2020 commemorates 15 years of the East Asia Summit (EAS), a key pillar in ASEAN-centred regional architecture. On Saturday last, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar attended the 15th EAS virtually, steered by ASEAN Chair, Vietnam. Advancing India’s “Act East” policy and the Indo-Pacific outlook, he underscored India’s commitment to build robust regional cooperation while addressing the shared political, security and economic challenges. Drawing synergy between ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook and India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, the External Affairs Minister argued the importance of promoting a rules-based global order anchored in international law, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty. The 15th EAS adopted the Ha Noi Declaration besides four other Leaders’ Statements on Marine Sustainability; Epidemics Prevention and Response; Women, Peace and Security; and Steady Growth of Regional Economy.
Instituted in 2005, EAS comprises of India, China, Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, United States and Russia besides the ten ASEAN countries. While the initial idea was mooted by the then Malaysian Prime Minister, in early 1990s; the 2002 report of the East Asian Study Group endorsed EAS as an ASEAN led forum restricted to ASEAN +3 nations. But later in 2005, ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) expanded the scope of the participation to incorporate Australia, India and New Zealand in the maiden EAS. Subsequently, the US and Russia joined the EAS in 2011 during the 6th EAS held in Bali.
As a founding member of the EAS, India demonstrated its commitment to strengthen this regional forum aimed at facilitating strategic cooperation on common concerns including maritime security, pandemic, resilient supply chains, sustainable economic recovery, terrorism, non-proliferation, climate change and irregular migration. The primary focus this year has been on pursuing a coordinated response to deal with the post-pandemic challenges, including making affordable vaccines and sharing each other’s best practices in fighting COVID-19.
Regional security is a top priority. Keeping the sea lanes free and open, and upholding a rules-based maritime order is a shared responsibility. At the EAS, India underscored that “the Code of Conduct negotiations should not be prejudicial to legitimate interests of third parties and should be fully consistent with UN Convention on the Law of Seas”. India hosted the first EAS Conference on Maritime Security and Cooperation in 2015 in New Delhi and urged for deepening cooperation for development of the ocean-based blue economy. Subsequently, the second EAS Conference on Maritime Security and Cooperation was hosted in Goa in 2016 and the third one in Bhubaneswar in 2018. Earlier this year in February, India in partnership with Australia and Indonesia organised the fourth EAS Conference on Maritime Security Cooperation in Chennai.
India pursues a multi-dimensional relationship with Southeast Asia through ASEAN and ASEAN led fora. Earlier on November 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had participated in the 17th India-ASEAN Virtual Summit. India’s strategic engagement with the region is based on the 3 C’s — Commerce, Connectivity and Culture. India will continue to invest in ASEAN with the objective of elevating the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership to newer heights. The civilizational and cultural connect between India and Southeast Asia has remained robust.
Regional connectivity including physical, institutional and people-to-people connectivity with Southeast Asia is a strategic priority for India. Moreover, ASEAN features as India’s fourth largest trading partner with US$ 86.9 billion in trade between the two. While India opted out of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) singed on November 15 over unresolved ‘outstanding’ issues and fragmentation within especially over liberalisation of the services sector and trade deficits concerns, Delhi is deeply invested in bolstering trade ties by reviewing India-ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement.
As India reinforces its political, defence and strategic cooperation with the region, forums like EAS offer an opportunity for India to consolidate its position as a critical anchor in promoting regional peace and stability.
Script: Dr. Titli Basu, Strategic Analyst on East & South East Asia