Amid the mutating geopolitical order in the Asia-Pacific region marked by the rise of China and India, Vice-President Hamid Ansari has underscored the 3C mantra of New Delhi’s relations with ASEAN pivoted around “Commerce, Culture and Connectivity” and stressed the need for all countries to exercise “restraint” in protecting sea lanes of communication. The vice-president signalled a more proactive role by India in fructifying the vision of an ASEAN community and pushed for fast-tracking code of conduct on the disputed South China Sea.
Maritime security: Restraint on South China Sea
Maritime security and intensifying security cooperation across the spectrum between India and Thailand and ASEAN formed the overarching theme of Mr Ansari’s visit to Bangkok, the first vice-presidential visit from India to Thailand in five decades. Issues related to defence and security figured prominently in discussions between Mr Ansari and Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Taking a big-picture view in his lecture entitled “India, Thailand and ASEAN: Contours of a Rejuvenated Partnership,” at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok on February 4, the vice-president linked India’s burgeoning relations with the dream of an ASEAN century and underlined that “India is ready to meet the expectations of our friends in the region and play a more pro-active role in the processes leading to the ASEAN Community.” In this context, upgrading security cooperation will play a crucial role in investing this economic-focused relationship with greater strategic content. “We believe that all trade routes and the sea lanes must be protected from traditional and non-traditional threats and all countries using these international waters must act with responsibility and restraint,” he said. “As the countries in the ASEAN region strive for greater economic integration, the safety of sea lanes – critical for maritime trade and commerce, maritime security, and access to marine resources in accordance with accepted international norms, continues to assume greater significance.”
Against the backdrop of competing sovereignty games by five claimants to parts or whole of South China Sea and the increasingly embittered power play between the US and China, the vice-president said that India “support collective efforts by ASEAN Member States and China to conclude the Code of Conduct to keep peace and stability in the region.” The importance of freedom of navigation can’t be overstated given the fact that more than 80 per cent of India’s trade cargo, including oil imports, passes through sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean.
Similarly, the proliferation of a host of non-traditional threats such as piracy, smuggling, transnational crimes, drug-trafficking and “the spreading tide of extremism and terrorism” is set to push India and ASEAN closer to accelerate security cooperation across the spectrum.
“Thailand and India already have a robust cooperation in this area and I am glad that we have also taken steps to institutionalize such cooperation at the regional level.”
ASEAN: Partner in India’s resurgence
Most important, Mr Ansari evoked a forward-looking vision for enlisting ASEAN’s proactive participation in India’s seminal projects of national resurgence like Make in India, Skill India, Smart Cities and Digital India. “There is a special emphasis on India-ASEAN cooperation in our domestic agenda on infrastructure, manufacturing, trade, skills, urban renewal, smart cities and Make in India programmes.”
“Connectivity projects, cooperation in Science and Technology development and people-to-people exchanges are to be the springboard for regional integration and co-prosperity.”
Notes for an Asian Century
Wrapping up his address at the university, famous for promoting Indian studies, Mr Ansari spoke about the imperatives for building a more robust and diversified relationship between India and ASEAN and the extended India-ASEAN region.
“The rationale for a strong ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership is clearer than ever. As in the distant past when countries in this region and India shared robust trade links for mutual benefit and prosperity, today they have again emerged as key drivers of economic growth for the Asia-Pacific, and, indeed, the world.”
“The economic and geo-political centre of gravity of the world has again shifted towards the Asia-Pacific, with the region showing unparalleled dynamism in economic, political, security and demographic terms. Today, as ASEAN and India stand at the dawn of a new era, time has come perhaps to reclaim our past heritage.”
This is a soaring vision of dovetailing dreams and aspirations of 1.9 billion people, which encompasses one-fourth of humanity and account for a combined GDP of US $ 4.75 trillion. The sky is not even the limit, as the latest proposal by India to offer ASEAN neighbours its indigenously developed GAGAN GPS services suggests.
(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-magazine focused on international affairs and the India Story. He is part of the media delegation accompanying Vice-President Hamid Ansari to Thailand and Brunei.)