New Delhi: India and Southeast Asian countries on Thursday agreed to strengthen cooperation in strategically crucial areas of maritime security and freedom of navigation, a move which comes at a time of increasing assertiveness by China in resource-rich South China Sea.
At ASEAN-India Summit here, leaders of the 10-member group and India adopted a vision statement, elevating their ties to strategic level and deepening cooperation in key areas of security, political and economic.
"We are committed to strengthening cooperation to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation, and safety of sea lanes of communication for unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.
"We agree to promote maritime cooperation, including through engagement in the ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) and its expanded format, to address common challenges on maritime issues, including sea piracy, search and rescue at sea, maritime environment, maritime security, maritime connectivity, freedom of navigation, fisheries, and other areas of cooperation," the vision document said.
During their addresses, the leaders of the Philippines and Vietnam also referred to tensions in their region.
Other members of ASEAN include Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia and Laos.
"At this time of rising concerns about maritime issues, the need to maintain a high level of maritime security and freedom of navigation offers us ... An opportunity for enhanced cooperation," Philippines Vice President Jejomar Binay said.
In his speech, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said there should be enhanced maritime cooperation with India given that 70 per cent of the world`s traffic in petroleum products passes through the Indian Ocean from the Middle East to East Asia.
The vision document also said the leaders will continue to exert efforts and cooperate to effectively implement the Plan of Action to implement the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity (2010-2015).
However, the negotiations witnessed differences in the views of some ASEAN countries, particularly from the Philippines and Indonesia. It is understood that the pact agreed today was on the pattern of "8+1+1" with specific terms in case of these two countries.
Out of the total 35.06 million work force in the Philippines, 51 per cent are engaged in services sector. In a way, it is a strong competitor for India in the global BPO market.
India, whose services sector contributes about 55 per cent to the country`s economic growth, was very keen to enter the ASEAN market. The pact would also help India to increase its stake in the region in sectors like infrastructure.
"Together we constitute a community of 1.8 billion people, representing one-fourth of humanity, with a combined GDP of USD 3.8 trillion. It is only natural that India should attach the highest priority to its relationship with ASEAN," Singh said.