External Affairs

While Agreeing on Maritime Cooperation, ASEAN Leaders Prod India on Moving Forward With RCEP

In the ‘Delhi Declaration’, the 11 leaders confirmed the importance of maintaining peace and stability, maritime safety, freedom of navigation and overflight, and other lawful uses of the seas in the region.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivering his opening remarks at the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit, in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI/ PIB

Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivering his opening remarks at the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit, in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI/ PIB

New Delhi: Even as India and ASEAN spoke in unison about the need for a rules-based maritime order and freedom of navigation, leaders from the ten Southeast Asian nations prodded New Delhi to stop stalling negotiations on a pan-Asian trade pact that could potentially create the largest free-trade zone in the world.

On Thursday evening, Association of South East Asian Nations leaders sat together with the Indian prime minister for a special commemorative summit to mark 25 years of dialogue relations. The commemoration was  held on the eve of Republic Day, where all ten leaders were the chief guests at the parade of military contingents and cultural tableaux.

“India shares ASEAN’s vision for peace and prosperity through a rules-based order for the oceans and seas. Respect for international law, notably UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), is critical for this,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the plenary session of the commemorative summit.

Any reference to freedom of navigation and UNCLOS is usually interpreted in diplomatic documents as a subtle rebuke of China’s position on the disputed South China Sea.

Modi added that India remained committed to “work with ASEAN to enhance our shared maritime domain”.

Alluding to the ‘retreat’ of the leaders in the afternoon at the presidential palace, Modi said that the session had given them an opportunity to discuss “ASEAN-India cooperation in the maritime domain as one of the key focus areas for growth and development for the Indo-Pacific region”.

Asserting that maritime cooperation had been an “integral part” of the discourse during the commemorative summit, the Indian prime minister said, “Humanitarian and disaster relief, security cooperation and freedom of navigation will be one of key focus area of our maritime cooperation.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the ASEAN heads of state/governments and ASEAN secretary general releases postal stamps to commemorate silver jubilee of India and ASEAN partnership at the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit, in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI/PIB

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the ASEAN heads of state/governments and ASEAN secretary general releases postal stamps to commemorate silver jubilee of India and ASEAN partnership at the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit, in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI/PIB

In the ‘Delhi Declaration’ released after the summit, the 11 leaders also confirmed the importance of maintaining peace and stability, maritime safety and freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the seas in the region. There was also a collective reaffirmation about the need to have “peaceful resolutions of dispute” in accordance with UNCLOS and standards of the International Civil Aviation Organisation and International Maritime Organisation.

“In this regard, we support the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and look forward to an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC),” the document said.

About five years ago, the 20th anniversary of India-ASEAN dialogue partnership had also been marked with a commemorative summit. The 2012 ‘Vision Statement’ also mentioned UNCLOS, freedom of navigation and safety of sea lanes of communication for “unfettered movement of trade”.

India proposed a framework to ASEAN for cooperation in the blue economy sector.

While the Indian side referred to the Indo-Pacific several times in their public talks, there was no visible reference from the ASEAN side in the last two days. The only public statement by an ASEAN leader was by the Singaporean prime minister, but it had no mention of Indo-Pacific.

A senior Indian official said that Indonesian President Joko Widodo had “endorsed” the concept of Indo-Pacific during their bilateral meeting on Thursday night. The Indonesian foreign ministry in a press note about the discussions just noted that President Jokowi had proposed to invite key countries in the region to discuss the Indo-Pacific concept. “I suggest that this concept should be developed based on openness, inclusiveness, based on the spirit of cooperation,” said President Jokowi.

In terms of new measures, Prime Minister Modi offered to set up digital villages in the Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam by utilising the $1 billion line of credit for connectivity. India will also host an ASEAN-India start up festival this year and 1000 scholarships in IITs for doctoral students from ASEAN countries will be allocated. Besides, 2019 will be marked as the year of India-ASEAN tourism by both the sides.

