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Transcript of Media Briefing by Secretary (West) on upcoming visit of Prime Minister to Bishkek to attend the SCO Summit (June 10, 2019)

June 11, 2019

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Friends good afternoon and welcome to this special briefing on Prime Minister’s visit to Bishkek to attend the SCO Council of Heads of State Meeting. The Bishkek Council of Heads of States Meeting will be followed by a bilateral visit by the Prime Minister to Kyrgyzstan. I have on the dais Secretary (West) Shri Gitesh Sarma. I also have Jt. Secretary (ERS) Manish Prabhat. After the initial briefing by Secretary (West) I will open the floor to question and answers.

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: Thank you Raveesh. A very good afternoon to each one of you. We are meeting on the eve of Prime Minister’s visit to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for the forthcoming SCO Summit and as Raveesh said, also the India-Kyrgyzstan bilateral segment of the visit.

This will be the second SCO Summit after its expansion in 2017 when India along with Pakistan had joined as members. This is also the first multilateral summit that PM will be attending after the elections. The summit will actually be held on 14th of June 2019. Leaders are expected to arrive on 13th June, 2019.

Friends, this organization represents approximately 42% of the world’s population, 22% of its land area and 20% of its GDP. For us it is a structured platform to engage with Central Asian countries. Some of the important issues that are taken up within the framework of SCO include counter-terrorism, Afghanistan, separatism, extremism and their several streams within which cooperation is developed and furthered.

Within MEA, I should add, that we have a specialized SCO division to manage our engagement with this organization. This would indicate to you the extent of our commitment and the extent of our engagement with this organization. India has actively participated in various SCO mechanisms under Kyrgyzstan Chair over the last one year.

The organization, for reference purposes, works on the basis of consensus. Typically the summit settings are meant to discuss the global security situation, multilateral economic cooperation, people to people exchanges and other topical issues.

I won’t go into the list of members but 8 countries including India are members of SCO. You are also familiar with the concept of observers therefore observers, dialogue partners and there are others also who attend the SCO meetings, SCO Secretary General, the Executive Director of the Tashkent based RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure).

In terms of typical summit, I can give you a brief overview. First there is a moment for group photograph, council of Heads of State meet in a restricted format, delegation level meeting with the participation of observer states, signing of documents, again a group photograph where the observer countries are also there and an official lunch. So it is a very compact program on the 14th.

In this format we will be discussing the various issues of concern. Prime Minister, when he participates, when he makes his intervention, he will reflect the Indian concerns and priorities with respect to the SCO process.

I mentioned to you about contact group on Afghanistan. There have been several activities so let me just mention a few of them. The last meeting of the contact group took place in Bishkek from 18 to 19 April. The RATS, a very-very important body with which exchange of information takes place, cooperation on anti-terrorism activities. From our side NSCS is the nodal agency.

Defence is also an important part of the SCO process. Only recently Defence Minister attended the meeting of SCO Defence Ministers in Bishkek on 29-30 April, 2019.

There are some defence related activities also to take place in September 2019 and later on as well.

I should add at this stage that while we have given you an overview of the format of the SCO meetings, there is indeed scope for bilateral meetings and we are happy to confirm bilateral meetings with Russia and China is taking place on the margins of the SCO Summit. There will be and there are other requests also as these tend to be processed taking into account the limited time available.

I will also go on to mention that this is a very special visit because there is a bilateral component also. On 14th June, in the late afternoon will be the India-Kyrgyzstan bilateral segment. Overall we have a very-very active bilateral engagement with Kyrgyz Republic.

It may be recalled that in India Central Asia Dialogue had been held in January 2019 in Samarkand and several initiatives were planned within this framework. Kyrgyzstan is also a member of this dialogue. One thing we could say here that there is strong consensus within the Central Asia on stronger engagement with India so we do engage with the Central Asian states collectively and also on a bilateral basis.

