Visits to all Asean member nations show region matters to India


Being interdependent: A fisherman prepares to cast his fishing net in the waters of the Vembanad lake as a container ship is seen docked at a port in Vallarpadam. India is moving forward rapidly on several counts and as a progressive economy, Asean in general and Singapore in particular need the Indian market for further growth. — Reuters

INDIA’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar re-emphasised the importance of India’s Asean partnership with a visit to Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia in March.

He met the Thai foreign minister in February in India for the 10th Joint Communion and visited Indonesia for the Asean and East Asia Ministerial Summit in July last year, where he met foreign ministers of Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia.

He followed it up with a visit to Thailand, which included a foreign ministerial meeting of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation.

In October of that year, he visited Vietnam. With the most recent visit to South-East Asia, Jaishankar has completed interactions within the last year to most members of Asean. Singapore, as India’s coordinator with Asean, is vigorous in promoting the relationship. Singapore remains the largest conduit of Asean-India investments.

With Malaysia, the relationship is back on an even keel after its foreign minister visited India in November 2023. With Jaishankar’s visit to Kuala Lumpur, the bilateral relationship is looking to consolidate, particularly with its economic partnership.

Malaysia will chair Asean in 2025.

The India-Philippines relationship has been enhanced under Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s presidency. The Philippine foreign minister visited India in June 2023. The strategic coherence and defence cooperation with the Philippines is now perhaps the best among all Asean countries.

India exports its BrahMos cruise missiles to the Philippines, the first Asean country to receive them.

The Philippines is also seeking other possible purchases from India. The Philippines will be the country coordinator for India-Asean later this year.

The overall context of the South-East Asian visits is the consolidation of bilateral engagement with the countries that will chair Asean and coordinate the India-Asean partnership. This combined approach is a valuable one. Singapore is India’s major economic interface with Asean and leads their digital interaction.

The Singaporean foreign minister during the India-Asean meeting in June 2022 said Asean was looking to India for public health support, food security and digital interface.

Digital interface

Singapore leads the pack on digital interface, having already signed an agreement with India’s Unified Payments Interface.

The city-state is also leading the Asean unified interface for digital payments, with which India could be associated. Singapore, a major investor and conduit for Asean investment into India, is important for the country as India looks at the next stage of supply-chain building.

The new Malaysian government is more realistic and is engaging India positively. During his visit to Kuala Lumpur, Jaishankar met with CEOs and spoke about the next level of business and entrepreneurial engagement that India would be preparing for after the upcoming elections.

Malaysia will host a branch of the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, showing that the India-Malaysia-Asean science and technology and human resources development cooperation is progressing apace.

With the Philippines, it was a live-wire visit. An Indian coast guard ship visited Manila as Jaishankar was there.

India’s trade with the Philippines has finally hit the US$3bil mark, still among the smallest of the large Asean countries.

There are efforts by the Philippines to woo Indian companies to invest and pursue contracts.

Greater complementarity for trade has to be sought. The visit was live because the Philippines is on a daily basis challenged by the Chinese coast guard while it tries to service outposts on islands. The strength of the Philippine Coast Guard is inadequate to push the Chinese out.

The Philippines strengthened its relationship with Japan and the United States to augment its old bases, obtain more equipment and engage with them as a part of their overall regional outlook.

The northernmost Philippines bases run by the United States could become assets in case of a Taiwan crisis.

Japan has made the Philippines a test case for its new official security assistance and has provided equipment to the Philippines.

Australia and the Philippines also have a vibrant relationship and the fourth Quad partner India is now a fulsome partner of the Philippines too.

Arbitral award

India has now openly said that it supports the 2016 arbitral award in favour of the Philippines and Jaishankar did not mince his words while talking about the validity of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea and the sanctity of a free and open Indo-Pacific which would legally protect the Philippines from any aggression.

India is now providing more vocal support by clearly stating its support for the Philippines’ sovereignty and integrity, while being ready to provide defence equipment as the Philippines requires for its protection of these attributes.

These visits come after the 20th India-Asean Summit in September 2023 in Jakarta, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi enunciated a 12-point programme for enhancing the India-Asean partnership. Now, India is pursuing individual Asean member states to implement parts of the 12-point programme in which they are interested.

Besides, Singapore has already announced support for the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, which the Philippines is interested in too.

Malaysia remains circumspect because of the South China Sea, whereas the Philippines is the most outspoken and facing the most problems from China, Brunei and Malaysia follow a quieter policy of not challenging China in public.

In the case of Singapore, there is a better realisation that all the eggs in a Chinese basket are now not going to hatch.

India is moving forward rapidly on several counts and as a progressive economy, Asean in general and Singapore in particular need the Indian market for further growth.

Besides the 12-point programme agreed upon with Asean, there is also a joint statement on maritime security and food security.

These are now implemented during the Jaishankar visit, particularly in the Philippines. India’s framework agreements with Asean are in place, including a joint statement on cooperation among their respective visions of the Indo-Pacific.

Now enhanced partnerships with willing countries are sought and receiving positive responses. — The Jakarta Post/ANN

Gurjit Singh is a former Indian ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Asean, Ethiopia and the African Union. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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