President Kovind recently embarked on a seven-day visit to the Philippines and Japan with an aim to expand bilateral cooperation with these countries as part of India’s Act East policy. President also attended business and community events like India-Philippines Business Conclave and the 4th ASEAN-India Business Summit. Highlights of the visit: Ø  India and Philippines signed four agreements covering maritime domain, security, tourism, science and technology, and culture. Ø  The agreement on Sharing of White Shipping Information: the two countries agreed to bolster the defence and maritime security partnership to make it a key pillar of bilateral cooperation, amidst China flexing its military muscles in the region. Ø  Agreement to cooperate in enhancing maritime security was signed by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and Indian Navy: It aims to enhance maritime security “through the sharing of information on non-military and non-government shipping vessels between the Philippines and India. INDIA PHILIPINES: Ø  Philippines has grown to realise the importance of India’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. Ø  Both countries share mutual complementarities which can be utilized to deepen trade and investment ties. Ø  India’s “Make in India” and next-generation infrastructure programmes and the Philippines’ “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure initiative present immense opportunities for companies and investors on both sides. Ø  Defence relationships between the two countries have been evolving in the areas of capacity building and training, exchange visits of delegations and naval and coast guard ship visits. Why focus on South East Asia:

  •         Growing Chinese influence and footprints in India’s backyard in South Asia and the littorals of the Indian Ocean, it seems logical for India to showcase its reach and the depth of its ties in China’s neighbourhood.
  •         Strengthening relations with the Philippines is important, given how the current Filipino President Duterte is seen as a pro-China figure.
  •         For long countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have voiced the need for India to do more in the region to reduce dependency on China, especially in the South China Sea. In 2019, two Indian naval ships, INS Kolkata and Shakti, joined their counterparts from the US, Japan, and the Philippines for a ‘Group Sail’ exercise through the contested waters of the South China Sea, underlining India’s commitment to working with partners to ensure safe and open sea lanes.
  •         India’s Indopacific vison: Prime Minister Modi clearly underlined that ASEAN forms the bedrock of India’s Indo-Pacific vision and strategy.
  •          The geographical location of South East Asia: Given the geographical location of Southeast Asia, the importance of including ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific dynamic has been recognized by the leading players of the Indo-Pacific region like Japan, the United States, and Australia as well.
  •         ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific: lays down the areas of cooperation (maritime cooperation, connectivity, UN Sustainable Development Goals, Economic and other areas of cooperation).
  •         Therefore, the fact that ASEAN Centrality has been harped on by India as a vital pillar in its Indo-Pacific vision is a step in the right direction.

There is a need to further facilitate trade between the two countries as even though ASEAN-India trade has jumped significantly in the past few years, there is still a long distance to be covered in order to reach the target of US$ 200 billion by 2022. Also read: India, ASEAN to review free trade pact in goods India-ASEAN FTA Source