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India reaffirms commitment to boosting ties with ASEAN

India is being more vocal in its support for the Philippines’ sovereignty and integrity, while being ready to provide defence equipment that Manila requires for its protection.

India reaffirms commitment to boosting ties with ASEAN

Outreach: External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar (left) met Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr in Manila on March 26. PTI



Gurjit Singh

Former Ambassador

EEXTERNAL Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar reaffirmed India’s partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with recent visits to Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Within the past year or so, he has interacted with his counterparts from most ASEAN nations. He met Thailand’s Foreign Minister (FM) Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara in February at the 10th India-Thailand Joint Commission meeting in India. He had visited Indonesia for the ASEAN and the East Asia Summit ministerial last July, where he met the FMs of Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia. He followed it up with a visit to Thailand, which featured a ministerial meeting of the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation. He visited Vietnam in October, while the King of Cambodia was in India in May last year.

As India’s coordinator with ASEAN, Singapore is vigorously promoting the relationship. Singapore remains the largest conduit for ASEAN-India investments. With Malaysia, the relationship is back on an even keel after then Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir visited India in November last year. With Jaishankar’s recent visit, the two nations are particularly looking to consolidate the economic partnership. Malaysia will chair ASEAN next year.

The India-Philippines ties are on the upswing during the tenure of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The Philippines’ Secretary for Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo visited India last June. The strategic coherence and defence cooperation with the Philippines are now perhaps the best among all ASEAN nations. The Philippines is the first ASEAN country to which India exported BrahMos missiles. It is also exploring other avenues for purchases from India. It will be the country coordinator for India-ASEAN later this year.

The context of these visits is the consolidation of the bilateral engagement with the countries that will chair ASEAN and coordinate the India-ASEAN partnership.

Singapore, India’s major economic interface with ASEAN, leads the digital interaction. Singapore FM Vivian Balakrishnan said during the India-ASEAN meeting in June 2022 that ASEAN looked to India for public health support, food security and digital interface.

Singapore, which has already signed an agreement for linkage with the UPI, is leading the ASEAN unified interface for digital payments with which India could be associated. With Singapore being a major source of ASEAN investment in India, New Delhi is looking forward to the next stage of supply-chain building.

During Mahathir Mohamad’s rule, Malaysia cocked a snook at India, cosying up to Pakistan and Turkey and trying to rile New Delhi with statements on Jammu and Kashmir. The new government, which is more pragmatic, is engaging India positively. During his visit to Kuala Lumpur, the EAM met CEOs and spoke about the next level of business and entrepreneurial engagement for which India would be prepared. Malaysia will have a campus of IIT-Kharagpur, showing that India-Malaysia-ASEAN science & technology and human resource development cooperation is progressing apace.

Jaishankar’s visit to the Philippines coincided with the arrival of an Indian Coast Guard ship, Samudra Paheredar, at Manila Bay. New Delhi’s trade with Manila has finally hit the $3-billion mark, still among the lowest for large ASEAN countries. There are efforts by the Philippines to woo Indian companies into investing and pursuing contracts.

The Philippines is challenged on a daily basis 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 US to augment its old bases, obtain more equipment and engage with them as part of its overall regional policy.

The northernmost Philippine bases, which the US runs, could be an asset in case of a Taiwan crisis. Tokyo has made Manila the test case for its new official security assistance and providing equipment to the Philippines. Australia and the Philippines also have a vibrant relationship.

India has openly said that it supports the 2016 arbitral award in favour of the Philippines. Jaishankar did not mince words while talking about the validity of the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and the sanctity of a free and open Indo-Pacific, which would legally protect the Philippines from Chinese aggression. India is being more vocal in its support for the Philippines’ sovereignty and integrity, while being ready to provide defence equipment that Manila requires for its protection.

The recent visits come months after the 20th India-ASEAN summit held last September in Jakarta, where PM Modi enunciated a 12-point programme for enhancing the India-ASEAN partnership. Now, New Delhi is pursuing individual ASEAN member states to implement parts of the programme in which they are interested.

Besides, Singapore has already announced its support for the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, which the Philippines is also keen on. Malaysia remains circumspect because of tensions in the South China Sea, whereas the Philippines is outspoken about the problems caused by China. Brunei and Malaysia follow a policy of not challenging China openly. Therefore, in the case of Malaysia, the Chinese shadow does not really come up like it does for the Philippines.

In the case of Singapore, there is greater realisation that putting all its eggs in the Chinese basket will not work. India is moving forward rapidly on several counts. ASEAN in general and Singapore in particular need the Indian market for further growth.

Besides the programme agreed upon with ASEAN, there is also a joint statement on maritime and food security. Apart from the aspect of maritime security, an exception has been made to India’s ban on the export of rice to provide the Philippines with emergency rice supplies. Similar exceptions were made for Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia earlier.

India is clearly rising to the challenge that China presents in the region and is offering steady support. The framework agreements with ASEAN are in place, including a joint statement on cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Now, efforts to scale up the partnership with like-minded countries are receiving a positive response.

#Philippines #S Jaishankar


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