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Address by Secretary (East) at the Inaugural Session of the International Relations Conference on ‘India’s Look East - Act East Policy: A Bridge to the Asian Neighbourhood’ (Pune, December 13, 2014)

December 16, 2014

Shri Nitin Gadkari, Hon’ble Minister of Road Transport and Highways
Shri Md. Shahriar Alam, Hon’ble State Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh
Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat, Hon’ble Finance Minister of Nepal
Dr. S.B. Mujumdar, Founder & President, Symbiosis & Chancellor, Symbiosis International University
Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar, Principal Director, Symbiosis
Ambassador Sudhir Devare, Convenor of this Conference
Dr. Rajani Gupte, Vice Chancellor, Symbiosis International University
Distinguished Guests,
Members of the Academia & the Media
My Young Student Friends,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great privilege for me to address the inaugural session of the Symbiosis International Relations Conference 2014 on "India's Look East-Act East Policy." It is never an easy task to be the last speaker at a session, particularly when one has been preceded by a galaxy of learned speakers from Government, including very senior foreign dignitaries, as well as by stalwarts from academia.

However, the theme of this Conference is especially close to my heart, and in my role as Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs, it is India's engagements with the Eastern part of the world that I deal with on a daily basis.

The new-found salience of our engagement with our eastern neighbourhood and beyond is evident from the simple fact that since our Hon'ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi assumed office in May 2014, the bulk of his visits abroad have been to the East: to Japan, Myanmar, Australia, Fiji and Nepal.

PM's presence at the India-ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in Myanmar in November 2014 has demonstrated clearly to all the centrality of the Asia-Pacific in our foreign policy and security policy paradigms. At the Summits, PM underlined that his government had moved with a great sense of priority and speed to turn India’s hitherto ‘Look East Policy’ into an ‘Act East Policy.’ He placed ASEAN at the core of India's Act East Policy and at the centre of our dream of an Asian century, saying that as young entities but old civilizations, India and ASEAN made great partners.

Our Look East-Act East Policy, which had modest beginnings in the early 90s, has its origins in the deep and abiding historical and civilizational links between India and the countries of South-East Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific. The region and indeed the world have come a long way since then. The Asia-Pacific is today one of the fastest growing regions of the world, showing unparalleled dynamism in political, security, economic and demographic terms. It has truly emerged as the economic and geo-political centre of gravity of the world in the 21st century.

Some of the dominant trends shaping this reality include the rise of a number of new powers in Asia, notably China, the re-balancing or "pivot to Asia” strategy of the United States, and a regional economic and strategic architecture seeking to define itself with strong currents of multilateralism. India's Look East Policy, while being firmly rooted in domestic compulsions and national interests, has adapted to these momentous changes in our environs.

In this context, India's relationship with the ASEAN is central to India's footprint in East Asia. Since India became a Sectoral Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in 1992, the potential and role of the India-ASEAN partnership has grown commensurate with the increase in our collective capabilities, our growing economic integration and the ongoing evolution of the political and security architecture in the region. India become ASEAN's full-fledged Dialogue Partner in 1996 and a Summit Level Partner in 2002. The decision at the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in New Delhi in December 2012 to elevate the relationship to a Strategic Partnership was a natural progression of the ground covered since 1992.

In its current dimensions, the ASEAN-India Partnership encompasses three pillars: political-security, economic and socio-cultural. With India’s active participation in 26 ASEAN-India mechanisms and a host of ASEAN-led fora such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus and Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum, India-ASEAN relations have become a cornerstone of India’s foreign policy and the foundation of our Look East Policy.

As ASEAN moves towards the ASEAN Community by 2015, India looks forward to a more integrated region and is working closely with ASEAN member-states to enhance connectivity in all its aspects - physical, institutional and people-to-people. Myanmar is our land-bridge to ASEAN and we have maritime boundaries with several ASEAN countries.

