It is a great privilege to address this illustrious gathering at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
I speak today on ASEAN and the Asia Pacific, not only because this is the Singapore Lecture. This region is one of the focal points of India’s foreign policy, strategic concerns and economic interests.
It is also apt that I speak about this in Singapore. Yours is a determined and self-confident nation, which has done much over the last few decades to raise the global profile of South East Asia, and has provided remarkable economic leadership and dynamism to this whole region’.
India’s relations with Singapore have grown considerably over the last decade, but a vast potential still remains untapped. Singapore has considerable strengths in the old economy and ambitions in the new economy. India has needs in the old economy and some competence in the new economy. In this lies a major confluence of our interests. Biotechnology provides one such example. Singapore has developed a major biotechnology industry inspite of its small indigenous bio-resource base. India, with its pharmaceutical advantage and broad-based biotech research capabilities, may be considered a competitor in some areas. But there is a huge non-overlapping area inviting mutually beneficial research and business partnerships.
Singapore has recently been negotiating and concluding multi-faceted and multi-layered Economic Cooperation partnerships in the region. This is an innovative response to the realities of the new age and the new economy. Such bilateral and regional initiatives are changing the commercial landscape in South East and East Asia. I believe that India should seek a mirror and partner such growth opportunities in our eastern neighbourhood.
Apart from economic cooperation, there is much more that the two countries can work for together. We have to confront terrorism, which neither respects power, nor heeds size. Even Singapore’s disciplined and orderly society discovered this recently. We have crucial stakes in protecting our common commercial sea lanes, combating piracy, choking off narco-trade and curbing gunrunning. We need to tackle this jointly in a determined manner, through regular exchange of experiences, information and intelligence.
Moving on to a wider Southeast Asian canvas, India’s close civilisational links with the region go back over a millennium. Historically, we have been linked by culture and commerce. India, China and regional maritime centres like Singapore played leading roles in the flourishing trade of Asia – shaping the historical development of this region. The cross-fertilization of human experiences and the spiritual interaction between India and East Asia has left an indelible mark on the regional art, architecture, language and culture.
It is a fundamental fact of geography that India is in the immediate neighbourhood of ASEAN. We share land and maritime borders with Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand. India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal are closer to some ASEAN states than to the Indian mainland. The vital commercial sea lanes between West Asia and South East Asia straddle the Indian mainland and its island territories.
We are conscious that in the first few decades after our independence, we did not attain the full promise of our relationship. This was not a reflection of a lower priority. It was a consequence of the divergences in economic ideology, political outlook and security assumptions much of which the Cold War imposed on us. Fortunately, we have emerged from this straitjacket.
The end of the Cold War removed the hurdles to close India-ASEAN cooperation. India became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992, full dialogue partner in 1995, and joined the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996. Our Dialogue Partnership has been active. We have always sought to integrate India’s strengths in various social, scientific and economic sectors into the relevant ASEAN processes. Reflective of India’s interest in intensifying its engagement with ASEAN, we are in the process of jointly developing an India-ASEAN Vision 2020, as a roadmap to our mutually desired objectives.
The countries in our region are today at the forefront of developing and introducing cutting edge technologies into their economies. We are in the very epicentre of the Knowledge Revolution. This provides us with a major opportunity to overcome our historical disabilities and to compress the time gap between successive levels of development. Each of our countries has achieved expertise and even dominance in certain areas of technology. It is crucial that we should cooperate in exploiting the synergies between us, rather than duplicating capacities or undercutting each other. A link up between complementary IT capabilities is only one example. There should be many other possibilities, which we need to explore.
The current global economic slowdown should also exhort us to more actively explore avenues for generating and meeting demand on a regional basis, so that we are cushioned against the impact of saturation of external markets. The move. towards greater economic liberalization in the ASEAN Free Trade Area and the ASEAN Investment Area reflects this recognition. India seeks a mutually beneficial partnership in this endeavour.
It is to promote such creative inter-linkages that we believe a multilateral dialogue at the Summit level can be very effective. India looks forward to the India-ASEAN Summit with this perspective. We value Singapore’s identity of views with us on this and deeply appreciate its energetic espousal of the India-ASEAN dialogue.
