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Closing Remarks at the 9th Asian Security Conference

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  • Hon'ble Defence Minister, Shri A. K. Antony
    February 10, 2007

    Distinguished Scholars, diplomats, ladies and gentlemen,

    "It is indeed a Privilege for me to address the distinguished delegates gathered for this Conference. The deliberations have covered a wide spectrum of security issues relating to South-East Asia Within the broader context of the Asia-Pacific region.

    India's connections With South-East Asia go back to historic times. With the seas being the primary medium of communications in those days, India acted as a bridge for trade between eastern Asia and the West. This interaction also witnessed a mutual exchange of Political ideas, Culture, religion, art and language between India and modern-day South-East Asia.

    India's relations with its extended neighbourhood have received a fillip with the formulation of its 'Look East' policy in early 1990s. Forging comprehensive and mutually beneficial bonds with South-East Asia has been the cornerstone of this policy. Today, this region comprises the most dynamic and progressive economies, and its close interaction With India is amply reflected in the ASEAN- India summit at Cebu (The Philippines) last month. In 1990, India's trade with ASEAN stood at mere 2.4 billion US dollars. It has now grown ten-fold to 23 billion US dollars by 2005 and is expected to cross 30 billion US dollars this year. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is also likely by the middle of this year. Besides trade, our countries are also seeking to benefit through people-to- people contacts and cooperation in areas like agriculture, technology and energy.

    In the regional context, the contours of an Asian economic integration are beginning to take shape. The East Asia Summit (EAS) has gathered a self-sustaining momentum towards the creation of an East Asian Community in the coming years. It may even lead to a larger Asian solidarity, as envisioned by Pandit Nehru in the early 1950s. We perceive the comprehensive interaction with South-East Asia as a vehicle for regional growth. It will eventually lead to prosperity and true peace in the entire region.

    However, economic progress and social development will need a conducive environment for growth, particularly in terms of regional stability and security. The end of the Cold War did provide the necessary systemic conditions, but it was at best only a transitional phase. Over the last few years, the region as a whole has witnessed a steady realignment of geo-strategic equations. Along with these changes the accentuation of geo-political fault- lines has severe security ramifications for the region in general, and for the South-East Asian states in particular. North Korea's nuclear programme has heightened regional concerns. It has once again raised the complex issue of the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Thus, it is not surprising that the regional states have been shaping their strategic response to the prevailing regional dynamics in a major way.

    Japan with its strong economy and technological base has always possessed strong defence forces, but these have been placed under self-imposed Constitutional restrictions. The emerging security scenario in the region has already triggered a debate in Japan about realizing its strategic potential and charting a course to become a 'normal' state.

    We in India are working towards an amicable resolution of the political and security dissonance with Pakistan and enhance stability in the region. We favour politico-diplomatic negotiations to resolve political differences, in consonance with the principles contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) of the ASEAN, which India signed in 2003. While India was compelled by the then prevailing security environment to conduct the nuclear test of 1998, we have always firmly adhered to the doctrine of 'credible minimum deterrence'. Its fundamental elements are 'no-first use' (NFU), 'non-use against non-nuclear weapons states', and a voluntary moratorium on further testing. Our credentials on nuclear non-proliferation have been acknowledged by one and all. The initiatives by world powers to accommodate it within the global non-proliferation framework testify to this. India has always been fully committed to the goal of complete elimination of nuclear weapons from the world. This stance is rooted in the realization that the expenditure on security must be balanced with our investment on national development and alleviation of poverty. This is the reason why India's defence expenditure is a modest 2.5 per cent of the GDP and has never crossed 3 per cent since the early 1990s.

    Non-traditional threats also weigh heavily on the security calculus of the regional states. More than five years after 9/11, one continues to find such terrorism in the region, adding fuel to centrifugal tendencies in many countries of South-East Asia. With terrorists increasingly vying for novel and technology-driven means to conduct their dastardly operations, their possible access to Weapons of Mass Destruction has become the single biggest threat to global security in our times.

    Besides terrorism, other low-intensity threats like sea-piracy pose a direct challenge to the security of sea-lines of communication (SLOCs). The most critical global sea-routes for maritime trade pass through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. However, this vital waterway has become highly insecure due to piracy. Though piracy has reduced considerably since 2003, the changing contours of the crime and the coordination among pirates needs to be countered strongly.There is also widespread fear that with the nautical expertise acquired from pirates, terrorists may strike in the Malacca Straits. This would spell disaster for the global economy, more so for the regional states. With more than half of India's merchandise trade sailing eastwards, this vital sea-passage assumes critical importance for India as well. During last year's Shangri La dialogue held at Singapore, India indicated both its willingness and capability to assist the littoral states in contributing to the safety and security of the Malacca Straits in any manner acceptable to them.

    Drug trafficking and illegal trade in small-arms place has increased demands on the security establishments of states. Many other threats like epidemics and natural disasters do not recognize national boundaries. It is thus crucial for regional states to share their resources and harmonise their efforts. Different countries have varying degrees of threat perceptions. The essence of regional security and stability lies in successfully identifying the congruence of interests.

    A less known and perhaps lesser appreciated fact is that while India shares its land border only with Myanmar, three South-East Asian states -Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia are its maritime neighbours -by virtue of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands chain.

    Such geographic proximity leads to a significant overlap of security interests between India and the South-East Asian states. The tri- services Unified Command was established in 2001 at Andaman and Nicobar to foster greater synergy with South-East Asia to deal with common security threats. This is best exemplified by 'Milan' -the biennial congregation of regional navies at Port Blair since mid- 1990s. More recently, the coordinated naval patrols with Indonesia and Thailand were instituted.

    lndia's defence ties with the South-East Asian countries have been strengthened, along with the realization of the tremendous potential in the field. This cooperation is solely aimed at capacity- building of Armed Forces to deal with maritime insecurities and threats of transnational terrorism and other organized crimes. However, it has purely defensive attributes and is not aimed at any third country. Our cooperation is extremely crucial for our collective ability to deal with natural disasters. This is borne out by the joint disaster relief operations in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami two years ago. Last year India extended a hand to provide succour to the victims of the devastating earthquake that hit Indonesia in May 2006.

    The key challenge for the regional states lies in building effective multilateral institutions based on a set of common values to achieve common goals based on respective political, economic and strategic interests. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has emerged as a useful platform for security dialogues involving all regional states. It needs to be appropriately strengthened and reoriented to cater to the dynamics of regional security. Cooperative mechanisms will however, need to incorporate transparency in intentions and response and a visible respect for the religious and cultural diversities of states.

    Track II discussions provide a platform for free and frank discussions on all these issues. This is the central aim of the Asian Security Conference organized by the IDSA every year. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's visionary words, "the only alternative to co-existence is co-destruction" must continue to guide all of us. I am sure that the deliberations over the past two days have been fruitful in providing some answers in this direction and would contribute valuable inputs for policy-making.