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Address by Ambassador Nirupama Rao at UC-Berkeley on 5 December 2011 ---- ‘India and the Asia-Pacific: Expanding engagement’



Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak today at UC-Berkeley, an institution that has been at the forefront of championing progressive ideas not just in the United States but also in the world at large. And, as we are here on the western shores of the US adjoining the Pacific Ocean, it is only natural to speak about India’s expanding engagement with the Asia-Pacific region – a region which as Secretary of State Clinton recently described, starts from the Indian sub-continent and stretches to the west coast of the US. It is a space that both our countries share and it is vital to our security and prosperity.

I am into three months of my assignment here and in that period I have found that there is an increased focus on India’s role in Asia especially in the context of the extraordinary changes that are underway in the Asia-Pacific region. It is as if the rise and development of India creates a new awareness of its place in this area of the world. The tendency to divide the Asian continent into ‘convenient’ blocs – much of it a legacy of Cold-War thinking- is being supplanted by new perspectives. Where India was viewed predominantly within the context of South Asia there is now the realization that it is more than just a South Asian country. India is accurately perceived as being a stakeholder in the creation of an inclusive, participatory network of cooperative trade, economic development, security and stability. And, the India-US partnership synchronizes naturally with such a process.

India’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific region is not new. It has been a continuous process that goes back over a millennium. From the fact that we are a vast nation, with a rich and diverse history, we have had very dynamic and extensive contacts with our eastern neighbours since the first century - contacts based on cultural exchange, trade and commerce and maritime interaction. The convergence thus created and the spiritual interaction between India and East and South East Asia has left an indelible mark on the region's art, architecture, language and culture. The spread of Hinduism and Buddhism, and Islam, and the flourishing trade across the “spice route” between India and the countries of South East and East Asia led to a cultural synthesis whose imprint can be seen even today and which has blended gracefully and without intrusiveness with the indigenous spirit and identity of these societies.

This interaction was however distorted beginning with the 18th century, dictated as it was by the needs of colonial powers and the waning of India's strength and capabilities during that period. At the onset of our existence as an independent, sovereign nation, we proclaimed our resolve to re-establish these linkages as one of the priority areas in India’s foreign policy. Indeed our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, while speaking at the Asian Relations Conference in March 1947, even before our independence, said:

“We are of Asia and the peoples of Asia are nearer and closer to us than others. India is so situated that she is the pivot of Western, Southern and Southeast Asia. In the past her culture flowed to all these countries and they came to her in many ways. Those contacts are being renewed and the future is bound to see a closer union between India and Southeast Asia on the one side and Afghanistan, Iran and the Arab world on the west. To the furtherance of that close association of free countries, we must devote ourselves...”

Any look at the map would demonstrate the depth and meaning of these words. We see that India is both a continental and maritime nation with a territory of over 3 million sq kms, a land frontier of 15,000 kms, a coastline of 7,500 kms. It is a fundamental fact of geography that India is in the immediate neighbourhood of ASEAN. We share land and maritime borders with Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand. India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal are closer to some ASEAN states than to the Indian mainland. We are a multi-regional nation in that geography has destined it thus. While this does not mean we intend to jettison our responsibilities as the largest nation in South Asia, we are ever conscious of the natural linkages that have bound us through history with the nations of South East and East Asia and which will shape our future.

Put succinctly then, India’s location at the base of continental Asia and the top of the Indian Ocean gives it a vantage point in relation to West, Central, continental and South-East Asia, as well as the littoral States of the Indian Ocean from East Africa to South East Asia. The vital commercial sea lanes between West Asia and South East Asia straddle the Indian mainland and its island territories. India’s projection into this vast and critically important waterway gives it a major stake in its prosperity, stability and security.

In the 1950s, India did play a very active role and was deeply involved in developments in the region. We helped convene the first African-Asian conference in Bandung in 1955 and were the Chair of three international commissions on Indochina established by the 1954 Geneva Accords. However, we were unable to achieve the full promise of our relationship. This was not a reflection of a lower priority, but more a consequence of the divergences in economic ideology, political outlook and security assumptions- much of which was attributable to the dynamics of the Cold War in the region.

With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the stage was set for closer cooperation between India and South East Asia. We embarked on our “Look East” policy, the fulcrum of which was our relations with ASEAN.

