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MOS's address at the webinar organised by North-Earthern Hill University on 'ASEAN-India Relations and the Rise of Multilateralism in Indo-Pacific and Beyond'

October 05, 2020

Prof. S.K. Srivastava, Vice-Chancellor, North Eastern Hill University
Amb. Rudi Warjri,
Dr. J. N. Nayak, Registrar, North Eastern Hill University
Distinguished Speakers, Delegates, Young Diplomats, Ladies and Gentlemen
Namaskaram and Good morning.

Let me start by thanking the North-Eastern Hill University for inviting me to address this webinar.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are passing through tumultuous times. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the globe. It has forced us all to re-assess our healthcare infrastructure, focus on availability and affordability of medicines, development of reliable supply chains, and highlighted the need for strong collaborations in medical research. Since the virus does not respect national boundaries, the response to the pandemic also needs to be collective and collaborative. Strong multilateral cooperation is critical in our collective fight against the pandemic as also for a global economic recovery. India stands ready to strengthen efforts aimed at the development, equitable and universal access of diagnostics, vaccines and treatments. We need to find ways how ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership can lend its strength to the fight against the pandemic.

The strategic partnership of India and ASEAN stands on a strong foundation of our shared geographical, historical and civilisational ties. There has been a great flow of the people, ideas and material goods between our two regions since time immemorial leaving imprints on religion, art & architecture, language & literature, cuisine, crafts & textiles, music, dance & drama.

The two biggest religions of South-East Asia spread from/ through Indian subcontinent. The biggest temple of the world is not in India but in Cambodia. The languages of our two regions share a lot of common words including the word 'Bhasha' itself which means language. The Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata are as popular in South-East Asia as they are in India. Almost every country in South-East Asia has its own version of Ram Leela. Even today, the coronation ceremony of Thai kings is performed with Indian rituals. All these are testimony to our long cultural and civilisational ties.

The ongoing efforts to strengthen ASEAN-India ties envisage to build upon our shared glorious past. It is in this context, ASEAN and India graduated from Sectoral Partners in 1992 to Dialogue Partners in 1996 to Summit-level Partners in 2002 to finally become Strategic Partners in 2012. The breadth of our partnership is covered by several Dialogue Mechanisms cutting across various sectors such as defense, commerce, telecommunications, agriculture, energy, environmental issues, tourism etc. Presence of all ten ASEAN Leaders in New Delhi in January 2018, to mark the 25th Anniversary of ASEAN-India ties, testifies to the importance, both sides accord to our Partnership.

India's Act East Policy, which provides the guiding framework, to take forward the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership to the next level, recognizes connectivity in its broadest sense as the key. Connectivity includes physical, economic, political and people-to-people connectivity.

ASEAN and India share land and maritime borders and there is a lot of scope for enhancing connectivity through land, air and the sea. India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is an ongoing effort to enhance road-connectivity between India's North East and the South East Asia. In pursuance to the announcement by Hon'ble Prime Minister at the ASEAN-India Informal Breakfast Summit in Singapore in November 2018, India had commissioned a study on feasibility of establishing an economic corridor through a seamless, efficient and end to end transportation corridor along the existing Trilateral Highway and its extension towards Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam on Jakarta-based think-tank, the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA). ERIA has submitted the final report in July this year which will be tabled before the Leaders at the upcoming ASEAN-India Summit in November.

While there is good air-connectivity between India and a few ASEAN countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia etc, we are making efforts to improve air connectivity with others in the region as well. Last year, Indigo and Vietjet started air-services between New Delhi/Kolkata and Hanoi/Ho Chi Minh City. We are making efforts to enhance connectivity in the digital and cyber domain as well. In the 2015 ASEAN-India Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a Line of Credit of USD 1 billion for connectivity and infrastructure projects in ASEAN and we are looking for suitable infrastructure and connectivity projects under this LoC.

