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Minister of State, Shri M J Akbar’s lecture at Changing Asia - 2017

September 23, 2017

Major General Deb, distinguished colleagues, panel friends,it is always a privilege to be at such a distinguished gathering and even greater privilege in public life to actually arrive before you are expected. Unfortunately reputation of those from public life is coming late, on the other hand I am putting in the caveat in the beginning that I have to leave early so I apologize. You don’t want to know the schedules we are forced to keep.

Whenever we address any particular theme I always find it useful to begin by trying to understand precisely what we mean by every word that we use. The regional perspective, strategy, these are words that I think we don’t need to argue about. We have a common understanding for them, but for me the key word for this conference is what do we precisely mean by Asia? Is Asiaa legitimate word in the geo-strategic context?

As all of you surely know Asia is a word invented by Europe, by the Greeks actually, and literally who kept on creating geography for the world as they moved eastwards from the Levant. So Asia became the Levant and then it became Persia and then eventually when a Macedonian found his way to Indus, it acquired the geography of certain parts of India.At that time and they believed that the end of the world was actually on the shores of India so the whole of China didn’t exist in this Asia.

But to come down from those to the story of 2400 years later, you will recall all of you in this room that one of the first phrases that defined the postcolonial period of our history are very important period of our history because we were beginning to examine the world from our perspectives, not the perspectives of those who have conquered usor colonized or ruled us and when theycolonized us they also colonized knowledge, they also colonized perspective, they also colonized the way we look at things. That happens with every conquest but we began now basically I said to create a fresh pair of eyes, and the first phrase that emerged in the context of foreign policy was,I am sure all of you would recall, Afro-Asia.

Afro-Asia was the bedrock of the new momentum that we would provide to an alternate view of the world or an alternative view of world and I often wonder where this phrase Afro-Asia has disappeared and why did it suddenly disappear to use a famous metaphor from another context,why did it disappear like camphor. There is a context to actually put you in a perspective, in the third battle of Panipat, I remember reading in the Maratha Chronicles that the battle raged intensely till the afternoon then the armies disappeared like camphor from the field. It is a very provocative phrase, but this phrase also disappeared like camphor. And why did it disappear.

May I submit that the reason why it disappeared was that while I cannot say for sure whether Africa means what we mean it to mean but certainly Asia did not mean what we expected it to mean. The biggest and most important outcome of Afro-Asia’s endeavors, Afro-Asia’s perspectives wasBandook and Bandook itself although noble in spirit and wise in self-belief did not survive very long. Between 1956 and 1962 is a matter of less than 7 years. And after that of course we have been struggling once againto find not only different perspective but also a parallel course to find the meaning of Asia.

Those of us and we are all trying to find a rationale for behavior through the conduct of foreign policy. Know that we have compartmentalized Asia already to West Asia and then from West Asia we are into a Guld and then from Gulf to a South Asia and there are disputes about where South Asia begins and where it ends. From our point of view we know what South Asia represents i.e. broadly the SAARC region.

Then there is a Central Asia, there is an East Asia and at the very best, even without the disputations we acknowledge that all these geographies do not have the complementarity that we might in an ideal world want them to have or expect them to have. They have different self-interests and legitimately different self-interests. In fact I could argue that because of not simply colonization but because of our history India has been, in a sense, closer geo-politically to Europe than it has been to China.

Nobody really understands what an expanse the Himalayas and the Plateau means and how the Himalayas actually have kept to very ancient people with extraordinary history and culture in both spaces but Himalayas have been a much bigger wall actually than anything between us and Europe. We did not even actually India and China did not even actually find a way although there was trade and it was very powerful trade, did not really find way towards each other even by sea although it is a good moment to add that India and China have been trading with each other for many more centuries than we can count. But the first naval battle on these waters whether it was the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea, the first naval battle started only with the arrival of Europeans. There is no record of a naval battle between India and China.

So there were attitudes and there were realities that shaped the world but frankly we had not found each other and sometimes monks and travelers did find their way to each other and certainly Buddhism found a way towards the philosophies that shaped the Chinese and there was huge interaction but in the terms of our political interests they were more separate.

