Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his 11-day foreign tour on Tuesday afternoon with his first stop at Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Myanmar, where he held bilateral talks with President U Thein Sein.
The focus was on beefing up engagement in the areas of culture and commerce, with the Indian prime minister giving a strong push to improving regional connectivity as a booster to trade and increased people-to-people contact.
Modi landed here in a special aircraft and was given a ceremonial welcome. Tweeting after his bilateral meeting, Modi said that he and President Thein Sein had reviewed the bilateral relationship. “Had a very good meeting with President Thein Sein. We had extensive discussions covering various aspects of our bilateral relations…. We talked about strengthening ties in the fields of culture, commerce & enhancing connectivity.
On Wednesday, Modi will attend the 12th ASEAN-India summit and the following day, he will take part in the 9th East Asian summit on the first leg of his three-nation foreign tour that will also take him to Australia and Fiji.
This will be the second visit by an Indian PM to Myanmar in one calendar year after Manmohan Singh’s visit there last March for the BIMSTEC Summit. India has undertaken a slew of connectivity, capacity building and development projects in Myanmar. Among the leaders that he is slated to meet is Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
For the official talks, the agenda includes India’s keenness to ensure that the next ASEAN-India five-year plan of action starting 2016 should focus on improving people-to-people contact, ramping-up trade relations and reinforcing the strategic engagement. The plan will also focus on security architecture in the region.
Issues on the anvil at the ASEAN summit meeting include review of an ambitious connectivity project to develop a 3,200-km highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand that was originally envisaged to be completed by end-2017, and is now expected to be completed in 2018.
India and the 10-nation ASEAN bloc hope to dovetail the connectivity plans with this highway project. Modi in a tweet earlier this week had said that India’s ties with ASEAN are “deep rooted” and that strengthening relations with the nations in the grouping are an important part of its ‘Act East’ policy.
He said he looked forward to meeting leaders attending the two summits in Myanmar. “ASEAN is central to our dream of an Asian century, where India will play a crucial role. Am sure the meetings there would be fruitful,” Modi had said.
With the bloc’s plan to float an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015, the free trade pact in services and investment signed in September between India and the ASEAN is expected to help bilateral trade climb to $100 billion by 2015, from $71.6 billion in 2012.
Modi is also said to be keen to tap the potential offered by the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit to attract more tourists from southeast Asian nations.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The East Asia summit (EAS) is a major forum for leaders in the region and it currently has 18 members. Besides the 10 countries in the ASEAN region and India, the other EAS members are Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the US and Russia.
The EAS bloc represents 55 per cent of the world’s population and accounts for around 56 per cent of global GDP.