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India-ASEAN foreign ministers talk Ukraine war impact; Prophet remarks row discussed ‘Informally’

"This Episode [on Remarks On Prophet] Is Another Stark Reminder Why We Need To Be So Careful And Why We Need To Strongly Reject Hate Speech...,” Said Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

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A photo from the India-ASEAN meet in New Delhi, on June 16, 2022. Photo: Twitter@narendramodi

New Delhi: With India and Southeast Asian countries articulating their worries about the adverse impact of the Ukraine war, the special gathering of foreign ministers on Thursday, June 16 voiced concerns about the rivalry of great powers impacting the region, even as the issue of offensive remarks against the Prophet Muhammad was also reportedly raised by some countries.

Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan told reporters that the issue is a “delicate subject” and was discussed at the meeting “informally”, according to the Singaporean news channel Channel News Asia.

“Let me just reflect views from Singapore’s perspective. I think this episode is another stark reminder why we need to be so careful and why we need to strongly reject hate speech, incendiary speech, speech which incites or aggravates, or causes insult or division within societies,” said Balakrishnan.

“And this is just another reminder and is an affirmation for why we take such a strict approach to this in Singapore.”

The 10-member Southeast Asian grouping has large countries like Indonesia and Malaysia that have condemned the remarks made by erstwhile Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma and party leader Naveen Kumar Jindal. Both Indonesia and Malaysia had also summoned Indian ambassadors to convey their condemnation.

The Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi tweeted that she “underlined the importance of tolerance in today’s multicultural society” at the multilateral meeting.

Impact of Russia-Ukraine war

Inaugurating the opening session, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar said India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations face geopolitical headwinds from the war in Ukraine and its impact on food and energy security, prices and supply chains. “India fully supports a strong, unified, prosperous ASEAN whose centrality in the Indo-Pacific is fully recognised,” he noted.

Singapore’s Balakrishnan, who co-chaired the meeting, said Russia’s actions have “upended the international system of rules and norms.”

Balakrishnan added that the “sharpening superpower rivalry” between the US and China directly affects all of Asia. “These developments, if unchecked, can threaten the sole system of peace and stability which we have depended on for the basis of our growth and development and prosperity over many decades,” he said.

Later during the ministerial session of the Delhi Dialogue on June 16, Thursday evening, Jaishankar further detailed the key points of the increasing global anxiety over geopolitical developments worldwide.

“Now, the world is currently experiencing turbulence which, along with the consequences of the pandemic, has made the global outlook even more uncertain and complex. Developments in our own region too, have had their implications, whether we speak of Afghanistan or of Myanmar. Further away, the conflict in Ukraine is exacerbating concerns over food, fertilizer and our fuel security. This global scenario highlights the need for countries of the Indo-Pacific to enhance cooperation and, in fact, to stand together,” he said.

The Cambodian foreign minister Prak Sokhonn also said that “peace, stability and prosperity of our region are under immense strain as a result of many geopolitical and social-economic factors.”

“The major power rivalries that continue to intensify, especially in recent months, the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and most noticeably, the spillover effect of the Russia-Ukraine conflict are only the most obvious ones,” said the minister. Cambodia holds the annual chairman’s post of ASEAN.

Similarly, Indonesia’s Retno Marsudi said that “what happened in Ukraine is a wake-up call for us in Indo-Pacific, including ASEAN and India.”

She noted that the war in Ukraine “brings to light deep trust deficits”. “We should be very careful. We should prevent the virus (of trust deficit) from spreading extensively in the Indo-Pacific”.

The Indonesian minister reiterated that the “architecture in Indo-Pacific” has to be inclusive. “We open our doors for collaboration to all countries that subscribe to the same principle,” she said at the Delhi Dialogue.

Earlier, the Cambodian minister had raised concern that the multiplicity of Indo-Pacific strategies by different countries would have to be appropriately managed to prevent confrontation.

“….regional architecture shift has led to a proliferation of many Indo-Pacific initiatives as proposed by our ASEAN dialogue partners. All Indo-Pacific initiatives or strategies share many common elements with ASEAN at the centre. That said, they do nevertheless have varying areas of emphasis and agenda. If not well managed, I am afraid they could become confrontational tools for geopolitical competition and, even worse, military competition at the expense of regional peace, stability and prosperity. Therefore, we should seek to ensure that these initiatives complement and reinforce one another and contribute to regional peace and stability,” he said.

Jaishankar claimed that India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative strongly converged with ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific strategy. “I am glad that this initiative has found the support of countries of the Indo-Pacific, including some of our ASEAN partners, notably, Indonesia and Singapore. We would welcome the interest of others in this initiative”.

Among the ministers, the Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah was the only one to publicly dwell on the protracted issue of Myanmar. He had already said ahead of his India visit that he had planned to raise the matter during the Special India-ASEAN meeting.

Myanmar’s foreign minister did not attend the meeting. At the weekly briefing on June 9, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said that Myanmar’s participation would be as per the “ASEAN consensus”. “It’s an ASEAN-India event, and Myanmar is an ASEAN member state, so participation from Myanmar in the SAIFMM would be or is as per the ASEAN consensus in this regard,” he said. Myanmar has been barred from the ASEAN high-level meetings since October 2021 for not cooperating in implementing the Five Point consensus.

Abdullah stated that the “only way to resolve the problems in Myanmar is for people to talk to each other for dialogue and reconciliation, but those dialogues and reconciliation must be based on certain values.”

“We should implement it (five-point consensus) to the full… I don’t envy the two special envoys. We cannot give up on Myanmar. We must continue… By the time ASEAN leaders meet again, we have to see results… if not, we have to find creative ways to get it done,” he said.

(With agency inputs)