WITH SOUTH-EAST Asian countries cooperating with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Prime Minister Narendra Modi Sunday reached out to the region, saying that ASEAN “is and always will be the heart” of India’s Act East Policy.
The comments by Modi were at the heart of an exchange with Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the India-ASEAN summit in Bangkok. The Thai PM appreciated India for its support to the ASEAN vision for the Indo-Pacific under a “3 Ms” principle: “mutual respect, mutual trust and mutual benefit”.
At the meeting between Modi and leaders from 10 ASEAN countries, the PM also spoke about how the menace of terrorism is a “threat to international security”. ASEAN leaders responded by agreeing to work together to “defeat terrorism”.
The leaders also discussed the South China Sea, where China has been increasing its footprint aggressively, and the need to follow a “rules-based order” and “adhere” to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Addressing the summit attended by 10 ASEAN leaders in Bangkok, Modi said, “I welcome the mutual coordination of the Indo-Pacific Outlook between India and ASEAN. India’s Act East Policy is an important part of our Indo-Pacific vision. ASEAN is and always will be the heart of our Act East Policy. Integrated, organized and economically developing ASEAN is in India’s basic interest.”
“We are committed to further strengthen our partnership through stronger surface, maritime and air-connectivity and digital-link. A US$ 1 billion line of credit will be useful for physical and digital connectivity. Our intention is to greatly increase traffic of people for study, research, trade and tourism,” Modi said.
This is important since India has taken a strong position against China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
At least nine of the 36 heads of state or government, who attended the 2019 Belt and Road Forum in April, came from Southeast Asia. Besides, Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, was represented by its Vice President Jusuf Kalla.
On Sunday, Modi announced an endowment fund of Rs 50 million for exchange of faculty and students, and 50 scholarships, in India’s agriculture universities. A decision was also taken to hold a start-up festival at the India-ASEAN hackathon early next year.
Officials said ASEAN leaders see India as a “long-term friend” and a “dynamic partner”, which supports the region’s “centrality in the peace and stability” of the Indo-Pacific. The leaders appreciated India’s leading role in capacity building, especially, in agriculture, and sought cooperation on “maritime and cyber domains”.
According to a statement by the Thai government, the Thai PM said that ASEAN has welcomed India’s policy on more engagement with its eastern neighbours. He appreciated the cooperation and strategic partnership in “countering terrorism, extremism, transnational crimes” and cyber security cooperation, it said.
Thanking India for strengthening partnership in all areas through its Act East Policy, he said: “In this ASEAN-India Summit, we are looking forward to translating our commitment to enhancing our strategic partnership into tangible outcomes, [such as] through the implementation of the plan of action for peace or the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, for which we appreciated India’s support.”