Asia Program

After the SAARC Summit: Vision for South Asia

A speech delivered at the Wilson Center by Yashwant Sinha, India's Minister of External Affairs

Jan 20, 2004

I am happy to be at this at this Centre, named after a great American leader and champion of democracy. It is always a pleasure to interact with representatives of the Washington Corps of strategic and foreign policy experts, which is such an important part of this city's political and intellectual landscape.

My visit to Washington takes place as both our Governments enter the last lap in their current tenures in office. The last three years have been a truly tumultuous period for the world. Later day scholars would certainly count this as one of the defining moments in contemporary history. It marks the launch of a world war against terror.

This has been an equally extraordinary time for India – U.S. relations, a period in which we have decisively turned away from the doubts and distance of another era to embark on a journey towards close friendship and a new relationship. Last week, we reached another milestone as Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Bush outlined the next steps in our strategic partnership – cooperation in civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programme and ‘dual use' goods and technologies, besides expanded dialogue on missile defence. The statement by two leaders underscores their personal commitment to complete the process of qualitatively transforming India-U.S. relations.

We can be proud of what we have achieved so far and confident about the future of our relationship. The nature, level and frequency of dialogue are unprecedented in the history of our bilateral relations. We are guided by a vision that extends beyond specific issues and immediate horizons. Our interests and positions do not always coincide, but they do not become source of conflict or confrontation. Our cooperation has deepened across a wide range of subjects. We are exploring frontier areas of science and technology, developing vaccines against communicable diseases, pursuing transformational technologies for clean energy, making our environment safer, strengthening mutual capabilities in combating terrorism and cyber crimes, and discussing ways to deal with transnational threats and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We have crossed new thresholds in defence cooperation, high technology commerce and strategic trade. Bilateral trade is showing strong growth, and we believe that the immense synergies between India and the United States, will define a new success story of international economic partnership.

The vision of the two largest democracies, placed in different situations, but linked by strong bilateral ties, bringing diverse perspectives to address their increasingly common challenges, represents an exciting possibility in global affairs.

Ladies and gentlemen, the last five years of the Vajpayee Government have witnessed a number of achievements on India's foreign policy front. The transformation of our relationship with the United States is indeed among the most important of these.

In this era of globalisation, India and the United States have to reach out to the world to secure our interests and fulfil our responsibilities. Managing the consequences and harnessing the potential of our interdependence is vital for peace and prosperity. There is also a deeper reality: for all the uncertainties of our times, we have a unique opportunity to define international relations on the ethic of plurality and equality, consensus and cooperation, compassion and co-existence.

We have a similar vision for South Asia. For us, the global stage is our calling, but South Asia is our home. Therefore, South Asia is an integral part of our life, and naturally, a secure, peaceful and prosperous South Asia is important for our future. In political, economic and technological terms, India has made impressive strides. Driven by economic reforms, enterprise and an explosion of aspirations of a growing young population, India's economic growth has been on a high trajectory and will likely exceed 7% this year. Yet, we recognise that our own progress will be faster and more secure, when our region is bound together in peaceful cooperation, not divided by conflict and confrontation.

This is equally true, if not more, for other countries in the region. As countries around the world overcome historical memories in their drive towards a cooperative future of shared prosperity, South Asian region cannot afford to remain an isolated prisoner of political doubts, differences, and discords of the past sixty years. By coming together, we will not be able to address all our individual challenges; we will, however, find ourselves more capable of dealing with them – individually and collectively. As I have travelled across South Asia, I have sensed a strong sense of regional identity and a yearning for friendship, amity, peace and prosperity among the people. They exude confidence in themselves and the potential of their region.

South Asia is home to one-fifth of humanity. We have rich human resource, sophisticated technical skills, vast natural resources and potentially large markets. We share a common history and heritage. We have centuries-old ties of language, religion, ethnicity and culture. We are at the centre of Asia, at the crossroads of its various sub-regions. We straddle strategic trade routes between the East and the West. With our extended neighbourhood of Iran and Afghanistan, our land mass also links the new energy sources of Central Asia with the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean in the South. We have untapped energy resources of our own. Our common rivers are a valuable resource for energy, irrigation and transportation. Yet, our intra-regional trade is still languishing below 5 % of the global trade of South Asian nations.