On economic front, India-ASEAN trade and investment relations have been growing and ASEAN is India's fourth largest trading partner. In 2019-20, ASEAN-India trade reached US$ 87 billion. Investment flows are also substantial both ways, with ASEAN accounting for approximately 18% of investment flows into India since 2000. We have a Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN spanning goods, services and investment. Still, we are long way from the target of US$ 200 billion by 2022 set by our Leaders. India strongly feels that an early review of ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) is essential towards realising the full potential of our trade ties. Our Trade Ministers met recently for the 17th ASEAN- India Economic Ministers India Consultations in August 2020 and they instructed the senior officials to start the discussions to determine the scope of the review at the earliest to, inter-alia, make the AITIGA more user-friendly, simple and trade facilitative for businesses. We feel that the review of the AITIGA has been inordinately delayed and therefore, we would like to initiate this as soon as possible.

India has launched a number of programmes and projects for capacity development and enhancing people-to-people connectivity. Exchange programmes for students, media personnels, farmers are our on-going initiatives. In September last year, External Affairs Minister and Minister of Human Resource Development launched 1000 integrated PhD Fellowships to ASEAN students at our prestigious IITs. The programme with a total budget outlay of approximately USD 45 million is the single-largest capacity development initiative of India in its partnership with ASEAN and has become very popular in the ASEAN countries. The first batch of students was admitted in January this year. Despite COVID related disruptions, I am glad that we have gone ahead on the admission process for the second batch.India also provides more than 1000 scholarships to ASEAN students, both bilaterally and under ASEAN-India track, every year at the various universities and institutions.

ASEAN countries are emerging as the major tourist destinations for Indians. Out of 129 million foreign tourist arrivals to ASEAN in 2018, 3.45 million were from India. Celebration of the year 2019 as the ASEAN-India Year of Tourism was one of the many steps to enhance the two-way flow of tourists. Indian diaspora in the ASEAN region, which constitutes about 20% of India's total diaspora, plays a seminal role in strengthening ASEAN-India ties.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the future of ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership lies in strengthening cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Irrespective of the terminology we choose, the fact remains that the maritime areas starting from the Indian Ocean all the way to the Pacific Ocean including the waters that lie between these two oceans, has always functioned as an inter-connected maritime space. With the Indo-Pacific gaining the central position in the global discourse, the partnership between India and ASEAN is poised to achieve new strengths. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, in his speech, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018 highlighted ASEAN-centrality and unity as an important pillar of India's Indo-Pacific Vision. "The ten countries of South East Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilizational sense. Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific", the Prime Minister mentioned in his speech.

India wants to see a strong, unified and prosperous ASEAN playing a central role in the emerging dynamic of the Indo-Pacific as it contributes to India’s prosperity and security as well. ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific provides a good basis for developing cooperation activities that serve our common quest for a free, open, inclusive and rule based Indo Pacific region that is firmly rooted in international law and that's why India was one of the first countries to welcome AOIP. India sees a great deal of convergence between ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and India's own Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI) which Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi announced at the 14th East Asia Summit in Bangkok in November last year to give practical shape to India's Indo-Pacific Vision. The synergy between AOIP and IPOI provides us a great opportunity to advance ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the areas of maritime cooperation, connectivity and achieving sustainable development goals.

The vast maritime domain of Indo-Pacific provides great opportunities to all the countries in the region and also to those who are not in the region but have interest in it. That is the reason why so many countries are coming up with their own Indo-Pacific strategies/visions/ outlooks. Though these concepts have differences in approach and the activities envisaged, almost all of them talk about a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. This provides us an opportunity to work together in a synergistic manner and achieve true multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific region respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations in the region, peaceful resolution of disputes, avoidance of use or threat of use of force, and adherence to international laws, rules and regulations. India's Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative envisages to provide a platform where partner countries can come onboard and coordinate their efforts for an Indo-Pacific which is free, open and Inclusive for all.

With these thoughts I would like to conclude. I, once again, thank North Eastern Hill University for organising this webinar.

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