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EAM’s address at the inaugural session of 2nd ASEAN-India Network of Think Tanks (AINTT) Conference in Laos

September 10, 2013

Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lao PDR Dr. Thongloun Sisoulith
Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN for Corporate & Community Affairs Dr. A.K.P. Mochtan
Director General, RIS Dr. Biswajit Dhar
Distinguished Panelists and Speakers from ASEAN countries
Members of Think Tank Community in the region
Ladies and gentlemen

I am delighted to inaugurate the 2nd Round Table of the ASEAN-India Network of Think Tanks in this beautiful and serene city of Vientiane. I would, in particular, like to extend my support to RIS for their decision to rotate the AINTT Round Table between India and ASEAN Member States. The choice of Vientiane to host the 2nd Round Table will allow Indian and ASEAN members of the strategic community to strengthen their linkages with the Institute of Foreign Affairs of Lao PDR, the partner to this Round Table.

The AINTT was an initiative announced by Prime Minister of India during the 7th ASEAN-India Summit in Thailand in 2009, to provide an essential bridge between the think tank communities in ASEAN countries and India. It was felt that the strategic community in the region could contribute usefully towards policy decisions by the Governments of ASEAN countries and India to further strengthen the ASEAN-India Dialogue Partnership. As you are aware, the process of adding substance and 'meat on the bones' of the relationship acquired particular momentum during the Commemorative Year celebrations in 2012, marking 20 years of the ASEAN-India partnership. Prime Minister of India and the ASEAN Leaders upgraded this Dialogue Partnership to a Strategic Partnership at the special Commemorative Summit on December 20, 2012.

I hope that you will keep this context in mind when you brainstorm over the next two days. I dare say that there is a huge volume of academic studies on the potential in the ASEAN-India relationship. What the Governments would welcome would be practical suggestions which can be implemented in tangible terms, keeping in mind ground realities. In a sense, we are hoping that you all would become an extended team to the Governments in this endeavor. The process of your brainstorming from one Round Table to another would also need to take on the character of a process in continuum.

Ladies and gentlemen

The substantive parameters for the future of the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership are contained in the Vision Statement which was adopted at the December Summit. This sets the direction for strengthening all pillars: political and security, economic as also the socio-cultural linkages between India and ASEAN. I was very happy to launch the ASEAN-India Centre in New Delhi on June 21, 2013. This Centre, which will be functioning under the guidance of Chairman RIS, has been set up to act as a resource to assist the Governments of India and ASEAN in strengthening the strategic partnership across the three pillars. I would suggest that there is a requirement of synergy between the ASEAN-India Centre in New Delhi and the deliberations of AINTT.

If one were to analyze the over 60 meetings/ events/ programmes organized between ASEAN and India last year and also study India's participation in official Ministerial meetings with the ASEAN, and the approach to ASEAN centric fora such as ADMM+, ARF, Expanded Maritime Forum Plus and, of course, the discussions during the ASEAN-India Summits and the East Asia Summit, there is a predominant emphasis on practical issues of cooperation.

The fact that there is great synergy of objective between ASEAN and India, both amongst Governments and at the level of the strategic and business communities, has contributed to this emphasis on tangibles in ASEAN-India cooperation. India has suggested activities under almost all paras of the Plan of Action for 2010-15. There has been an intensification of training programmes and capacity building in sectoral cooperation.

Ladies and gentlemen

Regular annual meetings between Ministers of Agriculture, Commerce, External Affairs and Tourism are the norm. Ministerial meetings have been initiated in Environment and New & Renewable Energy. The numbers of ITEC scholarships offered by India to ASEAN countries have seen substantial increase and our people-to-people programmes have also expanded. Both AINTT and Delhi Dialogue are acquiring significant following and I would, in fact, urge that we begin looking at creating a supportive line between these two dialogues reaching out to the strategic communities interested in our region.

