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Valedictory Address by External Affairs Minister at 11th Delhi Dialogue (December 14, 2019)

December 14, 2019

Distinguished delegates;

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,


At the outset, let me convey my warmest appreciation to all delegates for entrusting us with your time these past few days in New Delhi. I appreciate the thoughts set out by so many speakers as well.

I would also like to place on record my deep appreciation to the Indian Council for World Affairs and the RIS - Research and Information System for developing countries, in particular, Ambassadors Raghavan and Mohan Kumar and their teams, for all their assistance to this event.

Apart from the obvious reason that we are hosting these events, I do believe that our discussions on the broad concept of the Indo-Pacific have been very opportune. For one, there is now a visible trend of countries subscribing to this concept. That is understandable, because there is an incontrovertible geographic logic to the Indo-Pacific.

Another reason for the relevance of this set of dialogues is that there is greater recognition today that the maritime domain requires us to understand that challenges and opportunities are less well-defined as they are in the continental domain. As the UAE delegation underlined at the Indian Ocean Dialogue yesterday, we need to accept that one can't draw lines on an ocean and say, one challenge ends here, and something else is an issue over there. Logically, therefore, more dialogue enables better understanding of the borderless nature of today’s challenges and opportunities.

The original logic of inter-connected maritime space has today reasserted itself, naturally and in an evolutionary manner. As I said at the Indian Ocean Conference in the Maldives in September, the Indo-Pacific concept is not tomorrow’s forecast, but yesterday’s reality. Others speaking here these past two days have variously made the same point, which is in short: economic and civilizational impulses link the eastern and southern shores of Africa through the Gulf, the Arabian Sea island nations, the Indian subcontinent, South-east Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands. We can certainly say that this is the way it has always been in our region. And perhaps this is as it should be.

Appropriately, our discussions over the past two days also reflected the reality that we are yet to reach any kind of agreement, leave alone consensus, on the Indo-Pacific concept, or even its geographic extent. But equally, there was recognition that while there may be a multiplicity of views on the Indo-Pacific and all that it contains, there is everything to gain by engaging with this concept, and trying to build the idea outward as we go.

One step in building this concept outward is enhancing the Indian Ocean region’s community’s involvement with, and in, the notion of an Indo-Pacific. While the nations of the eastern Indian Ocean and States on the connecting seas leading to the Pacific are defining their vision of the Indo-Pacific, there is room for a western Indian Ocean version of this concept too. In line with our own view that the Indo-Pacific naturally includes our western ocean neighbors in the Gulf, the Island nations of the Arabian Sea, and our partners in Africa, India’s approach to this concept led us to recognize that both geographical extremities of the Indo-Pacific and everything in between should ideally have their own indigenously evolved approach to the Indo-Pacific.

And that is why we were among the first to welcome the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

And, as I suggested in the Maldives earlier this year, the challenge of building an Indian Ocean community went beyond the recognition of cultural and historical links requires a strong strategic imperative; one which drives existing mechanisms with a new sense of purpose.

And that is why I am pleased that in line with the mandate given to this sixth Indian Ocean Dialogue, as the designated Track 1.5 mechanism of IORA, an initial set of ideas on the Indo-Pacific has been produced in a "Delhi Consensus” document. This timely document will be presented to the next IORA senior officials meeting next year.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen;

While policy-makers, diplomats and academics congregate to iterate ideas, concepts and strategies, there is equally a need to ensure that we do not get mired in a potentially misleading quest to find a complete identity of views on every element of every concept. On the contrary: the more important task at hand is to invest time and effort to use the Indo-Pacific as an open, free and inclusive platform to deliver tangible and meaningful cooperative initiatives. For this to happen, it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that the doors remain open to cooperation on as wide a platform as possible.

In other words, it makes more sense for all us to focus on what we do, and with as many partners as possible.

To put it differently, there must also be a tangible component, beyond conceptual discussions.

Take, for instance, the case of connectivity. There is clearly room for much more to be done within this region: what is needed is for us to find ways to build upon plans to enhance connectivity, regionally and through sub-regional initiatives.

As the Indonesian Foreign Minister Her Excellency Retno Marsudi reminded us in her keynote address yesterday, there is space for us to reclaim infrastructure connectivity on our own, within our region. Our effort to align our initiatives for cooperation with ASEAN along with the Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity is an example of what we need to do. These are existing opportunities for us to collectively create sustainable infrastructure through high quality financing. The Indonesian President’s initiative, announced at the East Asian Summit this November, to host a major event on Indo- Pacific infrastructure connectivity, offers an important opening for all of us.

