The outreach comes in the backdrop of an increasingly aggressive China triggering insecurities among its Asian neighbours. Of special worry are the maritime boundary disputes with several Asean countries given that Beijing claims almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea. Hence the urgent need for new rules to ensure peace in the region.
It also comes at a time when India, the US, Japan and Australia have held a round of talks on possible cooperation and coordination in the Indo-Pacific region—a large swathe of land and sea between the west coast of the US and Africa.
The countdown to the India-Asean commemorative summit—with the theme Shared Values, Common Destiny—began on Wednesday with leaders of Asean nations arriving in New Delhi.
“India and Asean are today central in shaping the emerging regional architecture in the wider Indo-Pacific," said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College. “The two are crucial to the creation of new ‘rules of the game’ in Asia, at a time when the region is in the throes of a disruptive phase that could well determine the future balance of power," he added.
The first to arrive on Wednesday was Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. He was followed by Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, Myanmar state counsellor Aung Saan Suu Kyi, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Brunei sultan Hassan al Bolkiah, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak and Laos Prime Minister Thongluin Sisolith.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo will arrive in New Delhi on Thursday.
On Thursday, the Asean leaders will meet President Ram Nath Kovind who will be hosting a lunch in their honour. After lunch, the leaders and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will assemble for a retreat whose theme is Maritime Cooperation and Security.
In the evening, Modi and the Asean leaders will meet for the commemorative summit where the prime minister is expected to speak on the future trajectory of India-Asean ties. Prime Minister Lee, whose country Singapore is the current chair of the Asean, will deliver remarks on behalf of the grouping.
On Friday, all 10 Asean leaders will be chief guests 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.
Since 2014, India has significantly upgraded its “Look East" policy to “Act East" policy. In the past three years, Modi, former president Pranab Mukherjee and former vice president Hamid Ansari have visited all 10 Asean countries and Indian naval ships have made port calls at Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines and Brunei last year, according to an Indian ministry of defence statement.
This year, India is also marking 15 years of summit-level engagement with Asean and five years of strategic partnership with the bloc. Coincidentally, Asean marked 50 years of its establishment in 2017.
India views the Asean region as an economic partner, given its high growth rates, and its approximately 600 million people as a market. New Delhi has targeted $200 billion in bilateral trade with Asean countries by 2022.
“The South-East Asian region is economically very vibrant, we see a lot of potential...this is a vibrant economic and commercial space for us. Already the Asean is our fourth largest trading partner and we are their seventh largest trading partner. Our investment in the last two decades has been $70 billion... so we see a lot of potential in engaging them further," said Preeti Saran, secretary (east) in the Indian foreign ministry, in remarks to reporters earlier in January.
India is also looking at Asean as its development partner, especially with regard to improving the economic conditions in its insurgency-wracked Northeast. Singapore has set up a skill development centre in Assam.
“India-Asean strategic cooperation assumes greater significance against the background of a rapidly growing China," Pant said. “China’s rise as an economic giant and its robust economic ties with Asean countries gives India enough reason to step up its collaborative efforts vis-à-vis Asean," he added.
On Wednesday, ahead of the leaders’ summit, India and Vietnam signed two pacts including an implementation arrangement between the Indian Space Research Organisation and the National Remote Sensing Department of Vietnam “for establishment of tracking and data reception station and data processing facility in Vietnam under ASEAN India Space Cooperation," an Indian government statement said.
“This would define the framework and conditions of cooperation for establishment of facility to provide Indian remote sensing satellite data over ASEAN region to enable remote sensing applications, which include natural resources management, ocean development and disaster management by ASEAN member states," it added.