One of the most significant developments has been the integration of the economic space between ASEAN countries and India. An annual growth rate of 22% over the last 11 years allowed us to cross the target of USD 70 billion by 2012. Trade volumes in 2012 reached USD 80 billion, making India the 6th largest trading partner of ASEAN and the 7th largest source of investment in the region. ASEAN contributes 10% of India's global trade. These figures point to the potential and the opportunities that need to be realized if we are to meet our ambition of reaching USD 100 billion by 2015 in trade volumes and USD 200 billion by 2020. The implementation of the FTA on Trade in Goods has contributed to this growth.

We expect that early implementation of the FTA on Services and Investments will be key to achieving these objectives. The combined GDP of USD 3.8 trillion that ASEAN and India bring together defines one of the most important economic spaces to impact the lives of 1.8 billion people. Our Ministry of Commerce & Industry is presently in discussion with ASEAN counterparts on the setting up of the ASEAN-India Trade & Investment Centre, specific to the realization of this economic space. I am happy to see that you would be debating some of these imperatives in Session I.

In the aftermath of intensive studies by the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) and RIS, India set up an Inter-Ministerial Group on Transport Connectivity with ASEAN, to participate in the Land Transport Working Group and Maritime Transport Working Group Meetings of the ASEAN. On June 10 this year, India became the third country, after China and Japan, to begin annual ASEAN Connectivity Coordinating Committee-India Consultations to comprehensively further the agenda of connectivity. We are, therefore, convinced of the strategic importance of connectivity with the ASEAN countries.

Ladies and gentlemen

Strengthening geographic connectivity through land, sea and air will require finding innovative means to finance the infrastructure requirements. This is a dimension for study in the AINTT as to how can the involvement of ADB, ASEAN Infrastructure Fund and World Bank be optimized to meet this strategic objective of the ASEAN-India partnership. We also look forward to suggestions on how the soft infrastructure required to support the movement of goods and services on these physical corridors of connectivity can be put in place even as we examine the construction of these corridors. This exercise must be simultaneous and not linear. Your suggestions on the required engagement on soft infrastructure, including issues such as a common motor vehicles act, customs and tariff regulations, immigration requirements etc would be most topical. I hope that some of these issues will be discussed in Session II of the AINTT. There is also need to strengthen institutional connectivity and bring in a concerted focus on human resource development in order to leverage our people-to-people ties. There are reflexive levels of comfort amongst our people, given the strong foundations of civilizational ties, which have enriched our countries in terms of a two way traffic of ideas, innovations and culture. Your Session III should aim to identify some out-of-the-box measures to strengthen socio-cultural and development cooperation between ASEAN countries and India. One useful dimension would be to see how we can make it easier for our businessmen, professionals and members of the strategic community to travel between our countries so that they can be participant to the new political, economic and socio-cultural dimensions emerging in the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership.

Ladies and gentlemen

India has been very supportive of the objective of an ASEAN Community by 2015 and the initiative for ASEAN integration. We look forward to applauding your sense of achievement in 2015. Looking to the future, I would like to emphasize that as the ASEAN countries integrate better amongst themselves, it is necessary that their integration with India also progresses apace.

I would be curious to see if the AINTT itself can bring in the strategic community in a more participant manner to these various dimensions that I have mentioned today. I would like to make a suggestion that if the think tanks in the room today can consider taking on two young researchers each from within the ASEAN-India region for short periods of internship, it would help us to widen the constituency for a stronger ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership to the youth in our countries in a more meaningful manner.

Ladies and gentlemen

This is a partnership not only with longstanding relevance but also one with increasing relevance, especially at this time when the political, security and economic architecture in our region is undergoing evolution and when it is urgent that we insulate our growth-oriented economies from the persistent downturn in the global economy. The ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership is today, more than ever, vital for progress and prosperity and peace and stability regionally as also globally.

I wish you an interesting two days of useful discussions and I look forward to your conclusions and recommendations.

Thank you.

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