India today said freedom of navigation was “imperative” for enhancing regional peace and stability and boost trade, in a clear reference to the South China Sea dispute where China has been ramping up its military strength. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said India wants to further boost cooperation with ASEAN and commerce, connectivity and culture will be the key areas to strengthen the ties with the regional bloc. She was speaking at Delhi Dialogue, an annual forum aimed at enhancing India’s interaction with the ASEAN countries. She said India and ASEAN are facing the common traditional and non-traditional security challenges and both sides have consciously forged collaborations, bilaterally and through ASEAN-led fora such as East Asia Summit and expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum, to ensure regional peace and security. “Freedom of navigation and respect for international law, notably UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) is therefore imperative in this context,” she said. Her comments came amid China’s growing military assertiveness in the South China Sea where it has sent naval ships and military jets to “warn off” a US missile destroyer sailing close to an artificial island built by it. Speaking on the occasion, Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam Pham Binh Minh also referred to the South China Sea dispute sought India’s support to maintain safety, security and freedom of navigation in the area. “We welcome India’s active contribution and hope it will continue to support our efforts to maintain safety, security and freedom of navigation in order to promote peace and cooperation in the South China Sea on the basis of international law,” he said.
Pham said prosperity of ASEAN and India depends on security and safety of the trading routes in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Vietnam is also party to the maritime dispute. India has commercial interests in the South China Sea and has been pressing for resolving the dispute as per United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, besides advocating favoured freedom of navigation in the resource rich area. Swaraj said India will continue to step up cooperation with the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states in the areas of cyber security, anti-piracy and other transnational crimes. She said India was committed to enhance maritime cooperation with ASEAN to realise the full potential of the ocean economy. “We will continue to step up cooperation in countering terrorism, cyber security, anti-piracy and other transnational crimes,” she said.
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Contending that India’s cultural linkages with Southeast Asia has been “without any conquest or colonolisation”, Swaraj said it’s engagement with the ASEAN is at the “heart”of its Act East Policy. “Future focus areas of cooperation between ASEAN member states and India can be described in terms of three Cs- commerce connectivity and culture. This rests on stability and security,” the External Affairs Minister said. The inaugural session of the two-day forum was attended by ministers and top officials from Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mynamar and Thailand. “We remain committed to ASEAN to enhance our maritime cooperation to realise the full potential of our ocean economy,” Swaraj said. She also highlighted the government’s reform initiatives to boost trade and investment in India and referred to the rolling out of the Goods and Services Tax, calling it the biggest tax reform since independence. “These steps have opened new opportunities for trade and investments into India.
“I invite companies from ASEAN countries to take advantage of these opportunities for investments in India in numerous sectors such as smart cities, roads, highways, ports, railways, power and urban infrastructure,” she said.