New Delhi, Dec.21 (ANI): The India-ASEAN Special Commemorative Summit began in New Delhi with participating nations vowing to step up cooperation on maritime security, a move that comes amid tension with China in the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.
In a vision statement agreed at a summit in New Delhi, India and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) set their sights on a new "strategic partnership" that would bring closer political, security and economic cooperation.
Significantly, they underlined the need for freedom of navigation, a contentious issue because of competing claims with Beijing over parts of the South China Sea, though there was no mention of China in their statement.
Talking on this issue, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: "India and ASEAN nations should intensify their engagements for maritime security and safety, for freedom of navigation and for peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law. We should also foster regional cooperation to counter piracy and respond to natural disasters. Naturally our ability to work together in regional and global context will be stronger if we are able to deepen our own engagement and cooperation."
An ASEAN summit ended in acrimony last month over China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, with its leaders failing to agree on a concluding joint statement.
The South China Sea has become Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint as Beijing's sovereignty claim over a huge, looping area has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines as the three countries race to tap possibly huge oil reserves. Malaysia and Brunei, also members of ASEAN, as well as Taiwan also claim parts of the sea.
Other members of ASEAN include Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia and Laos.
Last month, China announced a plan to board and search ships that illegally enter what it considers its territory in the South China Sea, prompting ASEAN's secretary-general to warn that the move could spark naval clashes.
The India-ASEAN Summit also saw the conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) among the participating nations which is seen as a key move aimed at strengthening economic engagement between the regions.
After the commencement of FTA in goods last year, both the sides were engaged in widening the base of the pact by including services and investments.
Presently, the signing of the pact can lead to far reaching consequences with expectations of trade going up to $100 billion by 2015.
"This engagement, excellencies, has flourished particularly in the area of trade. India-ASEAN trade has grown over ten times in ten years since we launched the annual summits. Following the implementation of our Free Trade Area Agreement in goods, trade grew by 41 percent in Indian fiscal year of 2011-12. Two way flows in investments have also grown rapidly to reach USD 43 billion over the past decade. As ASEAN investments into India have multiplied, ASEAN countries too have emerged as major destinations for Indian companies," said Singh.
Trade between India and the 10-member ASEAN was up to USD 80 billion last year compared with USD 47 billion in 2008.
The participating nations also talked about the issue of connectivity in the region through the medium of ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan, in which India would be joined by road routes to its southeast Asian neighbours.
Under this master plan, several connectivity projects are to be undertaken among the ASEAN countries with the special ones being two vital road projects, including India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and its further extension.
"There is also much potential in our work on connectivity which we have recently embarked on together. This will not only bring our people closer together, but also expand our trade and business networks. In this regard, your government's (India) continued support and commitment to the ASEAN Connectivity Master Plan is very much appreciated," said Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah.
The New Delhi summit underscored India's growing role in one of the world's fastest-growing regions.
Twenty years after India launched a 'Look East' diplomatic push to promote trade with a neglected neighbouring region, the relationship is finally beginning to gain traction. Annual trade has nearly doubled in four years and India's growing economic clout make it appealing as a balance to other Asian powers.
However, China's trade relations and links with ASEAN are far deeper than India's.
India's role in the region is also dwarfed by that of China again, which enjoyed trade worth a record $363 billion with ASEAN countries in 2011 in an already established free trade area.
Singh is also scheduled to hold bilateral talks with leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia on the sidelines of the summit. (ANI)