Public Diplomacy Public Diplomacy

Transcript of Media Briefing by Foreign Secretary (February 26, 2014)

February 26, 2014

Official Spokesperson (Shri Syed Akbaruddin):Good afternoon friends and thank you very much for coming over this afternoon for the briefing by Foreign Secretary on the forthcoming BIMSTEC Summit. I have here with me Foreign Secretary. On her right is Mr. Sanjay Bhattacharyya who, apart from his other role of Joint Secretary (South), handles BIMSTEC.

As is usual I will request the Foreign Secretary to make her opening remarks following which she will answer any questions that you may like to ask on the topic for today that is BIMSTEC. At the end, if we have time, she could answer a few questions on any other thing that you would like to ask. If that is clear, we will begin. I will now request Foreign Secretary to make her opening remarks.

Foreign Secretary (Shrimati Sujatha Singh): Thank you, Akbar. Good afternoon friends. As you are all aware, Prime Minister is scheduled to attend the BIMSTEC Summit in Nay Pyi Taw on 4th March, 2014.

The 14thMinisterial and the 16th Senior Officials’ Meeting will be held from 1st to 3rd March. EAM will attend the Ministerial, and I will attend the Senior Officials Meeting. Summit will add momentum to regional cooperation and connectivity, and also provide an opportunity for bilateral meetings with other leaders.

The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation emerged from the Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation Group formed in 1997. Myanmar joined in 1997, while Nepal and Bhutan joined in 2004 when the First Summit was held in Bangkok. India hosted the Second Summit in 2008. Nepal will assume the Chair after Myanmar. It goes in alphabetical order.

BIMSTEC is an expression of India’s Look East Policy of the 1990s, coinciding with Thailand’s Look West Policy. The seven members bring together over 20 per cent of world population, which is about 1.5 billion, and a GDP of over US$ 2.5 trillion.

BIMSTEC provides a link between SAARC and ASEAN, between South Asia and Southeast Asia. It seeks to promote cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region bringing the North-eastern region of India to centre stage and to strengthen connectivity. Its endeavour is to set up an architecture of agreements and institutions to promote sectoral cooperation.

The BIMSTEC process made gradual progress over the years and is poised for a more active phase. We are separately circulating a background note on the BIMSTEC agenda and its activities.

India has had a preeminent role in BIMSTEC as a pioneer along with Thailand. BIMSTEC has 14 priority areas with lead countries. We are the lead country in four priority areas: (1) transport and communication, (2) tourism, (3) environment and disaster management, and (4) counterterrorism and transnational crime. There has been tangible progress in all four priority areas led by India.

In transportation, the objective is regional connectivity to promote economic corridors. Several projects are under way in the region. The BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study was completed in December 2013. A short list of priority projects for regional connectivity will be finalised by the middle of this year in New Delhi for implementation with ADB assistance. We have also promoted railways, roadways, and dialogue on maritime and multimodal transport.

In tourism, a BIMSTEC Information Centre was established in New Delhi, besides exchanges and training of professionals which are taking place. This is an area of tremendous potential in all BIMSTEC countries. And intra-regional tourism potential is being developed, connectivity and people-to-people contacts help.

In environment and disaster management, the Ministry of Earth Sciences is establishing the BIMSTEC centre on weather and climate in NOIDA. A soft launch will take place soon. Our Tsunami Warning Centre is available for data sharing.

In counterterrorism, India has led negotiations and finalised the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. The Convention on Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime, and Illicit Drug Trafficking was signed in 2009. Cooperation was strengthened by establishment of four subgroups with lead shepherds in intelligence sharing at Sri Lanka, combating the finance of terrorism where the lead shepherd is Thailand, and legal and law enforcement where we are the lead shepherd, and prevention of illicit trafficking in narcotics where Myanmar is the lead shepherd.

We have also supported initiatives taken by other members on several other sectors. In energy, Ministry of Power is establishing a BIMSTEC Energy Centre in Bengaluru, development of regional energy resources and grids can be mutually beneficial.

In public health, we provide 30 AYUSH scholarships for training in Ayurveda. We have established a network on traditional medicine for BIMSTEC partners. We seek closer engagement in generic pharmaceuticals as there is growing demand.

In agriculture, we have offered support for cooperation on biotechnology, seeds and control of trans-boundary diseases and linking of agricultural institutes. On trade and investment, discussions are on for a BIMSTEC FTA. We have finalised MoUs on customs cooperation and dispute resolution, and promoted B2B links.

On people-to-people contacts, almost 1200 ITEC scholarships are being utilised. And the BIMSTEC Network of Think Tanks was organised with RIS as nodal agency.

We have supported the International Chamber of Commerce of Kolkata for an annual integrating BIMSTEC Seminar held in the North-East - Shillong in 2013, Imphal in 2014 – on economic cooperation, which attracted wide participation and provided exposure to the potential in the North-East.

