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Transcript of Media Briefing by Secretary (East) on upcoming visit of PM to Nepal for BIMSTEC Summit (August 24, 2018)

August 25, 2018

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Namaskar, good afternoon and welcome to this special briefing on Prime Minister’s visit to Nepal for the BIMSTEC Summit. It is my pleasure to welcome Secretary (East), you all are familiar with Secretary (East), Smt. Preeti Saran. I also have Piyush who is Jt. Secretary looking after SAARC and BIMSTEC. Secretary (East) will brief you all on Prime Minister’s engagement during the BIMSTEC Summit and after that we will take some questions. Over to Secretary (East).

Secretary (East), Smt. Preeti Saran: Thank you Raveesh and good afternoon dear friends and thank you for kindly joining us this afternoon for this special briefing on the fourth BIMSTEC Summit that will be held in Kathmandu on 30-31 August. The summit will be preceded by 16th Foreign Ministers meeting on 29th of August and the 19th Senior Officials meeting that will be held on 28th of August.

Before I tell you little bit about BIMSTEC let me just give you information about it. As you know it stands for Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. It is a regional grouping of seven countries, five countries for South Asia and two countries from South East Asia. It comprises of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

You would recall that BIMSTEC received a big boost during the BIMSTEC Outreach Summit and the Leader’s Retreat that was held in Goa in 2016 when our Prime Minister had hosted BRICS Summit as well. Significant progress has been made within BIMSTEC as well since that particular summit in diverse areas of cooperation including in Security, Counter-terrorism, Transport and Connectivity, Tourism, Environment & Disaster Management, Energy and People to People contacts.

Before I go into more details about substantive component of BIMSTEC as a regional grouping, let me just start by giving you some information on the program for the summit. As I mentioned it begins on August 30 with a joint call by all the leaders of the BIMSTEC countries on the host i.e. the President of Nepal, that would be on the forenoon of August 30.

In the afternoon the BIMSTEC inaugural plenary session will be held followed by a gala dinner and a cultural program hosted by the Government of Nepal, i.e. the current chair of BIMSTEC. The following day i.e. August 31, in the forenoon there will be a retreat, leaders will meet in a retreat format and in the afternoon will be the closing session of the BIMSTEC Summit.

BIMSTEC, as a regional grouping, the importance of it is growing both in economic and strategic terms. It is home to 1.6 billion people, so nearly 22 % of the world’s population, it has a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion. It brings together like minded countries with a common commitment to peace, prosperity and development of its people. With a shared heritage, shared values and shared ways of life it is a natural platform to build common future.

The strength of this particular grouping has been in responding collectively to adversities and in sharing its capabilities. The fourth BIMSTEC Summit will build on the progress that has been made since the Goa Summit and further push the BIMSTEC agenda for regional cooperation and for regional integration.

As a founding member of BIMSTEC, India remains committed to deepening cooperation within BIMSTEC and we regard BIMSTEC as a gateway to the seas of the literal state as well as access to the landlocked member countries i.e. Bhutan and Nepal.

For India BIMSTEC is a natural choice to fulfil our foreign policy priorities which is our Neighborhood Frist and Act East policy. Regional cooperation under BIMSTEC also extends to developments of the North Eastern states of India forming a bridge between South and South East Asia.

It also links the unique ecology of the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Last year our External Affairs Minister has attended the 15th BIMSTEC Foreign Minister’s meeting, exactly a year back in Kathmandu that was held in August last year. The meeting reviewed the progress of the implementation of the agenda of action that was adopted by our leaders in Goa and assess the progress that was made indentify the areas of cooperation and issued a comprehensive joint statement.

Over the past two years, last year in fact we had celebrated in a very big way the 20th anniversary of establishment of BIMSTEC. All over India we had held programs, a business event in Guwahati, a chambers event in Kolkata, a network of hospitals in Pondicherry, Bodhiparv in New Delhi, so we really kept up that momentum and of course we have taken several other initiatives to strengthen cooperation within BIMSTEC in key sectors.

For example, the first meeting of the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs was held in India last year, the first disaster management exercise was held in India, the first meeting of network of tour operators and first task force in traditional medicines was also held. We launched the BIMSTEC Tele-medicine network, which I mentioned earlier, of ten hospitals and medical institutes in the region.

The BIMSTEC center for weather and climate was established in Noida and the first meeting of the governing board of this particular center was held last month in July. India also took the lead in hosting meetings to negotiate key agreements such as customs cooperation, coastal shipping and motor vehicle’s agreement. All these initiatives have given a major boost.

In preparation to the summit, I mentioned, there will be senior officials meeting that will be held on 28th of August and the Foreign Ministers will review the decisions of the SOM leaders which will then be put up for consideration of the Heads of the State and Governments during the summit. There is a declaration which is under negotiations.

There are other documents which are also under negotiations, I am not sure how many of them will be actually ready for signing but certainly we look forward to a declaration that would be issued at the end which will give a further roadmap to BIMSTEC as a regional grouping and build on the work that has been done in the last 21 years. I will stop here and be very happy to take questions.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Thank you Ma’am. I open the floor to questions.

