Southeast Asian nations and India reinforced ties with a “strategic partnership” to strengthen cooperation on maritime security. The agreement comes amid tensions in the region, stirred by China’s aggressiveness in claiming vast parts of the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and India upgraded their relationship to bring closer political, security and economic cooperation. The agreement also underlined the need for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which has become the biggest military flashpoint in the region because of competing claims over parts of its waters.

While New Delhi highlighted its growing role in the region, it distanced itself from the dispute. “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”.

India has said its navy was ready to deploy vessels to the South China Sea to protect exploration interests there if needed. The energy-starved country is exploring for oil and gas with Vietnam and seeks to ship liquefied natural gas from Russia through the Malacca Straits.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said closer maritime cooperation with India was necessary because 70% of the world’s vital trade routes pass through the Indian Ocean from the Middle East to East Asia.