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Concluding Address at the 7th Asian Security Conference

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  • Hon'ble Defence Minister, Shri Pranab Mukherjee
    January 29, 2005

    Distinguished Scholars, diplomats, ladies and gentlemen,

    As the President of the IDSA, it is indeed an honour and a privilege to address the distinguished delegates gathered for the Seventh Asian Security Conference. The deliberations over the last three days have been held against the backdrop of the Tsunami disaster which has claimed in excess of 200,000 lives primarily across South and SE Asia, caused wide spread destruction and extensive loss of livelihood and left millions homeless. The spiralling effect of this catastrophe, including the number of fatalities, internally displaced people, impact on the Environment and health conditions, has brought forth wide-ranging challenges to relief and rehabilitation operations. Never has a natural disaster struck over so vast and populous an area.

    One significant lesson of the Tsunami disaster, as indeed any natural disaster, is that it transcends political ‘boundaries’. It has highlighted the lack of preparedness among nations to formulate integrated plans and synchronise their resources to meet both natural disasters and other security challenges – particularly those in the same neighbourhood. Seen from the above perspective, and no matter how we define our security interests and concerns, this disaster has proved that we need to evolve cooperative means to anticipate and work towards speedier and more effective pre-disaster warning system and post-disaster relief operations. The design of such arrangements and political sensitivities also need to be given due thought.

    Our experience of dealing with the tsunami catastrophe has highlighted the fact that today there is a need to carry transparency in intentions and motivations, build common security perceptions, respect religious and cultural differences, reaffirm commitment to democratic and secular values and abide by the principle of non-interference in domestic conflicts. These were the broad principles when India despatched relief material to its neighbouring states – Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia, while at the same time confronting the challenges of rescue and relief for the tsunami victims at home.

    As we attempt to locate India’s security perspectives and linkages in Eastern Asia, we witness two emerging trends. On one hand, the region comprises some of the most dynamic and progressive economies, with impressive economic growth rates in the backdrop of the overall global economic slow down. The region, along with India, is emerging as a natural hub for economic integration, along with huge domestic markets. It holds over half the world’s foreign exchange reserves. Economically, the ‘Pacific impulse’ is fast overtaking the ‘Atlantic impulse’. On the flip side, the region continues to be in political flux, defined by geo-political fault lines: Ironically, in the aftermath of 9/11, the fundamental issues influencing the region’s security dynamic have not undergone any significant positive change; some have taken a turn for the worse.

    With the centre of gravity of the world’s economy shifting to the Asia-Pacific, the region is witnessing a realignment of geo-strategic equations. Among the most significant developments are the rise of China, and the political dimension of its increasing regional economic engagement. Not only is China growing as an economic power in the region, but also it is also keen to ensure that the geo-political environment will enable its growth and consolidation.

    The US role in the region remains significant. It has five mutual defence treaties with Asia-Pacific states. Its trade in the region accounts for over $500 billion per year, which is approximately 35 per cent of the total US trade. The US also appears to be working steadily to preserve its vital security relationship with Japan and SE Asia by renewed engagement aimed at preserving its strategic space. Post 9/11, the US is giving greater attention to the Eastern Asian region. It has supported the development of ASEAN as an institution, contributed to the implementation of the ASEAN Cooperation Plan (ACP) and the Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative (EAI). The two fundamental aspects that will have a significant bearing on East Asian security are the degree of US regional commitment and the texture of its relations with China.

    Similarly unresolved is the North Korean nuclear proliferation issue, and its impact on regional dynamics is a cause for concern. We are hopeful that the New Year will provide the necessary impetus for tangible forward movement in the deadlocked six party process and that an amicable solution will be found. Concerted collective effort is called for to prevent the crisis from escalating lest there be serious regional and extra-regional consequences.

    Given the foregoing broad perspective of the regional security grid, it would not be invalid to suggest that the Eastern Asian strategic landscape represents a complex security arena, which, though freed from the confines of the Cold War, continues to be in a state of flux. Unlike a greater part Europe, which is progressing towards both political and economic consolidation, Asia, and in particular East Asia, continues to be fettered by the history of the past and enduring regional rivalries. Added to the above are more immediate anxieties and concerns that plague the world such as competition for energy resources, security of the sea-lines of communication, rising incidence of piracy, terrorism, natural disasters and epidemics like SARS, illicit trafficking of WMD and narco-crimes.

    India’s strategic perspective vis-à-vis East Asia is based on two fundamental principles. First, the maintenance of an equitable strategic balance and prevention of regional rivalries from destabilising the region, which are both economically and strategically vital for Indian security. Second and more importantly, India would like to engage all players both bilaterally and collectively through institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum. Towards this end, India has initiated a security dialogue to constructively engage all the major players in the region.