The myth that, because of the asymmetries in our economies, the smaller countries do not benefit from closer economic integration within South Asia must be discarded. We see India's size as an asset that can be leveraged for the benefit of all of India's smaller neighbours. India has no desire but to be able to build economic relations aimed at mutual benefit. There are many examples of how South Asian cooperation can create win-win situations. Our free trade agreements with Nepal and Sri Lanka have resulted in narrowing the trade deficit of both these countries with India. In 2002 alone, exports of Sri Lanka to India grew by around 137%. In fact the success of the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement has inspired us to expand its scope to cover services and investment in a comprehensive economic partnership agreement. Similarly, Bhutan's per capita income of US$ 600 today is expected to double by the end of 2005, when the 1020 Megawatt Tala power plant is completed. Pakistan, too, with its unique geographical position at the confluence of the Sub-Continent, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia can play an invaluable bridge role in connecting an energy-seeking India with its booming markets to those of Central Asia, West Asia and the Gulf.

Beyond economic development, a spirit of friendship and cooperation can create an atmosphere that will help us address other challenges that bedevil our region – political disputes, terrorism, drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, environmental degradation, illegal migration, sharing of resources and regional imbalances in economic development.

The SAARC Summit in Islamabad in January attracted unprecedented global attention because of what it meant in the context of India-Pakistan relations. However, there were two significant developments that should not be overshadowed by the outcome of India-Pakistan interaction in Islamabad. The two are, in fact, inter-linked by the spirit that characterised the SAARC Summit – the fervent desire to chart out a new future.

The signing of the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) Agreement is an important milestone in South Asia. It reflects the maturing of SAARC as an institution. Economists would debate the finer details of the agreement, but are united in their judgement that it takes us substantially forward in vision and substance from the ongoing negotiations on preferential tariff. The Agreement is limited at the moment to trade in goods. Reflecting the spirit of cooperation, it provides for special and differential treatment to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Maldives.

This is a first step in realising a broader vision of a South Asian Economic Union, with a single currency. It also gives us all confidence to pursue many other institutional arrangements for South Asia, such as a Poverty Alleviation Fund, for which we are willing to commit U.S. $ 100 million to be used by other countries; a South Asia Development Fund; a South Asian Development Bank; and, even a South Asian Energy Grid.

If SAFTA was our common commitment to a prosperous future, the Additional Protocol to the SAARC Convention on Terrorism of 1987 reflects our shared resolve to address the region's greatest security challenge. When South Asia frees itself of terrorism, it will not only herald a new era of peace in the region, it will also contribute immensely to the efforts to combat terrorism around the world.

The SAARC Summit also marked the commencement of a new and important phase in India-Pakistan relations. Prime Minister Vajpayee met President Musharraf and Prime Minister Jamali on the margins of the Summit. We issued a Joint Statement in which President Musharraf reiterated that Pakistan would not permit any territory under its control to be used for terrorism. The two sides have also agreed to commence the process of the composite dialogue in February 2004. The two leaders expressed confidence that the resumption of the composite dialogue will lead to peaceful settlement of all bilateral issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, to the satisfaction of both sides.

We remain committed to beginning the process of dialogue in February. Although, in the course of the year, there will be elections in India, it should not affect this process of dialogue since there is a broad political consensus in its favour in India.

For Prime Minister Vajpayee, peace and friendship with Pakistan has been an abiding vision, not only for the sake of the people of India and Pakistan, but because of the salutary impact it will have on the fortunes of the entire region. He articulated his vision through a visit to Lahore in February 1999. He sought to resuscitate the peace process in Agra in July 2001. And, he launched another initiative in April 2003 in Srinagar.

We are happy that both sides have taken a number of confidence building measures over the past few months. Just last week, the rail link between the two countries was resumed. We hope that in the coming weeks we would be able to operate multiple routes in multiple modes of transport - routes that have been closed for decades or those that have never functioned, such as the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road link.

