New Delhi: India on Friday celebrated its 69th Republic Day with its customary display of military might and cultural diversity in a parade that saw the rare attendence by heads of state and government from 10 Southeast Asian countries in a major departure from established practice.

Leaders of countries representing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) took the stage along with their host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as President Ram Nath Kovind took the salute in New Delhi.

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“The stage was never this big!" tweeted Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar, in a reference to the unprecedented gesture by India to have leaders from 10 countries attend its Republic Day celebrations. 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 prioritise ties with that country," said a person familiar with the development who did not want to be named.

The Indian Border Security Force women’s motorcycle team ‘Seema Bhawani’ performs during India’s 69th Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Friday. Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP
The Indian Border Security Force women’s motorcycle team ‘Seema Bhawani’ performs during India’s 69th Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Friday. Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP

The invite to leaders from Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia comes at a time when India is celebrating 25 years of partnership with the economically vibrant Asean. On Thursday, Modi hosted all 10 Asean leaders at a commemorative summit with the theme Shared Values, Common Destiny during which 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.

India’s outreach to Asean comes as many countries in the world and Asia in particular are looking warily at the rise of an aggressive China. With China being a major trading partner of the 10-member grouping and many of the Asean members locked in maritime disputes with Beijing, these nations seem keen to broaden their linkages with countries such as India.

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".

Chief guests and heads of states of Governments of Asean nations leave after attending the 69th Republic Day parade at Rajpath in New Delhi on Friday.Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI
Chief guests and heads of states of Governments of Asean nations leave after attending the 69th Republic Day parade at Rajpath in New Delhi on Friday.Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

“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 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.

The Delhi police contingent march past during the 69th Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Friday. Photo Prakash Singh/AFP
The Delhi police contingent march past during the 69th Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Friday. Photo Prakash Singh/AFP

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.

Indian volunteers walk alongside a tableau holding the national flags of the with Asean countries during India’s 69th Republic Day Parade in New Delhi on Friday. Prakash Singh/AFP
Indian volunteers walk alongside a tableau holding the national flags of the with Asean countries during India’s 69th Republic Day Parade in New Delhi on Friday. Prakash Singh/AFP
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