New Delhi: In a subtle signal to an assertive China, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Thursday sought an intensification of maritime security cooperation, calling for the freedom of navigation and the safety of sea lanes for the “unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law”.
The two sides, meeting in New Delhi for a commemorative summit to mark the 20th anniversary of India’s Look East policy that saw the nation engaging the economically vibrant economies of South-East Asia, also elevated their ties to a strategic partnership, besides announcing the close of talks on a free trade agreement (FTA) on services and investment.
India and Asean also set a trade target of $100 billion (nearly Rs.5.5 trillion today) by 2015 and $200 billion by 2022. Both expect trade to surge thanks to the successful completion of negotiations on the FTA on services and investment. The signing of an India-Asean FTA on goods in 2010 has seen trade reach $80 billion in 2011-12.
In his opening remarks, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India and Asean together constituted a community of 1.8 billion people with a combined gross domestic product of $3.8 trillion.
“It is only natural that India should attach the highest priority to its relationship with Asean,” he said.
In a sign of stepping up the “strategic partnership” with Asean, Singh spoke of the need for an intensification of “engagement for maritime security and safety, for freedom of navigation and for peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law”.
This view was echoed by the leaders of most Asean countries, including Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who called on India to back the proposed Asean-China code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea, which is claimed in its entirety by China. In the past, China has issued several demarches to India, warning it to stay out of the South China Sea, including prospecting for energy off the coast of Vietnam in blocks allocated to state-run ONGC Videsh Ltd.
India had rejected the warnings saying it was engaged in commercial activity while being supportive of a code of conduct in the region that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono described as vital for global shipping, including container and oil traffic.
The potentially energy and resource-rich South China Sea has become a possible military flashpoint as Beijing’s sovereignty claim has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines. Malaysia and Brunei, that are also part of Asean, as well as Taiwan also claim parts of the sea.
Singh, in his speech, noted that though India’s engagement with Asean began with a strong economic emphasis, it had now become “increasingly strategic in its content” with multiple levels of dialogue spanning defence and counter-terrorism.
“A stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region is crucial for our own progress and prosperity,” he said. Singh stressed the centrality of Asean “as the principal architect and driver of economic and security structures and institutions that are emerging in the region”, including the East Asia Summit that groups together the 10 Asean countries and the US, Russia, Japan, China, India, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia.
“Asean centrality and leadership are essential elements for the success of these forums and India fully supports Asean as the lynchpin of these efforts,” Singh said. “We should work together more purposefully for the evolution of an open, balanced, inclusive and transparent regional architecture.”
On trade, Singh welcomed the “conclusion of negotiations for the FTA in services and investments. This represents a valuable milestone in our relationship. I am confident it will boost our economic ties in much the same way the FTA in goods has done”.
The development was welcomed by all Asean leaders, with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak calling for the signing of the pact at the “soonest” and the pact entering into force “no later than the end of 2013”.
Indian external affairs minister Salman Khurshid said the negotiations were “tough and difficult”, but they were successfully brought to a close.
“There were no hiccups, no rough edges” left, only some “formalities” before the pact was signed, he said.
A person close to the developments said the “formalities” included ratification of the pact by parliaments and governments of Asean member states.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong, who described India as a “key partner” for Asean and a contributor to “Asean’s development”, called on India and Asean to increase connectivity by starting talks on an air transport agreement.
Connectivity between India and Asean was a theme brought up by nearly all leaders, with the President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, and the Prime Minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, seeking the fast-tracking of the construction of a road linking India and Thailand and further on to Cambodia and Vietnam through Myanmar. Shinawatra also spoke of developing “economic corridors” between India and Asean. Food and energy security were other areas identified for further cooperation.
Both sides adopted a “vision statement” that provides a blueprint for closer political, security and economic cooperation in the next decade.