Another area where tangible outcomes can help us ensure implementation runs in tandem with ideation is partnership-building projects. Over the past few days, a number of ideas were set out, including by India, for such partnerships. Our scientific departments offered a number of new initiatives, including a Grand Challenges scheme for the IORA; a fellowship scheme for up to 100 post-doctoral scholars; place for partners on our Oceanic Research vessels; co-branded IORA research facilities; and to share existing technologies in India for low-cost, low-energy consuming desalination facilities, which may be useful especially for island nations.

A further area for partnerships, as identified by a number of speakers, was maritime security in its widest sense. While we all need to work together to share maritime domain data to ensure that every link of the maritime security chain is equally strong, there are also challenges to human security that also need to be addressed. And many of our partners from island states reminded us very eloquently of this. For instance, plastic pollution has an impact on the entire range of economic activities that sustain communities in islands and littoral areas. The implications of the loss of productive economic capacity include significant social and economic consequences and we have seen that in Somalia and Yemen.

It was in this broader context that our Prime Minister suggested the idea of an Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative in his intervention at the 14th East Asia Summit last month in Bangkok. This initiative, in short, calls for establishing a free, open and cooperative platform to respond to a range of maritime challenges and needs. These include maritime security; managing the maritime environment; disaster risk mitigation; sustainable use of marine resources, including IUU fishing; capacity building; and maritime trade and transport. I am glad that this concept found mention and support in several interventions during these past few days. We look forward to start work on some of the pillars of this initiative in the first few months of 2020.

A third broad area of conversation that we had apart from definitions, history, and opportunities was around the idea of platforms for coordination.

For India, the answer to the question of whom to work with, and how, is easily answered. Naturally, the defining principle for us is to ensure that the region remains open and free for inclusive partnerships with all, within the parameters of sovereignty, equality, and a rules-based system.

Operationally, it is only logical that instead of trying to set up new architecture, we work with architecture that already exists. To our east, there are clearly no shortage of mechanisms. Primarily, though, the most successful and therefore the obvious choices for partnership, are essentially the ASEAN-led mechanisms, especially the East Asia Summit, but also consultative processes such as the ARF, ADMM+ and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF). As one of the speakers said at the Delhi Dialogue, there is already an alphabet-soup of mechanisms in this region.

But there is much less architecture that covers the Indo-Pacific region west of India, IORA notwithstanding and certainly no architecture currently that spans the entire region from end to end.

In this case, therefore what is it that we should be doing? Personally, I am not sure that the right way forward is to first find a way of creating end to end architecture, covering all possible areas of interest, before exploring what we should be doing together. In other words, I think it is not a productive exercise to create architecture first and then look for rationale: more often than not, successful platforms and mechanisms have been the result of a felt need for regional or trans-regional cooperation.

If that premise is reasonable, and I do believe it is, I believe we should look to make progress steadily to find thematic synergies between platforms in the entire region. From our perspective, India will look to transfer lessons from the progress we hope to make in our partnerships in ASEAN-led mechanisms to the western Indian Ocean region, especially IORA. The goal should eventually be for all of us to have the capacity to seamlessly switch between platforms across the region, so as to deliver meaningful outcomes. In doing so, we can make better efforts to maximize the impact of our capabilities and resources, as well as the quality of outcomes.

As we come to the end of one more edition of the Delhi Dialogue today, I would say the main takeaway from this large and complex set of events include: greater clarity on the direction in which the Indo-Pacific concept is evolving; enhanced interest in specific outcomes from partnerships within existing architecture; and the prospects, however nascent, for coordination between different platforms like ASEAN-India and IORA, albeit for now on specific themes and issues.

What this effort to create convergence across platforms potentially promises is that the process of finding trans-Indo-Pacific convergence may not be as complex as we think. Today, one of the speakers I believe cited a standing mechanism of Heads of Coast Guards that works to coordinate across the entire Indo-Pacific. This is a singular example at least that we know. But perhaps it works precisely because it focuses on specific areas for partnership in which all parties see value.

In that case, this means the path toward a mutually beneficial, free, open, inclusive, and cooperative Indo-Pacific can begin from identifying specific actions to enhance cooperation on issues of broad interest to everyone.

President John F Kennedy said that there are risks and costs to every action. But these are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.

Today as we look at the Indo-Pacific concept outlook for some countries, approaches for others, it is important that we all apply ourselves to what is clearly a conceptual challenge for the entire Indo-Pacific community and I am very appreciative of the fact that the Delhi Dialogue has focused on this particular issue.

I thank you all for being here today and once again my thanks to all the organizers for what has clearly been a very successful event.

Thank you very much.

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