Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out his vision for an open, inclusive “Indo-Pacific region” in a keynote speech Friday during the opening of a high-level international security conference in Singapore.
Modi told the Shangri-La Dialogue meeting that Southeast Asia was central to this regional vision, which he said must be based on a “common, rules-based order” where all nations had the right to equal access to the sea and skies.
“Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific,” Modi said, adding that his vision of the region was not limited to just those nations.
Modi’s speech came against the backdrop of tensions and security concerns within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc around China’s perceived territorial expansion into the disputed South China Sea, and as India – Asia’s second most populous nation next to China – competes with it for regional influence.
“This world is at a crossroad. There are temptations of the worst lessons of history. But, there is also a path of wisdom,” he said as he became the first Indian leader to give the keynote speech to open the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting billed as Asia’s premier security summit and that draws defense ministers and top officials from at least 40 countries.
This year’s meeting, the 17th edition of the dialogue, goes for three days.
“It summons us to a higher purpose: to rise above a narrow view of our interests and recognize that each of us can serve our interests better when we work together as equals in the larger good of all nations. I am here to urge all to take that path,” Modi told the audience.
The Indian prime minister said the region was not defined by geography but by a series of positive elements.
First, “it stands for free, open, inclusive region which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity.”
Second, Southeast Asia and ASEAN are central to the future of an Indo-Pacific region, he said.
“That is the vision that will always guide India, as we seek to cooperate for an architecture for peace and security in this region,” he said.
Modi said the third element was the belief that common prosperity and security required evolution through dialogue to establish a common rules-based order for the region. Rules and norms must be based on consent, not on the power of a few nations.
“It also means that when nations make international commitments, they must uphold them. This is the foundation of India’s faith in multilateralism and regionalism; and, of our principled commitment to rule of law,” he said.
As a fourth element, Modi stressed that all nations should have equal access to the sea and skies. And this would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.
“Solutions cannot be found behind walls of protection, but in embracing change,” Modi said.
He also warned against nations returning to the age of great rivalries for power.
“I have said this before: Asia of rivalry will hold us all back. Asia of cooperation will shape this century,” he said. “So, each nation must ask itself: Are its choices building a more united world, or forcing new divisions? It is a responsibility that both existing and rising powers have.”
By working together, he said, nations will be able to meet the real challenges of today.
“We will be able to ensure non-proliferation. We will be able to secure our people from terrorism and cyber threats,” he said.
Modi discussed India’s efforts to strengthen its military and to build on regional partnerships with ASEAN and other nations to push for peace and security while offering humanitarian and disaster relief. He specifically noted India’s military relations with Singapore, Vietnam and Japan.
Modi also addressed India’s relationship with the United States, Russia and China.
He talked about his informal summit in Russia 10 days ago, where he and President Vladimir Putin shared views on the need for a strong world order for dealing with today’s challenges.
Modi praised his nation’s global strategic partnership with the U.S. that continues to deepen, he said.
“An important pillar of this relationship is our shared vision for an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
As for China, Modi said no other country “has as many layers as our relations with China.”
“We have displayed maturity and wisdom in managing issues and ensuring a peaceful border,” he said, even as China pushes a major expansion program in Southeast and South Asia.
China is moving forward with its Belt and Road Initiative, a geopolitical strategy to build a vast network of ports, railways and roads that would connect China to the region. Political analysts said the massive infrastructure initiative involved a long-term strategy for economic expansion that would also lead to a quiet encirclement of India, China’s main rival in South Asia.
“I firmly believe that, Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests,” Modi said.
The Indian prime minister arrived in Singapore following visits to Indonesia and Malaysia. Modi came to Singapore after a brief stop in Kuala Lumpur, where he meet with Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old prime minister of Malaysia’s newly elected government.
“I have just paid my first visit to Indonesia, India’s neighbor, 90 nautical miles close and not 90 nautical miles apart,” he said.
The visit to Jakarta led to an agreement to strengthen defense ties including the development of a strategic naval port in Sabang at the mouth of the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest shipping channels in the world.
Modi, a Hindu, and Indonesia President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a Muslim, discussed the importance of interfaith dialogue to create peace while promoting democracy and human rights. They agreed to hold interfaith dialogues in each country in the coming year.
“My friend President Widodo and I upgraded India-Indonesia relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Among other shared interests, we have a common vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.