As far as Kyrgyzstan is concerned in terms of bilateral relations, it may be recalled that Kyrgyz President had recently attended Prime Minister’s swearing-in ceremony on May 30, 2019. Of course this was in his capacity as the SCO Chairperson but this was the case of the only Central Asian country to be present at the swearing-in ceremony but it is not a one of kind of event.

It is really a very-very active relationship, if you have seen the recent period the India-Kyrgyz Joint Commission had met on November 2018 chaired by our Commerce Minister and Kyrgyz Health Minister. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister visited India in January 2019. There was a visit at the External Affairs Minister level to the SCO meet on 21-22 May, 2019 where again there was scope for bilateral engagement. The 10th round of Foreign Office Consultations, I chaired it actually on the Indian side, held in Bishkek in April 2019.

If you go back a little further Prime Minister Modi had made a landmark visit to Central Asia in 2015 where he also visited the Kyrgyz Republic and former Kyrgyz President had visited India in December 2016. So if we take this snapshot into account, it has been a very-very active relationship with the Kyrgyz Republic.

It is a country of about 6 million people. There are certain challenges with developing relations with the Central Asian countries primarily on account of them being landlocked but we attach highest importance to all aspects of our relationship including the commercial and economic aspects and we look at ways in which we can address problems of connectivity in Particular.

Bilateral trade with Kyrgyzstan was about $60 million in 2017-18. So that is the scale of the economic engagement. We have almost eight thousand Indian students in Kyrgyz Republic, it is something which often doesn’t attract enough attention but there is a kind of educational angle also to our bilateral relation with the Kyrgyz Republic.

Since I gave you a snapshot of the format of the SCO summit, again the bilateral summit will follow similar kind of format that is usual for bilateral i.e. the restricted format, the delegation level and documents and perhaps a banquet. I should just draw your attention to possibility of business summit involving FICCI and its counterpart Kyrgyz organization on the same day i.e. on 14th June. On 13 June, we are working on an India-Kyrgyz textile exhibition on the theme "Colors and Weaves of India and Central Asia.”

This is an exhibition which brings together textile traditions of our two countries and you know there are several similarities which get highlighted in such joint displays between India and the Central Asian countries. So Kyrgyz Republic and India will put their exhibits together at this exhibition. Almost 100 Indian exhibits will be on display and this is organized by Ministry of Textiles and Export Promotion Council for Handicraft.

So this really is where we are in terms of preparations for the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister to Bishkek.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Thank you sir. I now open the floor to questions.

Question: Is there a possibility of a summit of RIC (Russia-India-China) while the PM is there? And you said there are several requests for bilateral meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, is there one from Pakistan?

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Pakistan has already been answered earlier but the other questions Secretary will answer.

Question: Will trade issues arising out of US sanctions be discussed during those bilateral meetings with President Xi and President Putin. You also said that there will be some defence related developments later in the year with regards to SCO, what could that be and if you can just talk about the discussion on trade, connectivity and investments at the SCO Summit?

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: Well, I have already mentioned about the bilateral meetings which are set up on the sidelines of the SCO Summit. We have a bilateral engagement with Russia and we have a bilateral engagement with China. I also mentioned that there was a limit as far as the available time is there, so the other request for bilateral meetings will be processed as we go along if there is opportunity, so I will leave it at that.

As far as you mentioned about Trade and Defence, in the SCO meetings the interventions are very free and frank and every country does highlight issues of greater importance to it so one can expect that the participating leaders will highlight all the concerns that are uppermost in their minds. So I am sure as I mentioned the multilateral economic engagement and the current global scenario, these are things which would also be, kind of, uppermost in their minds, so we will leave it at that because it is up to the leaders to highlight the specific aspects and bring out specific angles but it is very friendly gathering and most of the outcome documents and all are negotiated previously usually on the sidelines and usually in advance, so they reflect consensus.