The interesting part for me is the reinvention of Asia in the 21st century and Asia is actually reinventing itself into very powerful dynamics and this has happened over the last two decades. Actually you could precisely take it, may be the process started in 1980s and has move forward. What is the Asia that we see now while recognizing as I said that there are spaces which have their own self-interests and collaborations. What is the Asia that we see from Delhi.

If you stand somewhere in Delhi, anywhere in Delhi and look East you will find a very interesting conglomeration of nations and peoples. There are nations of any number of languages. By the way between India and just in case you think that there is a religious component to this, there are more Muslims living between India and Indonesia than living between India and Saher in North Africa, literally. Between the populations of India Bangladesh Malaysia and Indonesia.

So what I am going to suggest is really nothing to do with religion per se, it is only one of the factors in this, there are languages, there are religions, there are many kinds of political systems. There is democracy, there is semi-democracy, there is monarchy led democracy, there is party let government as in China, Marxist government is there. And there is Japan, so there is every kind of model you can find possibly in the world’s mix is there and yet there is one common strand which is hugely important between India and all the nations going up to Japan broadly despite the exceptions including the one that you mentioned of a certain missile travelling from East into the Pacific, broadly we can say that all the nations and all the people of this region are engaged in creating a better life and a better economy for themselves and therefore I call this Asia from here to the East of us basically the arc of prosperity or the arc that is searching for prosperity.

China is doing it, you can see the energies of China having concentrated in the last two and a half decade fuelled economies. You can see the images of India concentrating so heavily into this, you can see in Bangladesh, you can see everywhere, you can see Indonesia, where you find. And broadly whichever government comes, whatever may be its origins they are saying how we can turn the 21st century into a century that is better for our people and when we mean our people we do not mean merely the elites that means us, you and I. What we mean is the people who have been left outside these worlds and that a thing is remarkably positive objective that we share and which is actually helping us to come together in ways that are sometimes not so obvious but in ways which I shall in numerous.

If you look from Delhi to our West, you find a very different pattern. You find nations which are whatever religion or ethnicity they might be, you find nations which have huge levels of resources, prosperity and so on but you also find, I can barely think, I will not be more specific but I can barely think of three or four nations between us and right up to the North Africa where every, where the governments are fully in control of all their territories.

There is huge rampant militias in operation, there is terrorism, there is instability and they are trying to work their way and they are trying to find answer to this rampaging instability and conflict. So already we can see in real terms two different Asias but there is also great churn going on in Central Asia. A Central Asia which is just to the north of the region I just described, where nations and governments and societies are trying to create a region where religion can live at peace with itself and ensure that religion does not become a source of instability.

In their particular case, let us be frank about it that Islam is not misused to become a source of instability and that is an Asia which is a very interesting Asia, it is post-Soviet Asia. Then we have the even more fascinating reality of Russia in its post-Soviet dimension re-finding its place in the map of Asia. The recent conference in Vladivostok was only one signature event that you can see, that Moscow literally, being out of 10 times of us, out of 10, 8 if not 9, would be in Asia so you can imagine the vast hinterland and the arrival of Russia into the map of Asia is itself a very exciting phenomenon and from our perspective, extremelywelcome phenomenon.

So these are the inventions or re-inventions that are reshaping Asia both in terms of both the challenges that we face as well as the opportunities that exist. And one of the most exciting options that is slowly gaining momentum, no international grouping ever acquires critical mass unless it has spun around quite a few times and one of the most exciting really options, now that SAARC has proved to be less exciting than it was in conception is BRICS and RIC is really at the heart of BRICS and if there is closer cooperation and indeed economic collaboration between R, I and C, you will see these three nations really having a very profound and positive impact upon the future of this continent.

Why is Asia becoming slowly confident enough to believe it will be in the vanguard of the progress in 21st century and most important evidence for this was the powers of Asia have now realized that it is counter-productive to permit or to allow disputes to turn into differences and differences to become conflicts. And the most mature relationship within BRICS is the one between India and China. Once again like every single geography in the world, you know there is no geography without history, sometimes there is history with geography but not the other way and history is really the burden of things which we wish we hadn’t done or hadn’t have.

