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Ambassador Meera Shankar's speech at Harvard Kennedy School - "India-U.S. Relations in an Asia-Pacific Century"

Cambridge, MA

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Ladies and Gentlemen,

 It is a great honour to be here at the Harvard Kennedy School which is one of the foremost public policy programmes. I am specially delighted that the Kennedy School has introduced a dedicated programme on India and South Asia. This commendable initiative owes much to the interest and leadership of Ambassador Nicholas Burns who has played a key role in the transformation of India-US relations in recent years.

 I would like to speak to you today about the future of Asia, from an Indian perspective. In a way, both India and the US are today more aware of each others’ Asia-Pacific identities and that has, I think, brought us closer together.

The center of gravity of global challenges and opportunities is shifting rapidly to the Asia-Pacific region.  Asian economic surge, especially in countries like India and China, is increasingly anchoring global economic growth and opportunities.  We are witnessing the rise simultaneously of several parts, each convinced that its position relative to the others will improve rather than worsen in the years to come.  There are new questions about the role and responsibilities of extra-regional powers. The region is undergoing rapid changes and throwing up new challenges of reconciling historical differences with growing inter-dependence.  The traditional fragmentation of Asia into distinct and, often, mutually exclusive regions is losing its meaning because of the increasingly global nature of the challenges that we face today, many of which, such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy security, piracy and cyber threats emanate from Asia, especially from India’s extended neighbourhood. The region has yet to evolve a security architecture that reflects all the changes and challenges in the region, and one of the goals for us all is to make sense of that and work out effective arrangements.

The future of the Asia Pacific region is absolutely vital for India’s own future. We have always been conscious of our Asian identity, of our location at the strategic and cultural cross-roads of Asia. For millennia, we had a vibrant and thriving relationship with the rest of the region. If there was the Silk Route that linked India to Central Asia and beyond, there was the Spice Route that linked India to West and East Asia alike. Budhism spread out from India to Central Asia, South-East and East Asia. India’s historical links of trade and culture with these regions left a lasting impact. Traders from West Asia brought the great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to India long before they spread elsewhere. From conquerors entering India from the northwest to the persecuted landing on our shores to seek refuge, from the birth of new languages to the evolution of art and architecure, India always felt the impact of, and in turn influenced, developments in the Asia Pacific region.

For much of the past three centuries, our ties with the Asia Pacific region were dictated by the needs of the colonial power; after Independence, it was constrained by our inward looking policies. Today, as we open ourselves to the world, as we become increasingly integrated into the global economy, we are re-discovering our ancient links, and our traditional interests, in the Asia Pacific. And, we recognize that we have a responsibility to ourselves and our region in shaping its future.

Once, the US and Europe were the main markets for Indian exports.  Today around 54 % of India’s exports go to Asia. As a region, ASEAN and East Asia together account for about 28% of India’s exports, recently surpassing the European Union as the single largest regional destination for India’s exports. West Asia’s share in our exports also exceeds that of the European Union.   At the turn of this century, Asia was the source of just 29% of our imports; last year, the figure was 61%, not in small measure due to the burgeoning energy imports from West Asia.

Indian companies are now increasingly investing abroad to exploit synergies, improve market access, acquire technologies and secure energy supplies. While the United States and UK are preferred destinations, the Indian footprint is growing significantly from West Asia to Australia.

The Indian Ocean region is central to our security and economic development. We have a coastline of over 7500 kms, several far flung islands and an Exclusive Economic Zone of 2.3 million sq km. The waters around us are a source of the bulk of our domestic production of petroleum and natural gas.  90% of Indian trade by volume takes place through the seas; and, 75% of energy supplies come by sea.  The Indian Ocean region is also the center of 70% of the world’s natural disasters and vital for stability of global commerce and energy trade.

A vibrant Indian diaspora provides a strong link between India and the countries of the region. West Asia alone is home to over 4 million Indians; countries like Malaysia and Singapore have significant populations of Indian origin.

Since the 1990s, India has consciously followed a “Look East Policy” to deepen our engagement with the dynamic and changing Asia Pacific region. It began with the ASEAN countries, but over time the policy gradually evolved to include the Far Eastern and Pacific regions.

We have Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements with South Korea, Singapore and Japan and a Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Partnership with the ASEAN countries. We have begun a joint study with Australia on a Free Trade Agreement.  Our Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has articulated a vision of an Asian Economic Community and while this may still be a longer term possibility, the foundations are being laid through a web of free trade arrangements in the region.

Our engagement with the Asia Pacific is not only economic, but also increasingly strategic and political, in character. Institutionally, with the region, we have a 2004 Declaration on India-ASEAN Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity and a regular ASEAN-India Summit. We participate in the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting plus Eight process.