We must continue in this direction. Both Governments must read the message in the outpouring of support among the population of both countries for the peace process, and the enthusiasm with which people from various walks of life – politicians, corporate leaders, small entrepreneurs, artists, judges, scholars, fashion designers and ordinary people – have established contacts across the borders.

It is our duty to redeem their hopes and meet the challenges that will surely come in the way – not merely from the opponents of peace and the instruments of terror, but also from the bitter legacy of our history. There have been moments in the past when we have eagerly ridden the crest of optimism, only to find ourselves in the trough of disappointment and bitterness. One of the biggest enemies of the peace process is expectation running ahead of reality. We are entering a complex process. We won't reach solutions overnight. What is, however, entirely possible and within our control is to stay engaged.

Recent developments have demonstrated a simple truth – our chances of resolving the most contentious issues are higher, when we tackle them in a warm, friendly and supportive environment. If India and Pakistan nurture the ties of kinship, commerce and culture, if we emphasise all that we have in common, we will be able to smoothen the fault lines in our relationship.

This is equally true for all South Asian countries. All of us face the test of diplomacy and statecraft in sustaining the momentum that the SAARC summit has generated. The problems in South Asia, whether they are political, economic or security-related, are internal to South Asia. Of course, in our interdependent existence, developments in South Asia have an impact on the rest of the world, just as events elsewhere have an impact on us. Therefore, what happens in South Asia would be of interest to other countries. But, I do not believe that any form of external role can succeed in, or is relevant to, these processes. The people of South Asia have to find answers to the questions themselves. There can be no other way to arrive at durable solutions to the problems of the region.

We must pay attention to the broader changes taking place in the world. We must be sensitive to the revolution of expectations taking place in South Asia. We must heed the call of the new era.

There is no reason why South Asia should count among the poorest regions of the world, when it is so rich in every resource.

To achieve our vision of peace and prosperity in South Asia, I would like to use this forum to propose that countries of the region adopt a ten-point agenda. We must, together, -

1. Advance democracy and strengthen democratic institutions throughout the region to ensure good governance.

2. Commit ourselves to resolve all disputes with each other through peaceful means.

3. Abjure support and actively prevent the activities of forces who seek to undermine the security and stability of each other, particularly, neighbouring countries.

4. Cooperate in combating terrorism, and other forms of cross-border crimes; such as trafficking in narcotics, arms and human beings; smuggling; money laundering and illegal migration. In this context, I would like to draw attention to the courageous action taken by His Majesty the King of Bhutan and his Government against insurgent groups, which were trying to use Bhutanese territory to launch terrorist activities in India. It is an outstanding example of how a small nation has shown the will an determination to act against powerful non state actors in the interest of its security and in order to prevent violation of the sanctity of its territory by external forces. In the process, it also advances the security of its neighbour, makes a major contribution a long and arduous road that lies ahead in the global war against terrorism.

5. Adopt national policies that encourage broad-based economic development and address the concerns and sensitivities of our diverse population groups.

6. Foster greater economic engagement, cultural interaction and people-to-people contacts in the region. At the same time, we must cooperate to ensure and end to illegal migrations.

7. Invest in cross-border infrastructure projects for energy, transport and water resources.

8. Invest in special funds and programmes for poverty alleviation, health care, education and environment management. We can use India's space assets, for example, to provide tele-medicine in remote areas of SAARC region.

9. Create a climate of opinion that emphasizes our South Asian identity and the many currents of commonalities that flow through our nations.

10. Work towards creating a common economic space, and, eventually an economic union.

Let me conclude with a quote from Prime Minister Vajpayee's speech in Islamabad. He said,

" We have to change South Asia's image and standing in the world. We must make the bold transition from mistrust to trust, from discord to concord, and from tension to peace. … we have the potential, talent and resources to make South Asia an economic powerhouse of the world. We only need the necessary political will to make this happen. This is the agenda which we leaders of SAARC should strive to advance in the coming years."

Friends, India is ready to do everything that is necessary, to walk as many extra miles as may be required, to make this vision a reality.

Thank you.

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