Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived here on Sunday to attend high-level meetings on the sidelines of the Association of South East Asian Nations summit, which throbs with greater intensity due to the expected presence of U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, a likely faceoff within ASEAN over the South China Sea dispute and a proposal that seeks to pull down tariff barriers within the region.

On the sidelines, civil society organisations have been urging ASEAN and its dialogue partners, including India, to raise their voice against clashes in Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims, lacunae in the human rights pact approved by ASEAN and alleged crackdown on proponents of free elections in the host country, Cambodia.

Apart from attending the India-ASEAN summit and the East Asia Summit (10 ASEAN members- plus eight dialogue partners), Dr. Singh is expected hold half-a-dozen bilateral meetings including one with Mr. Wen. His interaction with Mr. Obama has not been confirmed but informed sources say even if a structured meeting is not possible, the Prime Minister could have a “pull aside,” which is a brief interaction in an informal setting.

India’s priorities

In his statement before leaving for Cambodia, Dr. Singh indicated where India’s priorities lay. “This year, we are preparing to launch negotiations for an RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership] among ASEAN and its FTA partners, including India. This is a giant step towards creation of an economic community in the region. This forum also serves as a useful platform for enhancing cooperation in the region and discussing regional security issues,” he said while describing the East Asia summit as the foremost forum for promoting peace, stability and prosperity in Asia Pacific. Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma said India intended adding more muscle to the FTA by sealing negotiations on inclusion of services and investment before it holds the first ever India-ASEAN summit a month later on its soil.

Over the next two days, Dr. Singh will be discussing greater road and port connectivity to other ASEAN countries via Myanmar. The U.S. has also been encouraging an Indian pivot towards Asia Pacific, and officials discussed the possibility of a route through northern Myanmar to Hanoi. India is developing a port in Myanmar which will supplement the congested Siliguri corridor to “unleash the potential of north-eastern India,” according to Mr. Sharma.

Economic integration

While India will be proactive on the economic integration front although it has reservations about attempts by some countries to hustle others in the RECP, it will keep its own counsel on the South China Sea. Mr. Sharma brushed aside queries on India’s stand over China’s territorial disputes with at least four ASEAN members, saying the issue was not on the agenda of the East Asia Summit. But it is a hot topic in ASEAN proper, especially after its Foreign Ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué in July due to differences over handling the South China Sea issue.

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