February 28, 2020
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Beyond The Summit

'In South Asia, suspicions are yet to be fully removed and doubts still linger. But, the spirit of trust and cooperation has started its long arduous journey in South Asia.'

Beyond The Summit
Beyond The Summit

Edited extracts from the Seventh Dinesh Singh Memorial Lecture by the External Affairs Minister on ‘12th SAARC Summit and Beyond’ on February 3, 2004

The topic of today - "Twelfth SAARC Summit and Beyond" is both relevant and appropriate since it provides a useful framework to assess the recent Summit, with an eye to the future. My intention is not to go into the details of what happened or did not happen. Post mortems of the Summit have been, by now, very extensively conducted. Instead, I would like to address the issue of why SAARC was able to make the advances that it did at the Summit and the lessons India needs to imbibe from the same for the future.

The highlights of the Islamabad Summit were an agreement on the SAFTA, the conclusion of an Additional Protocol to the SAARC Convention on Terrorism and the signing of the Social Charter. Less reported but equally significant was also a decision to initiate a study on advancing the deadline for a South Asian Economic Union from 2020 to 2015, including on a common currency. This was, in fact, an Indian proposal, which won prompt and quick support at the meeting of the Council of Ministers.

Although SAARC was formed eighteen years ago, it is really in the Twelfth Summit at Islamabad that South Asia, as a region, awakened to the benefits of regionalism and came together with a joint economic and social agenda to effectively help in the integration of our seven countries. The agreements and decisions of the Summit represent a significant and innovative breakthrough in the process of establishing the inter-relationship between economic development through trade and integration, ending terror and violence and the elimination of poverty in our region. 

For example, the fairly quick conclusion of SAFTA, after a period of excruciatingly long negotiations under the SAPTA process, reflects the acceptance by all SAARC members that South Asia constitutes a natural trading region and that economic and commercial barriers within the region must inevitably fall. Similarly, the conclusion of the Additional Protocol represents a willingness on the part of SAARC countries to substitute theological debates over the definition of terrorism with a concrete plan of action. 

Likewise, the Social Charter marks the recognition that the fundamental task confronting the region is poverty and addressing this reality can brook no further delay. Finally, the decision to look into the possibility of a common currency and examine whether the goal of a South Asian Economic Union can be advanced symbolizes the keenness of SAARC to speed up its integration progress in the face of a globalized world.

Considering the track record of SAARC, the remarkable results achieved have come as a surprise to many people. It is, therefore, worthwhile to examine how have we come this far and what is needed to keep this process on track.

There is a growing recognition of the economic benefits of regionalism across the world. The events of September 11, 2001 and the war against terrorism has also acted as a major cementing factor between nations across the globe. Both these developments have contributed to the lessening of inter-state tensions in several parts of the world and we see the same happening in South Asia too.

At the same time, the outcome of the Islamabad Summit is, equally, product of a slow but steady change in the ‘mindset’ of our neighbours towards India. This change, in turn, is to a large extent, the fruit of a conscious policy shift India has made towards the region as well as its perseverance in advocating the virtues of regionalism.

Let me elaborate this aspect in greater detail. How have India’s policies evolved?

The best way to address this question is to place it in the context of traditional stereotypes regarding India’s relations with the neighbourhood.

What have been the most common complaints against India? They are :

  • India has a ‘big brother’ approach to its neighbourhood. It seeks hegemony and has its own version of a Monroe Doctrine for South Asia. India is neither sensitive nor generous to its smaller neighbours. We neglect them and instead, run after the West.

  • India is niggardly in its approach on economic matters. We are unwilling to share the fruits of our prosperity and we nit-pick over petty issues.

  • We have boxed ourselves into the Subcontinent and have a ‘frog in the well’ attitude.

  • Our approach to SAARC is negative. Ever since its inception, we have seen it as a forum for others to gang up against us. We are consumed by the fear that bilateral disputes will be dragged into SAARC and are convinced that each of our neighbours is conspiring to do so.

Irrespective of whether these charges have any substance or not, India, in the recent past, has traveled many miles to try and address each and every one of them.