Question: There is going to be a military exercise of the BIMSTEC countries sometime in September that is what we understand. The chiefs of all these countries are going to come in India for the exercise, can you tell something on that i.e. military exercise for the BIMSTEC?

Question: Are you also looking at SAARC type FTA agreement among BIMSTEC members?

Question: Could you just give us a little more of an idea of the security paradigm that is being discussed and talked about within BIMSTEC?

Secretary (East), Smt. Preeti Saran: Thank you for those questions. First question was about whether there is going to be a military exercise, tri-services exercise within BIMSTEC in September. There is some discussion, as I mentioned in opening remarks that countries of the BIMSTEC region have worked together on disaster management and HDR exercises. We held the first meeting of more than 135 experts and professionals last year of those dealing in disaster management and there has been interest expressed on the part of the BIMSTEC countries to further build on that particular very successful meeting that was held last year. We presume we are working on dates as well as modalities of holding such an exercise but it is still in work in progress. We hope we should be able to finalize something and closer to the summit we will share more details about that.

On the FTA, yes there is an FTA which is under discussions and negotiations as is an agreement on customs cooperation as well as other trade facilitation related agreements like the motor vehicle agreement, a coastal agreement, all of these are intended to give a boost to the regional trade. A separate working group has been setup to negotiate some of these agreements. So yes there are discussions underway but like all other FTAs, negotiations take time so they will take their own course.

On the security paradigm, the first meeting of the National Security Chiefs was held last year in March last year followed by a second meeting of the National Security Chiefs and that was held in Dhaka in March this year. So really these two meetings have focused on, the foremost topic being, of course, countering terrorism because we are all countries that are victims of terrorism. You are aware that tin the Goa Summit there was a major formulation and a concern expressed, in fact the Security Chiefs met because of the concern for countering terrorism.

Other areas that are under discussion within the security purview of course is to deal with both traditional and non-traditional threats including national disaster, human trafficking, trafficking of narcotics and psychotropic substances, cybercrime, countering radicalization. So these are the issues that have been under discussion, the chiefs have met two times and that itself has gain momentum and further collaboration in all of these sector of security.

Question: Will there be any bilaterals of Prime Minister Narendra Modi specifically any bilateral with Bangladesh, and if yes what can be the things that both will be discussing?

Question: Is there going to be any discussion on the connectivity, motor vehicles and also in the space sector. There were talks that there will be some satellite being jointly developed or launched.

Question: As you said that we will discussing ways to enhance counter-terror mechanism in BIMSTEC and we all know that the root of terrorism in this region is Pakistan, so will there be any effort to ramp up pressure on Pakistan by all these countries to crack down on terrorism and their infrastructure in Pakistan?

Secretary (East), Smt. Preeti Saran:
I will start with the first question and other questions later on. Will there be bilaterals, yes, I can confirm there will be bilaterals for sure with Nepal as it is the host country, but it is customary for our Prime Minister whenever he attends such regional summits, it is certainly a very important opportunity for him to meet his counterparts from the neighboring countries. So while the exact program is still being worked out, I will not be able to confirm others, but yes the effort will be, time permitting from the summit, definitely there will be bilaterals and our official spokesperson will keep you informed of those.

As far as connectivity related motor vehicles agreement, I think I have mentioned earlier, connectivity is a very important component of our discussions within BIMSTEC. As I mentioned earlier there are two landlocked countries and for them access to the waters is very important and India and other countries that have access, literal states of Bay of Bengal, have worked collectively on ensuring connectivity and connectivity of different kinds, one is physical connectivity which is through land and water routes.

You know that there are projects underway such as Kaladan Multi-modal project, the Tri-lateral highway which directly end up connecting the Northeastern states in India to the BIMSTEC countries. There are softer connectivity projects like the motor vehicles agreement that is under discussion.

There is another one about grid connectivity, yet another, we worked on the tour operators network because we see that because of our common civilizational culture heritage there is immense scope for building a network of tourism and people to people contacts. So that is yet another connectivity that we are building upon. So it has a big dimension and the motor vehicles agreement forms one such along with the coastal shipping agreement. So those are the two important ones.

On the space sector, is there a discussion, yes, there are ongoing discussions in the last National Security Chiefs meeting, this idea did come up. I don’t think we are yet ready to launch collectively a satellite but cooperation in space sector is an area of interest to all the BIMSTEC countries and we would be very happy as a member country to cooperate with the BIMSTEC countries in this area of cooperation.

Terrorism, yes, countering terrorism is a very important subject for all of the BIMSTEC countries. I would just like to draw your attention to declaration that was adopted at the Goa Summit. There was a detailed discussion on countering terrorism, I would just read out an excerpt from it where when the leaders met in Goa they had recognized that "Terrorism continues to remain the single most significant threat to peace and security in our region and we reiterate strong commitment to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and stress there can be no justifications for acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever.” The leaders condemned terrorism including, at that time barbaric terror attacks had taken place in the region and they had condemned that and they had said that "they seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organizations and network and also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against states who encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups and falsely extol their virtues.”