Beyond the institutional relationships, with virtually every country in the region – in Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, we are witnessing a deepening of political and security dialogue and cooperation. For example,  Japan and India signed a Security Cooperation Declaration in 2008 and have finalized a Joint Action Plan. In addition to annual summits at the level of Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers, we will hold annual defence ministerial dialogues.   With Australia, too, we have signed a Security Cooperation Declaration in November 2009. The South Korean President was our honoured guest at the Republic Day celebration in January 2010. His four-day visit has laid the foundation for an enhanced economic and strategic partnership between India and the Republic of Korea. Our engagement with ASEAN countries, individually, have also intensified.

The acceleration in the strategic outreach between East and Southeast Asian countries and India is, I believe, the result of new opportunities and changes in the region and questions how these will shape the future. There are questions of balance, cooperation, competition and conflict that could have a profound impact on security, stability and prosperity of each country in the region.

Concomitant with the growth in our economic and political engagement in the Asia Pacific region, our defence cooperation with countries in the region is also growing. We have had naval exchanges with virtually every country in the region and also held some multilateral exercises. We want to see the Indian Ocean region develop into a zone of cooperation rather than of competition and domination and support dialogue between stakeholders. In February 2008, the Indian Navy hosted the first Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in New Delhi attended by Chiefs of Navies and Heads of Maritime Security Organizations representing the littoral states of the Indian Ocean.  At the same time, we are developing our own naval capabilities to protect our interests.

Our relationship with China is not only important for the two countries, but its course will have a strong bearing on the future of the region.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often said that the world is large enough to accommodate the growth ambitions of two large countries such as India and China. China has become India’s largest trading partner in goods. Together, the two countries can power Asian and global prosperity. We have an unresolved border dispute and certain other concerns with China. But, we have sought to maintain tranquility on our borders, striven to resolve disputes through dialogue, improve mutual trust and confidence, expand our economic and political engagement and cooperate in international forums in areas of common interest. 

 South Asia will have a profound impact on the future of Asian, indeed global, prosperity and stability. It is home to a significant part of the global population and continues to face a wide range of political, economic and social challenges. The surge of violent extremism in our neighbourhood is affecting the entire world; success in helping Afghans build a stable, moderate, unified and sovereign country, free from extremist pressure,  is important not just for the Afghans or South Asia, but equally for our collective future. The outcome will inevitably also shape the balance of power in the wider Asian region.  There are countries in uncertain political transitions. And, the arc of clandestine proliferation that extends from East Asia to West Asia runs through our neighbourhood. 

Our Prime Minister’s vision is that the linked fortunes and destinies of South Asian countries leave us with no alternative to building a collective future of shared prosperity and peace by resolving our differences, connecting our people, opening our markets and celebrating our common heritage.  Our strategy today rests on economic and humanitarian assistance, trade concessions and improving regional connectivity within the overarching framework of political outreach.

  It is our desire to build a future with Pakistan defined by the power of cooperation rather than the perils of conflict that leads us to hope for a   stable, moderate and prosperous Pakistan. We have repeatedly extended the hand of friendship, despite the pressure of terrorism emanating from Pakistan - as investigations after the Mumbai terrorist attack and revelations of US national David Headley have shown.  We have recently resumed dialogue with Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani to visit India for the India-Pakistan semi-final cricket match in the World Cup. For the resumed dialogue to be productive, our concerns on terrorism must be addressed and all those responsible for the Mumbai attack brought to book.

Despite our own challenges, we continue to provide economic assistance to our neighbours, including Afghanistan.  We have provided assistance worth over USD 1.3 billion that covers a wide range of infrastructure, human resource development, community assets and rural development. Afghans consistently rate India as the best development partner. India will continue to support Afghans to develop the capacity to assume greater responsibility for their own development and governance. We do not see Afghanistan as a theatre of regional competition; rather we see it as a potential hub of energy, trade and transit linking Central Asia and South Asia.

Stability in Southwest Asia will have a salutary impact on Central Asia, which is emerging as an important area of global interest. India has civilisational links with Central Asia and strong relations with the countries in the region, but our ability to harness the full potential of our cooperation is constrained by the difficulty of access, because we do not have transit rights through Pakistan and Iran remains our primary surface link with Central Asia.  We will continue to build cooperation with Central Asian countries, and will work with regional and major powers for stability and a cooperative framework in Central Asia.

A major success of our diplomatic initiatives in recent years is the remarkable progress in revitalizing our ancient economic and cultural ties to the countries in West Asia, especially the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. Countries in this region are today undergoing a historic cycle of change which holds great promise but is also complex and difficult. Since the 1990s, Israel has emerged as one of our key strategic partners, a country with which we also have very robust economic and technological ties. Iran is an important country in our extended neighbourhood with which we have civilizational links. We are conscious of the need to objectively address Iran’s nuclear issue. We have maintained that Iran should fulfill its obligations as a signatory to the NPT regime, while having the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. India, on its part, has consistently implemented all relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

In India, we recognize that the Asian and the linked Pacific region has a unique environment characterized by a great geographic expanse and extraordinary cultural, political and economic diversity.  We believe that the region requires an architecture that can accommodate its diversity and address its wide-ranging challenges.

