Opening Remarks by Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, IDSA
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  • Good morning.

    It gives me great pleasure to welcome Shri V Muraleedharan ji, Hon’ble Minister of State for External Affairs, in our midst today. Your presence, Minister, in this important conference focusing on India’s ‘Neighbourhood Policy’, despite your busy schedule, is testimony to the importance attached by the Ministry of External Affairs to the neighbourhood.

    It is the Ministry of External Affairs that implements India’s Neighbourhood First Policy and I am sure the proceedings of this Conference would be of great interest to you, Minister, and to your colleagues. A review, from time to time, would be helpful in trimming our sails and navigating more effectively in our neighbourhood.

    By way of a short background, I wish to inform you that IDSA has been organising the South Asia Conference since 2007. We have tried to engage our counterparts in the neighbourhood at the Track II level in a dynamic dialogue for the last 13 years. Through this conference, we provide a platform for scholars, experts, civil society members from the region to have frank and candid exchange of views on issues of common concern, and recommend measures that can be taken to strengthen regional cooperation.

    Our experience so far has been quite rewarding. We wish to complement the government’s efforts aimed at reaching out to our neighbours to ensure that India’s ‘Neighbourhoood First’ policy results in the best possible gains for all.

    Yesterday, we had the good fortune of having the Hon’ble Defence Minister of India deliver the Inaugural Address. Today, we are eagerly waiting for the Minister of State for External Affairs to share with us his Ministry’s perspective.

    The first day of the Conference witnessed excellent presentations and lively discussions on the concept of “Neighbourhood First”, and the underpinning provided by economic engagement and connectivity. It is not our objective to ensure 100 per cent consensus on any issue. There are bound to be different perceptions, and there were different viewpoints. We welcome that, since we are keen to see a heart-to-heart dialogue through which India and its neighbours can deepen mutual understanding and build a sustainable framework for deepening cooperation. Shri Rajnath Singh ji, our Defence Minister, wisely advised us yesterday to think for a moment as “South Asians”, for the common good, going beyond our individual identities.

    During the deliberations yesterday, both at the formal and informal levels, we have noticed a marked appreciation among our guests for India’s foreign and security policies, with elements of an “India First” policy on their part that reciprocate, even though India’s Neighbourhood Policy does not seek strict reciprocity.

    On the first day, we explored the conceptual basis of India’s Neighbourhood First policy, and the state of economic and developmental partnerships, as well as connectivity and infrastructure development in the region, with India playing a pivotal role. We noticed that there was a spontaneous desire to harmonize the neighbourhood policies of our neighbours with our ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. There was also a willingness to benefit from India’s developmental diplomacy.

    There was appreciation that India’s Neighbourhood Policy seeks to accommodate the priorities and sensitivities of neighbouring countries. That is in keeping with the fact that India’s Neighbourhood policy is neither mercantilist nor predatory. At the same time, as we go forward in implementing our Neighbourhood Policy, we may have to constantly recalibrate our options keeping in mind the changing needs of our neighbours, and the turns and shifts in the geopolitics of the region.

    Our deliberations yesterday revealed that our neighbours have identified “delivery deficit” as an important issue that interferes with India’s efforts to fulfill their developmental aspirations. They do not doubt our intentions but have genuine concerns about our ability to implement our policies in an expeditious manner. Our attention was drawn to the Chabahar project and it was emphasised that there was an urgent need to build supportive infrastructure to make the venture a success. Most of the participants held that, at the moment, the governments in the neighbouring countries were sensitive to India’s security concerns, even if they were open to the idea of engaging China and other countries as alternative options for their development.

    The larger question is whether connectivity in our region will be a key to uniting us, or will it be the focus of a new “Great Game”? India’s sensitivities in this regard are well-known. But how do we address the ambivalence felt by some of our neighbours with regard to the growing presence and activities of an extra-regional power like China?

    While India may not seek strict reciprocity in its relations with neighbours, yet, one of the fundamental requirements for building better cooperative architecture in the region is that neighbours remain sensitive to India’s key concerns. In leveraging their own strategic autonomy, our neighbours are conscious that they would also have to keep in mind India’s fundamental concerns.

    Yesterday, the question of the future of SAARC too came up. Some lamented that it had not lived up to its potential. At the same time, there was also appreciation that it was stunted due to the non-cooperation of a particular country that has thwarted regional trade and connectivity and preferred to use terrorism as a tool in the conduct of its own foreign policy.

    India has displayed its commitment to participate in the growth and development of the individual countries and the region, and to enable a web of relationships among states to unleash the latent economic potential of the region. Regional economic integration can provide the binding glue for structures that ensure regional peace and collective prosperity. Currently, intra-South Asian trade is abysmally low. If the economic complementarities of different states were to be aligned, we could change that in favour of a better future for all of us.

    In the sessions today, we will discuss country perspectives on energy cooperation and the defence and security outlook of different states. We are looking forward to the final session, which will sum up the perspectives from different states, particularly on the way forward. We intend to put together the deliberations of the conference and the papers presented as an outcome report and make it available for use by policy-makers and analysts.

    With these words, I now request the Hon’ble Minister to share his views with the participants.

    Thank you.