New Delhi: It was a rare event: the leaders of 10 South-East Asian nations sharing the stage with Indian President Ram Nath Kovind as he took the salute at a spectacular military parade on 26 January, the 69th anniversary of India becoming a republic.

It took place just a little more than two months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Manila for a summit with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

A day before India’s Republic Day, the leaders held another summit in New Delhi to commemorate 25 years of the India-Asean dialogue partnership. Appropriately, the theme of the summit was “Shared Values, Common Destiny."

The summit, held against the backdrop of China aggressively raising its economic and strategic profile in Asia, produced a road map for future engagement. A joint statement released after the meeting called for strengthening and deepening the Asean-India “strategic partnership for mutual benefit, across the whole spectrum of political-security, economic, socio-cultural and development cooperation."

There was a reaffirmation of their mutual commitment to working “closely together on common regional and international security issues of mutual concern and ensure an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture through existing Asean-led frameworks and mechanisms."

There was also a reassertion of the “importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, and other lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce and to promote peaceful resolutions of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law."

Both sides spoke of the need to “further strengthen Asean-India economic relations, including through the full utilization and effective implementation of the Asean-India Free Trade Area, and intensify efforts in 2018 toward the swift conclusion of a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)." There was also the hope that RCEP negotiations would be completed by the end of this year.

Analysts said the outcomes were substantial. “In the case of Asean, everything works on perception than written reality," said Gurjit Singh, a former Indian ambassador to Indonesia and Asean, where regional economic integration has spurred the coalescing of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), a collective market of $2.6 trillion and over 622 million people. “The fact that the Asean leaders came to New Delhi collectively—all 10 leaders came—and were willing to discuss maritime security is very significant," Singh said.

Maritime security and cooperation figured at Asean leaders’ bilateral meetings with Modi as well as at the summit level. China has claims to vast swathes of the resource-rich South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, besides Taiwan.

In recent years, China has imposed strictures on air and sea travel in the South China Sea—through which an estimated $5 trillion of world trade passes every year—to stamp its sovereignty over the area. China has also built artificial islands through major land reclamation projects, building airstrips on them as well as stationing military assets on them. And it has routinely challenged countries in the region seeking to stake their claims to the disputed areas. All this has spiked tensions in the region, with calls growing louder for a code of conduct in the sea—something in discussion between Asean and China for years.

Asean members have not been able to close ranks over how to deal with China. In 2012, at a meeting in Cambodia, foreign ministers of the grouping could not agree on a joint statement—for the first time in Asean’s history—due to differences over China’s conduct in the South China Sea.

In 2016, a special meeting of Asean foreign ministers in the Chinese city of Kunming ended in disarray when a joint message with a strong statement on the South China Sea issue was released, then denied and retracted within hours, according to a report in the Philippines Enquirer.

“This inability (to take a united stand on the South China Sea) has worrying implications for the peaceful and calibrated resolution of the various maritime and territorial conflicts in the South China Sea," the Enquirer report added.

Complicating the situation are China’s trade links with Asean. Bilateral trade totalled $514.8 billion in 2017, up 13.8% year-on-year (y-o-y), the fastest pace of growth in trade between China and any of its major trading partners, said a Xinhua news report on Sunday. China’s exports to Asean countries reached $279.1 billion in 2017, up 9 % y-o-y, while imports grew 20% y-o-y to stand at $235.7 billion.

By and large, India is seen as a benign power, with many Asean members urging India to step up its own economic and strategic profile in the region—something India is seen as reluctant to do, at least until recently.

In 2014, India’s “Look East" policy, which was launched in 1992 with the aim of deeper interaction with Asean, was rechristened “Act East". Top Indian leaders—the president, vice-president and prime minister—have visited all 10 Asean countries in the past three years. And Indian naval ships made port calls in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines and Brunei last year, according to a statement by the Indian defence ministry.

In an article—published in 27 newspapers last week in 10 languages across Asean—Prime Minister Modi wrote that the “strength and resilience" of the India-Asean partnership came “not just from arithmetic of numbers, but also from the underpinnings of the relationship".

India-Asean relations are “free from contests and claims", Modi wrote. “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.

“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 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.

The comments came amid a growing chorus for India to increase its interaction with the grouping.

“India needs to make a deeper commitment to Asean, which is why I am glad that PM Modi has invited the 10 Asean leaders," said Kishore Mahbubani, former dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, during a visit to India in January.

Preeti Saran, secretary (east) in the Indian foreign ministry, said Asean leaders were 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.

“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.

