India fully supports strong, unified ASEAN

Foreign ministers of India and the ASEAN nations on Thursday agreed to work towards a “meaningful and substantive” comprehensive strategic partnership even as the two sides explored ways to navigate the implications of the developments in Ukraine on trade and regional security.

In his opening address at a special meeting of India-ASEAN foreign ministers in Delhi, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar referred to the “geopolitical headwinds” triggered by the Ukraine crisis and its knock-on effects on food, energy security and prices of fertilisers and commodities as well as the impact on logistics and supply chains.

In the meeting, the two sides resolved to expand cooperation in key sectors such as trade, connectivity, defence, vaccine production and clean energy, and agreed to review the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) to ensure a more user friendly, simple and trade facilitation.

The visiting foreign ministers also called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and discussed various aspects of cooperation between the two sides.

India hosted the conclave to mark the 30th anniversary of its relations with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and it was attended by foreign ministers of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam while Lao PDR, Philippines and Thailand sent representatives of their foreign ministers.

There was no representation from Myanmar as it is learnt that India did not invite the Myanmarese foreign minister in sync with ASEAN’s consensus following the military coup in that country last year that engagement with it should be at the non-political and non-military level.

In his remarks, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan slammed Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, saying such actions, if unchecked, can threaten the “whole system of peace and stability which we have depended on for the basis of our growth, development and prosperity over many decades”.

Balakrishnan, who is the country coordinator for India in ASEAN, said Russian actions have “upended the international system of rules and norms and international law which we all depend on”.

He further said that the sharpening “superpower rivalry between the US and China has direct implications on all of us in Asia.”

Jaishankar said India fully supports a “strong, unified and prosperous” ASEAN with a central role in the Indo-Pacific and both sides should identify a new set of priorities while navigating the “arduous path” arising from developments in Ukraine.

The external affairs minister said the ASEAN has always stood tall as a “beacon of regionalism, multilateralism and globalisation” and that it has successfully carved out a niche for itself in the region and provided the foundation for the evolving strategic and economic architecture in the Indo-Pacific.

Jaishankar and Balakrishnan, the two co-chairs of the meeting, said in a statement that India and the ASEAN agreed to work towards a comprehensive strategic partnership that is meaningful, substantive and mutually-beneficial by further enhancing their strategic ties.

Reflecting an upswing in defence ties, it noted that both sides welcomed the proposed ASEAN-India defence ministers’ informal meeting in November and the proposed maritime exercise between the two sides.

In the sphere of trade, it said the two sides agreed to work towards realising the full potential including through enhanced utilisation and effective implementation of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA) by the early commencement of the review of the AITIGA to ensure that it is more user friendly and simple.

The co-chairs’ statement said the two sides also agreed to strengthen regional connectivity, including both physical and digital, and explore synergies between connectivity initiatives of India and the ASEAN.

The co-chairs’ statement said both sides agreed to explore potential cooperation between the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI), in areas such as maritime security, maritime connectivity and the blue economy.

It is understood that the meeting also discussed the situation in the South China Sea, a resource-rich region that has been witnessing increasing Chinese muscle-flexing.

In their statement, the co-chairs said the meeting reaffirmed commitment to multilateralism founded on the principles of international law including the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)and other relevant UN treaties and conventions.

It said it was agreed to work towards maintaining an open and inclusive regional cooperation framework, support ASEAN Centrality in the evolving rules-based regional architecture and uphold multilateralism in jointly responding to regional and global challenges.

In their statement, the co-chairs said the meeting agreed to further strengthen and deepen the ASEAN-India strategic partnership across the whole spectrum of political, security, economic, socio-cultural and development cooperation by utilising existing ASEAN-led mechanisms.

The meeting agreed to work towards a comprehensive strategic partnership between the ASEAN and India that is “meaningful, substantive and mutually-beneficial by further enhancing ASEAN-India strategic partnership”, they said.

The co-chairs said the meeting welcomed ASEAN-India cooperation in preventing and countering terrorism, the rise of radicalisation and violent extremism, and combating transnational crimes.

Recognising the importance of the health sector, the meeting agreed to cooperate in vaccine production and distribution, research and innovation in generic medicines, cooperation on traditional medicines, strengthening public health infrastructure and enhancing capacities for preparedness and response to pandemic and public health emergencies.

In his comments, Jaishankar said there is strong convergence between AOIP and IPOI and it is the testimony of the shared vision of the two sides for the region.

“ASEAN’s role today is perhaps more important than ever before given the geopolitical challenges and uncertainties that the world faces. India fully supports a strong, unified and prosperous ASEAN, one whose centrality in the Indo-Pacific is fully recognised,” he said.

“Under the current global uncertainties, as we review our journey of the last 30 years and chart our path for the coming decades, it is important that we identify a new set of priorities while ensuring the early realization of our ongoing initiatives,” he added.

The minister also delved into the evolution of ASEAN-India ties, stating that they are anchored in history, nurtured by common ethos and have withstood the test of time, growing stronger with each passing decade.

“As we enter the fourth decade of our relationship, our ties too must respond to the world that we confront. A better connected India and ASEAN would be well-positioned to promote decentralized globalisation and resilient and reliable supply chains that is so needed by the international community,” he said.

The ASEAN is considered one of the most influential groupings in the region. India and several other countries, including the US, China, Japan and Australia, are its dialogue partners.

ASEAN-India dialogue relations started with the establishment of a sectoral partnership in 1992. This graduated to full dialogue partnership in December 1995 and summit level partnership in 2002.

The ties were elevated to strategic partnership in 2012. The ASEAN is central to India’s Act East Policy and its vision for the wider Indo-Pacific. The ASEAN comprises Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, the Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar.

Harry Byrne

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