India has pledged contribution of 32 per cent of annual expenditure on the permanent secretariat to be established in Dhaka in Bangladesh. Besides, we are hosting the BIMSTEC Centre on Energy, Centre on Climate and Weather, and an Information Centre. Our stakes in BIMSTEC are significant and will grow further as the grouping matures.

We wish to see BIMSTEC promote economic cooperation, connectivity and energy cooperation, encourage cultural links and strengthen security contacts. BIMSTEC, as you see, has great potential on several fronts. Our priority is to provide BIMSTEC our leadership and commitment to consolidate the process and focus on target-oriented projects in the priority areas.

The Third Summit proposes stepping up of activities in a coordinated manner. The major outcome would be the establishment of the permanent secretariat in Dhaka. Other outcomes are the signing of the MoA on the BIMSTEC Centre on Weather and Climate in India, signing of an MoA on cultural industries, observatory in Bhutan.

Myanmar has proposed the theme of harmony and prosperity echoing the aspirations of the region as well as welcoming the progress made on those fronts. Thank you.

Official Spokesperson: The floor is open for any questions that you may have.

Question: Madam, you talked about seven projects for transportation. Can you give us the details on that and also an update on Kaladan Multimodal river project?

Foreign Secretary:I will ask Joint Secretary Sanjay Bhattacharyya to give you the details.

Joint Secretary (South)(Shri Sanjay Bhattacharyya): We have been working with the ADB on preparing the BTILS study. The BTILS study has actually identified about a 100 projects that would promote connectivity within the region.

What we are planning now is to have three meetings – in March, in April and in June, the last one will be held in Delhi – during which we will identify a shortlist of projects which are the priorities to be identified by each of these countries. These will then be taken up with ADB leverage.

Of course there are many other projects within the BIMSTEC region which promote connectivity. You mentioned Kaladan which is already under implementation. I think the date for completion is expected to be 2016. We also have the trilateral highway which connects India’s North-East to Thailand through Myanmar, which is also expected to be completed by that time. We also have several other projects in that region. So, the BIMSTEC Initiative is basically on the BTILS study at this stage.

Question: Madam Foreign Secretary, could you elaborate on the FTA negotiations? Can we expect a conclusion of this agreement in this Summit?

Foreign Secretary: As you are aware, FTA negotiations are processes that take time. The BIMSTEC negotiation is particularly complex because it already encompasses countries with which we have an FTA under the SAFTA process, and then you have other countries that belong to ASEAN. Taking all this into account, we have to arrive at an outcome that is optimal for India as well as for them. So, this is going to take some time.

Question: Will there be a chance to review the Prime Minister’s last visit to Myanmar, what was committed, what has been left out, and what is to be done now especially keeping the North-East in mind? A lot of things were promised like bus service, etc.

Foreign Secretary:Certainly. Given the fact that the Prime Minister is visiting Myanmar two years after his bilateral visit in 2012, we have done an exercise to review the progress. And I am glad to say that much of this is going very satisfactorily. There are several projects that are under active implementation. There are IT parks, there are growth corridors, and connectivity, roads, linkages, cross-border linkages between States on both sides.

Some of the projects have taken a little longer to implement than the others because of difficulties encountered in the geological terrain. However, I would say that by and large what has been promised to Myanmar following his visit two years back is progressing fairly satisfactorily.

Question: Does the Summit status change if Thailand’s Shinawatra does not show up there?

Foreign Secretary:We do not see any reason why it should. It is a Summit of leaders and if there is some reason why the Thai Prime Minister cannot attend for internal reasons, the other members would show full understanding of that.

Question: Madam, when you said tourism is a potential area, what does it mean? Will the visas be made liberal for those who are interested to move?

Foreign Secretary: We believe that tourism can be a game changer both because of the employment opportunities that it creates and because of the investment that it brings in. Already along the border with Myanmar we are having a good deal of cross-border movement of people that is going along, and if you wish, medical tourism.

Manipur for instance has excellent medical facilities. You have a state-of-the-art, world-class eye hospital in Guwahati. And we find that there are people who avail of these services who come from Southeast Asia. So, if you look at medial tourism, that is an area. If you look at other tourist activities, recently there was the first international flight to land at Imphal in Manipur, which is an international airport, which was led by the Chief Ministers of Mandalay and Sagaing received by the Chief Minister of Manipur. They visited Guwahati. They visited the region and then they came on to Bodh Gaya.

So, you can imagine the kind of potential that would be unlocked if we manage to put in place the linkages - whether it is by air, whether it is by sea, whether it is by land - that would allow people to cross over in a easier and less restricted manner.

You asked specifically about visas. We would be looking at the possibility of making that also more easier to obtain so that people can cross without too much of difficulty, keeping our own concerns in consideration.

Question: Can you list out some of the thrust areas which Prime Minister is going to emphasise on during this trip?