For example, the neighbourhood has been a very clear political priority for this Government. We have, across the board and at all levels, established close interaction with our South Asian counterparts. I started my tenure with personal visits to each of the SAARC countries and in the last one and a half years, have already visited Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for a second time. Every multilateral event has been used to strengthen these contacts and to consolidate these relationships into personal friendships. Happily, leaders of our neighbouring countries have also visited us on a regular basis and a red carpet has been extended to every one of them.

Details of high level visits in just the last year and more will illustrate the point I am making. From Sri Lanka, over and above numerous private visits, the Foreign Minister visited India once, the Prime Minister twice and the President once. The Bangladesh Foreign Minister visited us twice. King Gyanendra and Crown Prince Paras of Nepal, both visited us. Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa visited us once before assumption of charge and once after assumption. From Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck as well as Crown Prince Kesar Namgyal Wangchuck visited India.

Lest it be felt that sensitivity to our neighbours has been restricted only to the top echelons of power, let me point out that we have encouraged contacts between all sections of our respective societies, be they businessmen, journalists, scholars or the common man. India’s initiatives to reopen road, rail and ferry links with Pakistan; the Open Skies arrangement vis-à-vis Sri Lanka; the optical fibre backbone across the Nepalese Terai as well as the Rail Agreement with Nepal, the new ICD terminal at Birgunj, hydro-electric projects in Bhutan and Nepal, the Dhaka – Agartala bus service and proposals for ferry services between Colombo and Kochi and Mumbai and Karachi are all initiatives specifically designed to promote people to people contacts, trade and commercial interaction within the region.

Secondly, our approach towards our neighbours on economic matters has evolved considerably. Let alone demand reciprocity in trade and other negotiations, we are now institutionalizing positive asymmetry in favour of our neighbours. This is the approach we have adopted in our FTA with Sri Lanka and which we intend to continue in our discussions on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. This is the framework we intend to use for discussions with Bangladesh on an FTA. This is also one of the key concepts embedded in the recently concluded SAFTA Agreement. The fact that Pakistan enjoys MFN treatment even while it refuses to fulfill this basic minimum obligation of international trade towards us also shows the same logic at work. We have in fact also offered to host in India next month a ‘Made-in-Pakistan’ exhibition to promote its exports to our country.

Many of you would recall that the report of a Group of Eminent Persons recommending the creation of a South Asian Economic Union by 2020 had been virtually forgotten till India decided to pick it up and place the idea on the top of SAARC’s agenda. This move had its share of detractors. There were voices which expressed doubt and suspicion. Some accused this Government of being naïve in our approach to the complex and convoluted politics in our neighbourhood.

But, clearly, adopting a bold stance has paid off. We showed the courage to stand up and lead from the front. And, this has brought us dividends. Not only are critics in our own country quiet, our neighbours have also begun to see the wisdom in what we are advocating. In fact, one of the most rewarding moments in Islamabad was when our proposal for a study on advancing the deadline received spontaneous support from many other SAARC members, proving the point that they do not fear a closer integration within South Asia.

Thirdly, nothing could be further from the truth than the allegation that our foreign policy is trapped in a Subcontinental framework. This Government, over the last six years, has assiduously promoted the idea that India is a major power in the world. We have articulated the concept of an extended neighbourhood for India which stretches from the Suez Canal to the South China Sea and includes within it West Asia, the Gulf, Central Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region. We have also actively pursued infrastructure projects and policies aimed at expanding India’s connectivity with this extended neighbourhood. The India – Myanmar- Thailand trilateral road project, the Open Skies policy announced for South East Asia and the agreement to use Chabahar Port of Iran for transit to Central Asia and Russia through Afghanistan all stand out in the above regard.

We have also been pro-active in the building of other regional groupings such as the Mekong - Ganga Cooperation and BIMST-EC, which expand India’s reach beyond the Subcontinent. A few days from now, the Foreign Ministers of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand will meet in Phuket, Thailand to welcome into BIMST-EC two new members – Bhutan and Nepal and to sign a framework agreement on free trade.

This agreement, along with SAFTA and India’s Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN will together result in an unhindered economic space from Pakistan to the Philippines. In fact, if my proposal for an India-Pakistan-Iran Common Market finds acceptance, this economic space will extend all the way up to Iran. It must also be noted in this connection that the transport corridors India is creating to the east and the west not only link India but also South Asia and this entire region to the rest of the world. Moreover, energy corridors that criss-cross the region are also likely to eventually become an integral part of such an economic space.

