Maritime 'blue economy' key focus of India-Asean cooperation

A giant lantern decorated with the Asean logo displayed at the entrance of the venue of the Asean Regional Forum meeting in Manila on Aug 3, 2017.
A giant lantern decorated with the Asean logo displayed at the entrance of the venue of the Asean Regional Forum meeting in Manila on Aug 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Maritime cooperation has emerged as a key area of engagement between India and Asean as New Delhi steps up its links with South-east Asia under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Act East Policy.

At the heart of this so-called "blue economy" lies the Indian government's commitment to enhance connectivity between its north-eastern region and neighbouring Asean cities.

Ms Preeti Saran, secretary (East) in India's External Affairs Ministry, highlighted the importance New Delhi attaches to Asean-Indian cooperation in the maritime domain in her opening address at the 10th Delhi Dialogue on Thursday (July 19).

At a workshop on blue economy held on Wednesday ahead of the Dialogue, she also pointed out the close maritime ties between the two sides.

"Asean and India are maritime neighbours," she said, adding that the blue economy will be a key facilitator for growth and development of the Indo-Pacific region.

Noting the great potential for cooperation in this area, she said: "Through the efficient harnessing of blue resources, including through the use of new and emerging technologies, the issues of poverty, food insecurity, unemployment and ecological imbalance can be effectively tackled."

The subject of enhancing air, land and sea connectivity was also a main focus of discussions at the Delhi Dialogue as participants noted the importance of such links to the success of cooperation between north-east India and Asean.

"Enhancing connectivity is the key to unlock the prosperity of this region," said Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh in his opening address at a panel discussion with the chief ministers of north-eastern states.

North-east India has been dubbed the "gateway to South-east Asia". But more than just a "gateway", the region should strive to be the "hub of India's Act East Policy", said Mr Ram Madhav, chairman of the India Foundation.

"With its vastness, diverse natural resources and literate, English-speaking population, the region can provide great opportunities with great value," said Mr Madhav, who is also a senior member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Noting that north-east India shares a border with five countries- China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal - Mr Madhav emphasised: "North-east India is the centre of gravity of the Act East Policy."

The Indian government's commitment to the Act East Policy - which covers a wider scope of cooperation than the previous Look East Policy and is more result-oriented - is apparent at this year's Delhi Dialogue.

It saw the leaders of all eight north-eastern states coming together at various panel discussions at the two-day event.

Most pointed out the proximity between the region and Asean cities - the city of Guwahati, in Assam, is nearer to Tamu in Myanmar than it is to Kolkata. The closeness goes beyond geography as the two regions share a common history, culture and tradition. 

Many ethnic groups in north-east India come from countries such as Thailand and Myanmar.

Besides trade and tourism, participants also called for greater educational and cultural exchanges, especially the setting up of institutions for South-east Asian studies in collaboration with institutes such as Singapore's ISEAS.

There have also been calls for Asean nations to set up consulates in Assam, the fastest growing state in north-east India.

The Delhi Dialogue is an annual gathering of political and business leaders, policy makers and think tankers to discuss politico-security, economic and socio-cultural engagement between India and the Asean bloc.

Speakers at the two-day event include Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and India Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj.