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Delegates at the Asean summit in Manila on Monday. Photo: AP
Delegates at the Asean summit in Manila on Monday. Photo: AP

Asean summit kicks off in Manila as China shadow looms

Narendra Modi will address the Asean-India and East Asia summits on Tuesday, and it remains to be seen whether he touches upon China's expansionist policy

Manila: Leaders of the 10-member Asean bloc on Monday began a two-day summit on key challenges even as concerns over terrorism, North Korea’s nuclear programme and China’s expansionist military posturing in the region returned as a major focus area of deliberations.

In his inaugural speech at the highly fortified Cultural Centre in Manila, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte talked about various challenges facing the region and identified terrorism and violent extremism as threats that “know no boundaries".

The inaugural session of the summit was attended by leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) dialogue partner countries which included Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US President Donald Trump, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Several parts of the city also witnessed demonstrations by civil rights activists who opposed Trump’s visit in Manila. Diplomats said the thorny issue of China’s aggressive military manoeuvres in the disputed South China Sea, North Korea’s nuclear missile tests and the overall security architecture in the region will be the focus areas of the summit.

North Korea’s recent missile and nuclear tests demonstrating its ability to launch long-range ballistic missiles have sparked fears that the reclusive Communist state is developing nuclear weapons faster than previously estimated by the US.

Regular joint US–South Korea military drills as well as US warnings to North Korea have raised tensions recently in the region and beyond. China claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, a huge source of hydrocarbons. However, several Asean members including Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei have counter claims.

In the backdrop of rising tensions over Chinese assertiveness in the disputed region, Trump, during a meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Vietnam on Sunday, offered to mediate in the lingering dispute.

Diplomats said the Asean declaration may come out with policy guidelines on the issue.

India has been pressing for ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, a view which finds consonance with positions of major global players in the region including the US, Australia and Japan.

Modi will address the Asean-India and East Asia summits on Tuesday and it is to be seen whether he touches upon the sensitive issue. Trade ties between India and Asean are on an upswing and both sides want to further boost trade and investment cooperation.

The Asean region along with India together comprises combined population of 1.85 billion people, which is one fourth of the global population and their combined GDP has been estimated at over $3.8 trillion.

Investment from Asean to India has been over $70 billion in the last 17 years, accounting for more than 17% of India’s total foreign direct investment. India’s investment in Asean during the same period has been more than $40 billion.

In an address at the Asean business forum, Modi showcased India’s economic reform initiatives and invited the countries of the bloc to ramp up their investment in India. He said the task of transforming the country is proceeding at an “unprecedented scale". “The task of transforming India is proceeding at an unprecedented scale. We are working day and night towards easy, effective and transparent governance," the prime minister said.

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