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Address by Foreign Secretary at the Regional Connectivity Conference : South Asia in the Indo-Pacific Context

November 01, 2018

I am privileged to be here and share some thoughts on the subject of regional connectivity. I applaud the U.S. State Department’s initiative to organize its second regional connectivity conference in India in a span of two years. I also compliment the organizers for preparing a good agenda.

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For India, the subject of connectivity has deep-rooted historical associations and enormous contemporary policy relevance.

Robust connectivity has been the boon and barometer of India’s prosperity and well-being in history. Our culture has been enriched by ancient linkages with the rest of the world, just as the light of Indian culture has shone in lands connected across land and seas by monks and merchants.

In the modern age, the correlation between connectivity and economic growth has got even more pronounced. Growth in trade, commerce, industrial development and technological advancement have gone hand in hand with the ease of connecting.

Unfortunately, the perverse logic of colonial geography and the post-WW II order (cold war) promoted fragmentation and artificial barriers to connectivity that hampered against our natural outward-oriented reach.

However, after the Cold War, if the first two decades of our reform and structural adjustment were about unleashing economic activities through regulatory facilitation at home, the focus of the current phase of globalization is rightly shifting towards promoting physical infrastructure for connectivity within and beyond home.

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Regional connectivity in South Asia is today very much of relevance to the wider Indo-Pacific and the world at large. This is because physical connectivity is only a part of the larger web of trade and economic interaction, digital connectivity, people-to-people links and knowledge connectivity that are the defining parameters of the Indo-Pacific region.

India views the Indo-Pacific as a positive construct of development and connectivity, in which India can play a unique role by virtue of its geographical location and economic gravity. As Prime Minister Modi outlined in his speech at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, we believe in a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region, which includes all nations in this geography and others who have a stake in it.

The shift in the fulcrum of global economic growth towards the Indo-Pacific is creating unprecedented opportunities for connectivity in the region. There is a huge infrastructure deficit in the region which needs to be met to fulfil the growing aspirations of the people.

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Of course, physical hardware of connectivity across nations can only sustain itself in a common and universally applicable rules-based world order. Such an order must uphold sovereignty, territorial integrity and equality of all nations. All nations must respect their international commitments. This is the foremost requirement, and therefore a pressing need in our part of the world (Indian Ocean) and any such arrangement must naturally accord due primacy to the States located in the geography of the Indian Ocean.

Second, connectivity can be meaningful only when everyone has equal access under international law to the use of global commons that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.

Third, connectivity efforts in the region must be based on principles of economic viability and financial responsibility. They should promote economic activity and not place nations under irredeemable debt burden. All connectivity initiatives must follow universally recognized international norms, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality. Incorporation of ecological and environmental standards and skill and technology transfer makes connectivity and infrastructure sustainable in the long term.

Fourth, connectivity initiatives that straddle national boundaries must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations. They should promote trade, not tension.

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Government of India has been working to promote a number of initiatives and projects under this overall vision and mindful of these principles. At home, the target is to build 40 km of highways every day in 2018-19, a nearly three time jump from merely four years ago. By 2024, India is poised to emerge as the world’s third largest aviation market. Our ‘Sagarmala’ project involves building new ports and modernizing old ones, developing inland waterways and hinterlands which will transform the maritime logistics infrastructure. Targets is energy and digital connectivity also reflect the ambition to leapfrog in terms of connectivity and access.

We have devoted more resources and assigned greater priority to building connectivity in our immediate neighborhood. Since 2005-06, India has extended Lines of Credit worth nearly US$ 25 billion to more than 60 countries. Our Act East Policy is at the heart of our connectivity orientation and a fulcrum of our broader approach to the Indo-Pacific.Our efforts are focused on connecting our North-East with the dynamic economies of South East Asia, and enhancing connectivity within the North East itself.

Our activities in Bangladesh are focused on inland water transport, building container depots, upgrading and building rail and road links, and reviving cross-border energy connectivity. Our efforts in Myanmar include the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit project, India-Myanmar- Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Rhi-Tiddim Road, which will open up new avenues for transport. These go with ongoing soft infrastructure of connectivity like simplification of visa procedures and border management.

