Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the 10 visiting leaders from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed to set up a mechanism on maritime cooperation to counter the common “traditional” and “non-traditional” challenges they face.
This idea evolved during a two-hour-long informal discussion on “maritime cooperation and security” at a “retreat” hosted by Modi at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Thursday. The ASEAN leaders will be the chief guests at the Republic Day parade on Friday.
In his remarks at the plenary session of the India-ASEAN commemorative summit, Modi said they discussed issues related to the Indo-Pacific region during the retreat. While there was no mention of “Indo-Pacific” in the Delhi declaration, there was also no mention of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — where there are clear divergences between India and ASEAN countries. Delhi has consistently opposed BRI, due to its opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). But most of the ASEAN countries have played along so far.
At Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi’s objective was to steer the conversation towards developing an understanding on the maritime sector, with China asserting its dominance in the South China Sea, but several leaders raised the issue of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region. In separate meetings, leaders from Vietnam, Philippines and Myanmar “underscored the importance of ASEAN-India relations for peace, security and socio-economic development in the Indo-Pacific region”, Indian officials said.
At the summit, Modi said India shares ASEAN’s vision for rules-based societies and peace. “Freedom of navigation will be a key focus of India-ASEAN in the maritime domain,” he said. “India shares ASEAN’s vision of peace and prosperity through a rules-based order for the oceans and seas. Respect for international law, notably UNCLOS is critical for this. We remain committed to work with ASEAN to enhance practical cooperation and collaboration in our shared maritime domain. During the retreat session, we had an opportunity to discuss ASEAN-India cooperation in maritime domain, as one of the key focus areas for growth and development of the Indo-Pacific region. Indeed, maritime cooperation has been an integral part of our discourse throughout our commemorative activities… humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, security cooperation, and freedom of navigation will be key focus areas for our maritime cooperation,” said Modi.
Since South China Sea has emerged as a major dispute between China and several ASEAN countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, the issue has divided the grouping down the middle. With no unanimity emerging on how to deal with China, India is concerned because over 40 per cent of its trade passes through the South China Sea.
The Delhi declaration on Thursday said they reaffirm the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, other lawful uses of the seas, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce and peaceful resolutions of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the relevant standards and recommended practices by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
It also said they would strengthen maritime cooperation through existing relevant mechanisms including the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) to address common challenges on maritime issues.
President Ram Nath Kovind, who hosted lunch for the leaders, said India stands “shoulder-to- shoulder” with ASEAN in pursuit of a rules-based regional architecture that is open, inclusive and equitable.
* During his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte expressed interest in Aadhaar. Officials said formal bilateral discussions on this issue took place some time ago, and a team of officials from Philippines visited India last week. The two leaders also discussed the menace of “urban terrorism” and “drug trafficking”, and agreed to cooperate on intelligence sharing and capacity-building.
* Referring to “naari shakti” in his discussions at the retreat, Modi pointed to the Indian Navy’s all-woman team, which is circumnavigating the world on INS Tarini, and suggested that an ASEAN women’s team could try and achieve the feat.
* Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told Modi that his government has an “Act West” policy, which complements India’s “Act East” policy. They discussed greater cooperation on defence and maritime cooperation, and “coastal surveillance”.
* Singapore’s PM Lee Hsien Loong expressed optimism about India-ASEAN ties, and said Singapore can share experience and know-how on “fintech” (financial technology) which will help the move towards digital cashless economy, one of the government’s flagship initiatives after demonetisation.
* The ASEAN leaders, along with India, decided to encourage early completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and extend this Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam. This broadens the scope of the much-delayed project to a total of six countries.
* The Vietnamese PM requested Modi to take photographs with members of his delegation at their meeting on Wednesday. Sources said while everyone thought he wanted a group photo, the Vietnamese leader insisted that each of them should take a separate photograph with Modi. The exercise took longer than expected, as each of the half-a-dozen delegates posed for separate photographs.