ASEAN seeks "larger role' for India amid East Sea tensions

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Indian sweepers walk past a billboard of an aircraft on final approach outside the venue of the 2nd India-ASEAN Business Fair and Business Conclave in New Delhi on December 18. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is seeking better cooperation with India including in marine security.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) expects to forge closer security and economic ties with India at an ongoing high-level meeting in New Delhi.

The ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, held for the first time on December 20-21, marks the 10th anniversary of summit-level meetings and the 20th anniversary of sectoral dialogue partnership between the two sides.

The meeting is a ceremonial summit to mark 20 years of cooperation with India and will not include detailed negotiations on regional issues, Reuters quoted India's Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid as saying.

But ministry officials said the leaders would also produce a statement that would reiterate a commitment to freedom of navigation, a hot issue because of ongoing territorial conflicts in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea, the newswire reported.

China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - are embroiled in sovereignty disputes over the East Sea, which is believed to be rich in fossil fuel and other resources.

Vietnam and the Philippines have strongly opposed China's claims over 80 percent of the waters covering 1.7 million square kilometers.

"They want India to play a larger role. Those concerns are only increasing given the uncertain situation that is emerging," Reuters quoted Raja Mohan, a strategic affairs expert at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank, as saying.

According to a Wednesday report on the Vietnamese government's website, ASEAN and India are looking to strengthen bilateral relations and cooperation to meet "each side's strategic targets."

"In the context of complicated regional and international situations, ASEAN wants to develop relations with India to better ensure peace, stability and development of the region, including in security and marine navigation," it said.

On December 4, Vietnam condemned China for several wrongful acts it has committed recently.

On November 27, Hainan province of China adopted the revised "Border security regulations for Hainan's coastal regions," which covers the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagoes that is sovereign to Vietnam.

Earlier, on November 23, China published a map of "Sansha," which includes Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes and the exclusive economic zone as well as the continental shelf of Vietnam.

Most recently, in the early morning of November 30, while carrying out normal seismic survey activities deep inside Vietnam's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, the Binh Minh 02 seismic survey vessel was intentionally blocked and its cable severed by two Chinese fishing vessels that ignored warning signals from Vietnam's authorized forces.

Counterweight

India's FM Khurshid said in a recent interview that India and ASEAN need far greater connectivity with more roads, railways and flights.

"There is still a lot that can done, and we hope that over the next few months and years we will see considerable improvement," he said, adding that India is seeking to double the number of diplomats in a 10-year plan for better international relations.

Regarding the territorial claims in the East Sea, he said it is not something that cannot be resolved.

"It is certainly not something in which we are directly involved, we've said categorically that there should be compliance and respect for the law of the sea," he said.

But India's "Look East" policy is pushing it to take more actions in the region.

India declared this month it is ready to deploy naval vessels to the East Sea to protect its oil-exploration interests there. The Indian state-run explorer Oil and Natural Gas
Corp. (ONGC) has a stake in a Vietnamese gas field at the Nam Con Son basin.

"When the requirement is there, for example, in situations where our country's interests are involved, for example ONGC... we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that," Indian navy chief Admiral D.K Joshi was quoted by Reuters as saying.

India has said it has legitimate interests in freedom of navigation, open sea lanes of communication, and resource exploitation. India's trade with East and Southeast Asia (South Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, and ASEAN) is now greater than with the EU or US.

Vinod Saighal, former general director of the Indian army's military training unit, said the Indian naval chief Joshi's statement need not be misinterpreted and that India is in no way becoming a party to or interfering in any way with the disputes in the East Sea.

"Its position is clear. Respect for the Code of Conduct by all parties; peaceful dialogue between the disputants; and avoidance of military confrontations.

"In the same way India as a major regional power has to protect its legitimate interests in peaceful commercial activities in the territorial waters of friendly countries, where it has been invited to help in exploration. In the present case in the EEZ of Vietnam," he told Vietweek.

Saighal said India's maritime and economic interests are "free movement of ships and commerce in the region."

He said China is "evidently" acting unilaterally in contravention of the United Nations Convention on The Law of The Sea (UNCLOS) to which China and Vietnam are signatories.

"I do not think any nation can accept that. Should it go ahead with the threat [to board and seize boat in disputed waters] after January 1, the situation might get out of control... Should it go ahead
it will invite the condemnation of almost the entire world and jeopardize its own long-term interests in a major way, possibly irreversibly," he said.

US to deploy newest weapons to Asia-Pacific

The United States plans to deploy some of its newest warships and other hi-tech weapons to the Asia-Pacific as part of a strategic shift to the region, a US defense official said Wednesday.

The Pentagon will send P-8 submarine-hunting aircraft, cruise missiles, Virginia-class submarines, coastal combat ships and F-35 fighter jets to Asian ports and bases in coming years, the senior official told reporters

"What you're seeing is part of a bigger effort, the Pacific theater will get the newest weapons systems first," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon has promoted a tilt to Asia after a decade of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reflecting concern over China's growing military power and its assertive stance in territorial disputes with its neighbors.

The United States already plans to deploy more than half of its fleet to the Asia-Pacific and to station four littoral combat ships - speedy new vessels designed to operate near coastlines - for rotational deployments in Singapore.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is still in development, could be deployed at the Iwakuni air station in Japan's Yamaguchi prefecture by 2017.

Washington also is providing Japan with another powerful X-band radar to bolster its missile defenses, a move announced in September.

The senior US defense official, recounting recent talks in Southeast Asian capitals, said governments were watching closely to see how China's new political and military leadership will handle the territorial arguments.

"There was palpable concern and deep concern" over Beijing's recent actions on the South China (East) Sea, the official said.

He was referring to tough new maritime rules from China's Hainan province, a controversial map in new Chinese passports and allegations that Chinese fishing boats cut the seismic cables of a Vietnamese geological survey vessel.

Hainan province adopted new regulations last month allowing local police to board and expel foreign ships entering waters it considers under Chinese jurisdiction.

And Beijing infuriated its neighbors by issuing new passports containing a map showing its claim to nearly the whole of the South China Sea.

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