Dean, Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn University;
Director, Indian Studies Center;
Ambassador of India to Thailand;
Excellencies; Faculty members, Students and friends;
I am really delighted to deliver this talk on "India's Vision of the Indo Pacific” at this prestigious University. At the outset, let me express my gratitude to the University for extending me this invitation to interact with all of you and for the arrangements made for the talk.
2. Every vision has its concepts and its assessments and that is the case with Indo-Pacific too where India is concerned. Three decades ago, we made a strategic correction to the East that was responsible for the rapid flowering of our cooperation with the ASEAN. Originally, it was contemplated as an economic measure, with trade and investment at its core. Over the years, India’s interaction expanded well beyond the ASEAN to cover Japan, Korea and China, and in due course, Australia as also other areas of Pacific Islands for example. The facets of cooperation also increased, they now cover connectivity in various forms, people-to-people ties, and more recently, defence and security. This maturing of what we were doing to the East of India in our own terminology, we call it as moving up from Look East Policy to Act East Policy. What is relevant for our purposes today is to recognize that very substantial portion of India’s interests now lie to the East of India, beyond the Indian ocean and into the Pacific one.
3. During this very period, the landscape also started to change as we saw larger economic and political re-balancing. Just as India developed greater interests in the Pacific, countries of East Asia, for example have also been more visible in the Indian ocean. Even distant economies actually traverse the sea lanes from the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean as part of their supply chain commitments. The economic reality of globalization was that we are not merely more regional but actually much more active beyond our region in the search of markets and resources. This is especially so for major economies whose footprints have grown steadily, often in an overlapping manner and economically the separation of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as distinct compartments looks less and less tenable. We are quite visibly in each others’ proximity and to pretend otherwise is really not realistic.
4. The political dimension of the Indo-Pacific has been equally strong but it has actually a very different logic. Simply put, the separation of the Pacific from the Indian ocean was a direct outcome of American strategic dominance since 1945. As the power distribution has diversified in the last two decades, changes were inevitable on this score as well. The re-positioning of the US, the rise of China as also of India, the greater external engagement of Japan and Australia, the wider interests of South Korea and indeed, the broader outlook of the ASEAN itself have all contributed to this transformation. Some of it is also driven by our collective concerns for the global commons. It is no longer feasible for any one country to assume all the burdens. A more collaborative outlook that transcends the orthodoxy of earlier theatres is the need of the day. At the end of the day, this is about recognizing the realities of globalization and the consequences of re-balancing. Only those whose mindsets are built around spheres of influence and who are uncomfortable with the democratization of world affairs will dispute the Indo-Pacific today.
5. Let me now talk about how India sees the Indo-Pacific, its growth and its opportunities. We consider Indo-Pacific as a region that extends from the Eastern shores of Africa to the Western shores of America. This is an increasingly seamless space that is home to more than 64% of global population and which contributes over 60% of world’s GDP. About half of the global trade happens through the maritime trade routes in this region. Over the years, this region has seen strong and sustained economic growth spreading across the Pacific rim, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Gulf region and the East and Southern Coast of Africa. More integration and more collaboration will only add to prosperity and progress.
6. Our Indo-Pacific vision builds on India’s Act East Policy, a policy that I have explained and the doctrine of what we call SAGAR, SAGAR is an Indian word for ocean, and is an acronym for Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and this was articulated by our Prime Minister in Mauritius in 2015. We envisage a free, open, inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region, one which is built on a rules-based international order, sustainable and transparent infrastructure investment, freedom of navigation and over-flight, unimpeded lawful commerce, mutual respect for sovereignty, peaceful resolution of disputes, as well as equality of all nations.
7. To give concrete shape to India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific, we have actually moved on many fronts simultaneously. At the multilateral level, Prime Minister NarendraModi announced the Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) at the 14th East Asia Summit (EAS) which was actually held in Bangkokin November 2019. At a regional and plurilateral level, we have actively fostered the Quad mechanism as well as some important trilateral arrangements. And of course, our bilateral engagement with individual countries of the Indo-Pacific, including Thailand have intensified. Let me make clear that India envisages the ASEAN to be at the centre of the Indo-Pacific, both literally and substantively. Our ASEAN partners will surely note that our interactions with them have grown, not reduced, as a result of the Indo-Pacific.
8. Insofar as the IPOI is concerned, its focus is on a collaborative effort to better manage, conserve, sustain and secure the maritime domain. It envisages this cooperation under seven pillars namely, Maritime Security, Maritime Ecology, Maritime Resources, Capacity Building and Resource Sharing, Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation and Trade, Connectivity and Maritime Transport. Notably, the IPOI is an appropriate fit for the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) which was adopted during Thailand’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2019. We are committed to implement the synergies between the IPOI and the ASEAN Outlook to achieve a sustainable future in synchronisation with the national goals of all EAS partner countries. This is reflected in the joint statement between ASEAN and India which was adopted at the 18th ASEAN-India Summit meeting in 2021.
9. India’s IPOI does not envisage a new institutional framework but will rely on the Leaders-led East Asia Summit process, its framework and its activities. It is infact envisaged to be structure-light and cooperation-heavy. And we really don’t want it to be caught up with institutional divergences and differences and we are willing to work with everyone in the region to take forward the IPOI. Countries in the Indo-Pacific and infact countries beyond the Indo-Pacific even in Europe have announced their vision or guidelines or their outlook for the Indo-Pacific. Harmonising these various perspectives is surely possible, we believe, if there is genuine commitment to international cooperation. India’s approach towards Indo-Pacific under the IPOI looks at establishing a safe, secure and stable maritime domain. Some of the EAS countries have taken a lead in leading variouspillars of the IPOI initiative and already Australia has announced that it will lead on Maritime Ecology Pillar, Japan on Connectivity Pillar, Indonesia and France on Marine Resources Pillar, Singapore on the Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation Pillar and United Kingdom on Maritime Security Pillar.
