India and Thailand have agreed to increase joint military exercises and patrolling in the Indian Ocean, signalling a deepening defence cooperation and growing Indian engagement with South-east Asia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday held talks with his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is on a three-day visit to India to boost business and defence ties.
"The Prime Minister and I have agreed to forge a closer partnership in the fields of defence and maritime cooperation... to meet our bilateral interests and to respond to our shared regional goals," Mr Modi told reporters.
He listed military exercises, cooperation on counter-piracy on the seas, deeper engagement in naval patrolling and defence production as priority areas, indicating that Thailand was an important part of India's Act East policy.
In one sign of closer defence cooperation, India's army chief Dalbir Singh Suhag, who does not typically sit in on these meetings, participated in official talks yesterday.
India has sharpened its focus on South-east Asia in recent times, with Mr Modi renaming India's policy towards the region to Act East from the previous Look East policy.
There have been some high-level political engagements between India and Asean countries and, in March this year, India held one of its largest military exercises on its territory involving all 10 Asean states.
These exchanges come at a time when tension is rising in the region over China's competing territorial claims with several Asean states in the South China Sea.
A joint statement released after yesterday's talks said the two leaders "expressed their desire to further enhance the Asean-India Strategic Partnership".
The Thai Prime Minister also alluded to India's growing importance in the region where many see the world's third-largest economy as a counterbalance to China.
"India is a power in Asia, increasingly playing an important role in... the region and beyond," he said.
The two leaders also agreed to "prioritise" the completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, which would establish a land route to South-east Asia through India's north-east.
Analysts say there is scope for India to do more in South-east Asia. "Asean does have expectations of India and is comfortable with India's growth (in the region)," said Ms Leela Ponappa, a former deputy national security adviser.