- Mar 03 2016
Speech by Foreign Secretary at Raisina Dialogue
New Delhi, March 2
I am delighted to join you all this morning and share my thoughts on India’s approach to Asian connectivity. Yesterday, this Conference heard our broad perspectives on this subject from the External Affairs Minister. I would like to develop in more detail some aspects of the framework that she laid out. We also had the privilege to listen to the views of leaders of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Seychelles. This morning, Minister Li Zhaoxing from China shared his view point. To some extent, my remarks seek to capture some of their concerns as well.
Let me start with the term connectivity itself. Like globalisation, it has always existed in human history. What has now changed is that we think of it in much sharper structured terms. It is also more salient in our daily life. And most important, it is less natural and more engineered. In Asia, it has tended to be more state-led. As we heard yesterday, it is both a driver and an outcome of national economic growth, with internal and external dimensions. For the purposes of this conversation, what is also noteworthy is that it has become – not without a reason – a yardstick to measure influence.
Like most things, connectivity begins at home and let me focus there. Put simply, by contemporary standards, we are a significantly under-connected nation. This is a major constraint on both our capabilities and our competitiveness. Fortunately, there is growing awareness of this limitation and what we see happening around us – however imperfectly – is a serious attempt to remedy that situation. We are investing substantially in the development of the road connectivity infrastructure with an emphasis on the north east and strategic border areas. The railway policy unveiled last week by the Government outlines an ambitious programme of transformation. Our maritime agenda envisages port development that would harness the capabilities of the private sector. It is also important that the nodes of outward connectivity are linked better to the hinterland. The integrated development of ports and the hinterland, the objective of our SAGARMALA project, would surely have profound consequences over time.
The Digital India initiative seeks to connect another billion alone in India to the Internet, and through it, not only to the larger world but also to its own government. This will have implications for their empowerment and on the quality of services they receive even from their elected representatives. Establishing partnerships with key countries is intended to attract best practices, investments and technology in all these areas. We advocate cooperative partnerships with our partners as much in our connectivity agenda within as without. For a lot of our partners, also for this reason, the promise of an India that is better connected within itself as well as with the world would be a positive development, not just for economic reasons but also strategically.
This effort to accelerate infrastructure building is clearly key to the larger goal of expanding manufacturing in India. That this correction is much needed – not just for its employment impact – is by now widely accepted. It is also central to the spread of digital connectivity, whose implications again need little explanation. These endeavours are linked to the quality of our human resources that, in turn, brings up issues of skilling, social awareness, urbanisation etc. Any assessment of the prospects of internal connectivity must place it in the context of comprehensive modernization, a framework I suggest that is much broader than just next generation reforms.
In this regard, allow me to point to some big picture issues that often tend to get ignored in a domestic connectivity debate. To a considerable extent, we are still struggling with the task of creating a truly integrated national market. Our challenges within the nation are not dissimilar from what normally happens in a region. That, in addition, we also have to cope with our regional limitations is a further complicating factor. This, of course, is a phase of the nation building process that we embarked on since independence. And it points to an unfinished agenda. We should also accept that our models of economic growth in the past have not laid adequate emphasis on building connectivity. Since competitiveness was not the primary driving force, neither was efficiency the preferred outcome. There are today enough examples that highlight what investment in connectivity can do to propel economic growth and social change. Not surprisingly, this has become a major focus of the strategy within.
There is also a legacy of colonial history to be considered, since it tended to skew our connectivity to the coastal regions, especially in the west. Restoring that balance is today further impelled by a shift in our own trade patterns towards the east. The partition of India also shrank our natural sense of the region and it is only an era of robust economic growth that can revive it decisively. It is also worth reflecting upon that an India that will become a stronger trading power – as we should expect from expanded manufacturing – will not only require better connectivity but will have greater resources to put that in place. This, of course, generates its own debate on the merits of our entering into regional and bilateral preferential trading arrangements. But that is probably a diversion today. The short point is that connectivity development will be a very critical aspect of a rising India. As it unfolds, its repercussions will extend beyond our shores. But we are still quite far from the day when it can be said that India is optimally exploiting its locational blessing.
