India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
have decided to elevate both their economic and strategic relationship at a two-day meeting in the Indian capital to mark 20 years of ties. As tensions rise in the South China Sea, India and Southeast Asian countries have also called for closer maritime security cooperation.
Setting their sights on more than doubling trade over the next decade, India and the 10 ASEAN-member countries have reached a free trade agreement in services and investments. This will facilitate movement of business people and professionals between India and the economically vibrant Southeast Asian countries.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the agreement “transformational.” He points out that India and ASEAN's 1.8 billion people are nearly a quarter of the world’s population, and the region has a combined gross domestic product of $ 3.8 trillion.
“I am optimistic that our trade will exceed $100 billion U.S. by 2015 and we should aim for the milestone of $200 billion U.S. 10 years from now,” Singh said.
To achieve this target, several Southeast Asian leaders stressed the need to improve air and road links between India and ASEAN countries. Prime Minister Singh echoed the call as he greeted a car rally that reached New Delhi Friday after winding its way through Southeast Asian countries.
“Our future will be driven by the bonds of connectivity we build in the coming years, the prime minister said. "These physical bonds will be strengthened by digital links which will help our younger generations to network better. Together this web of linkages will help unleash the vast economic potential of our region, accelerate development and deepen our strategic partnership.”
India and ASEAN also decided to intensify “maritime security cooperation” and underlined the need for freedom of navigation. This has become a contentious issue due to competing claims between China and other countries - like ASEAN member Vietnam - over parts of the South China Sea.
Southeast Asian countries said that it is important to protect vital sea routes in the Indian and Pacific Oceans as the global economy shifts eastward.
However, Indian Foreign Minister, Salman Khurshid has said that issues of sovereignty needs to be resolved by the countries concerned and India’s intervention is not required.
In a vision statement, India and ASEAN also spoke of a new strategic partnership that would bring closer security and political cooperation.
India launched a “Look East” policy 20 years ago to push trade links with the 10 countries of Southeast Asia and to counterbalance China’s dominant role in the region. The two-day meeting, which was attended by heads of nine ASEAN countries, underscored that India’s profile is rising in the dynamic region.