NEW DELHI -- India urged members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to strengthen regional maritime cooperation at an international conference that began on Thursday.
India's interests in the Indo-Pacific were "vast" and its engagement "deep," said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at the ministerial session of the two-day Delhi Dialogue. "Our vision, in one word, is SAGAR which stands for -- Security and Growth for All in the Region."
Swaraj was speaking at the 10th edition of the annual meeting, an event held to discuss political, security, economic and sociocultural engagement between India and the 10 ASEAN member states.
In his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that his government's vision for the Indo-Pacific was that of "a free, open, inclusive region."
"Southeast Asia is at its center," he told those gathered. "That is the vision that will always guide India, as we seek to cooperate for an architecture for peace and security." Modi had not long returned from his first visit to Indonesia, where he and President Joko Widodo upgraded bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership.
On Thursday, Swaraj reiterated calls for a rules-based order that took into account the needs of all, irrespective of size and strength. There "is an imperative need to eschew protectionism, nationalism and avoid a return to great power rivalries," she said.
Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishna seconded her comments.
"We have always firmly and resolutely supported freedom of navigation as an existential right, including freedom of overflight, and respect for international law," he said, adding that Singapore would always oppose any attempt by anyone to threaten or constrain that right in the region or surrounding waters.
At another session, Swaraj's deputy and former army chief V.K. Singh said that India-ASEAN maritime cooperation would set the tone for the future of the Indo-Pacific region. "It will have all the keys to unlock the prosperity for common good and goals for our people and provide us with seas which are safe, secure and free for all."
Maritime ties with ASEAN are of particular importance to India, as 40% of its trade passes through the Strait of Malacca and the country wants to further develop its shipping networks.
Security was an important aspect of port development, said Pankaj Jha, who teaches defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University. Singapore had built up expertise in systems that control port entry, he added.
"Given the fact that the Indian naval establishment is also working on managing its ships and protecting them from sabotage and other activities, it is high time not only ASEAN but other countries like Japan should be engaged in the larger scheme of things," said Jha, a former deputy director of the National Security Council Secretariat.
Indian officials also held the fourth round of maritime affairs talks with their Japanese counterparts on Thursday. The two sides exchanged views on issues of mutual interest, including the Indo-Pacific region, maritime security, cooperation in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and search and rescue.
Together, India and ASEAN have a population of 1.85 billion, a quarter of the global total, and a gross domestic product of over $3.8 trillion.
"We place ASEAN at the center of our dream of an Asian century," said Swaraj. "It goes without saying that India and ASEAN will play a vital role in ensuring this."