Looking beyond our borders, there is little doubt that connectivity can impart that new momentum to SAARC and propel it to a higher orbit of cooperation. This is happening even as we speak, some of it through SAARC mechanisms, others through sub-regional solutions like BBIN, and the rest through bilateral or trilateral arrangements. In fact, the last two years have been remarkable for a string of developments pertaining to a wide spectrum of activities, many of which have been waiting to happen for years. They are obviously at different stages of conceptualisation and operationalisation. Today, the outcome of interactions among neighbours is replete with examples of road and rail building, power generation and transmission, waterway usage and shipping and so on. More than the achievements themselves, they represent a change in mindset. For us, in India, if there is a lesson, it is to be strategic and outcome-driven. External Affairs Minister yesterday highlighted some of the key connectivity projects with our neighbours that will eventually help transform this region. We are convinced that the logic of regional cooperation has indeed finally arrived in the region. It will be increasingly difficult to resist these winds of change.
You will recall that India’s first effort to go beyond the region was expressed as a Look East policy aimed at the ASEAN. There were a variety of factors at play, among them trade and investment considerations. Connectivity really took a secondary place. But over the years, it came into its own and the projects now underway with Myanmar can actually offer significant breakthroughs. The intensity with which we now address South East Asia is sought to be captured in the new terminology of ‘Act East’. Efforts to build physical connectivity should close the gap with economic and security linkages that have raced far ahead. The next goal is to go beyond ASEAN to the Asia Pacific. India’s interest in joining the APEC is understandable in that context.
If the eastern front is building upon longstanding policy, the western one is relatively more recent conceptually, even if India has had a historical presence in the Gulf. The Indian footprint there has resulted in a community of 7 million that is an impressive source of investment and remittances. But it was an evolutionary happening that was relatively autonomous of strategic calculations. Our energy dependence on the region was also dictated more by markets than by policy. That, by the way, is not without its advantages since unlike many other states of Asia, it locates our foreign policy in entrepreneurship rather than state determinism. It also holds possibilities of building on the inter-dependence generated by market forces that is likely to make connectivity more sustainable. The point, however, that I wish to emphasise is that we are no longer content to be passive recipients of outcomes. The combination of human and energy connectivity offers immense opportunities, magnified by the prospect that this region can serve as a bridge to nations further beyond. Our growing capabilities and stronger national branding, in fact, makes us a credible partner. We ourselves also have a more nuanced view of recent developments in the region. The interplay among these nations actually offers us new avenues of cooperation. I can confidently predict that ‘Act East’ would be matched with ‘Think West’.
If there are visible obstructions to this picture of growing connectivity, they are primarily on our north west. The absence of transit rights there is an impediment to trade, energy flows and economic integration. Normalisation of the situation in Iran is, therefore, particularly welcome. We are working to invest in the Chahbahar port, join the Ashgabat Agreement and participate in the International North South Transport Corridor. Combined with other ambitious bilateral initiatives, they could be game changers in Central Asia- a part of the world that historically and culturally has strong affinity with India.
The Indian Ocean, once regarded as a maritime frontier, is today increasingly seen as a connectivity pathway. Much of the world’s trade passes through it, as does that of India. Its economic potential spans a wide arc that goes well beyond its littoral limits. These waters must not only get better connected but remain free from non-traditional and traditional threats that could impede the seamless movement of goods, people and ideas. The attention that it has got from India’s leadership speaks of the promise it holds in our eyes. We take a collaborative and consultative approach to the maritime domain and have initiated the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) as well as the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Our twin objectives are to address common threats while unlocking the potential of the waters that join us.
