Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday presented a brief blue-print for further expansion of India's multi-sectoral engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), one of the most influential groupings for trade and investment globally.
In his opening address at the India-ASEAN summit, the prime minister said enhancing surface, air and maritime connectivity between India and 10 nations of the bloc will significantly boost regional trade and economic growth.
Modi said there was opportunity for boosting cooperation in the maritime security sphere and blue economy as well as in areas of agriculture, engineering, digital technology and scientific research.
The prime minister also welcomed convergence of views between India and ASEAN for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
"India's Act East policy is an important part of our Indo-Pacific vision and ASEAN lies at the core of it. Integrated and economically vibrant ASEAN is in interest of India," Modi said in presence of leaders of ASEAN countries.
The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is considered one of the most influential groupings in the region and India and several other countries including the US, China, Japan and Australia are its dialogue partners.
The ties between India and ASEAN have been on an upswing.
The ASEAN region along with India together comprises combined population of 1.85 billion people, which is one fourth of the global population and their combined GDP (gross domestic product) has been estimated at over $ 3.8 trillion.
Investment from ASEAN to India has been over $ 70 billion in the last 17 years accounting for more than 17 per cent of India's total foreign direct investment.
The prime minister arrived here on a three-day visit on Saturday to attend ASEAN-India, the East Asia and the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) summits.
The annual ASEAN summit, a grouping of 10 influential countries, is taking place amid China's aggressive behaviour in the disputed South China Sea as well as in the Indo-Pacific region.
The 10 member countries of ASEAN are Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.
India, Thailand decide to boost defence cooperation
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha on Sunday agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation in the defence industries sector and explore possibility of boosting trade ties during their talks on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit.
Both the leaders also discussed ways to enhance connectivity between the two countries, including in the areas of physical and digital spheres, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said.
In a tweet, the prime minister's office said both leaders held extensive deliberations on accelerating the friendship between India and Thailand.
The MEA said Modi and Chan-o-cha reviewed the progress made in bilateral relationship and noted that frequent high level meetings and exchanges at all levels have created positive momentum in the relationship.
'Noting the enhanced engagement in defence and security fields, both sides agreed to explore opportunities for cooperation in defence industries sector. Welcoming 20 per cent growth in bilateral trade last year, leaders decided to task the trade officials to discuss ways and means to enhance trade and investment,' the MEA said.
It said the two leaders welcomed the growing air connectivity between the two countries and start of a direct flight between Bangkok and Guwahati and also finalisation of agreements for cooperation between Ranong Port in Thailand and Indian ports in Kolkata, Chennai and Vishakapatnam.
Modi and Chan-o-cha also exchanged views on regional and multilateral issues of mutual interest.
"India and Thailand are close maritime neighbours having historical and cultural linkages. In the contemporary context, India's 'Act East' policy is complimented by Thailand's 'Look West' policy which has made the relationship deep, robust and multifaceted," the MEA said.
Modi also held a bilateral meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
ASEAN backs India's rising role in Indo-Pacific region
In a significant indication of India's rising profile, the 10-nation ASEAN on Sunday clearly appreciated New Delhi's growing role in the Indo-Pacific region as the two sides, with a combined GDP of $ 5 trillion, vowed to further broadbase strategic ties and deal with major challenges like of terrorism collectively.
In his address at the annual India-ASEAN summit, Modi talked about the mutual coordination between India's vision of the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN Outlook for the strategically key region which has been witnessing growing Chinese assertiveness.
Modi also talked about cross border terrorism, spread of violent extremism and the situation in the South China Sea, and underlined the need for greater cooperation between India and the ASEAN to unitedly confront major challenges facing the region.
"I welcome the mutual coordination of the Indo-Pacific Outlook between India and the ASEAN. India's Act East Policy is an important part of our Indo-Pacific vision. The ASEAN is and always will be the heart of our Act East Policy.
"Integrated, organised and economically developing ASEAN is in India's basic interest," Modi said.
Officials said the biggest takeaway from the 16th India-ASEAN summit was acknowledgement of the ASEAN leaders about India's growing role in the Indo-Pacific for the first time after the bloc came out with an 'Outlook' for the region.
The endorsement of India's role assumes significance as it came in the midst of geo-political power play in the Indo-Pacific region and escalating territorial disputes between between China and a number of ASEAN countries.
"All the ASEAN countries appreciated India's growing role (in the Indo-Pacific) region and that India's growing role is a factor of peace and stability in the region. That is the broad approach of the ASEAN," said Vijay Thakur Singh, Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs.
Earlier, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said his country was ready to work with ASEAN countries to ensure peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.
Singh said the issue of South China Sea was discussed at the summit and it was noted by both sides the importance of promoting a rules-based order in the region including through upholding adherence to international law.
In his address, the prime minister said India is committed to further strengthen partnership with the ASEAN through stronger surface, maritime and air-connectivity and digital-link.
"$ 1 billion line of credit will be useful for physical and digital connectivity. Our intention is to greatly increase the traffic of people for study, research, trade and tourism. To achieve this goal, India is ready to increase partnership with the ASEAN in the area of mutual interests," he said.
The ASEAN region along with India together comprises combined population of 1.85 billion people, which is one fourth of the global population and their combined GDP has been estimated at over $ 5 trillion.
Modi said India is also ready to further increase capacity building and partnerships in areas of agriculture, science, research, ICT and engineering.
"I welcome the recent decision to review the ASEAN-India FTA. This will not only make our economic relations more stronger, but our trade will also be balanced. We also want to strengthen our partnership in the areas of maritime security and blue economy," he said.
The prime minister also announced that India would be looking at creating an endowment of Rs 50 million for promoting exchanges between faculty as well as students under India-ASEAN network.
Singh said the ASEAN leaders spoke of India as a long-term friend and a dynamic partner and complimented India's contribution in the peace and stability of the region. The leaders also welcomed India's support to the centrality of the ASEAN and India's programmes and projects which support ASEAN master plan for connectivity.
"They expressed keen interest in enhancing partnership maritime and cyber domains," said Singh.