The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has welcomed India’s positive role in the Indo-Pacific region and described it as an important factor for peace and stability, a senior Indian official said on Friday.
Preeti Saran, secretary (east) in the Indian foreign ministry, said the bloc was appreciative of India’s “positive" role in the Indo-Pacific region—a vast swathe of land and sea between the west coast of the US and Africa. She was briefing reporters in New Delhi a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted the leaders of all 10 Asean countries at a commemorative summit marking 25 years of dialogue partnership.
“All of the 10 ASEAN countries have appreciated India’s role and bilateral relations that we enjoy with each one of them. The fact that India has played such a positive role in the Indo-Pacific region... the message that we got from the 10 leaders was that they feel that India is a very important component for peace, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific," Saran said.
“They appreciate India’s role and they would like India’s presence," she said, speaking about the summit on Thursday with the theme “Shared Values, Common Destiny". During the meet, the two sides agreed to scale up maritime cooperation and outlined a road map for future partnership that included an enhancement of physical and digital connectivity besides increased economic linkages.
Saran’s comments come as India, the US, Japan and Australia have held talks on increased coordination and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific against the backdrop of the aggressive rise of China. China is a major trading partner of the 10-member grouping but many of the Asean members locked in maritime disputes with Beijing seem keen to broaden their linkages with countries such as India.
Earlier on Friday, the 10 leaders—representing Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia—were chief guests at India’s 69th Republic Day parade, in a major departure from established practice. “The stage was never this big!" said a Twitter post by Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar.
India usually invites the head of state of one country as the chief guest of its Republic Day celebrations, a gesture that is indicative of “New Delhi’s special relationship with that country or its intent to scale up or prioritize ties with that country", said a person familiar with the matter who did not want to be named.
In an article—published in 27 newspapers on Friday in 10 languages across the Asean bloc, according to the Indian foreign ministry—Modi said that the “strength and resilience" of the India-Asean partnership comes “not just from arithmetic of numbers, but also from the underpinnings of the relationship".
“India and Asean nations have relations free from contests and claims. We have a common vision for the future, built on commitment to inclusion and integration, belief in sovereign equality of all nations irrespective of size, and support for free and open pathways of commerce and engagement," he said, in remarks that could be seen as a comment on China’s ties with Asean.
“This is an age of change, disruptions and shifts that come only rarely in history," said Modi, according to a text of the article posted on the Indian government website. “Asean and India have immense opportunities—indeed, enormous responsibility—to chart a steady course through the uncertainty and turbulence of our times to a stable and peaceful future for our region and the world."
“Indians have always looked East to see the nurturing sunrise and the light of opportunities. Now, as before, the East, or the Indo-Pacific region, will be indispensable to India’s future and our common destiny. The Asean-India partnership will play a defining role in both. And, in Delhi, Asean and India renewed their pledge for the journey ahead," he added.
In his remarks on Thursday at the summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country Singapore is the current chair of the Asean, said the grouping believed that “India makes a major contribution to regional affairs, helping to keep the regional architecture open, balanced and inclusive".
India’s invitation to Asean member states as guests at the Republic Day parade and their attendence is a “manifestation of good neighbourliness and the comfort that Asean has with India as a multifaceted partner", said Gurjit Singh, a former Indian ambassador to Indonesia and Asean.
“There is anxiety among Asean member states about China on the strategic level," Singh said, adding that in contrast, at the economic level, Asean members share a level of comfort with Beijing. “What the Asean is seeking is not confrontation but a balance. In that context, the relationship with India is more comfortable", one where economic and strategic ties are on a much more even keel and not one-sided, he said.