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Transcript of Media Briefing by Foreign Secretary on BIMSTEC Summit in Nepal (August 30, 2018)

August 31, 2018

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: Good afternoon friends and welcome to this special press briefing from Kathmandu. As you are all aware Prime Minister arrived earlier today morning to attend the fourth BIMSTEC Summit. To take us through what happened today I have with me the Foreign Secretary of India, Shri Vijay Gokhale. Over to the FS now.

Foreign Secretary of India, Shri Vijay Gokhale: Thank you ladies and gentlemen. I wanted to brief you about the proceedings of the BIMSTEC Summit thus far. The program followed by the Prime Minister and also a couple of bilateral meetings that he has had.

Let me first begin by expressing the appreciation of the Prime Minister and his delegation to the government of Nepal and to the Prime Minister Oli personally for the organization, very successful organization of the BIMSTEC Summit.

The fact that it was done within months of the Prime Minister taking office here in Nepal shows the commitment that the government of Nepal has made towards this important organization.

At the fourth BIMSTEC Summit which was opened a short while ago you would have heard the statements made by all the leaders of the BIMSTEC including the statement by our Prime Minister and prior to that the Prime Minister and the other leaders of BIMSTEC had a joint meeting with the President of Nepal followed by a luncheon banquet given by the President in honor of the leaders of BIMSTEC.

The Prime Minister has also met President Sirisena of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. The latter meeting is still underway.

I thought I would just share with all of you the approach that our Prime Minister and the government has towards the BIMSTEC Summit. From our perspective BIMSTEC fits in very well with the Neighborhood First policy that the Prime Minister has spoken of on a number of occasions. Five of us come from South Asia and the other two are countries from South East Asia, ASEAN countries and form a natural land and sea link between South Asia and South East Asia. Therefore apart from the Neighborhood First policy it also fits in very well with the priority that the government has given to the North Eastern region because we have land connectivity with Myanmar and we have land connectivity with Thailand through Myanmar as well as through the Bay of Bengal.

The Bay of Bengal therefore becomes, at least so far as we are concerned, a common space both in terms of connectivity and in terms of security and therefore we attach a lot of importance to this initiative. There are cultural ties between us, linguistic similarities between us, people to people links between us and not least important the Bay of Bengal initiative thus becomes the subset of the growth region that we call the Indo-pacific and as you are all aware the Prime Minister has made a major policy address in Singapore at the Shangri La dialogue earlier this year on the Indo-pacific. The Bay of Bengal is an important subset of that.

We think that the summit in Kathmandu is going to be a landmark summit for BIMSTEC and I would like to dwell briefly on why we believe this is so. I obviously would not like to pre-judge the Kathmandu declaration which will be issued tomorrow but some of the important expectations can be shared here today.

We expect that the outcome of deliberations in Kathmandu will set the BIMSTEC on a firm institutional foundation with a very focused and reoriented direction for the future. We are going to do this by drafting a charter for BIMSTEC. BIMSTEC so far is an organization which does not have a charter and therefore the decision that the leaders will take to draft the charter is important and based upon the charter rules and procedure will also be defined for BIMSTEC mechanisms.

The leaders are expecting to endorse a decision of the ministerial meeting and the senior officials meeting to also establish a permanent working committee which gives a direction to BIMSTEC inter-sessionally i.e. between summits. We hope to strengthen the secretariat which as you know is based in Dhaka and there is also a proposal from some of the member states which has been endorsed by all members to rationalize the areas for cooperation, in other words to streamline them and make them more effective and to ensure delivery.

One of the important outcomes also is to institutionalize meetings between the home ministers of BIMSTEC and this is important. This I might add in addition to what is already an ongoing annual meeting between the National Security Advisers. This additional meeting is in fact in recognition of the fact that peace and stability is essential to growth and development.

As I said earlier the Bay of Bengal is a common space both in terms of connectivity and security and I think this meeting between the Home Ministers or the Interior Ministers of the seven BIMSTEC countries, in fact endorsed that linkage between security and connectivity.

A number of working groups on areas of common interest will also be established and a number of leaders referred to these areas include the Blue Economy, it includes disaster management, it includes climate change, energy and ICT, digital economy. One MoU is expected to be signed on grid interconnection and others are already agreed upon but as the interim head of the government of Bhutan stated in a statement, his is an interim government and therefore the Royal Government of Bhutan is not permitted under constitution to sign other agreements or even to endorse them domestically but we also expect very soon to have ratification by countries of the mutual legal assistance in criminal matters as well as the convention on combating terrorism, trans-national crime and drug trafficking.