We also recognize that the United States is an Asia-Pacific power, that it has a role and stake in the future of Asia. The US has played an important role in the emergence of Asia, given its wide ranging economic, trade, financial and military influence. In recent years, it has shown a renewed engagement with the region. The continuance of economic growth and prosperity in both our countries is in some ways linked to Asia. It is necessary in this context that we work together to manage the challenges that may threaten peace and security in the region and impact on sustained economic growth. 

An important new aspect of our transformed relationship with the United States, a transformation in which Ambassador Nick Burns played a key role, is the increasingly global nature of our partnership. When President Obama visited India last November, he and Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, spelt out the shared vision of both countries for peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, the India Ocean and Pacific regions. There is an increasing convergence of interests between India and the US vis-à-vis Asia. We have agreed to work together and with other countries of the region for evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive architecture in the region. We believe that this would need to be a consensus based process, so that all stakeholders can make their respective contributions to regional security. India aspires to this vision in cooperation with all countries, including the US, through partnership, consultation and dialogue. As the US prepares to participate in the East Asia Summit later this year, we will also continue our consultations to ensure that the Summit has a productive outcome.

In addition, both India and the US are already working together to manage each of the challenges that I had earlier mentioned. Our Counter-terrorism cooperation has steadily deepened in the last two years. We concluded a new Counter-terrorism cooperation initiative last year and will soon be launching a new Homeland Security Dialogue to further stregthen operational cooperation, counter-terrorism technology transfers and capacity building. In the context of the broader region, we have agreed to intensify consultation, cooperation and coordination to promote a stable, democratic, prosperous, and independent Afghanistan. In this regard we are presently discussing the possibility of pursuing joint development projects with the Afghan Government in capacity building, agriculture and women’s empowerment.

Non-proliferation and disarmament was an area that was marked by sharp differences in the past. But today it is emerging as another area where our two countries are seeking new avenues of cooperation.  India’s announcement to establish a new Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. last year is such an example. US support for India’s membership in export control organizations, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group, is yet another step forward.

Maritime security cooperation between India and the United States has deepened in the past several years and today our naval forces conduct regular joint exercises and exchanges. The anti-piracy operations off the coast of Africa, where our navies are working together with forces of other countries have brought in a new dimension. Maritime security cooperation will only increase and strengthen in the future. We have also started an exploratory dialogue on the pathways of global trade and connectivity such as air, sea, space, and cyberspace domains to examine how we can work together, as well as with other countries, to develop a shared vision for these critical domains to promote peace, security and development.

 Energy security and clean technologies are priority areas for India-US cooperation. The civil nuclear agreement not only had a transformational impact on India-US relations, but also opened the door for India and the US to cooperate in the field of nuclear energy. This would help India to strengthen energy security and meet its growing energy requirements while reducing the impact on global warming and on fossil fuel demand. The recent adjustment of US export control procedures as they apply to India carries forward the logic of the bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement and would facilitate high technology trade between the two countries. This and the US support for India’s membership of export control organizations have been widely welcomed in India. Both countries are also undertaking joint research and deployment of clean energy resources, such as solar, advanced biofuels and smart grids.

As members of G-20 we are already collaborating to ensure a sustained global economic recovery. India’s economic growth which has rebounded to 8.6% in financial year 2010-11 and is expected to be between 8 to 10 % in future will be an important anchor for momentum in the global economy. While some progress  has been made in giving greater voice to emerging economies in the global financial and economic architecture, this process needs to be carried forward and  extended to other important dimensions of global governance. As part of this larger effort, President Obama has publicly articulated the US support to India as a permanent member in an expanded UN Security Council; a recognition of India’s capability and role in addressing global challenges.

I have often said that while Indians may consider the world as their workplace, they certainly know that Asia is their home. We have always been conscious of our Asian identity. At the dawn of independence, we had hoped that a cooperative, stable and prosperous Asia will emerge from the ruins of colonialism. We are now at another important point of transition in Asia. While there is no doubt that Asian countries are rising to take their due place in the world,  we, in Asia and outside, have a responsibility to work together to define the arrangements and patterns of relationships to deal with our challenges and harness our opportunities. Whether we will be able to do it will be the real test of our wisdom and skills.

Today Asia stands at the centre of momentous geo-political and geo-economic changes underway, which hold both promise and challenges for our future collective endeavours. We share the responsibility to shape our collaboration to liberate the creative energies of the region. As Asia works to chart a course for addressing common challenges to peace, stability and prosperity, there are opportunities for both India and the US to contribute positively to that process and in doing so to also strengthen their partnership and make it truly global. On its part India stands ready to work actively to realize both these objectives.