We recognize the pragmatic logic of pursuing specific socio-economic goals in the region through sub-regional groupings. We therefore, strongly support Mekong-Ganga Cooperation, bringing together Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and India. We are also committed to the Initiative for ASEAN Integration specifically aimed at the four new entrants into ASEAN. We have offered our assistance to the Initiative in the development of a communications network involving highways, railways, river navigation and port facilities. We have launched another sub-regional initiative for a road link between India, Myanmar and Thailand, which would eventually become part of an elaborate regional communications network.
It is important to recognize manifest political and economic realities, when we try to tackle the crucial issues of growth and security. As home to 1 billion people, India has to be integral to any regional process pertaining to the Asia Pacific. We have a constructive and multi-faceted relationship with every major country of the region. This is also true of India’s relations with ASEAN’s East Asian neighbours.
With China we are engaged in an expanding relationship to mutual benefit. With Japan we have agreed to launch a Global Partnership into the 21st century. The Republic of Korea is a valued trade and investment partner. Our strategic partnership with Russia continues strong and vibrant. Our engagement with USA now covers a wide range of bilateral and international issues of mutual concern.
The Indian economy is now rapidly integrating into the global mainstream. Our linkages with the major economies of the Asia Pacific are becoming stronger. I believe that this coming together would reinforce development, peace, security and stability in this region. India’s belonging to the Asia Pacific community is a geographical fact and a politi
cal reality. It does not require formal membership of any regional organization for its recognition or sustenance.
India and ASEAN are now poised to intensify their political and security dialogue to add a new dimension to a mutually beneficial economic and commercial relationship. We grapple with a bewildering array of security threats, of which international terrorism has recently thrust itself dramatically into our consciousness. It has become crystal clear to the international community that terrorism can be tackled and curbed only with a global and comprehensive approach.
But the nature of our Global Village has made it necessary to tackle even non-military threats to security in a comprehensive manner. Poverty and shortages of food and energy threaten the stability societies. Population growth, the rapid spread of diseases like TB and AIDS, environmental degradation and cyber crime are all factors of deep concern. Endemic threats from sea-piracy, transnational crime and narcotics also continue to stalk our region.
Let us also remember that Asia has 7 of the 10 most populous countries of the world; the largest standing armies; four declared nuclear weapon states; and several missile producing and exporting states. The civilizational and political diversity of the continent provides additional volatility. On one hand, it has been estimated that in the next 25 years, Asia will account for 57% of world GDP. On the other hand, the economic problems which first surfaced in 1997 have tended to recur. The management of the unpredictable behaviour of this economy is also a problem with security implications.
There can be no effective solution to these problems within national boundaries. They have to be tackled through a cooperative approach, holistically and regionally. But unlike other continents with formal politico-security cooperation frameworks like OSCE, OAS and OAU, Asia does not as yet have a cooperative security framework. Such a cooperative security framework is today gradually evolving and developing in the Asia Pacific. The ASEAN Regional Forum, with Southeast Asia at its nucleus, is developing into a unique platform for security dialogue.
The trends of the last decade indicate that this new century will be dominated by the power of technology and a globalised economic system. It is inevitable that the global socio-economic centre of gravity should shift to Asia. The Asia Pacific region has to respond creatively to absorb this change through a web of cooperative arrangements, which would promote this transition in a stable manner.
Ethno-nationalist violence and terrorism fed by extremism are one set of impeding factors, which need to be suppressed and eradicated. Multicultural and pluralist democracies are the most vulnerable to these ills, precisely because terrorists exploit the freedoms which their societies guarantee to the people. It is not surprising that terrorism is supported and sponsored only by undemocratic societies and totalitarian regimes. But because democracies represent the will and determination of their peoples, they have the internal strength and resilience to resist and overcome the scourge of terrorism.
Widening income disparities in the modem incarnation of the digital divide pose the other daunting challenge. Again, it is the democratic processes which can find the internal development responses to the inequities which globalisation tends to accentuate in the short-term.
If, therefore, the 21st century is to be the century of Asia, it devolves upon the democracies of our region to take the lead in making it happen.