The MoU on grid integration, I thought I share with you some of the details because this again shows the manner in which the countries are coming together. It is essentially intended to ensure development of regional electricity networks to optimize capital investment for generation of capacity across the region and also permit power exchange, cross border trading in power, cross border connection and cross border transmission of power. So in a sense it is an integration of the region.

I think I won’t dwell on the details of what my Prime Minister said at the summit in a statement. I think it was clear from speech that as a founding member we are committed to BIMSTEC cooperation and development but I would like to highlight a number of important initiatives which the Prime Minister announced. One of these is the BIMSTEC Start-up summit which we hope to do towards the end of this year. We are also doing a Indian Mobile Congress in 2018 in October and in the margins of that we will do a BIMSTEC ministerial conclave on this issue.

An entirely new proposal the Prime Minister made was to have a Hackathon focused on the youth, focused on inter-linking the universities of the BIMSTEC countries with the subject of the blue economy which is a common subject for the Bay of Bengal region. There is already a BIMSTEC military exercise and army chief’s conclave which will be held in Pune in September but we are also going to do the second disaster management exercise.

A number of other initiatives were also announced in terms of scholarships by the Prime Minister. 30 annual scholarships at the Nalanda University, 12 research fellowships for advanced medicine at GIPMER in Puducherry, 100 ITEC program slots in various areas of expertise including tourism, renewable energy, environment and disaster management and also a special course for diplomats of BIMSTEC countries at the Foreign Services Institute in Delhi.

At last but not least of course because gender equality and gender issues are important, the Prime Minister proposed a women parliamentarian forum. So these are the important initiatives which Prime Minister announced in his speech. We will follow these up subsequently both through the BIMSTEC Secretariat and through the various departments, agencies and ministries of the government.

So this in a nutshell is what I can share with you on BIMSTEC so far. As I said tomorrow there will be further meetings, there will be retreat tomorrow morning followed by the closing ceremony, the adoption of the Kathmandu Declaration, the signing of the MoU and time permitting we will certainly do another briefing tomorrow for our friends in the media.

In addition I just wanted to briefly mention that Prime Minister had two bilateral meetings. Both of them with countries with which we have very close relations, with which we have development partnerships, with which we have close cooperation in the security and economic field. Earlier today he met President Sirisena of Sri Lanka. The two leaders reviewed the development cooperation that we are undertaking together. A number of projects that we are doing in Sri Lanka were discussed and Prime Minister reiterated that India is fully committed to ensuring that we will assist Sri Lanka that it desires in taking these projects forward and that we would like to see the development of Sri Lanka as something to which India has contributed and which is of mutual benefit to the region.

A short while ago the Prime Minster was having a meeting with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Since that meeting is still ongoing, at this stage I am unable to share any information with you but of course with Bangladesh we have always enjoyed very strong relationship and a good relationship and I expect that the meeting will yield positive results.

I will stop here and I could take a couple of questions on this.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: I would just like to inform that the Prime Minister’s speech is available on our website. We do have time for few questions.

Question from Wion: My question is, are there any plans to have regular summits because this summit is fourth in a matter of 24 years and that is a long time for a grouping, so are we planning to have it yearly or bi-annual?

Question from Strategic News International: You just mentioned that you see BIMSTEC as a subset of the Indo-pacific construct, could you elaborate on that?

Question from Republic English Daily, Kathmandu: a section of people, opinion makers in Kathmandu are alleging that India is trying to undercut SAARC process, what is India’s view of this position?

Foreign Secretary of India, Shri Vijay Gokhale: I think the issue of regular summits is something that might be discussed at the retreat tomorrow. So obviously I cannot pre-judge the discussion that our leaders will have but since it is evident at both the senior officials meeting and the meeting at the ministerial level, was that this was perhaps the right time to ensure that a new direction was given to BIMSTEC and I presume the decisions that were taken to have a charter, have rules and procedures, to have a permanent working committee and I did forget an important point which I would now like to state, we have also discussed the possibility or exploring the possibility of having a development fund, in other words providing funds based of course on voluntary contribution which will be helpful for developmental activities in the region.

I presume, on the basis of this, what I would like to say at this stage is this, we are certainly contemplating a more active phase in BIMSTEC

On the question requesting me to elaborate BIMSTEC as a subset of the Indo-pacific construct, you would be familiar with Prime Minister’s speech in Shangri La, essentially we see this as an open, transparent, growth area. An area based on growth, connectivity and on shared prosperity.

