Asean links its Indo-Pacific strategy to India’s outreach | India News

NEW DELHI: Rolling out its new Indo-Pacific strategy, Asean has reserved a special place for India’s Bimstec grouping as one to connect with. This will be the first sign that India’s renewed interest in Bimstec has found resonance in the region.
India has put in more diplomatic energy into Bimstec in recent years, the idea being to redefine its neighbourhood eastwards, to build on connectivity and open a channel for greater economic and strategic engagement eastwards. It was with this in mind that PM Narendra Modi invited Bimstec leaders to his second swearing-in last month.
Asean’s Indo-Pacific policy has been a while in the making. The south-east Asian countries have been debating this for at least a year now. As recently as last week, reports said Singapore was dragging its feet on accepting the Indo-Pacific policy that has been led by Indonesia. It took some changes in the language to bring Singapore around.
Releasing the Asean Outlook in Bangkok after the 34th Asean summit, Thai PM Prayut Chan-Ocha said on Sunday, “The summit agreed with Thailand’s initiative to reinforce Asean’s leading role in the conduct of relations with external partners in the region… Asean now has a common approach on the issue.” Thailand is the current chair of Asean. Bimstec, IORA and other organisations will provide potential for cooperation. The outlook said these can be realised through “innovative, interdisciplinary and complementary approaches”.
Asean’s centrality is the central theme of the outlook. It has been something India has insisted upon from the time it formulated its own Indo-Pacific strategy. Modi’s speech at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue was the official articulation of India’s strategy. In its discussions with the US and Japan, with whom India forms the JAI trilateral grouping, it was India which laid greater emphasis on Asean centrality being an operative part of the evolving Indo-Pacific strategy. The Quad too, in its statements, has acknowledged the centrality of Asean in the Indo-Pacific area.
Although the Asean Indo-Pacific strategy takes an even-handed approach to China and the US, some interesting inclusions give a clue to their thinking. China doesn’t like the notion of ‘Indo-Pacific’, preferring to call it Asia-Pacific, a distaste shared by Russia.
Second, Asean gave a prominent space to the UN Law of the Sea and freedom of navigation. China has, despite being a signatory to UNCLOS, built artificial islands in the Spratlys and is on the way to militarising them. These seas and islands are hotly contested between China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam etc. The US and its allies have been running freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in these seas for some time now to show China that other powers will not follow Chinese diktats of arbitrary sovereignty.
On June 9, Chinese trawler sank a Philippine fishing boat in these waters, abandoning 22 fishermen to their fate, who were ultimately rescued by Vietnamese boats. Under pressure, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has agreed to a joint probe with China of the incident, but it highlights the dangers of Chinese hegemony on these waters. Indonesia has renamed its sea into the Natuna Sea, as has Philippines, which calls it West Philippines Sea to assert its sovereign rights.

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