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Remarks by the External Affairs Minister at the inaugural session of the India ASEAN Business Summit (October 07, 2021)

October 07, 2021

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a matter of great pleasure to address the inaugural session of the ASEAN-India Business Summit 2021. This event is an outcome of the partnership of the CII with MEA. I commend the organizers for bringing together a wide array of participants drawn from Government, business chambers, enterprises and think-tanks. Our collective expectation is that this gathering would deliberate on the challenges and opportunities in ASEAN-India business relations.

India’s ties with the ASEAN are rooted in history, geography and culture. What has energized them in recent years is a growing awareness of the potential they hold for our mutual interests and development. As our cooperation grew in the course of the last 25 years, new facets and domains emerged for collaboration. Connectivity and security are among the more notable of the later additions. As a result, our Look East policy matured into an Act East one. Its success is reflected in drawing India more comprehensively into the Indo-Pacific. There is no doubt that the ASEAN is one of the major hubs for India’s global economic engagement. As it develops, it is natural that we would like to re-visit the level of ambition that we have set for our partnership. That is also influenced by autonomous changes in the region. But what has given this objective a new urgency is the necessity to re-imagine our cooperation in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic obviously provides the backdrop for how most countries approach both their economic policies and their global outlook now. After all, it has disrupted our supply chains, impacted our manufacturing, affected our trade and veritably ruined many services sectors. These developments have not just altered various dimensions of our day to day business; they have even shaped our way of life. From the prolonged crisis of the last two years, four areas have come into sharp focus for international business cooperation: (i) resilient and reliable supply chains, (ii) health security, (iii) digital for development and (iv) green & sustainable recovery. They should constitute the core agenda for us.

The uncertainties that we have all experienced since the beginning of 2020 cannot just be wished away. Nor can we assume that they are a one-time phenomenon. Therefore, we are tasked with responding to the immediate repercussions even as we are compelled to plan for the future. A large part of the answers – both short term and beyond – lies in diversification, expansion and transparency. De-risking our national economies will only be possible if we achieve a strong measure of success quickly in that regard.

Covid-19 has brought out many inadequacies in the global health system. Meaningful partnerships, sharing of advanced technologies, collaboration in vaccine and pharmaceutical production, capacity building and transparency in health information are all part of the answers. And in all of this, the role of businesses is critical. Crisis can often be the basis of creativity and our endeavour should be to come out of this stronger.

Take the challenge of the COVID itself. India has succeeded in developing the world’s first DNA vaccine for COVID-19, another mRNA vaccine is in the final stages, as also a nasal vaccine. Our global collaborations have enabled us to emerge as a major vaccine production centre for the world. In fact, we have also seen innovative methods of collaboration, including an initiative agreed upon by the Quad countries. This could have significant benefits for nations of the Indo-Pacific. Apart from vaccines, Indian pharmaceutical manufacturing stepped up to the challenge by ramping up production for medicines that were in great demand. All this was happening even as we simultaneously transformed the public health system in India. The fact is that health has emerged as a more serious priority for all societies. Business must recognize the ensuing opportunities.

The compulsions of the COVID era have made us all much more digital. The strengthening of digital connectivity both with ASEAN and in the larger Indo-Pacific, therefore, acquires even greater importance. The templates of that could draw on the framework that govern existing development partnerships. On its part, India can offer science and technology-based innovations to help the region as the scale and cost of our solutions are indeed very attractive.

Covid-19 has also given an additional impetus to the diversification of the global value chain that was already in progress. India’s campaign for an Atmanirbhar Bharat or a self-reliant India resonates with our quest to become a democratic and trustworthy partner for global industrial resiliency. At the same time, we need to take full advantage of building back better by ensuring a greener economic recovery. The importance that we attach to this topic is also reflected in the fact that it is the subject of one of this year’s EAS Leader’s Statement, which is being co-sponsored by us. India has a strong record on climate action and has an ambitious vision, including for renewables and green hydrogen. Cooperating more closely on Sustainable Development also lies at the heart of our collaboration on Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI) and ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

Even otherwise, significant socio-economic changes were underway in our larger region. The COVID pandemic has clearly accelerated them. It is important that we – India, the ASEAN and our relationship – we recognize that a different world awaits us. It is one that puts greater premium on trust and transparency, resilience and reliability, as also on choices and redundancy. Our contemporary conversations will be relevant only if we adequately capture these emerging concerns. The centrality of ASEAN to the Indo-Pacific and the importance of India-ASEAN relations are self-evident. But if they have to continue to be salient, then we must strive to go beyond ideas and concepts that have outlived their shelf life.

On its part, India’s economic recovery is impelled by reform in various areas including manufacturing, labour, agriculture, education, skills and of course, improving the ease of doing business. We aspire to be a more effective engine of growth and a part of reliable and resilient supply chains. International cooperation, especially among businesses, will be very much a key to the better world that we all seek. India and ASEAN can surely work together more closely to this end.

Thank you very much for your attention.

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