Now if you look at the countries which surround the Bay of Bengal, both literally as well as Nepal and Bhutan, India of course is doing very well economically. It has shown a high rate of growth but there are other countries in the region which are also showing strong economic growth that includes Bangladesh, that includes Thailand and a number of others including Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, where the potential for developing a sea-based connectivity is very high and for ensuring that that sea-based connectivity reaches inland parts of BIMSTEC i.e. the two landlocked countries.

So in that context it is our view that we need that the BIMSTEC will become important in feeding into the larger concept that we have in growth of Indo-pacific and therefore what we would like to see is that we foster growth in this subset, in this sub region to make the Indo-pacific a reality we have to ensure that the growth takes place first and foremost in our region, in areas contiguous to India.

The opportunities are immense, both in terms of population, in terms of economy, in terms of resources, in terms of connectivity but we need to work harder on this and I think all the leaders referred to that. One of the areas for example, I think, many leaders referred to, was that trade is still not adequate and I think very soon the trade negotiating committee which has been established to discuss possible free trade arrangements would be meeting, I presume sometime this year itself to take that discussion forward as well.

On the question about what a section of people alleging, obviously that is not something I can do anything about but the fact is that there are a number of multilateral and pluri-lateral organizations in the region and each of them has a history of evolution.

As far as India is concerned BIMSTEC for us is not only a sub-regional concept in terms of the Bay of Bengal but as I said it is an essential link both by land and over the sea to ASEAN, to East Asia and therefore an integral part of our look East, Act East policy. So we deal with each multilateral organization individually based on its merits and therefore as far as we are concerned BIMSTEC is an area we would like to focus on. We see enthusiasm from all the other members of BIMSTEC particularly in Kathmandu summit.

Prime Minister Oli has himself said that this should be, in a sense, a turning point in BIMSTEC and the government of India will do whatever it can to ensure that we are able to do so.

Question from PTI: Has the BIMSTEC taken the matter relating to addressing the trade deficit faced by underdeveloped country like Nepal, and are you optimistic that the BIMSTEC grid connectivity agreement will be signed so that Nepal can export electricity to other countries?

Question from ABP News: Illegal immigration is one of the important factor which is affecting the BIMSTEC member countries. So is there any proposal any mechanism to work out among the BIMSTEC countries while we are enhancing the connectivity, this factor can be mitigated or can be minimized?

Foreign Secretary of India, Shri Vijay Gokhale: The issue of trade deficit is essentially a bilateral issue and each of the seven countries of BIMSTEC also have trade deficits with other countries. So this is not a matter which is discussed at a multilateral level. Yes, what is discussed is the possibility of facilitating some kind of a trading arrangement which enables easier trade or facilitate trades between them.

As I said, in 2004 the BIMSTEC countries have agreed to have some sort of a trading arrangement. For one reason or another that did not take off but in 2015 the trade negotiating committee met, another meeting is to take place and I think that there is a general sense that we need to ensure how we can foster trade linkages. So while it is for all countries to follow up and the BIMSTEC Secretariat also to follow up on this. Certainly as far as India is concerned we would be willing to explore. Trade is one of the important issue in the basked of issues that we are examining under BIMSTEC.

As far as connectivity is concerned I would like to share with you that India has held two working groups of BIMSTEC countries. One, last year, on coastal shipping and that is important because several countries, five of them, not Nepal or Bhutan, but all other countries are countries with a coastline. We have got a draft document on coastal shipping and we have to discuss this. It has to be something which seem to be interest of all the countries.

The second one is also motor vehicle agreement and that involves all the countries, with perhaps exception of Sri Lanka unless we have a ferry service to connect, but all the others you can connect over the land. So both these are under discussion and if you have heard our Prime Minister’s speech, he has offered that we will host the next working groups because we would like to see that both issues move forward.

In so far as irregular migration is concerned, I would say that, this I am sure would be a part of the discussion which will take place in the context of transnational crimes, in the context of drug trafficking and so on. As I said the convention on this issue is still under discussion and will have to be ratified by countries concerned but the decision to establish a mechanism at the Home Minister’s level would suggest that various issues including irregular migration or the facilitation of irregular migration is considered a trans-national crime. Human trafficking, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, these are issues of concern for all of us and so while without pre-judging what the home ministers might decide at their first meeting, I would certainly say that this is an issue that could be considered.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Raveesh Kumar: With this we conclude this press briefing. Thank you sir, thank you all.

(Concludes)

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