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Remarks by Minister of State for External Affairs during RIS Webinar on 'Revisiting Economic Cooperation in BIMSTEC in Post-Covid 19 Era'

June 30, 2020

Excellency Mr. Shahidul Islam, Secretary General, BIMSTEC
Ambassador Dr. Mohan Kumar, Chairman, RIS
Prof Sachin Chaturvedi, Director General, RIS
Dr. Anupam Ray, Joint Secretary (PP & R)
Distinguished guests from think-tanks of BIMSTEC countries
Ladies & Gentlemen
Namaskaram and a very good evening to all of you !


I am very happy to speak to you today on revisiting economic cooperation in BIMSTEC in the post COVID-19 era.

2. We meet at a very difficult time. The world as we know it has just been disrupted in a manner and on a scale that none of us here have ever experienced. It is the single greatest shock to the international system since World War II.

3. The disruptive effect of the virus is still playing out. We are by no means over it. The implications will, we all agree, are going to be profound. It would not be an underestimation to say that very little will be the same again.

4. There is a general consensus in informed academic and intellectual circles and amongst reputed institutes and think tanks that we will face severe economic headwinds. The global economy is expected to contract. It appears that we are in for the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression almost a century ago. It will certainly be the greatest economic crisis that we have faced in our lifetimes.

5. The slowdown will impact all nature of economies. Hydrocarbon and commodity dependent economies will be hit as badly as manufacturing, services, agriculture, mining and tourism dependent economies. Global poverty and unemployment levels will rise. Remittances will be impacted.

6. All of us in BIMSTEC will be affected by lesser or greater degree by the pandemic and its consequences.

7. RIS is one of our oldest and most respected think tanks with a solid record of contribution in economic thinking. This seminar with its focus on post COVID scenarios, in the context of BIMSTEC given the circumstance is particularly relevant and useful.

8. I would like to quote here from our Prime Minister’s message on the 22nd BIMSTEC day a year ago. He said that "We are bound together by our intertwined cultures and histories and have come even closer together in recent years through our common purpose of building a peaceful and prosperous Bay of Bengal region. We are committed to the goals of delivering better opportunities and economic property to our people, especially the youth. We have drawn strength from our vibrant and ever deepening regional cooperation in this endeavor.”

9. I would also like to draw your attention to our celebration of the 23rd anniversary of BIMSTEC earlier this month, reaffirming our commitment to making the Bay of Bengal region peaceful, prosperous and sustainable by building on our common strengths through collective efforts.

10. How do we, within BIMSTEC, and as members of the larger international community deal with this crisis? To begin with, this is the first economic depression of such magnitude caused by non-economic reasons. The course of the pandemic therefore will have an impact on the severity of the downturn and the subsequent course of events.

11. Recessions are usually managed by fiscal stimuli with expansionist budgets and interest rate cuts. Most economies, we all know, have adopted expansionary policies. All major economies – the US, the Eurozone, China, Japan, and India - have initiated very substantial fiscal stimuli.

12. It is important to remember however that the speed of resumption of economic activity is critical in preventing what is already a recession from growing into a depression.

13. History tells us that all crises are followed by growth. The Great Depression and World War II were followed by a period of sustained economic expansion. Economic rebounds were observed after all the four major recessions in the post-World War II era. This will undoubtedly happen after the present crisis plays itself out.

14. It is important for a gathering like us to acknowledge that some will recover better than others. Businesses, and whole economies, might fail - and some may rise.

15. The challenge before us is therefore to make sure that we are in right side of the recovery as and when it gathers steam. The challenge before us is also to ensure that the recovery leaves no one behind.

16. I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate our faith in the principle of international cooperation and reaffirm our faith in collective endeavors.

17. That does not mean that nothing changes. Both the content of globalization and its content can change.

18. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pointed out that we should look at a globalization of humanity – and not just the hyper globalization of commerce and industry.

19. We must also remember that we do not live in a moral vacuum. We all belong to ancient civilization. We are a people who have gone through ups and downs, through good times and bad. We have endured. Through all this, we have held true to certain beliefs. India’s aspirations are not just material in nature. We are a nation that believes in "vasudaiva kutumbakam” - the world is one. We also believe in the principle of ”nishkama karma”, that good needs to be done for its own sake.

20. India’s role as a "pharmacy of the world” has come into focus during this crisis. We have a world-class pharmaceutical industry that is the producer of choice for critical medications with brand recognition in all geographies and markets. The pandemic produced an explosion in demand for drugs such as Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and Paracetamol produced in India.

21. In a coordinated response involving several branches of government and multiple private sector pharma companies, India was able to supply large volumes of these drugs to friends and consumers across the world. It is also making its medical and public health expertise and capacity available to the entire region.

22. The lockdown made the logistics of this humanitarian relief operation extremely complex. A mixture of innovative means, including such initiatives as Operation Sanjeevani and Operation Sagar, are being used to ensure delivery. We are working on getting humanitarian and medical supplies to destinations in more than 100 countries all over the world - including to several that are already facing severe humanitarian crises.

23. We are in the midst of the largest evacuation exercise that we have conducted in our history.

24. We have not let the pandemic come in the way of our diplomatic engagements. Prime Minister has participated via video in G20, NAM and South Asian meetings. External Affairs Minister has engaged with dozens of his counterparts.

25. These are not just independent and isolated facts. They weave a narrative. They represent our central beliefs and our aspirations. India, in the midst of the pandemic, went out of its way to be a net provider of health security. We decided, in these very difficult circumstances, to be a responsible member of the international community and take a far-sighted view that will stand us in good stead in the post-pandemic world. We place humanity at the centre of global prosperity and cooperation and of a responsible international citizenship.

