Reasserting India's Act East policy at the 15th ASEAN-India Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an unprecedented move invited all the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to be the chief guests at its 2018 Republic Day celebrations.
All ten countries have "in principle" accepted the invitation, however, the schedule of the heads of states will be confirmed later.
Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei are members of ASEAN.
The prime minister concluded "a series of productive bilateral and multilateral engagements in Manila," on Tuesday, including bilateral talks with US president Donald Trump and Chinese premier Li Keqiang. Modi stressed upon the need for active cooperation between East Asian countries while he also appreciated the growing convergence among the region and major world powers such as the US and Japan.
Favouring deepening of trade ties, Modi said, "Maritime links established thousands of years ago between India and ASEAN countries have enabled our trade relations in the past and we have to work closely to further strengthen them."
Anti-terror pitch still top of agenda
Speaking at the ASEAN-India Summit, Modi once again asserted that terrorism and extremism are the major challenge facing the region and said the time has come for the countries of the region to join hands to collectively deal with it.
India has been seeking to highlight terrorism and regional security threats in the Indian subcontinent at various global platforms since the 2016 attack on Uri Indian Air force base.
"We have individually strived hard to fight terrorism and violent extremism. It is time that we jointly address this challenge by intensifying cooperation in this crucial area," he said.
Bid to counter Chinese expansionism?
Another subject that prominently figured on the prime minister's agenda throughout his two-day stay at Manila was promotion of free-trade environment in Indo-Pacific region.
Modi strongly pitched for putting in place a rules-based regional security architecture to have a coherent approach to deal with China's aggressive posturing in the Indo-Pacific region.
Seen as a reference to China's military maneuvering at the South China Sea (SCS) which has cast a shadow over the ASEAN Summit, Modi said India will continue its support to the ASEAN for achieving a rules-based security architecture in the region.
"India assures the ASEAN of its steady support towards achieving a rules-based regional security architecture that best attests to the region's interests and its peaceful development," he said.
Modi's comments came a day after he and Trump discussed shared commitment of the two countries for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The issue is understood to have figured in Modi's talks with Japan prime minister Shinzo Abe and his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull.
On Sunday, India, Australia, Japan and the US held their first meeting to give shape to the much talked about quadrilateral alliance to keep the Indo-Pacific region "free and open".
Moreover, the issue of China's aggressive posturing also figured prominently during the ASEAN Summit.
China claims sovereignty over all of SCS, a huge source of hydrocarbons. However, several ASEAN member countries including Vietnam, Philippines and Brunei have counter claims.
India has been supporting freedom of navigation and access to resources in the SCS in accordance with principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The ASEAN has been pushing for a legally binding code of conduct for all stakeholders in the SCS but Beijing has been opposing such a framework asserting that it will resolve the dispute with respective countries under bilateral mechanism.
India for a balanced RCEP
Modi also attended a meeting of the leaders of the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement between the ASEAN member states and the six states with which grouping has free trade pact: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Briefing the media, Preeti Saran, Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs, said that Modi reiterated India's support for a balanced RCEP.
Among RCEP members, China has been advocating an early finalisation of the agreement. An urgency to this has been added by the recent move by the US — the world's biggest economy — of withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership.
The 16 RCEP countries represent more than 3.5 billion people and about 40 percent of global GDP.
India is pushing for a deal in the services sector, where it is in a leadership position, with liberalisation of services and freedom of movement for professionals. However, the talks in the field have remained inconclusive.
India has sought better arrangements and more concessions as well as facilitation of free movement of professionals, but the other countries of the proposed free trade agreement bloc are opposed to this.
India has said it is willing to open up 65 percent of its market for goods, but the countries want close to 90-95 percent. India has asked for the services agreement to be inked as a quid pro quo.
The ASEAN region, along with India, comprises combined population of 1.85 billion people, which is one fourth of the global population and their combined GDP has been estimated at over $3.8 trillion.
Investment from ASEAN to India has been over $70 billion in the last 17 years accounting for more than 17 percent of India’s foreign direct investment.
Trade between India and ASEAN stood at $65.04 billion in 2015-16 and comprises 10.12 percent of India's total trade with the world.
ASEAN is considered one of the most influential groupings in the region and India and several other countries including the US, China, Japan and Australia are its dialogue partners.
The forum provides an opportunity for the leaders to exchange views and assess international issues of concern, including traditional and non-traditional security threats, primarily terrorism, maritime cooperation and security and non-proliferation.
Following the East Asia Summit, four outcome documents were released: On countering ideological challenges of terrorism, terrorist narratives and propaganda; on anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism; on cooperation in poverty alleviation; and on chemical weapons.
The prime minister started Tuesday by holding bilateral meetings with the leaders of Australia, Vietnam, Japan, Brunei and New Zealand.
Modi arrived in Manila on Sunday on a three-day visit to the Philippines, the first prime ministerial visit since Indira Gandhi in 1981.
On Monday, he also held bilateral meetings with US president Donald Trump and Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte.
With inputs from agencies
Published Date: Nov 14, 2017 20:51 PM | Updated Date: Nov 14, 2017 20:52 PM