10. So the picture which I am presenting to you is one where we are constructing practical result-oriented cooperation among the East Asia Summit countries within the existing architecture and initiatives, while also exploring new ideas, including in the domain of maritime cooperation.Towards effective promotion and implementation of our Indo Pacific Vision, we have for example recently organised Seminar on IUU Fishing, Marine Pollution including Marine Plastic Debris jointly with Australia and Singapore and the 5th EAS conference on Maritime Security Cooperation last year.
11. Autonomously of what I have described to you, there are also other processes that are taking place which contributes to the developments in the Indo-Pacific. On the economic side, the in-principle decision to initiate the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is a significant development. Further consultations are taking place among its 14 members to give concrete shape to it. The flexibility and inclusivity of that process will obviously be central to its success. Another interesting effort is the Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative that concentrates on maritime safety, IUU fishing and consequences of natural disasters. This too can help fill many gaps in the region.
12. The Quad is the most prominent plurilateral platform that addresses contemporary challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific. It has in recent years been meeting at the highest level, we had a summit in Tokyo few months ago and that itself is an indication of how substantive its work has become. The energies of the Quad are directed at a very broad range of activities. They range from maritime safety and security, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, cyber security, critical and emerging technologies and connectivity to education, health and even space cooperation. The role of the Quad in the delivery of public goods can also be very significant. We are confident that the entire Indo-Pacific region will benefit from its activities. And that is validated by the growing recognition of its importance in the international community. If there are reservations in any quarter, these stem from a desire to exercise a veto on the choices of others. And possibly a unilateralist opposition to a collective and cooperative endeavours.
13. While the Indo-Pacific has a strong maritime connotation, there are continental developments which also have a direct bearing on its future. I refer here, amongst others to the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway that has the potential of creating a completely new axis of economic activity in Asia. The IMTT project has had its fair share of challenges but we are determined to bring it to an early conclusion. Already, countries to the East of Myanmar, infact countries to the east of Thailand have expressed interest in getting connected to it. Such a lateral connectivity can radically expand the interface between South-East Asia and South Asia, to the mutual benefit of both.
14. So, where does Thailand and our relationship, the India-Thailand releationship, where do they fit into the vision and agenda of the Indo-Pacific. I would suggest to you that Thailand does so both as a partner and as an exemplar. You are all aware that for us, Thailand is a civilizational neighbour, as also an economic, political, maritime and increasingly, a strategic neighbour. One has to only look back at history, as I mentioned in the introductory remarks as well, to appreciate the longstanding closeness of our people andtraditions. In fact, early this morning, I went to offer my prayers at the Devasthan. In recent years, we have added more dimensions to our ties, including the security one. Even this trip of mine is actually a reflection of these developments, because I am here to co-chair along with Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, the Joint Commission that we have between our two countries. But I would urge you to think in much more big picture terms, keeping the long view in mind.
15. India-Thailand cooperation is actually best symbolized by the King after whom this University is named because King Chulalongkorn had paid a Royal visit to India in 1872 and subsequently in the year 1915. We were also, thereafter honored to receive another Royal visit by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), the founder of this University. This University is associated with great Indian nationalists, among them NetajiSubhas Chandra Bose and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. They fought in their time for the identity and interests of Asia under much more difficult circumstances. I emphasize this because today, the prospects for the global order depend very much on a more equitable and democratic distribution of power and resources. For that to happen, the world must obviously be more multi-polar. And such a multi-polar world must necessarily have a multi-polar Asia at its centre. This will happen only if we Asian countries consolidate our independence and expand our freedom of choices. Thailand, in many ways, has been an example in this respect, because it navigated the most complex conflicts of the 20th Century. Our expectation is that individually, bilaterally and collectively with the ASEAN, we contribute to the emergence of a more stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.
16. I would also hope that University (inaudible) can help build closer cooperation with India, keeping in mind that such cooperation are an important aspect of the larger changes underway. It is laudable that the Chulalongkorn University and the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) of India are collaborating on a research project, "Arunothai”, to exchange knowledge in language, art, culture, and society, and to strengthen the understanding between our peoples.
17. The Indo-Pacific region traces a wide arc of immense diversity, but with specific dynamics. Thailand is a key ASEAN state and the second largest economy in Southeast Asia. Our time-tested relations are poised to move to the next level. We are marking the 75th year of our diplomatic relations since Thailand was among our earliest partners of our independent era. We work not just in the ASEAN framework, but in a range of other contexts including the BIMSTEC of which also Thailand has now become the Chair. We have a strong and vibrant Indian-origin community in Thailand, which has been a bridge between the two countries. India looks forward to work closely with Thailand for its active participation in the implementation and progress of our vision in the Indo-Pacific.
18. With these words, let me thank all of you for joining me today this morning for this talk. We hope to have the continued support and engagement, not just of the government of Thailand, but of the Thai people, Thai institutions and Thai younger generations because it is only then we can construct a partnership that is mutually beneficial and ensure that there is peace, progress and harmony in the Indo-Pacific.
Thank you very much.