Leaders of all ten ASEAN nations will be the ‘Guests of Honour’ at the Republic Day parade this year as India woos the vibrant and resource-rich region in the face of China’s aggressive posturing against some of the South-east Asian countries on issues pertaining to the South China Sea.

Addressing a media briefing here on Wednesday, Preeti Saran, Secretary (East) in the External Affairs Ministry, said leaders of all the ten ASEAN nations—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—have confirmed their participation to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations. ‘’It will be a landmark event…the participation of ten leaders at the Republic Day celebrations is unprecedented,’’ she added.

She said the ASEAN leaders would start arriving in New Delhi on 24 January for the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to be held the next day. The summit would mark 25 years of the establishment of relations between India and ASEAN. Three ‘C’—Commerce, Connectivity and Culture—would be the themes of the day-long summit.

On the day of the summit, President Ram Nath Kovind will host a luncheon banquet in honour of the visiting leaders followed by a retreat Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It would be followed by the plenary of the summit. The PM will host a gala dinner in honour of his ASEAN guests in the evening.

The retreat at the Rashtrapati Bhavan will provide the PM an opportunity to discuss India’s relations with ASEAN countries and how the two sides could further strengthen their partnership.

India has also planned several other ASEAN related events in the run-up to the summit, including the India-ASEAN startup meet in Hyderabad, students’ summit and business events. New Delhi has also invited ‘Ramayana’ troupes from all the ten ASEAN nations for participation in the Republic Day parade.

Responding to questions, Saran said India enjoyed a robust relationship with all ASEAN countries in different sectors, including defence. New Delhi also looked forward to being awarded more oil and gas exploration projects in the region. Her comments are significant since China had objected to India undertaking oil exploration projects in the blocks allotted to Vietnam in the South China Sea. Beijing has been at loggerheads with Vietnam, the Philippines and a few other ASEAN countries on maritime issues in the South China Sea.

Saran reiterated that India favoured freedom of navigation in maritime waters in accordance with international laws and the threat of use of force was not acceptable to it, in an apparent reference to China’s aggressive posturing in the disputed sea.