India became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992, a  full dialogue partner in 1995, and joined the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996. Through these partnerships, we sought to capitalize on our strengths in the social, scientific and economic sectors and integrate into the relevant ASEAN processes. This was also the period when we embarked upon a pragmatic and successful policy of economic reform which further facilitated closer relations with the countries of the region.

As a result of more than two decades of sustained engagement, our relations with ASEAN and with countries of South East Asia have steadily strengthened. Today, there is a regular high level interaction both with ASEAN, with whom we have had annual summits since 2002, as also with individual countries of ASEAN. For instance,  our President has visited Cambodia and Laos and our Prime Minister visited Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore. There were visits by the Presidents of Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar and the Thai PM. Our Prime Minister recently participated in the 9th India-ASEAN Summit at Bali and also the East Asia Summit. Next year, we will be celebrating the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit to mark the completion of two decades of our partnership with ASEAN. The soundness of our balanced policy approaches spelling  well-reasoned  engagement with a country like Myanmar seems vindicated as we now see the opening of a new chapter in relations between the US and that country.

There have been tangible gains from this engagement both for us as also for ASEAN. Trade between India and ASEAN has crossed US$50 billion last year. With the conclusion and coming into force of the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement last year, we hope to increase our two-way trade substantially and are confident of achieving our target of US$70 billion by next year. We are presently negotiating an FTA in services and hope to conclude it by early next year. This would act as a catalyst to further increase our trade and integrate our economies.

We have also tried to improve connectivity and people to people exchanges. The number of flights between India and South East Asian countries has increased manifold; we are working on a Trilateral Highway Project between India, Myanmar and Thailand and there is a proposal to build a new India-Myanmar-Laos-Cambodia-Vietnam highway. In 2000, India and the Mekong basin countries of Southeast Asia namely, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, established a Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Forum. Under this Forum, an agreement has been reached to build a Delhi-Hanoi rail link. In addition, we have expanded our cooperation in the fields of science and technology, space and information technology and training, capacity building and human resource development in various sectors.

Today, the scope of our Look East policy has broadened to include the Far East and Pacific island nations extending from Australia to East Asia, with ASEAN at its core. We joined the East Asia Summit in 2005 at its inaugural summit in Kuala Lumpur and have been attending its summit meetings regularly. Our vision is to create a web of inter-linkages for our shared prosperity and security. India is working actively to achieve this objective.

The East Asia region including ASEAN is today our largest trading partner. We have today, Free Trade Agreements or Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements with several countries including Japan, RoK, Malaysia and Singapore. We have commenced negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. We intend to persevere towards greater economic integration and towards a Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia as our Prime Minister said at the recent East Asia Summit at Bali, so that there is a free flow of trade, investment, services and ideas among the countries of the region.

At the same time, we have added political, strategic, multilateral and regional dimensions to our Look East policy. Concomitant with the growth in our economic and political engagement in the Asia Pacific region, our defence and security cooperation with countries in the region is also growing. We have signed bilateral agreements to strengthen our defence cooperation as also cooperation in combating non-traditional security challenges with several countries of the region including with Japan, RoK, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. At the regional level we are an active participant in mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers plus Eight process which provide a platform to discuss common challenges to our collective peace and security and devise ways and means to address them.

For instance, ensuring the security of sea lines of communication is vital for the continued economic well being of the region. India sits astride these crucial sea lanes of communication across the Indian Ocean, through which almost 60,000 ships carry merchandise and energy from the Gulf to East Asia every year. The security of these lanes is increasingly challenged by the rising incidence of piracy as well as other threats such as trafficking in arms, drugs and human beings and linkages with transnational criminal gangs.

India has contributed its naval capabilities to help safeguard these vital sea lanes. In the past, we have cooperated with Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia to ensure security in the Malacca Straits. Today, we are cooperating with other naval forces in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia to counter piracy. We have had naval exchanges with virtually every country in the region. 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. The growth of our naval capabilities enables us also to work out mechanisms of cooperation with other friendly navies to be net providers of security in the region, and also for emergency and disaster management as we saw during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Today, apart from these threats there are also concerns being expressed about freedom of navigation across these maritime commons. We in India want to see the Indian Ocean region develop into a zone of cooperation rather than of competition and domination and support dialogue between stakeholders.