Question Contd.: I’m specifically asking about bilateral meetings.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: If I may suggest that let us not get into this speculative question as to what will be discussed. Once the meetings takes place, I assure you that there will be briefings, releases where we will inform you about the developments, so let us not get into that now.

Question: Is there any request from the Iranian side for a bilateral meeting?

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: I would say that we have more than one request and it all depends on the possibility of finding time. It is a very intensive program of Prime Minister in that place, so I again would repeat the same thing that what we have confirmed we can let you know.

Question: You said that given the framework you will still try to push for issues that are India’s priority in SCO. Could you explain that? And you also said that there are two bilaterals which are already decided, typically how long are such pull-out bilaterals and what is going to be discussed in them, is it they are just organic or are they also decided in advance, just to get an idea what happens at these bilateral meetings.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: You see when we have confirmed two bilateral meetings then we have not said that these are pull-aside meetings, these are proper bilateral meetings. The agenda and topics of discussion in the meetings, as I said, is not something which we will share now. Of course the bilateral relations will be discussed but normally after the meeting is over then we will make sure that the outcome of such meetings are communicated to you as early as possible.

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: I think there I would like to draw your attention that to the way we approach SCO, it provides us a framework where we can engage with the Central Asian countries in particular and we have robust relations with each one of them but this provides a framework within which we can engage with the Central Asian countries in a more efficient manner.

The SCO itself evolved on the basis of Central Asia processes which were taking place at that time. So will definitely use the occasion to reinforce our relationship with the Central Asian countries. Of course you have in mind the other countries, we have already mentioned to you that we have excellent relations with both Russia and China, very extensive relations. So that will also be covered in bilateral aspect but the SCO meeting itself will tend to focus on issues which particularly are specific to the organization where Central Asia is at the heart of the organization.

Question: Wanted to ask if the government has requested Pakistan for overflight rights for Prime Minister Modi to fly over Pakistan on his way to Bishkek, as well as what is the thinking inside the government given that ordinary Indians are not getting this kind of rare exception being made for them, is the government going to raise this issue that hundreds of thousands of Indians are being dislocated, patients not being able to fly or having to fly extra hours, but the first part being has the government asked for permission and if the permission has been granted by Pakistan?

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: I think it is difficult for me to get into aspects related to Prime Minister’s flight routes, the technical aspects, these are dealt differently. There are other items security and other kind of dimensions that are processed very differently, so this is perhaps not the right place to discuss and we would not be the right people to be answering this question.

Question Contd.: Would the Prime Minister be raising the issue because this is an issue of connectivity within the issue ?

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Again, I think if it is raised you will get to know. At this point of time we really cannot say the issues which will be raised at the SCO.

Question: Just wanted a sense of what has really been the significant take away because the RATS (Regional Anti-Terror Structure) was being considered as a key pillar. Since the time that India joined as full member, has there been a significant take away from RATS so far in India and given the fact that India-Pakistan relations in a way overshadowed the entire SAARC forum which seems to be derailed, how are you ensuring that this bilateral dynamic doesn’t play when you in the SCO room together on all events?

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: I think there is an understanding within the SCO to focus on issues where there is greater scope of cooperation and contentious issues are usually not pushed in a big way. In our work with SCO we have not really seen great scope for such initiatives where contentious issues are pushed forward, so I think that would be reassuring.

As far as RATS is concerned, yes there is very useful exchange of information and other kind of cooperation involving RATS which is based in Tashkent. One of the key objectives of the SCO is also to fight separatism, extremism and terrorism. So RATS is at the heart of this kind of effort and we are happy to be associated with RATS.

Question: Is India hosting any defence related activity this year that is being planned under SCO defence cooperation?

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: I don’t recall off hand but then I think the way we work at some stage all the SCO member countries does offer something for the other countries but at this stage we do not have anything to let you know.

Question Contd.: What are the activities that are being planned this year?

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: I did not say this year.