Not entirely surprising—given that “there is anxiety among Asean member-states about China on the strategic level," ambassador Gurjit Singh said. In contrast, at the economic level, Asean members share a level of comfort with Beijing, he said, adding: “What Asean is seeking is not confrontation (with China) but a balance."

“In that context, the relationship with India is more comfortable," as it is one where economic and strategic ties are on a much more even keel and not one-sided, he said. India’s invitation to all 10 Asean members to be chief 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".

In his remarks, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country is the current chair of Asean, said the grouping believed “India makes a major contribution to regional affairs, helping to keep the regional architecture open, balanced and inclusive."

According to C.U. Bhaskar, director at the New Delhi-based Society for Policy Studies, the fact that India and Asean were on the same page on Indo-Pacific was “potentially very significant in the maritime domain".

“What we are looking at is not quite a security architecture but the early shoots of a maritime partnership," he said, adding “but the ball is in India’s court to implement what has been outlined. Poor and tardy implementation is a big, big Indian handicap—the principal reason for Asean’s disappointment with India."

India has of late begun trilateral dialogues with Australia and Indonesia on one hand, Australia and Japan on the other and a third with Japan and the US on maritime issues where the Indo-Pacific region—and China—are key talking points.

In November, officials of the US, Japan, Australia and India met for the first time to discuss common points of interest and explore ways to collaborate and cooperate in the Indo-Pacific, something that was not lost on Beijing. One of the reasons for anxiety in India vis a vis the Indo-Pacific is Asean’s lack of unity on China, say people familiar with the situation. Adding to this is the uncertainty caused by US President Donald Trump pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, which was seen as anchoring the US more firmly in the region as a counter to China.

One of the main trade pacts welding together many countries of the region is the proposed RCEP.

RCEP, which is under negotiation, is a grouping of the 10 members of Asean, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. It envisages regional economic integration, leading to the creation of the largest regional trading group in the world, accounting for nearly 45% of the world’s population with a combined gross domestic product, or GDP of $21.3 trillion.

In an interview to The Economic Times newspaper ahead of the India-Asean Summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyn Xuân Phúc said “trade and investment cooperation" was “the main engine and first priority for the Asean-India strategic partnership".

In his speech at the India-Asean Commemorative Summit, Singapore’s Lee also urged an increase in trade and economic cooperation.

“There is significant potential for further growth. South-East Asia and India represent a quarter of the world’s population—about 1.8 billion people—and a combined GDP of more than $4.5 trillion. RCEP agreement that is currently being negotiated by Asean, India and other partners...represents a historic opportunity to establish the world’s largest trading bloc, which would enable our businesses to harness the region’s true potential," Lee said.

India is pushing for greater liberalization in services sectors, especially for easier movement of its professionals to RCEP member-countries. However, most countries are resisting any ambitious deal in services under RCEP while insisting India further expand its tariff liberalization offer in goods.

An India-Asean free trade agreement (FTA) in goods has pushed trade in goods to $70 billion, but an India-Asean FTA in services and investment is yet to be ratified by two of the Asean countries. Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has set a target of $200 billion in bilateral trade by 2022.

At a meeting of Asean-India trade ministers in the run-up to the commemorative summit, trade minister Suresh Prabhu pointed out that globally services trade was growing faster than merchandise trade.

“Services are becoming a dominant driver of growth in both developed and developing countries. Services contribute almost two-thirds of India’s GDP and surplus in services trade finances almost half of our trade deficit. India currently runs an around $10 billion trade deficit with the Asean grouping," he added.

Despite the differences on trade pacts, one issue that could be set on the fast-track to improve India-Asean linkages is connectivity.

“Expanding connectivity—air, land, maritime, and digital—is also important for growth. It will reinforce business and people-to-people links between both sides and benefit both our peoples," Singapore Prime Minister Lee said.

Indeed, India’s buzzwords for engagement with Asean are “commerce", “culture" and “connectivity". New Delhi has proposed a highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand which will later be extended to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. After missing a couple of deadlines, the project is now scheduled to be completed by 2019.

Another project under implementation is the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project—connecting India’s mainland to its landlocked North-East through Myanmar.

“Connectivity is something easier to do on the ground," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, adding that this was critical to boost trade, investment and people-to-people linkages. “Connectivity—land, air and sea—is something we need to take up in mission mode. This is important considering China’s plans to build a maritime silk route as well as its Belt and Road Initiative," he said, referring to the multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project launched by China last year to link Asia, Africa and Europe through a series of roads, railways and ports. “India does not have the same kind of resources like China, so it would be wiser for us to do things where we have an edge—like digital connectivity," he said.

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