India-Asean summit: Modi, leaders to discuss naval drill & key developments

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong prior to their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the India-Asean commemorative summit at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI Photo
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to give India's 'Act East' policy a push as he rubs shoulders and holds bilateral meetings with the leaders of Asean nations on Thursday. New Delhi will hold the Commemorative India-Asean Summit to mark 25 years of India-Asean partnership on Thursday. The heads of state or government of all 10 southeast Asian nations will be in attendance at the summit, which has a theme of "shared values, common destiny".

On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Modi and Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, will deliver the opening remarks at the summit's plenary session, in which all the other leaders of the bloc will share the dais.

As reported earlier, strengthening ties in the fields of counter-terrorism, security, trade, and connectivity would be among the key discussion points during the summit. According to news agencies, experts are of the view that the summit will be an opportunity for India to present itself as a powerful ally to these countries in the strategic areas of trade and connectivity. 

One of the key agendas that the assembled leaders will discuss will be India-Asean maritime cooperation, including a proposal for joint naval exercises near the Malacca Straits. 

Here are the top events, expectations, and challenges associated with the summit: 

1) Joint naval exercise on the cards?

President Ram Nath Kovind will host a lunch for the assembled Asean leaders at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Thursday. After that, PM Modi will hold a leaders' retreat where the issue of maritime cooperation and security will be discussed.

According to agency reports citing officials and diplomats, during the India-Asean summit, India plans to promote maritime security in a region dominated by China.

The assembled leaders will hold talks on maritime cooperation and security, a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs has said. 

One of the plans India and the Asean nations will be discussing at the closed-door summit will be for their navies to hold a joint exercise near the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Singapore, an Indian Navy official told news agencies.

Preeti Saran, secretary in the MEA, told news agencies that India and the Asean nations have stressed on the importance of freedom of navigation and open seas. Further, India already has strong naval ties with Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, she added. 

"The ongoing activities of ship visits, of coordinated patrols, of exercises that take place bilaterally, are taking place very well," Saran said, adding, "And every time we have defence to defence talks or navy to navy talks, there is a great deal of satisfaction that has been expressed by the Asean member countries."

2) Unfinished RCEP hangs fire

With trade being a top agenda, the unfinished Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal could also feature in discussions. 

As reported earlier, on the first day of the Asean-India Business and Investment Meet and Expo in New Delhi, the stalemate over the proposed RCEP deal proved to be a contentious issue.

Trade and economy ministers belonging to seven nations in the 10-country bloc alluded to speedy conclusion of RCEP as a necessity. The Indian side, for its part, said that the sensitivities of all nations — in its case, services trade — needed to be taken into account first.

RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement between the 10 Asean nations and six others with which the bloc has trade agreements — Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

"I hope India will not disappoint Asean this year in completing the RCEP," Indonesian trade minister Enggartiasto Lukita has said during the meet. 

3) Nine bilateral meetings scheduled

On the sidelines of the Summit, Modi is holding nine bilateral meetings - with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Singapore Prime Minister Lee, Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, Indonesia President Joko Widodo, Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak. 

On the eve of the summit on Wednesday, PM Modi held separate bilateral meetings with Myanmar State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Philippines President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.

(Click here to read the details of PM Modi's bilateral meetings with the leaders of Myanmar, Vietnam, and the Philippines ahead of the summit)

On Thursday, PM Narendra Modi held a bilateral meeting with his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha. Economic and commercial exchange and defence and security between India and Thailand were among the issues discussed during the meeting. 

PM Modi also had "a productive discussion" with Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, on "economic and commercial ties, financial technology, tourism, enhanced connectivity, and smart cities", tweeted MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar. 

Strategic partnership rooted in commercial, cultural and people-to-people contacts! PM @narendramodi had a productive discussion with Singapore’s PM @leehsienloong on economic and commercial ties, FinTech, tourism, enhanced connectivity & Smart Cities #aseanindia

— Raveesh Kumar (@MEAIndia) January 25, 2018

Following his meeting with Singapore's prime minister, PM Modi had a "positive discussion" with Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam "on cooperation in defence and security, energy, ICT, education, health, and space", Kumar tweeted. 

Bolstering ties with Brunei Darussalam! PM @narendramodi and His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah had positive discussion on cooperation in defence and security, energy, ICT, education, health and space. #ASEANIndia

— Raveesh Kumar (@MEAIndia) January 25, 2018

4) Paintings and cultural programmes to greet dignitaries

On Thursday, PM Modi will release a set of commemorative stamps in the presence of the leaders to mark the occasion.

An exhibition of 20 paintings of an Asean-India Artists camp will be held at the venue of the plenary session.

Following this, PM Modi will host a gala dinner along with a cultural programme in honour of the visiting dignitaries.

5) Asean flag to fly alongside the Indian tricolor on Republic Day

On Friday, the leaders of all 10 Asean nations will attend this year's Republic Day celebrations as guests of honour. 

As reported earlier, during the Republic Day parade on January 26, Indian soldiers will march past with flags of all Asean countries, as well as the Asean flag. 

On display at the parade will be some of India's most potent weapon systems, including the supersonic cruise missile BrahMos and the Akash air defence missile system. 

As reported earlier, the Asean flag will be aflutter during the flypast, along with the Indian tricolour, along with the flags of the three Indian armed forces, carried by Mi-17 V5 helicopters in an "ensign" formation.

India's relationship with the Asean regional bloc has emerged as a cornerstone of New Delhi's foreign policy. India's Act East Policy, which pushes for strengthening ties with the Asean member nations, emphasises on three Cs - connectivity, commerce and culture.

India is working on boosting connectivity with southeast Asia by land, air and sea. A trilateral highway connecting India, Myanmar, and Thailand, work on which is in progress, is a key part of this initiative. 

At present, India-Asean trade stands at over $70 billion.
With agency inputs 

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