    With China today, we share more common interests and areas of agreement, than differences, including a shared commitment to a multipolar world. Our security ties have undergone a change, with resumption of military ties signified by joint exercises, bilateral visits and sharing of information on military matters of joint interest. By institutionalising the Sino-Indian dialogue at a political level, with regular exchanges between designated interlocutors, the territorial and boundary differences between our two countries are being addressed purposefully.

    Similarly, Indo-Japan relations, which plummeted after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, are now positive and robust. The fillip to Indo-Japanese relations was provided by the August 2000 visit of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, the first by a Japanese Prime Minister to South Asia in a decade. In his speech he declared, “today Indo-Japanese relations also have a strategic importance, which is quite obvious when we glance at the world atlas”. Despite the geographical distance between the two, there is a growing acceptance that India and Japan share a certain affinity on a number of issues. India and Japan have a convergence on energy issues and have joint concerns about the security of sea-lines of communications and vital choke points in the Indian Ocean. We also share similar concerns about WMD proliferation. Concerns about WMD terrorism are also equally shared. India and Japan also have views about the restructuring of the UN and the Security Council in particular.

    With South East Asia, we share common security challenges in terms of the threat of transnational terrorism and religious radicalism with their internal and external ramifications. Several ASEAN countries are facing the threat of terrorism signified by activities of outfits like Jammah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf linked to Al Qaida; and separatist groups like Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Free Aceh Movement. Consequently, ASEAN countries have prioritised terrorism and related crimes like money laundering and drug trafficking. Joint Indo-ASEAN initiatives can meet the challenges on this front. The ASEAN Regional Forum is emerging as a relevant platform for such a security dialogue.

    On the issue of transnational terrorism, however, I want to re-state our position. We do not see terrorism in terms of the clash of civilisations. We do not link terrorism with any single religion and believe it will be a grievous error of understanding to do so. However, we do recognise that there is need to forge a common front to deal with the scourge of terrorism. This requires the comprehensive use of diplomatic, economic, military, financial and other instruments of national power such as law enforcement and intelligence. Common doctrinal understanding, sharing of intelligence and coordination of national efforts has thus become imperative in dealing with this common threat. An issue that bears reiteration is that we must acknowledge the tenet that there cannot be double standards in the global fight against terrorism – a terrorist is a terrorist, irrespective of cause and provenance.

    The next common challenge that I wish to highlight is the security of sea-lines of communication. The Straits of Malacca, which connect the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and which have Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia as their littoral countries, are critical to maritime trade. The sea-lines of communication that pass through the Straits are among the busiest ocean highways in the world. Over 60,000 ships pass through the Straits each year - more than double the number that traverse the Suez Canal and nearly treble the number of ships that use the Panama Canal. Over 40 per cent of the world's oil also passes through the straits. Its closure could generate a sudden increase in freight rates worldwide and hit bulk shipments the hardest. Ensuring that the Straits of Malacca do not fall into hostile hands that might choke the safe passage of maritime vessels is a nightmare that many countries are anxious to prevent. A major oil tanker sunk in these vital sea-lines could lead to untold disaster and cause great economic loss.

    The related maritime determinant is the potential for WMD proliferation through the medium of the sea. As many of you are aware, India interdicted a North Korean ship in 1999 that was carrying missile components to the neighbourhood. More recently, the incident of a ship which was carrying WMD related inventory to Libya led to the eventual unravelling of a clandestine nuclear network led by individuals in the heart of the Pakistani nuclear establishment. The anxiety is that these instances could well be the tip of an iceberg. Some initiatives such as the PSI have been mooted. These need to be examined in greater detail. However, the underlying need for a consensual multilateral effort cannot be denied.

    The Eastern and Southern Asian regions are linked by the maritime medium and they straddle sea-lines of utmost strategic importance which need to be protected both from traditional and non-traditional security threats. While there is an immediate necessity to institutionalise regional mechanisms aimed at dealing with these threats, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard with their current resources can play a modest but significant role in cooperation with other regional navies to deal with these threats.

    In short, there is a need for new security initiatives that will address exigencies of natural disasters and related humanitarian assistance and specific maritime/naval cooperation in both the Southern and Eastern Asian regions in a mutually acceptable manner.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, let me add in conclusion that the spectrum of emerging security challenges cannot be tackled within the confines of national boundaries. They have to be addressed through a cooperative approach, both bilaterally and regionally. Towards this end, your deliberations at the 7th Asian Security Conference will prove valuable in developing and illuminating our shared vision.

    As President of the IDSA, I would like to thank all of you particularly our foreign participants for making this three-day conference as vibrant and meaningful as it turned out to be. I gather some of you who have come from afar have witnessed our Republic Day Parade. I invite you to join us at the poignant Beating Retreat Ceremony later today.

    Thank You
    Jai Hind