Foreign Ministers of India and Association of Southeast Asian Nations discuss the issues pertaining to South China Sea, Indo-Pacific, terrorism and Ukraine crisis.

In what bodes well for New Delhi’s overall plans to deal with challenges resulting from China’s increasing belligerence in the Indo-Pacific and South China Sea, India and ASEAN on Thursday agreed to work towards a comprehensive strategic partnership to promote peace, stability and prosperity in the region. Reiterating their commitment to multilateralism based on international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other relevant UN treaties, the two sides agreed to support ASEAN centrality in evolving a rules-based regional architecture. This is being seen as a clear message to China.

Sources said that foreign ministers of India and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)– a group of ten countries — discussed the issues pertaining to the South China Sea, the Indo-Pacific and the Ukraine crisis. “India and ASEAN nations will hold maritime exercises in future in what will serve China a strong message on its habit of flexing muscles in the sea,” sources told The Daily Guardian Review.  

The Special ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (SAIFMM) was co-chaired by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Singaporean counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan. The two-day meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers is being held to celebrate thirty years of India-ASEAN ties and ten years of the strategic partnership with this important regional group of South-East Asian nations.

The co-chairs’ statement, which the meeting adopted unanimously, said “the two sides agreed to work towards upgrading the existing India-

ASEAN strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership, and to begin an early review of the Asean-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) to make the pact more user-friendly and simple.

They also agreed to explore cooperation between the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI), especially in maritime security and connectivity, disaster risk management, search and rescue operations, and environmental protection.

The meeting also discussed cooperation in countering terrorism and trans-national crimes through the early finalisation of a senior officials meeting on these issues.

In his opening remarks, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar said Asean’s role has become more important in view of geopolitical challenges and uncertainties. The strong convergence between the AOIP and IPOI is testimony to the shared vision of the two sides for the region, he said. The EAM’s statement is being seen in the context of Chinese challenges in the Indo-Pacific and greater cooperation between India and ASEAN nations to deal with them.  

“A better connected India and Asean would be well positioned to promote decentralised globalisation and resilient and reliable supply chains that is so needed by the international community,” Jaishankar said referring to economic fallout of the Ukraine situation.

Jaishankar further said; “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.”

The two sides agreed to achieve the full potential of ASEAN-India trade and economic partnership including through enhanced utilization and effective implementation of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA) by the early commencement of the review of the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) to ensure that it was more user friendly, simple and trade facilitative for businesses.

India and the ASEAN also decided to strengthen regional connectivity, including both physical and digital in line with the “Connecting the Connectivities” approach. The meeting emphasised the need for the early completion and operationalisation of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and looked forward to its eastward extension to Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Sources told The Daily Guardian Review that the foreign ministers of India and ASEAN discussed the ways to respond to the impact of the Ukraine crisis on economic and humanitarian fronts.  

Jaishankar said the process of post-pandemic recovery had been complicated by developments in Europe at a time when the Covid-19 crisis had not fully abated. “This path has become even more arduous with geopolitical headwinds which we face due to developments in Ukraine and its knock-on effects on food and energy security, as well as fertiliser and commodities prices, and logistics and supply chain disruptions,” he said.

Balakrishnan was more direct in his criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as he pointed out Moscow’s actions have “upended the international system of rules and norms and international law which we all depend on and operate on the basis of”. He added that the “sharpening superpower rivalry between the US and China has direct implications on all of us in Asia”.

“These developments, 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 said.

Though Myanmar’s ambassador attended a meeting of senior officials of India and Asean held in New Delhi on Wednesday, the country skipped the meeting of foreign ministers. Myanmar’s foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin, a retired army colonel, who took over after the 2021 military coup, was not invited in what is being viewed as a protest against the military takeover and the brutal crackdown on civilian protesters. MEA spokesman Arindam Bagchi, when asked about Myanmar, at last week’s briefing, has said that India would go by what ASEAN decides

The foreign ministers of Laos and the Philippines too didn’t attend the meeting, apparently due to scheduling issues. So, these countries were represented by senior officials.

Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of the ASEAN member states on Thursday called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and discussed various aspects of cooperation between the two sides.

“A milestone in India-ASEAN friendship! India is hosting the Special ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (SAIFMM) to mark 30 years of our dialogue relations & 10 years of our Strategic Partnership. SAIFMM participants called on PM @narendramodi this morning,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi tweeted.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar were present in the meeting between Modi and the ASEAN foreign ministers.

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.