New Delhi: In his first public remarks after taking charge last week, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar Thursday said one of the priority areas of his foreign policy measures will be the integration of the South Asian region, as India looks towards the BIMSTEC grouping.
Speaking at the ‘Growth Net Summit’ organised by Ananta Centre, Confederation of Indian Industry and Smadja & Smadja, Jaishankar said South Asia “is probably the least interconnected region in the world”.
“There are reasons for it. A change is already happening. Countries are realising that they are losing… by not being connected enough. By and large, most South Asian countries today understand that,” said the new minister.
In the wake of this reality, the Modi government will now look more towards the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) than the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to achieve its goals — a priority for the next five years, said Jaishankar.
“SAARC has certain problems and we all know what it is. Even if you were to put terrorism issue aside there are connectivity issues, there are trade issues up there,” said the minister, referring to the presence of Pakistan in the grouping.
Mentioning the presence of BIMSTEC leaders at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony last week, Jaishankar said, “…today we see an energy in BIMSTEC, a possibility in BIMSTEC and a mindset in BIMSTEC, which fits in with the optimistic vision of economic cooperation of ours”.
He said the government is now taking a new approach to the ‘Look East’ policy by focusing more on BIMSTEC countries — Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.
The SAARC grouping comprises Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Jaishankar, former foreign secretary, took charge as the external affairs minister last week when the new Modi government was sworn in.
‘Project implementation a challenge’
Speaking at the summit, the new minister said the External Affairs Ministry’s single biggest challenge today is the implementation of developmental projects in neighbourhood regions.
“One big responsibility today that we have in the foreign ministry is of project implementation. We have lines of credit, we have grants and project execution has larger foreign policy and strategic significance because it is only through those projects that we can actually build a larger and closer region,” Jaishankar said.
While acknowledging that India has “enormous scope” in project implementation, Jaishankar said that in the last many years it “came up short in a number of areas”.
Citing the example of India’s developmental cooperation in the African continent under the UPA regime, Jaishankar said “we did not have the right tools to conceptualise the projects”.
“If you were to do big projects you have to give weightage to experience, you have to give weightage to capabilities because that is how you will actually get the outcome,” said Jaishankar.
The former foreign secretary said issues in identifying the right kind of companies and partners to execute the projects has been one of the main reasons behind India losing out on many developmental projects.
Jaishankar’s remarks come at time when China is going all out to partner countries around the world for its mega infrastructure connectivity programme — Belt and Road Initiative — of which India is not a part.
India, however, is presently working on a number of projects in its neighbourhood, the primary one among them being development of the main Colombo Port in Sri Lanka.
Jaishankar also said that the finances, mostly given by way of lines of credit to the receiving countries, have to be put in place in tandem with budgetary allocations to make these projects run smoothly.
He further stressed the need to monitor their progress so that deadlines are met.
Lauding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘PRAGATI’ concept — wherein the PM identifies a list of projects to assess on a monthly basis — Jaishankar said he would like to emulate that style of operation.
“I would like to do, once a month or twice a month, (assessment of) regular projects because the moment people feel someone up there is taking interest, is asking tough questions and is holding (them) responsible, then I think the systems start to respond,” he added.
He also highlighted the need for synergy between all the ministries and government departments.
“…I have spent probably more time with the finance minister and the commerce minister in the last one week than I may have spent in my own ministry. If my ministry sees me working with finance ministry on their issues and with commerce ministry on their issues, then I am convinced they will become our issues than their issues,” he added.
US-China trade war, WTO
Responding to a question about the ongoing US-China trade war, India’s foreign minister said, “Frankly, in every clash, there is an opportunity. There are risks also. I don’t deny that. And, obviously, my job will be to manage the risks and maximise the opportunity”.
He also hinted at the attempts made by the US to disintegrate the global trading order under the aegis of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), saying that the multilateral trading system needs overhauling but it cannot be dismantled completely.
“I agree that if somebody says there is a strong case of improvement, that is legitimate. But I think if things are not working well in the eyes of some nations or many nations the solution is to fix it and not to break it,” said Jaishankar.
“But reality is that while all of that is happening, many countries are sliding into free trade agreements. The reality is that many countries are now looking into bilateral arrangements. This is a much more complex world,” he said.