India gears up to welcome Asean leaders

Women soldiers from India’s Border Security Force practising a motorcycle stunt during a rehearsal for the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi yesterday. All 10 Asean leaders will be chief guests at the parade on Jan 26, a day after the India-Asean Co
Women soldiers from India’s Border Security Force practising a motorcycle stunt during a rehearsal for the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi yesterday. All 10 Asean leaders will be chief guests at the parade on Jan 26, a day after the India-Asean Commemorative Summit. PHOTO: REUTERS

Modi to have ‘free and frank’ talks with Asean leaders at retreat

India is gearing up to woo Asean leaders, including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, with a banquet lunch, gala dinner and leaders’ retreat as part of events to mark 25 years of partnership.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invited all 10 Asean leaders for the India-Asean Commemorative Summit in India on Jan 25, and to attend the annual Republic Day parade – which showcases India’s military might and cultural diversity – as chief guests on Jan 26.

Senior diplomat Preeti Saran, Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs, noted that it was “unprecedented” to have 10 leaders as chief guests for the Republic Day parade.

“We are delighted and honoured that all the 10 Asean leaders confirmed their participation at the commemorative summit and to be the guests of honour at Republic Day parade. Every year, (when) we celebrate our Republic Day, we have one visiting foreign dignitary, this time we will have... 10,” Ms Saran said at a press briefing on the visit.

Mr Modi, she said, would hold “closed-door, very free and frank discussions on the future of India-Asean relations” with the Asean leaders at the leaders’ retreat at Rashtrapati Bhavan – the President’s palatial home – on Jan 25.

The theme for the commemorative summit is “Shared Values, Common Destiny”.

Issues on the table include improving maritime links and connectivity projects including the India-Thailand-Myanmar trilateral highway, expected to be completed next year.

The Asean leaders will also take part in a summit plenary, attend a banquet thrown by President Ram Nath Kovind and a gala dinner hosted by Mr Modi on Jan 25.

Ties between Asean and India have grown over the past couple of years and come into sharper focus with mutual concerns about the rise of China.

Singapore, the current Asean chair, has been an early champion of closer India-Asean ties and has continued to push for closer links.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, during a visit last year, had urged India to engage more deeply with Asean and to improve air connectivity with the Asean grouping.

Ms Saran yesterday (wed)acknowledged that aviation links could be deepened with many of the Asean countries, and noted that India and Singapore had strong aviation ties with 484 flights connecting 16 cities.

She said a meeting of senior civil aviation officials would take place ahead of the summit to discuss deepening air links with Asean. The senior diplomat also called Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent visit to Singapore – for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas – Indonesia and Thailand a “curtainraiser” for the Asean leaders’ visit.

“A repeated refrain we picked up (during the visit of Ms Swaraj) was a desire on the part of all Asean countries for a greater presence of India, greater cooperation with India and greater integration economically and politically,” said Ms Saran.

India and Asean are marking 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership.

She noted that the lead-up to the Asean-India Commemorative Summit would also have 16 events, including an India-Asean hackathon and start-up festival from Saturday to next Wednesday and India-Asean business and investment summit on Jan 22 and 23.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2018, with the headline 'India gears up to welcome Asean leaders'. Print Edition | Subscribe