So terrorism since then had remained an important component of the discussions both in the National Security Chiefs meetings as well as other sectoral meetings.

Question: The Ambassador of the BIMSTEC countries had a meeting and FICCI early this week and they expressed an opinion that the speed of things being planned in BIMSTEC is really not great and the road from Myanmar to Thailand via India is taking forever to complete. What exactly are the reasons for these unusual delays and in 21 years BIMSTEC does not seems to have hell of a lot to show.

Question: You spoke about disaster management. If there is an offer of the aid by any of the BIMSTEC countries, what would India’s reaction be?

Question: Taking off from a previous question about envoys of BIMSTEC countries, they also spoke about BIMSTEC having too many areas of cooperation. There are 14 areas and they really feel that they should just focus on just 4 or 5 areas initially and then go on to the rest. So, is India’s thinking about reducing the number of areas of cooperation or at least prioritizing the areas, and what would those areas be?

Secretary (East), Smt. Preeti Saran: I will answer the three questions. One is of course the fact that the progress in BIMSTEC so far has been slow, its your perspective, there is nothing good or bad but the thinking makes it so just like the glass being half full or half empty.

Yes, in some ways it’s frustrating that things have been slow but in other ways, if you would have to look at it, I think 21 years, it has just reached the peak of its youth so I think there is potential and I would look at it more positively and say that the fact immediately after Goa the energy that has been generated in just two years’ time and the number of sectors that have been energized specifically the ones that I have mentioned whether it is the cooperation in disaster management, whether it is on connectivity, whether it is on trade and countering terrorism, I think these three four key areas, energy cooperation is the fifth one, which has already taken a momentum of its own so to dovetails it with the third question on 14 sectors being far too many, I think on its own BIMSTEC has evolved its own priorities judging by the kind of meetings that have taken place in the last two years and it is really for the member states to determine, you know the fact that the senior officials meet on 28th, perhaps they will take a view on that. They will submit their recommendations to the Foreign Ministers who in turn will make their recommendations to the leaders whether they wish to prioritize or reduce some of the sectors, we will see, we will wait for them to come out with their recommendations.

On the offer of aid, I think that question has been answered by our Official Spokesperson a few days back, so we will keep to that.

On the Tri-lateral highway, yes, that has been slow but it has picked up. India is committed to making these 69 bridges. We now finally see that we hope that by 2019 these should be completed. I think tendering process for a lot of these bridges has been initiated. There have been challenges, on of land acquisition, of difficult terrain etc. which is what has held the project but I would say that there has been rapid progress made in more recent times and we already now are looking at end of that project by next year. Question: Aapne abhi human trafficking ki baat kii, aane dekha hoga Nepal ho ya Bhutan ho ya Myanmar ho, wahan se maanav taskari kaafi ho rahi hai khaskar ki mahilaon kii, to is or kabhi dhyaan diya gaya hai?

(You have talked about human trafficking, you would have seen whether is from Nepal, Bhutan or Myanmar there has been significant human trafficking to India especially of women, so are we looking into it?)

Question: As we know BIMSTEC has gained relevance, importance in recent times for India, but this is only the fourth summit. So are you looking at making this summit more regular like an annual one?

Secretary (East), Smt. Preeti Saran: Aapne maanav taskari ki baat kari. Jaroor ye ek aisa mudda hai jispar vichaar karna hai aur already is par charchaa jaari hai BIMSTEC ke tahat bhi.

(You have asked about human trafficking. Yes, definitely this is an important issue for discussion and already the discussions are on for under BIMSTEC.)

There are other working groups that have been addressing this issue. It is a very important issue where we need to work collectively. Given the fact that particularly with Nepal and rest of our neighboring countries, it is a very porous border. It is an area of concern, both domestically for the government of India as well as for the other BIMSTEC countries. It is a humanitarian issue and certainly it is under discussion and I think the only solution to this is if work collectively on this, which we are determined and committed to.

On it being just the fourth summit, yes, it is a fact that it is the fourth summit only, we hope that the frequency will pick up. The first one was held in 2004, next one in 2008 then it was in 2014 and then of course 2016 was our outreach summit. So from 14, 16, 18 the frequency has increased already. Within two years the leaders are meeting much more frequently. BIMSTEC has yet to establish its own charter. Organizationally the BIMSTEC is also discussing the member countries and also consolidating its rules and procedures. They have established a secretariat which is based in Dhaka. There is a second Secretary General, first Secretary General completed its term and a new Secretary General has just come up. Clearly the secretariat will assist the BIMSTEC member countries to draw its rules and procedures and consolidate itself internally and it as does that I am sure there will be this desire on the part of the member countries to meet more frequently and I am hopeful that at some stage it will become an annual event.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Thank you Ma’am. Thank you all for coming to this briefing.

(Concludes)

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