New Delhi: India on Wednesday flagged the need to make maritime cooperation a central theme in the dialogue among countries making up the East Asia Summit (EAS) process, as it stressed the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the backdrop of an aggressive China putting such embargoes against countries in the region.
In a speech at a meeting of the foreign ministers of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines, India’s minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh also called for the unimpeded flow of lawful commerce through the region.
The EAS has 18 member countries, including China.
Singh noted that the “warm glow" of “shared progress and sustainable development" in the fast growing South-east Asia was “offset with geo-political ambitions manifesting itself in unilateral attempts at determination and appropriation of global commons."
“Shared prosperity demands co-operation. Secure and open sea lanes are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development. In this context, India reiterates the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight on the high seas, unimpeded lawful commerce, as well as resolving maritime disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, notably the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea," he said.
Though Singh did not name China, the reference is to Beijing, which has been claiming all of the South China Sea and some islands in the East China Sea that Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyus. In 2013, China declared a formal Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering airspace over the islands and overlapping with airspace claimed by Japan. The ADIZ declaration required airlines flying over the waters to first notify China.
In the South China Sea, Beijing has engaged in reclamation of seven reefs and erected military installations in the South China Sea, which it claims in almost its entirety despite competing claims of five other countries.
In his speech, Singh said “making maritime cooperation a priority and central to our discourse will contribute to fostering, among us, a sense of creation of a maritime community, with common interests and purpose and to empower us to respond effectively to the shared maritime challenges of the region."
The EAS is a regional leaders’ forum for strategic dialogue and cooperation on key challenges facing the East Asian region. EAS members include the 10 Association of Southeast Asian nations or Asean countries, i.e. Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, besides Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the US and Russia.
Flagging a concern of India, Singh said the Indian government was of the “firm belief" that “connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality."
In May, India refused to attend an international conference hosted by China to push its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—an ambitious infrastructure plan to build a new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa and Europe, that aims to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects including railways, ports and power grids.
New Delhi had then said that the BRI violated India’s sovereignty as it passed through territory disputed with Pakistan, that it lacked transparency and did not take into account ecological and environmental costs.
“We share the international communities’ desire for enhancing physical as well as softer forms of connectivity and believes in transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices while underlining respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity," Singh said.
The Indian minister also referred to North Korea’s recent missile tests and nuclear proliferation activities, urging Pyongyang to refrain from “such actions that undermine international peace and stability."
“We also urge the international community to work together to hold accountable all those parties that have supported these programmes," Singh said in a veiled reference to India’s arch rival Pakistan which is believed to helped North Korea’s nuclear weapons’ programme in return for knowhow to make missiles.