Finally, India’s contributions to the Twelfth SAARC Summit alone should be more than sufficient to dispel any doubts regarding its commitment to the SAARC process. Despite tremendous risks to his personal security, Prime Minister Vajpayee had no hesitation whatsoever in indicating at an early date, his readiness to attend the Summit. During the Summit, a whole host of proposals for strengthening SAARC was placed on the table by India. The Prime Minister proposed in his address to the Summit a Poverty Alleviation Fund and indicated India’s willingness to make an initial contribution of US$ 100 million for projects in SAARC countries other than India. We advocated a regional food bank and a campaign for zero-hunger in the region. India issued an unambiguous call for the free movement of media persons and media products in South Asia. India also proposed the establishment of cultural sub centers under the main SAARC Cultural Centre in Kandy, an idea which was welcomed by all others.

It can thus be seen that India’s approach towards SAARC is positive and constructive. For us, SAARC is a means by which our entire region can progress and prosper. It is not an object of fear. Fellow SAARC members are partners in the building of a new future and not conspirators working against us.

Almost a year back, I pointed out that the Gujral Doctrine was a continuation of the good neighbourhood policy initiated by Sri Vajpayee during his tenure as Foreign Minister in 1977-79. I also said that the present Government is not only committed to the Gujral Doctrine but prepared to move even further ahead in the direction of peace, friendship and prosperity with our neighbours. I recall that Sri Gujral at that time expressed the hope that I sincerely meant what I was saying and that these were not mere words.

I presume that the policies we have adopted over the last one year and in particular, the events of Islamabad will reassure him on this count.

The most significant value addition this Government has brought to India’s neighbourhood policy is the induction of a major dose of economic content. We have persistently articulated the need for the simple logic of economics to triumph over politics and I believe, it is this approach which helped us make the breakthrough at the SAARC Summit in Islamabad.

Let me reiterate once again my firm belief and conviction that India should remain ready, at all times, to pilot the building of a united and prosperous South Asia. Self-confidence should be the hallmark of our approach to the Subcontinent. We should have no doubts over the fact that our interests are best served through a positive, activist and where necessary, unilateral approach to the building of mutual economic stakes and people to people contacts within the region.

At the same time, the bottom line in our relations with neighbours must remain the need to be sensitive to each other’s security concerns and to neither encourage nor undertake any activity that might be detrimental to the security and welfare of the neighbour. Encouraging non-state actors, terrorists and other elements by providing sanctuary and support is not only violative of UN Security Council Resolution 1373 but can also boomerang on the countries who provide such support. We have already seen several such examples in our immediate vicinity and it would be wise for everyone to learn from these developments. Mere denials will not suffice. Inspiration should be drawn from the courage and foresight with which Bhutan has moved against elements within its borders which were threatening its own sovereignty as well as the security of India.

I believe that at Islamabad, there was a collective willingness on the part of all countries of the region to look forward. There was a clear desire to escape the shackles of history and a willingness to not only dream about the future but to also initiate action in pursuit of this dream. There was recognition of the reality that the forces of globalization are unstoppable and if we refuse to accept the need to change, we will only be left behind.

We must build on this foundation. South Asia must summon the resources of far-sighted statecraft to sustain the momentum generated by the SAARC summit. SAARC must transform itself from an association sponsored by Governments to one that is energised by the people. It must become ‘people-oriented’ for the progress at Islamabad to be made irreversible, for, no one will want to let go of the windfall that peace and regional integration will bring.

As mentioned by our Prime Minister in his opening address at the Summit: "The bonds of religion, language, ethnicity and culture which hold us together as a South Asian family are far more enduring than the relatively recent barriers of political prejudice we have erected".

There is, in India, genuine pride in our accomplishments over the last five years. Change is palpable and can be seen all around us in concrete form. The success of our economy has infused our foreign policy with self-confidence and energy and vice-versa, the success of our foreign policy has given the various actors involved in our economy great vigour and drive to discover new avenues of profit.

In South Asia, suspicions are yet to be fully removed and doubts still linger. But, the spirit of trust and cooperation has started its long arduous journey in South Asia.

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