On Friday, an op-ed by Prime Minister Modi was published in different languages in newspapers in across the region on the theme of India-ASEAN partnership.


Also read: Twenty-Five Years On, India, ASEAN Want to Be in Sync, but Keep Missing Cues


Meanwhile, China reacted to the ASEAN-India commemorative summit by scolding the Indian media for associating “every move of Indian government and leaders with China immediately”. “I don’t know how the Indian government may think of this, but in my opinion, it reflects that those Indian media with such opinions and speculations are too unconfident about their countries and distrustful of China,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Thursday

On the presence of ten ASEAN leaders at Republic Day, she said that China was “pleased” to witness the development of normal relations and cooperation between India and ASEAN. Hua added that China hopes to “work with others to make positive contributions to promoting regional peace, development and prosperity”.

While India and ASEAN made the right noises on maritime security, there was another elephant in the room – India’s protectionist position on trade talks.

“Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership 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,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the plenary. As Singapore is the current chair of ASEAN, Lee was the only ASEAN leader who spoke during the open meeting at the summit.

The Singaporean leader was subtle in his approach about raising RCEP, but behind the scenes, there was no such hesitation.

Briefing reporters, MEA’s secretary (east) Preeti Saran stated that a “repeated refrain” among the ASEAN leaders was that “they would like RCEP move forward”.

“The prime minister also expressed our desire to make RCEP move forward… PM also express our commitment to a balanced outcome, that is mutually beneficial to all parties,” said Saran.


Also read: Expert Gyan: India’s Engagement With ASEAN and Asian Geopolitics


Under the rubric of economic cooperation, the joint declaration called upon all states to “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 considerable space given to the issue of terrorism, both by the host and his guests. Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte had apparently spent a large part of his meeting talking about his methods to counter urban terrorism.

The Delhi Declaration said that there “can be no justification for acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever”. It called for combatting terrorism through close cooperation by “disrupting and countering terrorists, terrorist groups and networks, including by countering cross border movement of terrorists and foreign terrorist fighters and misuse of Internet including social media by terror entities”.

Saran said that that most of the leaders expressed appreciation for Modi’s speech at Davos. Duterte even asked for support in studying India’s controversial unique ID system, also known as Aadhaar. Last week, a delegation from the Philippines had come to understand the nuts and bolts of the Aadhaar system.

India announced that one eminent citizen from each 10 ASEAN countries will get a Padma Shri, one of India’s top civilian awards. The awardees included Myanmarese author and historian U Thant Myint, Singaporean diplomat Tommy Koh and Malaysian dancer Ramli Bin Ibrahim. With Thailand and Vietnam, their Buddhist links were emphasised. From Thailand, Supreme Patriach Somdet Phra Ariya Wongsa Khottayan was chosen for the award, while the Secretary General of National Vietnam Buddhist Sangha Nguyen Tien Thien was selected from Vietnam.

The awardees from Indonesia and Laos – sculptor Nyoman Nuarta and architect  Bounlap Keokangna Vat Phou – had both been involved in projects which emphasised the common historical links with India. Malai Haji Abdullah Bin Malai Haji Othman from Brunei who gets the Padma Shri for social work is the founder of the Society for the Management of Autism Related issues in Training, Education and Resources.

Jose Ma Joey Concepcion III, a businessman who is now a presidential advisor to President Rodrigo Duterte was chosen to get the Padmashri from Philippines. From Cambodia, it is the youngest Cambodian parliamentarian and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many.

For the ministry of external affairs, January 25 an 26 had been the culmination of two months of planning.

According to Saran, while India had hosted larger number of leaders before, it had never coincided with Republic Day which complicated the logistics as the entire planning had to take into account the heavy blanket of security.

MEA’s chief of protocol Sanjay Verma said that over 30 MEA officials were roped in from around the world to liaise with all the delegations on various aspects. It was usually coordinated through WhatsApp groups. “If I kept my phone down and checked it after two-three minutes, there would be 40 messages waiting for me,” he told the media.

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