26. These principles apply to our engagement in BIMSTEC and will continue to guide us in our future engagements. As the largest country and economy in the grouping, India has been keen to partner with the countries of BIMSTEC on various initiatives over the years. In the recent years, we have successfully implemented various multilateral projects to bring our countries together.

27. At the 4th BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu, Prime Minister of India announced a number of initiatives by Government of India to further strengthen BIMSTEC cooperation and capacity-building in diverse areas. Out of these, the BIMSTEC Military Exercise, the BIMSTEC Ministerial Conclave at India Mobile Congress 2018, 2nd BIMSTEC Disaster Management Exercise, BIMSTEC Seminar on Climate Smart Farming Systems training of BIMSTEC Diplomats at the Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Services have already been implemented. I had the privilege of addressing the first BIMSTEC Conference on Combating Drug Trafficking on 13 February 2020 in New Delhi.

28. India has taken the lead, with the assistance of our partners in BIMSTEC and other regional and sub-regional configuration, in improving connectivity in the region. A mix of instruments including grant execution of projects, lines of credit and other instruments have been put to use. Some examples of such connectivity projects include the Kaladan transport project, the Trilateral Highway Project, an East-West corridor connecting our Northeast with Myanmar and Thailand, the Rhi-Tiddim road in Myanmar, construction of India-Bangladesh Friendship Pipeline and dredging of inland waterways in Bangladesh, the Biratnagar integrated checkpost with Nepal, reconstruction of railway tracks in Sri Lanka, road projects and power transmission lines in Nepal etc. These projects, we are confident, have made a visible, qualitative difference to the lives of people in these countries.

29. The ongoing projects have picked up pace in the recent past, and are nearing completion. We look forward to executing new and upcoming projects with the same level of expedience and efficiency.

30. The success of these projects and their contribution to the improvement of lives and local economies is an indication of the potential that our countries can realize through cooperation.

31. The shock of the pandemic has, paradoxically, presented us with opportunities. One such opportunity has arisen due to the discourse, gathering momentum, of the requirement of diversification of manufacturing locations.

32. As we speak, trade routes and supply chains are being redrawn, as are business plans. As multinational enterprises diversify their manufacturing base to increase resilience and reliable supply chains, BIMSTEC countries have a window of opportunity. There is an increasing demand for alternate production locations in several supply chains. India and other BIMSTEC countries are ideally placed to attract shifting industries and gain a foothold into these value chains. If we are able to capitalize on this demand, we will be able to provide our countries with much needed jobs in the manufacturing sector. They will also pave the way for us to ascend up the value chain in due course of time.

33. India has moved up the ranks on the Ease of Business Index and has been receiving a steady flow of foreign investment. In the aftermath of COVID-19, we are focusing on integrating ourselves to a greater extent into global value chains.

34. In order to present our region as an attractive destination for shifting value chains, we will have to ensure an adequate policy and operational environment for global businesses. There is, if we are able to coordinate amongst ourselves, a potential for BIMSTEC supply chains with each of our countries finding their individual niches at different stages of the production process.

35. We should revitalize the activities of BIMSTEC Business Forum and BIMSTEC Economic Forum to further strengthen Government–Private sector cooperation for the promotion of trade and investment, and task the Expert Group on BIMSTEC Visa Matters to continue negotiation for finalization of the modalities for the BIMSTEC Visa Facilitation.

36. India has a vibrant start-up culture, with several young companies achieving unicorn status in valuation. We are happy to share our experience with our friends from BIMSTEC, for us to collectively ascend up the value chain.

37. We also need to establish the legal framework that will enable use of that infrastructure. Early conclusion of the BIMSTEC Coastal Shipping Agreement and the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicle Agreement would provide for seamless transport of goods across our borders.

38. Connectivity today does not mean only roads and railway lines, but also digital connectivity. We have to move towards further integrating our digital networks to provide greater access, more affordable and high-speed internet and mobile communications to our peoples. We will be happy to share knowledge and best practices based on India’s traditional strengths in the field of IT/ITES.

39. I do not need to reiterate, to a group of experts like this, the importance of power grid interconnectivity and of working together in the power sector or of cooperation in the oceans and in the wider blue economy.

40. While the present circumstances may make it seem otherwise, tourism has rich potential in the region. India hosted the first Meeting of the BIMSTEC Tourism Network on 7 July 2017 where it was decided to work on creating a brand BIMSTEC for tourism. Capitalizing on our civilizational ties, we should focus on the development of Buddhist Tourist Circuit, Temple Tourist Circuit, ancient cities trail, eco-tourism and medical tourism in the region. I welcome the offer of Nepal to host a BIMSTEC tourism conclave in Nepal in 2020, coinciding with the Visit Nepal Year 2020.

41. The present crisis is a critical inflexion point for regional cooperation in BIMSTEC. Our countries were among those first to be affected by the Coronavirus. There are lessons and best practices that have emerged in the process that all of us can learn from. BIMSTEC provides an excellent platform to share our individual experiences and successes.

42. I congratulate RIS for organizing this webinar and bringing together the members of the BIMSTEC Network of Policy Thinktanks. The participants in the webinar represent some of the brightest policy minds in our countries. I am confident that this platform for dialogue will create further opportunities to bring us together and help our region benefit from the global transformations currently underway.

43. We must all prepare together, we must all act together, and we will all succeed together.Thank you!

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