Foreign Secretary: I have given a fairly detailed summation of the thrust areas, especially the ones where India is the lead country – transportation, tourism, environment and disaster management, and counter terrorism. But let me say this that when we talk about BIMSTEC and you talk about it connecting SAARC and ASEAN, you have to look at the thrust area which I had indicated was the North-East.

You cannot underestimate the potential of BIMSTEC in bringing the fruits of these cross connectivity linkages to our States over there. Connectivity is a big issue in the North-East. The focus of so much of what we are doing, whether it is in the Look East Policy, whether it is in BIMSTEC, is to bring connectivity, transport, trade, tourism, and linkages to all the States in the North-East. You are aware that the Prime Minister has taken a special interest in the development of this region.

Last year there was a meeting of the Planning Commission with the focus on this. The Planning Commission has been targeted to look at the North-East and to see how we can develop it further. And just about three weeks back I was at Guwahati, I visited Guwahati along with Secretaries from all the other key Ministries which deal with infrastructure issues including civil aviation, including telecom, including power, including road transport and highways, including tourism, to look at precisely how can all work together to focus our attention on developing the North-East.

Because this entire area is opening up and with the recent developments that have taken place in Myanmar where Myanmar itself is opening up to foreign investment and there are changes taking place across the border, it is in our interest to make sure that our North-East does not fall behind, that it develops as well in a manner that is commensurate to its potential so that when the connectivity happens and the roads and everything else gets connected, we are able to also develop in parallel if not faster and exploit the potential.

And in this, our relations with fellow SAARC countries - Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal - also play their role. So, that entire area is an area to watch. And you are also aware that the North-eastern States grew at an average rate of 10 per cent for the second year in succession, much higher than the rest of the Indian economy. So, this is really a very high growth area and of great potential in the months to come. I would frame it in that perspective for you to observe.

Question: We had agreed to open a lot of border trade points. Even after two years the border trade points on our side have not yet developed. If you look at Longwa in Nagaland, you will still find a thatched roof. Even the approach road to what they call the International Trade Centre or whatever, is not there. And we are helping Myanmar develop. I think we have to develop our side also so that people can benefit.

Foreign Secretary:I agree completely with that. But where I will contest your statement is that we are not developing our side. We are. The road is being built. Progress can be faster, but it…(Inaudible)… There are integrated check posts that are coming up, there are blueprints on the ground, there is construction taking place precisely for this. The roads are being developed, constructed. The railway network is coming up. So, it is happening. It is happening slowly but surely.

Question: I wanted to know if the Indian Prime Minister is going to meet the Sri Lankan President in Myanmar. And in view of the fact that the Government of Sri Lanka has rejected Navaneetham Pillai’s suggestion for an international probe into the war crimes in early 2009 during Eelam War 4, how are we going to vote in Geneva?

Foreign Secretary: The answer to the first part of your question is, yes. The Prime Minister will be meeting the President of Sri Lanka. On second, on how we are going to vote at Geneva, I would suggest that you wait till the vote actually takes place. You are aware that this is a fairly complex process. We have to see the text of the resolution, we have to take several other factors into account, and then we will finally vote. So, I would not like to venture an answer to your question till we actually come to it.

Question: Madam Foreign Secretary, could you give an update about the present Indo-Russian negotiations on the civilian nuclear cooperation particularly in view of the fact that the ROSATOM Chief was here two days back and Rogozin is meeting the Indian interlocutors today? And also, are the KNPP 3 and 4 are being signed any time soon?

Foreign Secretary: This is a delicate issue. I would not like to jump the gun by making any announcements before they are actually due. Let me just assure you that it is getting our full attention. We are all focused on it especially in view of the factors that you have just cited. We hope that we will be in a position to sign the agreements very soon.

Question: Madam, this is a question again on the bilaterals at the BIMSTEC about the possibility of Indian Prime Minister meeting the Bangladesh Prime Minister. If they meet, what would be the possible areas of discussion?

Foreign Secretary:I can confirm that the Prime Minister will be meeting the Bangladesh Prime Minister. As always when they meet, the conversation is cordial and comprehensive, in fact I would say they are very friendly and comprehensive touching on all the areas that are of mutual interest to us.

Question: Madam, our relations with Italy have been on the brink since the Italian Marines case came up. Now that the SUA charges have been dropped, how do you think the relationship is now going forward? Do you think Italy is satisfied or do you think more needs to be done? We have seen the Italian Ambassador being recalled recently. How would you best describe the relationship at this point?

Foreign Secretary:I think the issue of the Marines has complicated our relations with Italy. However, the fact that the charges against the Marines under SUA have been dropped is an indication that there is a way forward and that we are looking to resolve the matter according to our own legal and judicial processes as expeditiously as possible.

Official Spokesperson:Thank you very much for being here this afternoon.


For the video of this media interaction, please click here

Click here for Malayalam versionMalayalam.pdf[110 KB]
Click here for Tamil versionTamil.pdf[80 KB]

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