Ultimately, we would like to work for an open, inclusive and transparent architecture of regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, where all the major powers in Asia and beyond work together to address the traditional and non-traditional challenges and to create a basis for a stable and prosperous Asia. In this regard, we welcome the fact that issues such as terrorism, prevention and response to natural disasters, piracy, protecting sea lanes of communication and drug trafficking are also being discussed in the East Asia Summit. These are the challenges that cut across national boundaries and require cooperative responses.

Let me say a few words about our relations with China. China is our largest neighbor and the rise of China is a reality that faces the entire world, today. I am often asked whether our relationship with China will be one dominated by increasing competition for influence or for resources. I would not like to characterize our relations in such stark terms. Over the last two decades we have sought to deepen our dialogue and strengthen bilateral relations. Today China is our largest trading partner in goods. Peace and tranquility have prevailed in the India-China border areas. At the same time we do remain alert to the fact that China’s growing ability to project its military strength, its rapid military modernization, and its visible and growing reach introduces a new calculus in the security situation in our region. The challenge therefore, is to manage the India-China relationship despite inherent complexities and challenges, embedding it in the matrix of dialogue and diplomacy.

Our relations with Japan are marked by a harmony of interests, forged by common democratic values, and a strong and durable strategic and development partnership. Our dialogue with Japan is a key component of our policy outreach to the Asia-Pacific.

It is well accepted that the Asia-Pacific region today is the center of gravity for global opportunities with its continued economic growth. While the global economic situation is showing several signs of stress, the emerging market countries in Asia are growing well and have demonstrated their resilience.

The region can be expected to continue contributing to global growth, trade, prosperity and innovation. Today, Asia has by far the greatest share of rising middle classes and a young population; its economies are growing both quantitatively and qualitatively and integrating with the global economy. The sheer numbers alone, in terms of population or accelerating economic activity ensure that the region will play a starring role in the 21st century. We do not deny, however, that there are still many challenges that the region faces and that need to be successfully tackled.

In this regard we also have an increasing convergence of interests with the United States, which has been important player in the Asia, and today is renewing its engagement with the region. The continuance of economic growth and prosperity in both our countries is in many ways linked to the Indo-Pacific region. It is necessary in this context that we work together to manage challenges such as those posed by terrorism and extremism, or other diverse threats to our peace and security.

These converging interests have opened up new opportunities for enhancing cooperation and our efforts would be to capitalize on these opportunities. It was in recognition of these mutual interests that Prime Minister Singh and President Obama spelt out the shared vision of both countries for peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean and Pacific regions during the visit of President Obama to India last year.

We will work together and with other countries of the region, through forums such as East Asia Summit for evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive architecture in the region, so that all stakeholders can make their respective contributions to regional security. In multilateral forums such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum or ADMM + 8 process, there is now a regular consultation between our two countries and we work together constructively.

We are supplementing such multi-lateral efforts by bilateral consultations on the Asia-Pacific. We instituted a regular dialogue on developments in the region last year and have held four rounds of meetings. This dialogue provides an opportunity for two sides to discuss and exchange our respective perspectives on a wide range of regional issues. We have agreed to further deepen these strategic consultations on developments in the  Asia-Pacific.

As both our countries have a shared interest in maritime security in the region, cooperation in this area between India and the United States has deepened in the past several years. We both have affirmed the importance of maritime security, unimpeded  commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. 

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 that requires continued focus. Maritime security cooperation will only increase and strengthen in the future.

In addition, we will soon have a trilateral consultation between India, Japan and the US. These consultations would help increase mutual understanding and enhance our cooperative endeavors.

With its growing economy and as a result of the efforts over the past two decades, India is today regionally well integrated with the existing institutional regional structures. We also witness a greater interest within the countries of this region in strengthening relations with India, recognizing the strength of India - in terms of the growing size of our economy, achievements in science and technology and our contributions for the  maintenance of peace and security.

As we move towards an Asia-Pacific century, India will continue to deepen its engagement with the region as well as contribute to it's overall prosperity, stability and security.

With these words, I will be happy to take a few questions.

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