India rolled out a red carpet welcome to leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to mark 25 years of New Delhi's ties with the ASEAN bloc, as part of India's "Act East" policy.
All 10 heads of states from ASEAN (comprising of Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Laos and Brunei) were invited as chief guests at India's 69th Republic Day celebrations, a move dubbed as "unprecedented" by diplomats and analysts.
The ASEAN leaders witnessing the grand parade at Rajpath - the main avenue in the heart of New Delhi - was an event high on symbolism.
It's unprecedented that all the 10 ASEAN leaders were invited. It's an indicator that India is looking at deeper engagement with the ASEAN leaders.
Manoj Kewalramani, a consultant at The Takshashila Institution
Manoj Kewalramani, a consultant at The Takshashila Institution, a Bangalore-based think-tank, says the Republic Day invitation was a "very positive move".
"It's unprecedented that all the 10 ASEAN leaders were invited. It's an indicator that India is looking at deeper engagement with the ASEAN leaders," he said.
Speaking at the ASEAN-India gathering on Thursday, with the theme "Shared Values, Common Destiny", Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused on the need to boost maritime collaboration.
"India shares the ASEAN vision for rule-based societies and values of peace. We are committed to working with ASEAN nations to enhance collaboration in the maritime domain," Modi said.
New Delhi also signed bilateral deals with some of the member states.
India's emphasis on maritime ties is significant as China and some ASEAN nations have clashed over the issue of the South China Sea.
India has forged closer military and business ties with some ASEAN members, including Vietnam, which has been at loggerheads with Beijing over the South China Sea.
"The presence of the 10 ASEAN leaders at the Republic Day function in New Delhi reiterates India's commitment to strengthen the cultural, social and religious bonding and expand economic engagement, besides regaining the much-deserved strategic space in the region," said Sheshadri Chari, a member of the National Executive of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In 1991, India adopted its "Look East" policy as part of a focus to strengthen trade and strategic relations with Southeast Asian nations. But progress has been slow.
India's trade with ASEAN has grown from $2.9bn in 1993 to $71bn last year, compared with China-ASEAN trade at $450bn. Beijing aims to take the trade to $1 trillion by 2020.
After coming to power in 2014, Modi rechristened the "Look East" policy to "Act East", with commerce, connectivity and culture as the guiding themes to boost engagement with the bloc.
"There is a lot of trade that can happen. What India needs to do in this context is the first step towards this, to establish connectivity, more flights, more networks, more business-to-business ties," Kewalramani from The Takshashila Institution said.
|Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasised the need to 'redouble efforts to promote trade and investment' [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]|
'Close cultural and historical ties'
Modi offered a $1bn credit line to ASEAN member countries in 2015, but India-led infrastructure projects, such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, have been beset by delays.
India has a lot to catch up to as China has invested heavily in the region as part of its "Belt and Road" initiative, and Japan is a big player in terms of investment.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the 2018 ASEAN chair, emphasised the need to "redouble efforts to promote trade and investment" in an editorial in The Times of India newspaper.
Lee highlighted India's ties with Southeast Asia date back more than 2,000 years, something the Indian prime minister also noted in an editorial published in 27 newspapers across the 10 ASEAN countries.
As a goodwill gesture, India announced its offer of 1,000 scholarships to doctoral students in IITs - the country's top technology institute - and bestowed Padma Shri, one of India's top civilian awards, on one eminent citizen from each ASEAN nation.
2019 will be marked as the year of India-ASEAN tourism. Currently, ASEAN nationals form just three percent of India's total tourism arrivals.
'Not a counterbalance to China'
Many commentators have suggested India's ASEAN outreach is a counter to China, which has deepened its engagement in the Indian Ocean, establishing closer ties with Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
But Kewalramani, who researches Chinese foreign policy, says New Delhi's engagement with ASEAN should not be seen as a counterbalance to China.
"Yes, there is an element of competing with China, but I don't think that's a predominant element," he said.
China's foreign affairs ministry said it was open to "normal cooperation between Indian and ASEAN countries".
But it was critical of the Indian media, a section of which projected India's move as a challenge to China.
"We have noted that in recent times, certain Indian media tend to associate every move of Indian government and leaders with China immediately," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.
"I don't know how the Indian government may think of this, but in my opinion, it reflects that those Indian media with such opinions and speculations are too unconfident about their countries and distrustful of China."
In recent years, India and China have cooperated on a number of global issues, such as climate change and anti-protectionism, as US President Donald Trump has been pushing protectionism in international trade.
In the past four years, Modi has made a whirlwind tour of the world, including visits to all 10 ASEAN nations, as his government looks to boost trade ties with the biggest bloc in Southeast Asia.
"There are of course long-term strategic goals, India needs to move beyond its neighbourhood and needs to engage with the ASEAN region, which is a vibrant and fast-growing region," Kewalramani said.
Additional reporting by Zeenat Saberin from New Delhi