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India, ASEAN agree on maritime cooperation

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
January 26, 2018

Ten Southeast Asian leaders were guests of honor at India's 69th Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi, underscoring the region's importance for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's foreign policy agenda.

Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and ASEAN leaders seated in a semicircle
Image: IANS

India put its military might and cultural heritage on display in the capital Friday as the country celebrated its 69th Republic Day with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as guests of honor.  

Military hardware, marching bands, camels and stunt performers on motorbikes, among other things, were paraded from the president's palace through the roads of central Delhi. 

Leaders from Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia were invited by Prime Minister Modi to also commemorate the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-India ties.

Celebrating the occasion, Modi even wrote an op-ed that was published by 27 newspapers in 10 languages in the 10 ASEAN states. In the article, PM Modi stated that India and ASEAN have relations "free from contests and claims" and believe in the sovereign equality of all nations irrespective of size, and support free and open pathways of commerce and engagement.

After the talks between the leaders, India and the ASEAN nations signed a declaration to ensure an "open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture" and enhance maritime cooperation.

"A rule-based order for oceans and seas, and respect for international law, is critical for peace. We are committed to working with ASEAN for maritime cooperation," Modi said in his opening remarks at the summit.

Forewarning to China?

Some Indian analysts say it was a clear message to China in light of its growing assertiveness and increased military posturing. Beijing is building artificial islands on disputed territories in the South China Sea (SCS), a busy waterway crucial for international maritime trade. China claims sovereignty over the SCS almost in its entirety. 

These developments have stoked tensions in the region and alarmed ASEAN. In their declaration, India and ASEAN also agreed to back the use of international law - including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) - to peacefully resolve pending territorial disputes in the SCS, something that China reportedly would rather resolve bilaterally.

Read more: 

South China Sea - what you need to know

The ASEAN way: Where is it leading?

"Obviously the South China Sea issue has emerged as a major dispute between China and several ASEAN countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. India was keen to flag the issue especially when its trade is affected and also at a time when China is keen to impose its territorial sea concept," Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese studies at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), told DW. 

Observers say the India-ASEAN summit served as an ideal platform to keep up with China and prevent the emergence of a Sino-centric regional order.

"New Delhi should be more proactive. While we might be apprehensive of China's position, we have to reinvigorate our policy and give more value addition, and only then can we be perceived to be an important player," Alka Acharya, a political analyst at the JNU's Institute of Chinese Studies, told DW.

Crowds of people watch as army tanks roll down a boulevard
Indian army tanks roll down a ceremonial boulevard during the Republic Day paradeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo

Leveraging strength

India and ASEAN are, however, not in agreement when it comes to areas such as trade. ASEAN leaders, for instance, have called on New Delhi to stop stalling negotiations on a pan-Asian trade pact that could potentially create the largest free trade zone in the world.

"The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) 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," Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the plenary.

"That is one important takeaway from the summit. All the leaders want India to walk the talk. Should India entertain visions of being considered seriously then it has to move on this front," Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary, told DW.

Read more: From 'Look East' to 'Act East' – India shifts focus

While briefing reporters after the talks, Indian foreign ministry officials confirmed that a "repeated refrain" among the ASEAN leaders was that "they would like the RCEP to move forward."

According to India's ministry of external affairs, the ASEAN block accounts for over 10 percent of India's total trade, making it the fourth-largest trade partner for the country. Commerce between the two had touched $70 billion (€56.3 billion) in 2016-17, up from $65 billion the previous year, marking an 8 percent jump. On the flip side, however, India remains ASEAN's seventh-largest trading partner.

"Obviously some ASEAN countries have some concerns with China. But this summit can be a learning point and can counter Beijing's influence," Kondapalli stressed.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11