India therefore supports a range of activities to that end, which extend from building coastal surveillance and off shore patrolling capabilities to offering hydrographic services and monitoring white shipping. We work closely with many of our maritime neighbours like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. We participate in regional arrangements like ReCAAP and the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) mechanism for maritime safety. Exercises that we conduct with different nations reflect our seriousness in ensuring shared security. Our record in providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief that was alluded to yesterday also speaks for itself. It follows from the principles stated by Prime Minister in March 2015 during his Indian Ocean Yatra that while the Indian Ocean littorals have the main responsibility for what we call – Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) – this approach is not exclusionary. The Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean, announced in January 2015, and the IONS are pertinent examples.
As you know, connectivity extends to the realm of ideas as well. Centuries of trading inter-linkages among the Indian Ocean littoral have led to criss-crossings across the seas and helped shape the demography, culture and character of all Indian Ocean countries. We have initiated a collaborative project called the ‘Mausam’ that celebrates these shared heritage, including by registering them with UNESCO by collective effort by the concerned countries. Our emphasis on retracing Buddhist links or on developing joint disciplines of traditional medicines in Asia are other examples of our efforts in this regard. Our celebration of the International Day of Yoga is to bring the humanity together to reflect on our common heritage with focus on physical and spiritual well being. There are more prosaic variants of this intent, that include promoting tourism, liberalising visa and maintaining diaspora links. With its huge human resources potential, there is much that India can do in this sphere.
All these endeavours feed into the changing connectivity scenario in Asia. The interactive dynamic between strategic interests and connectivity initiatives – a universal proposition – is on particular display in our continent. The key issue is whether we will build our connectivity through consultative processes or more unilateral decisions. Our preference is for the former and the record bears this out quite clearly. Wherever that option is on the table, as most recently it did in the AIIB, we have responded positively. But we cannot be impervious to the reality that others may see connectivity as an exercise in hard-wiring that influences choices. This should be discouraged, because particularly in the absence of an agreed security architecture in Asia, it could give rise to unnecessary competitiveness. Connectivity should diffuse national rivalries, not add to regional tensions. This is an issue that actually resonates beyond Asia because the rest of the world appreciates that the economic centre of gravity is shifting towards the continent. Indeed, if we seek a multi-polar world, the right way to begin is to create a multi-polar Asia. Nothing could foster that more than an open minded consultation on the future of connectivity.
A constructive discussion on this subject should address not just physical infrastructure but also its broader accompanying facets. Institutional, regulatory, legal, digital, financial and commercial connections are important, as is the promotion of the common cultural and civilizational thread that runs through Asia. Nurturing connectivity also requires a willingness to create arrangements which lead to higher levels of trust and confidence. A connected Asia must be governed by commonly agreed international norms, rules and practices. We need the discipline and restraint that ensure standards of behaviour, especially by and between States that jostle to widen their respective spaces in an increasingly inter-connected continent. Respect for the global commons should not be diluted under any circumstances. Much depends on the commitment of nations to uphold freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes. There should be no place for use or threat of use of force.
I think we all recognise the stakes. We are also conscious of the critical role that connectivity will play in shaping the destinies of Asian nations and peoples in the next decade. Connectivity itself has emerged as a theatre of present day geopolitics. When diplomats get agitated about lines on the map today, they are more likely to be discussing proposed road connections, rail lines, oil pipelines or maritime routes than contesting national boundaries. Who draws these lines; who agrees with them; what are the financial institutions to convert them into reality; what would be the modes of managing and implementing them once built – all these questions carry geopolitical significance. Naturally, every country tends to look at these questions from the view point of its own best interests. Connecting Asia successfully requires the judiciousness and wisdom to reconcile these differing points of view and agree on something that all stakeholders can live with.
The well-known journalist Nayan Chanda ends his particularly insightful book ‘Bound Together’ with these words: “We are in a position to know that the sum of human desires, aspirations and fears that have woven our fates together can neither be disentangled nor reeled back. But neither are we capable of accurately gauging how this elemental mix will shape our planet’s future. Still, compared to the past, when thickening global connectedness brought surprises, we are better equipped to look over the horizon at both the dangers and opportunities”. That is the assumption on which this Raisina Dialogue should deliberate on its theme.