So there is a history in the Himalayas as well, we have 4000 kms of a border, we have a history also that includes conflict but over and over again the two nations have found the maturity to say, Yes, irrespective of what may happen in the short term, irrespective of what may happen in the medium term, irrespective of the passions that may rise because of ground realities, the only way forward is resolution through dialogue and if India and China can create that as a model for behavior, surely it is good news not only for us but it is good news for the rest of the world that this is the only way forward.

I have just come back after a few trips of Europe and its only when you see the center of Europe, you get a sense truly of how much progress Europe has made simply because it chose dialogue over conflict. While process of dialogue may have its ups and downs nobody has found the substitute and the reason why sensible nations choose dialogue is not because they are angelic or they have certainly been blessed with some part of the Holy Spirit and have become angles. It is purely because out of self interest in the end who is hurt by the conflict? The people of the conflicting countries. Governments pay far less of a price than the people because conflict becomes an obstruction to that economic growth which is essential to for the welfare of the people. The elite have enough already, the challenge is how to get 400 more millions Indians into the middle class, that is the challenge.

I am sure that challenge existed in China as well, it exists everywhere. So if we want a better life and if that is the objective of all government as indeed it should be an objective which defined in the powerful words or our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the very first speech that he gave in the parliament which is now three years ago and I could almost hear the hush when he began that paragraph or those two sentences when he said that the age of poverty alleviation is over and you can imagine it would be a very loud hush indeed when a Prime Minister said this until he came to the next sentence which was the, Era of poverty elimination, has begun.

Alleviation is no longer acceptable because the pace of the alleviation does not now match the aspirations of people. They want elimination as they have waited seventy years of freedom and freedom for them has to include freedom not from hunger but freedom from uncertainty. You cannot have hundreds of millions of people who are uncertain. They may not be starving or hungry, they certainly are not but we have to remove not only the uncertainty we have to create the certainties which create a better life, which give their children the chance that they themselves have been denied.

Those are the massive challenges which is really the true objective of governance again to quote the Prime Minister is not about improving the lives of people then what is it about and of course you cannot have prosperity without peace and the recognition and Asia again is taking the leadership, the recognition that the initiative once again by our Prime Minister that if prosperity is not possible without peace, which indeed it is not then who is the most powerful, contemporary, where is the most powerful contemporary challenge to peace is coming from? It is coming from terrorism and therefore you have to fight terrorism without ifs, without buts and this may be useful for our European friends to carry back home, there are no ifs and no buts in the conflict with this ism.

You have suffered isms before, terrorism is the most dangerous ism of the 21st century and therefore the BRICS resolution. Once again I am telling you the practical application, the BRICS resolution on terrorism eliminates now the ifs and buts and BRICS recognizes that you must now say it the age of fudge is also over and exactly around the same time even America which has invested so much American blood and treasure into the conflicts of Afghanistan has sent a very clear message that there is no compromise possible on terror and nations who are the equivalents of …………………. Have no place.

Very clear message is being sent and this message I tell you will resonate through this century. It will not change friendships, it will not change strategic relations but hopefully it will change behavior patterns. It should not be imagined now that suddenly x will stop its friendship with y but we can expect a change in behavior pattern so that we can all live and work towards a similar objective, which is the objective of prosperity not simply for the sake of itself but for the sake of humanity.

And that is why my friends, Asia, because not only is Asia reinventing itself but Asia is reinventing itself through solutions, through recognition of reality, through accepting just as Europe accepted that there is no point going around blaming the rest of the world before we eliminate the problems we have created with one responsibility. European Union truly is a magnificent creation of human behavior. Those who, maybe it is not right to say but those who don’t recognize this are not recognizing a very important and a very powerful reality of 21st century which is the same reality which would sustain through the century if we are going to make this century a century of peace.

So friends I am delighted that we are having conference on Asia. These are the few brief thoughts I had in my mind and I hope and I know that your thoughts are both with far more depth, far more clarity and far more use than my remarks. Thank you very much for this opportunity.

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