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India to court ASEAN leaders as it seeks edge over China

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By Agence France-Presse

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will host 10 Southeast Asian leaders as guests of honour at India’s Republic Day celebrations as New Delhi seeks to blunt China’s influence in the region.

India will host the leaders at a commemorative summit on January 25 to mark a quarter century of ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the foreign ministry said Wednesday.

Traditionally just one foreign dignitary is feted as guest of honour at the Republic Day parade where India showcases its military might with a procession of troops and weaponary.

But this year the leaders of Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei will be given the honour, the first time such a bloc has attended, India’s foreign ministry said.

“We are delighted and honoured that all the 10 Asean leaders have confirmed their participation,” said Preeti Saran, a top foreign ministry official.

Modi has been aggressively showcasing India as an alternative to China through his “Act East” policy, pursuing closer trade and cultural ties with the bloc of nations to counter the influence of its regional rival.

The prime minister will meet with the leaders for “free and frank” discussions during the two-day visit where regional maritime security will feature strongly on the agenda, officials said.

It is unclear whether this will include discussions of China’s large-scale land reclamation around disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea where some ASEAN nations have overlapping claims.

“India is consolidating itself as an alternative to China and showcasing itself as an investment destination,” Jayshree Sengupta, a researcher with Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, told AFP. (AFP)