India shoring up ties with Asean: Ansari to visit three countries

New Delhi, Aug 11 (IANS) Amid none too friendly ties between Asean and China due to Beijing’s aggressive posturing over the South China Sea, India is quietly but sure-footedly cementing its ties with the 10-nation forum, with Vice President Hamid Ansari to visit three key Southeast Asian neighbours – Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia – next month.

Ansari is to visit the countries in the middle of September and is a crucial segment of India’s Act East policy.

On Monday, Laos PDR Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Thongloun Sisoulith met the vice president in New Delhi in preparation for the visit. India and Laos also held the joint commission meeting on bilateral cooperation here on Monday.

Ansari’s visit is aimed to keep up the tempo of high level visits to these nations which have not seen Indian visits for some time.

“We have’nt had a visit to the countries for some time and wanted to fill up the gap,” an official source said, declining to be named. “We wanted to fill the gap, and the countries are important in their own right, and wanted to make sure there is no time lag there,” the source told IANS.

The visit is set to see some agreements being inked. India has a number of Line of Credits with Camdodia and Laos and is involved in a number of projects with both countries that are also part of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation forum of six countries along with India.

A main focus of the visit would be to push through some key agreements that have been pending for some time, the source revealed, declining to elaborate.

Ansari’s visit also comes days after an Association of South East Asian Nations ministerial meeting in Kuala Lumpur saw fierce discord among the members over criticising China’s moves in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s allies, including Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, were against taking a strong line in criticizing China for its land-reclamation activities in the South China Sea and for laying claim to almost the entire sea.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are upset by China’s aggressive land-reclamation activities on disputed reefs in the South China Sea and were keen on having a strong language included in the joint statement on Chinese land reclamation activities in the strategic sea.

China has triggered concern by expanding tiny reefs in the sea and constructing military posts, including runways and bunkers, on the the features.

China is Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and economic benefactor, with total commercial investments reportedly worth $10 billion and development assistance over $3 billion. Beijing has also provided military assistance and equipment, including trucks, helicopters, and aircraft to the Cambodian armed forces. It also built military training and medical facilities, and donated uniforms.

China also views Laos and Cambodia as a key part of its “One Belt and One Road” project.

China’s proposed Pan-Asian Railway that is a key part of the Silk Road Economic Belt infrastructure megaproject will see a rail line go through Laos and another through Myanmar and a third through Cambodia and Vietnam.

Laos views the Kunming and Vientiane rail line as key to its development, and has flagged the construction project as a major priority in the nation’s 8th Five Year Plan.

The Laotian railway line will be a high-speed rail line that will involve the construction of 154 bridges, 76 tunnels, and 31 train stations. China is also Laos’ top investor, with over $5 billion invested in the country.

While Indonesia isn’t officially involved in the South China Sea disputes, its tensions with China have risen after Beijing’s nine-dash line maps of sovereignty included Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. Last month, Indonesia announced plans to set up a new military base in the South China Sea.

Last week, Minister of State for External Affairs Gen. (retd) V.K. Singh was in Kuala Lumpur to attend the Fifth East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

Ahead of that on July 23-24, India and Asean held their first ever conference to trace their historical linkages from ancient times. Scholars, including archaeologists and artists, from the 10 countries read out papers and used audio visual presentations to bolster the close connect with the fast-growing region.

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