Enhancing connectivity with our Asian neighbourhood is one of our strategic priorities, making ASEAN our bridge to the wider Asia-Pacific region. This enhanced connectivity will undoubtedly bring multifarious benefits to all countries of the region. However, it holds, in particular, immense potential to bring about a significant positive developmental impact on our North-Eastern region.

We have made progress in implementing the Trilateral Highway project which proposes to provide seamless connectivity from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. Likewise, work is in progress on the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project which will provide a road and riverine link between Myanmar and Mizoram as well as connect Indian ports to Sittwe port in Myanmar. A number of connectivity projects with our SAARC neighbourhood are also underway.

We are simultaneously endeavouring to increase maritime and air connectivity between ASEAN and India so as to transform the corridors of connectivity into corridors of economic cooperation. Underlining the importance of the connectivity agenda, our Hon'ble Prime Minister had, during the 12th ASEAN-India Summit at Nay Pyi Taw, announced the establishment of a special facility to facilitate project financing and quick implementation of connectivity projects.

India-ASEAN relations are today a reflection of the complementarity of interests between the two partners. India and ASEAN rank second and third in the world in terms of demography, accounting for a combined population of 1.8 billion. We are also among the largest and fastest growing economies in this century.

ASEAN is India's fourth largest trading partner, with ASEAN-India annual trade standing at over US$ 76 billion in 2013, having registered an average growth of 22% per annum over the last decade. The signing of a Free Trade Agreement in Goods in 2009 has given a spurt to bilateral trade and the agreed goal is to enhance trade to US$ 100 billion by 2015. Our aspiration is to double it further to US$ 200 billion by 2022.

Investment flows are also substantial both ways, with ASEAN accounting for approximately 12.5% of investment flows into India since 2000. FDI outflows from India to ASEAN countries over the last 7 years (April 2007-March 2014) were over US$ 31 billion while FDI equity inflows into India from ASEAN countries during this period were over US$ 25 billion. With the signing of the India-ASEAN Agreements on Trade in Services and Investment earlier this year and their expected entry into force in July 2015, we hope that the economic engagement between the two sides will expand substantially and the trade and investment balance, currently in favour of ASEAN, will be rectified.

India is also part of the ongoing negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which involves ASEAN and its 6 dialogue partners, viz. China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, apart from India. As the region moves towards greater economic integration, India is poised to seize the opportunity to carve out a conducive economic space for itself.

Today, as India chooses to embark on a benign projection of its rising power, it has become imperative to chart a foreign policy course commensurate with its ambitions in Asia and the world. In this context, India has effectively used the East Asia Summit, the premier forum at the level of Heads of State and Government for strategic dialogue and cooperation in the region on political, security and economic issues, to put forward its views on vital subjects such as maritime security, international terrorism, disaster management, access to clean energy, combating pandemics, etc. Our Prime Ministers have attended all 9 East Asia Summits held since 2005, in view of the grouping's wide composition including powers such as the US, Russia, China and Australia, as well as its important role in shaping the evolving regional security architecture.

India also participates in other multilateral fora such as the Mekong Ganga Cooperation and BIMSTEC to engage with countries of the region. Our excellent bilateral ties with most countries of the region, which are largely "sans irritants,” as well as our Strategic Partnerships with Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Australia, have laid a strong foundation for a strategic dimension to our Look East-Act East Policy.

India's Look East policy as it has evolved over the last two decades has been a success. From the days of being accused as a 'No Action, Talk Only' or 'NATO' country, we are today seen as a solid and reliable partner by most countries of the region. Over 50% of our foreign trade now goes East and we are steadily adding political and military content to our bilateral and multilateral relationships in the region. In the most dynamic region of an ever changing world, we are constantly calibrating our moves to ensure an enabling external environment which is supportive of India’s growth, development and security.

I would like to conclude by thanking Symbiosis International University for organizing this high-level and well-attended conference on a most topical theme of interest to our country. The impressive agenda drawn up for the next two days on all aspects of our engagement with the 'East' and the array of distinguished speakers will no doubt result in some practical and high-quality policy recommendations that we in the Government could benefit from.

Thank you for your attention.
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