New Delhi: India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) prepare to mark 25 years of partnership, with the economically vibrant grouping pitching to deepen ties with Asia’s third largest economy against the backdrop of a rising China.

India on its part is responding with the promise of boosting commerce, connectivity and cultural ties through its “Act East policy" with the 10-member bloc that brings together Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Plans to consolidate India-Asean ties come as China stakes its claims to larger sections of the South China Sea bringing it in dispute with many South-East Asian nations. India, in contrast, is seen as a benign power and a foil to China.

To mark 25 years of collaboration, besides 10 years of summit-level association and five years of strategic partnership, India has invited the leaders of all 10 Asean countries to New Delhi for a commemorative summit on 25 January. The theme of the summit is “Shared Values, Common Destiny."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be hosting all the leaders on 25 January, said Preeti Saran, secretary (East) in the ministry of external affairs, briefing reporters in New Delhi on Wednesday.

On 25 January, the Asean leaders will first be hosted by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind to a luncheon banquet. This will be followed by a leaders’ retreat and the plenary session of the India-Asean commemorative summit. At the end of the day, Modi will host a gala dinner, Saran said. On 26 January, all 10 Asean leaders will be the chief guest at India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations—an unprecedented break with tradition for India, which usually invites the head of government of a single country as the Republic Day chief guest each year.

The celebrations began a year ago and in the past year, New Delhi has organized 36 events in India and Asean countries. “In the run-up to the (commemorative) summit, we will be organizing another 16 major events," Saran said, adding that this included a visit by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj last week to three Asean countries—Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore.

“In all the interactions that the (Indian) external affairs minister (Swaraj) had, a repeated refrain that we picked up was a desire on the part of all the Asean countries was of greater presence of India, greater cooperation with India and greater integration economically, politically and in terms of people-to-people contacts," Saran said.

In response, India has proposed to deepen bonds through connectivity, that includes physical air, land, maritime and digital links, commerce through increased business-to-business interactions and the common thread of textiles that India shares with Asean countries, as well as culture highlighting the commonality of Indian epic Ramayana which finds resonance in the cultures of many Asean countries.

“The South-East Asian region is economically very vibrant, we see a lot of potential...this is a vibrant economic commercial space for us. Already the Asean is our fourth largest trading partner and we are their seventh largest trading partner. Our investments in the last two decades has been $70 billion...so we see a lot of potential in engaging them further," Preeti Saran said.

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