperation by using existing Asean-led mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit, and Asean Regional Forum.
The two sides will reinforce the Asean-centred regional architecture to deal with challenges and to focus on opportunities “arising from current and future regional and global environments with a focus on the open, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture”. They will explore potential cooperation between in the four areas outlined in the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific – maritime cooperation, connectivity, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and economic cooperation.
In addition, the two sides will also explore possible cooperation in areas such as capacity building, scholarships and training courses, enhancing trade facilitation, social infrastructure development, enhanced capacities for response to pandemics and public health emergencies and for vaccine and pharmaceutical research, prevention and management of zoonoses, and maritime transport cooperation.
While exchanging views on the Covid-19 crisis, Modi assured Asean of India’s support as exemplified by the provision of medical supplies worth $200,000 for a humanitarian initiative for Myanmar and $1 million for the Asean Covid-19 Response Fund.
Hassanal Bolkiah said Asean and India should work on sustainable economic recovery by exploring new opportunities under the “Blue Economy”, including developing key industries that can generate jobs and enhance connectivity, such as fisheries and maritime transport.
The two sides also highlighted the importance of greater physical and digital connectivity, and cooperation on digital inclusion to ensure a comprehensive post-pandemic recovery. In the realm of connectivity, secretary (East) Ganguly Das described the eastward expansion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway as n important proposal. A report on this is ready and India is waiting for the Asean response on how to proceed, she said.
The situation in Myanmar following the military coup in February also figured in the India-Asean Summit and Ganguly Das said the India side remains engaged on providing humanitarian aid, including vaccines and medicines, to the neighbouring country.
“As a close neighbour of Myanmar, India will continue to support restoration of peace and democratic process in Myanmar for it to emerge as a stable, democratic federal union,” she said.
The two sides also declared 2022 as the India-Asean Friendship Year to mark 30 years of the partnership and decided to hold a series of events round the year.