We are engaged in a number of connectivity projects in Nepal. A number of cross-border rail links, transmission lines, roads and bridges, and Integrated Check Posts in Nepal have recently been completed. We are also working on developing inland waterways as a mode of transportation. Work on a cross-border petroleum products pipeline from Motihari in India to Alekhgunj in Nepal has started.

India’s connectivity to our West continues, though, remains blighted. We have sought to bypass an unwilling regime in Islamabad by establishing in June 2017 an air freight corridor between India and Afghanistan, which we plan to expand to more cities. We are also seeking to develop the Chabahar Port as a gateway for onward connectivity to and from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Since its inauguration last year, we have shipped about 110 thousand metric tons of much-needed wheat and 2000 metric tons of pulses from India to Afghanistan through this Port. To tap its full potential for benefit of Afghanistan, we might also need to pursue the development of a rail line from Chabahar to Zahedan at some future stage. There is also potential for the development of the International North-South Transport Corridor which will considerably reduce time and cost of transport from India to Central Asia.

The Indian Ocean has a vital role to play as a connector of the littoral nations. Sri Lanka and Maldives are the focus of our maritime connectivity efforts in the Indian Ocean. In Sri Lanka, India has extended nearly US$ 1.2 billion towards the development of railway sector alone. The development of maritime and aviation infrastructure which will enhance connectivity among the 200 inhabited islands in Maldives and their connectivity with Indian portsis to mutual advantage.

India and Indonesia are setting up a Task Force to promote connectivity between Sumatra and Andaman Islands. We are also looking at developing the Sabang port in partnership with Indonesia. We intend to establish direct shipping routes between India and Vietnam.

The best example of digital connectivity efforts promoted by India are the e-VidyaBharati and e-ArogyaBharati Networks in Africa provide quality tele-education and tele-medicine facility by connecting select Indian universities, institutions and super specialty hospitals to African counterparts. We are also working on extending India's National Knowledge Network to BIMSTEC partners.

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India's efforts to build connectivity can only succeed in synergistic partnership with other countries sharing the same purpose and objectives. I am happy to note a similar level of ambition, effort and purpose by the U.S. and other countries like Japan.

Coordination of connectivity efforts in third countries forms an essential part of our trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and Japan. We see prospects for more impactful cooperation following the passage of the BUILD Act in the U.S. Congress. Similarly, India and Japan are committed to working on the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor.

As a member of multilateral/regional groups and mechanisms such as the ASEAN, BIMSTEC, Mekong Ganga Cooperation and SAARC, India has been promoting the connectivity agenda very actively and non-reciprocally in these groups. In SAARC, the South Asia Satellite will provide access to wide ranging applications in health, education, disaster response, weather forecasting and communications, enabling deeper connectivity. India’s digital villages in Mekong countries promote digital connectivity and knowledge partnership.

India is negotiating an Agreement on Maritime Transport with ASEAN and exploring ways to link our connectivity initiatives with the ASEAN Master Plan on Connectivity. We have a vision to extend the Trilateral Highway further to Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam. We are currently discussing a Coastal Shipping Agreement and a Motor Vehicle Agreement in the BIMSTEC format and also in the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) group. Cooperation under BBIN is also being discussed in the areas of power and water resources management.

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In terms of financing, besides World Bank, ADB and other traditional sources, India welcomes the role of new institutions such as the New Development Bank and the AIIB in promoting regional connectivity. As a founding member of these new institutions, India is playing a role to ensure that the best practices learnt from existing multilateral development banks and financial institutions are practiced by these new bodies.

Beyond governments, the involvement of the private sector will be critical for financial and technical resources needed for massive connectivity and infrastructure demands in the Indo-Pacific. The new U.S. initiatives in the region --- like promoting digital economy, energy and infrastructure with an initial seed capital of U.S. $ 113 million; and passage of the BUILD Act which has cleared the way for the establishment of a new International Development Finance Corporation --- herald a new model of private-public partnership for connectivity. We wholeheartedly welcome that and look for opportunities to work with these institutions to promote shared connectivity objectives in the Indo-Pacific.

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To conclude, connectivity is not just a new byword for globalization but an urgent need for all growth-oriented economies. Certainly a lot more work is due to address the various practical aspects of connectivity and to guide the work and priority of governments. I hope that this conference will address some of those issues over the next two days and produce some ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas which can supplement the tools already at our disposal.

I wish the conference all the success.

Thank you.

New Delhi
01 November, 2018
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