Question: You said every country raises its concerns and concerns that are important to it. The Chinese vice Foreign Minister held a briefing a while ago where he said that SCO not a forum to target any one country but the issue of terrorism largely would be discussed. Will India be raising the issue of terrorism emanating from Pakistan then?

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: I think if you look at the record of previous SCO interactions and the summits, terrorism does figure in the deliberations of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. When I mentioned about the contact group on Afghanistan also, the countries of the region are challenged by the situation there and have a deep interest in the stability of Afghanistan as well. So these issues are likely to be discussed. I cannot say about specific countries.

As I mentioned that SCO has a well-oiled mechanism and by and large if you see the outcome documents they reflect the consensus opinion but they also reflect the concerns of the countries. All of them, the Central Asian countries, the Russia, they do talk about serious challenge from terrorism.

Question: You spoke about certain defence related developments that will take place later this year. Will this include multilateral defence exercise which will then obviously include both India and Pakistani troops?

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: In India?

Question Contd.: Or elsewhere.

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma:There are defence exercises, I believe there is one in Russia in September and that is called Observer in Defence Exercise Exenta 2019. There have been previous exercises as well so this is expected to take place.

Question Contd.: It would include all the member countries?

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: Definitely those associated with the domain are likely to be there, as I said there have been there previous also so it is a kind of continuing exercise and let there be no more speculation on this aspect because all this is based on agreed SCO principles and which is to fight the common challenges and threats and we have seen no problems there.

Question: Can you share the date on which Prime Minister Modi and President Xi will meet and also we know this meeting is very important before President Xi visit to India for the second round of informal meeting. There are some reports saying that this sideline meeting will be a structural talk which means the agenda is already set. Can you share more information about this and what is special setting for this talk?

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: See, we have just confirmed that the meeting is taking place. Closer to the date of meeting perhaps we will have more details. At this point of time we are not coming out with the exact time of the meeting because it is a multilateral format and discussions are ongoing. Once we have a fix on the time then we will share that with you.

Question Contd.: Is it on the 13th also?

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: That is what we are saying, the meeting can happen on the 13th also. Since the Prime Minister will be arriving on 13 June so there is a possibility of the meeting either on the 13th or the 14th. Regarding the agenda, again we have never shared in advance, as I mentioned, once the meeting takes place we will share the details and what all transpired in the meeting with all of you.

Question: Pakistan ko uski aatanki neetiyon ke chalte hamaari policy ka hissaa raha hai ki har forum par hum usko alienate karte rahe hain. Kya SCO ke forum ka bhi istemaal hum iske liye karenge jahan par Pakistan hamare saath jointly shaamil hoga?

(It has been a part of our policy that we had been alienating Pakistan on every forum because of its policy of terrorism. Will we be using the SCO forum for the same where Pakistan is also participating with us?)

Secretary (West), Shri Gitesh Sarma: Main kisi khaas desh ke baare mein nahi kahna chaahunga yahan par lekin jo SCO mein hamein karna chaahiye wo hum karenge aur jahan tak terrorism ka mudda hai to jo hamare lie khatra bana hai aur wahan par maujood sabhi deshon ke liye bhi khatara banaa hua hai, to hum apni raay, hamare views, hamare experience usko hum jaroor aagey badhaana chaahenge.

(I would not like to mention about any particular country here and we will do whatever we are supposed to do in the SCO and as far as the issue of terrorism is concerned, which is a threat for us and for the others members of the forum also, so we will definitely like to forward our views and our experiences on this matter.)

Question: As you said there is no formal meeting planned between Prime Minister Modi and Imran Khan, but are you not ruling out any last minute pull-aside between the two leaders?

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: You see whatever we had to share, in fact in the last briefing I had already mentioned that to the best of our knowledge there is no meeting being organized between Prime Minister and Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan. I think there is nothing more which we can add at this stage.

I do not see any other hand. Thank you sir, thank you Manish and thank you all for joining this special briefing for Prime Minister’s visit to Bishkek for the SCO Summit.

(Concludes)

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