India will be hoping that Delhi weather will be the barometer of the relationship: very warm. In just sheer milestones, the meeting has many riding on it. The two-day Special ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (SAIFMM) is being held in India for the first time. It comes at a landmark year: 30 years of dialogue with the ASEAN, ten years of the Strategic Partnership with ASEAN and a year that has been designated as ASEAN India friendship.
But beyond just the numbers, the meeting underlines India's long engagement with ASEAN. It also comes at a crucial time for the region and India.
“This path has become even more arduous with geopolitical headwinds which we face due to developments in Ukraine and its knock-on effects on food and energy security as well as fertilizer and commodities prices, and logistics and supply chain disruptions,'' said the minister of external affairs S. Jaishankar in his opening remarks.
While Jaishankar was careful not to mention Russia, or even China—going instead hinting at it with “geopolitical challenges and uncertainties”—foreign minister of Singapore Vivian Balakrishnan chose not to do plain speak. In his opening remarks, Balakrishnan said that the last two years had been the “most challenging''. “The Russian invasion in my view had upended the whole system,'' he said. “The sharpening of superpower rivalry between the USA and China has direct implications on all of us in Asia,'' he said. And if left “unchecked'' can “threaten the peace and prosperity'' of the whole region.
India will certainly be looking to deepen its ties with ASEAN. As Jaishankar said “identify a new set of priorities''. The co-chairs' statement of the meeting reflects both the attempt to build closer bonds and identify new areas. There is an emphasis on regional connectivity projects, focussing on an “open, secure, interoperable and user empowering digital connectivity ecosystem'', especially for healthcare. Climate change too is an area to focus on.
Apart from strengthening the relationship with the region, the meeting has also seen India choosing to follow the “ASEAN consensus'' and not invite the Myanmar military leader to the conference. This is very much toeing the line by ASEAN, which late last year chose to block the military from attending the summits. India has been playing the balancing act with Myanmar—there has been high-level engagement with the foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visiting the country in December 2021.