India elevates ties with ASEAN, focus on Vietnam as key partner

India and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have elevated their multi-faceted relations to the level of “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” and vowed to enhance their cooperation in diverse areas, including maritime and cyber security, counter-terrorism, freedom of navigation and the inter-operability of digital financial systems.

The decision to elevate the Delhi-Hanoi partnership was taken at the ASEAN-India Summit held in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar led the Indian delegation to the summit, which included External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

 Vietnam Meeting

Besides participation in the India-ASEAN summit, Vice-President Dhankhar held a bilateral meeting with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh of Vietnam on the margins of the ASEAN-India Summit. During the talks, the two leaders reaffirmed “to work together in the areas of trade, economy, security, culture, & synergy in international domain.”

Vietnam has emerged as India’s preeminent strategic partner in the ASEAN region, with both sides taking concrete steps to intensify their economic and strategic relations.  The mutually empowering ties acquired  a strong momentum after the forging of India-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, during PM Modi’s landmark visit to Vietnam in 2016. Since then, the relations have been steadily scaling new frontiers in nearly all areas, including diplomatic-political, economic and cultural.

India-ASEAN summit: Key Outcomes

The India-ASEAN summit in the Cambodian capital was successful and substantive, with both sides establishing the ASEAN-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that is “meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial.” The two sides identified five major focus areas for accelerating their cooperation, according to Saurabh Kumar, Secretary (East) in India’s Ministry of External Affairs. These include maritime security, joint implementation of projects in the Indo-Pacific, cybersecurity and inter-operability of digital financial systems, new technologies for sustainable development, revival of tourism, and joint efforts to promote peace and stability across the region.

India and Asean will advance maritime cooperation, including maritime security, countering piracy, search and rescue operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster management, said the joint statement issued after the talks.  The two sides will explore activities to implement the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative.

Speaking at the summit, Mr Dhankhar underlined ASEAN’s centrality in India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific and said the partnership with Asean is a key pillar in the “Act East” policy, Kumar said. Intensifying cooperation to uphold and maintain freedom of navigation features prominently in discussions.

In the joint statement, the two sides reaffirmed “the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, and other lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce and to promote peaceful resolutions of disputes, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

Going forward, the two sides decided to further enhance trade and economic relations between India and ASEAN. While emphasising the need for greater economic engagement between India and ASEAN, Dhankhar underlined the need for an early conclusion of the planned review of the Asean-India Trade in Goods Agreement of 2010 and this was backed by all Asean leaders. A scoping exercise for the review of the free trade deal had been completed and the actual review will now start,  Mr Dhankar told ASEAN leaders in Pnom Penh. “All countries expect that this review will be done soon and the new agreement will facilitate trade and be business-friendly. Two-way trade is currently worth $110 billion and we believe this will increase with the new agreement,” he said.

Enhancing trans-regional connectivity will also be a share priority in India-ASEAN partnership, To enhance air, land and sea connectivity, the two sides will work for the early completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and its eastward extension to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and explore synergies between the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 and India’s connectivity initiatives under its Act East policy.

India-Vietnam Connect

The Indian vice-president’s visit to the Cambodian capital also showcased the importance India and Vietnam attach to deepening their mutually enriching relationship. Vice-President Dhankhar made it a point to hold bilateral talks with Vietnam’s PM Chinh. Vice President Dhankar affirmed Vietnam as “one of the important partners in India’s foreign policy.” He agreed with PM Chinh’s proposal on the holding of a meeting of the Vietnam–India Joint Committee on Economic, Trade, Science and Technology Cooperation early next year.

PM Chinh proposed the two sides intensify their cooperation in economy, trade and investment, and asked India to further open its door to Vietnam’s commodities. He invited Indian firms to invest in information technology, pharmacy, education, agriculture and energy. The two sides decided to intensify their cooperation in defence-security, maritime cooperation, sustainable development and energy. They also agreed to continue their close coordination and mutual support at regional and international forums in issues of mutual interests, including ensuring security, safety, and freedom of navigation and aviation.

PM Chinh conveyed invitations from Vietnamese high-ranking leaders to Indian President Droupadi Murmu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chairman of Upper House Venkaiah Naidu to visit Vietnam, according to reports in Vietnamese media.

Looking ahead, India-ASEAN and India-Vietnam ties are set to fly higher and diversify and deepen in different areas. Marking the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Vietnam, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had conveyed that Vietnam is “an important pillar of India’s Act East Policy and Indo-Pacific Vision.” In particular, India and Vietnam are set to enhance their defence and security ties against the backdrop of China’s increased assertiveness in South China Sea and the region. The two countries are also set to intensify their coordination in the international arena,  including in the United Nations. India and Vietnam supported each other’s interests and priorities during their stint as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. With the region and the world undergoing stress and turbulence, India-ASEAN and India-Vietnam partnership will acquire more heft and become a stabilizing factor in the conflicted world order.

(Manish Chand is Founder-CEO of India Writes Network, India and the World magazine and Centre for Global India Insights, a think tank focused on global affairs.)


Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.