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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Southeast Asian nations and India vowed on Thursday to step up cooperation on maritime security, a move that comes amid tension with China in the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.
In a vision statement agreed at a summit in New Delhi, India and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) set their sights on a new "strategic partnership" that would bring closer political, security and economic cooperation.
Significantly, they underlined the need for freedom of navigation, a contentious issue because of competing claims with Beijing over parts of the South China Sea, though there was no mention of China in their statement.
In speeches, the Philippines and Vietnam referred to tensions in their region, but India's foreign minister sought to distance New Delhi from the wrangling over the South China Sea.
"There are fundamental issues there that do not require India's intervention," External Affairs Minister Salman Kurshid told a news conference, adding that issues of sovereignty "need to be resolved between the countries concerned".
An ASEAN summit ended in acrimony last month over China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, with its leaders failing to agree on a concluding joint statement.
The South China Sea has become Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint as Beijing's sovereignty claim over a huge, looping area has set it against Vietnam and the Philippines as the three countries race to tap possibly huge oil reserves. Malaysia and Brunei, also members of ASEAN, as well as Taiwan also claim parts of the sea.
Other members of ASEAN include Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia and Laos.
Last month, China announced a plan to board and search ships that illegally enter what it considers its territory in the South China Sea, prompting ASEAN's secretary-general to warn that the move could spark naval clashes.
"At this time of rising concerns about maritime issues, the need to maintain a high level of maritime security and freedom of navigation offers us ... an opportunity for enhanced cooperation," Philippines Vice President Jejomar Binay said.
Although India has no territorial claim in the region, it is hungry for energy and is exploring for oil and gas with Vietnam in an area contested by China. In future, it is expected to ship liquefied natural gas from Russia through the Malacca Straits.
This month, India's navy chief said he was ready to deploy vessels to the South China Sea to protect exploration interests there if needed. Last year, an Indian navy ship was challenged for entering 'Chinese waters' off the coast of Vietnam.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the summit that closer maritime cooperation with India was needed because 70 percent of the world's traffic in petroleum products passes through the Indian Ocean from the Middle East to East Asia.
"While the center of the global economy is shifting eastward, the Indian and Pacific Oceans have been and will become even more important in providing the vital sea routes for trade and commerce," Yudhoyono said.
The New Delhi summit underscored India's growing role in one of the world's fastest-growing regions.
Twenty years after India launched a 'Look East' diplomatic push to promote trade with a neglected neighboring region, the relationship is finally beginning to gain traction. Annual trade has nearly doubled in four years and India's growing economic clout make it appealing as a balance to other Asian powers.
However, China's trade relations and links with ASEAN are far deeper than India's.
Ian Storey, senior fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said many ASEAN nations want to see all major powers playing a role in their region so it is not dominated by one or two players, in particular China.
"So that presence by India in Southeast Asia would provide them additional hedging options," he said.
Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan