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Transcript of the Media Interaction of External Affairs Minister at the 12th IOR- ARC Council of Ministers Meeting

November 02, 2012

Official Spokesperson (Shri Syed Akbaruddin): Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I welcome you to this media interaction.

We have here with us the External Affairs Minister of India Shri Salman Khurshid. Along with him is Shri Sudhir Vyas, who is Secretary (Economic Relations) and was the Senior Indian Representative at the 12th Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation meetings.

As is usual, we will have opening remarks by the Minister followed by a few questions. May I now request the Minister to make his opening remarks?

External Affairs Minister (Shri Salman Khurshid):Thank you. Good evening to all of you.

Friends, it is a privilege to be addressing a very exclusive band of journalists who do the foreign circuit. You report on what I believe is a very important part of the profile of our country across the globe.

Foreign policy has a historical significance and I believe that the consensus in this country, if at all there is a consensus on anything, has always been on foreign policy. It is a tribute to the leaders of our country indeed and several generations of outstanding diplomats who have served this country with great distinction, that they have not only…(Inaudible)…and given to our country a remarkable platform to project our national interests and to ensure that the world not only coordinates its efforts with the aspirations of our country but treats us truly as a responsible part of the international scene. With that sense of responsibility we have made our contributions, I believe, to some very important decisions in the world, and I hope that in the times to come we will continue to play that role effectively.

We have gathered here today to brief you on a very important event that has taken place which is the Twelfth Meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation. Many years ago when I was Minister of State I saw this emerge as an outstanding initiative by countries that have a link not in the normal course by way of a landmass that they share but by way of common linkages, both historical and geopolitical, that they have through the high seas. It was in that sense a new initiative. We are now 15 years down the road and when we met today at a very important juncture, the theme being Looking Ahead to the Next Decade, having looked back with satisfaction over the last fifteen years.

I hope you guys have looked at the Gurgaon Communique. To my knowledge, this is the first time that on the international stage Gurgaon has appeared as a gathering for convergence of aspirations on an international plane, and that too for convergence of aspirations of the countries around the Indian Ocean Rim in which India both by size and its position plays a very significant role.

We have had extremely useful discussions. The environment I believe was marked with a remarkable amount of mutual trust, warmth, cordiality and friendship. We believe that we have achieved the right chemistry that we needed today to take the Association forward in line with members’ needs, their aspirations and expectations. You obviously are familiar that this is a gathering which has great diversity, not simply in terms of size, populations, significant associations with other regional groups. That diversity indeed is what we have tried to work into our strength.

The evolving strategic environment in the Indian Ocean is something that we cannot lose sight of. That is the backdrop in which we have made our endeavours. It is becoming increasingly critical to the world’s economic and energy security, even more so for countries, members of IOR-ARC, that are on its rim. This is the third largest body of water in the world connecting developed countries in the West to the rapidly-growing countries in the East. The sea lanes across the Indian Ocean are, therefore, critical to global economy. You know that 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in oil for instance transits through the Indian Ocean.

So, fifteen years ago in 1997 this was set up, the only Indian Ocean Regional Organisation of this kind. It seeks to promote sustained growth, balanced development of the region, cooperation in development of human resources, economic and technical cooperation, expansion of trade and investment, strengthening of dialogue in international fora, and on global economic and other issues of mutual interest.

For us, under India’s chairmanship this is the second Council of Ministers’ meeting. You would recall that India assumed the chair for a period of two years at the Eleventh Meeting that was held in Bengaluru last year. We hosted that meeting in Bengaluru in November 2011. Of course there were obviously very high hopes and expectations of India. We had identified six priority areas which were: maritime security and safety which remains a matter of grave concern, disaster risk reduction, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries management, academic, science and technology cooperation, tourism and cultural exchanges.

As I said, fifteen years over and ten years ahead is what we are looking at. I believe some very far-reaching suggestions and proposals have come forward. Many will be worked upon. We are looking at out-of-the-box suggestions. Of course this is the time world over we are all very tight as far as finances are concerned. Yet, I do believe the important initiatives which have been taken must go forward and India would be willing to partner every possible effort to make sure that we succeed with the aspirations of IOR-ARC membership.

I want to share with you that today we have our twentieth member, a new member that has joined us today, the Union of Comoros. So, that is twenty members. We have also taken a far-reaching decision consensually, which is how all our decisions are taken, and the United States of America is welcomed as the sixth dialogue partner. The expansion of the IOR-ARC membership with Seychelles and the Union of Comoros joining as members and the US as a dialogue partner under India’s chair, is the manifestation of a growing interest that the world community has in our efforts. The Council has also welcomed Indonesia as the next Vice-Chair of the Association who would take over from Australia when Australia gets into the chair.

It has been my privilege and honour to host the Foreign Ministers, many of whom I had very useful bilaterals with, and Heads of Delegation of various members, dialogue partners, observers, in Gurgaon, a city which is fast turning into a global destination for corporate and multinationals. I hope that we have not only reciprocated adequately to the hospitality offered to us by Gurgaon and I thank the Chief Minister of Haryana on this occasion. I thank them all who participated, our delegates and the heads of delegations, for their constructive contributions. They help us make this a great success. We look forward now to the next meeting in 2013 in Australia when Australia will assume the Chair of the Association from us. I would once again like to thank the Government of Haryana as well as the administration of Gurgaon for facilitating, assisting with enthusiasm, warmth and making this an event worth remembering.

Thank you very much. I will be happy to answer your questions.

Question (Mr. Manish Chand, IANS):In an important step the United States joined today as the dialogue partner of the IOR-ARC. In what way does the US bring value to this regional body?

Secondly, we learned there was a proposal for renaming this body because many people feel the current name is honestly speaking unpronounceable or is not a fitting acronym. Was there any discussion on that?

External Affairs Minister:Yes, indeed, there was discussion on it. I did find it is a little bit of a tongue twister. You have to pause to be able to get it right. There is a sense that we could simplify it and make it user-friendly. I think that fifteen years is not so long that people get very attached to a particular phrase or a particular word. I think this was looked at very seriously. There are some issues that need to be examined, the Secretariat will have them examined, including issues on the legal position. I think once that is done we would be able to move forward. The sense was that it would be good to shorten it and make it more user-friendly. Hopefully, we will see this happen in the future.

As far as the United States of America is concerned, you know that the world’s two largest and oldest democracies are India and the United States in a different way of defining ourselves. We do have a strategic relationship with the United States of America as far as India is concerned. Therefore, the consensual invitation and acceptance of the United States as a dialogue partner is obviously something to be welcomed. We are very pleased that this decision has been taken. The United States has a very important role in world governance and world institutions. Their participating as a dialogue partner will add value to the discussions and deliberations that take place here and certainly make our decisions more far-reaching and get endorsed more, in a sense, globally than we would be doing it only if we restricted to ourselves to the rim. But of course the thrust and the concerns and the priorities will remain that of the members of the rim. There are other dialogue partners and I think this is a positive step that has been taken. I do acknowledge and applaud the consensual manner in which firstly the Senior Officials and then the Heads of Delegations welcomed this decision.

Question (Mr. Venkat Narayan):Mr. Minister, in the morning you have made a remark to the effect that there should be a university which will deal with the issues concerning the whole Indian Ocean rim region. Was that discussed in any detail or is that just an idea floated by you? There is no reference to it in the Communique. What do you have in mind and what would you like to achieve through that?

External Affairs Minister:As you know, a university is not small project and certainly a University of the Indian Ocean would be I think on a scale that is not easily put together. My sense is that the idea was received well, I have only flagged the idea. It is a big ticket idea. We are today conscious that we should not as countries over commit ourselves to finances.

India is involved, as you know, in two very major universities that are now in the process of being nurtured - one is the Nalanda University and the other one is the South Asia University. I think both of them are very significant universities. But we all know that there is a growing need for multidisciplinary institutions and universities. There is a great thirst for knowledge and we are into the knowledge age. Therefore, the cutting edge is particularly in the Indian Ocean region. Looking at our historical, geopolitical, cultural and commercial dimensions a university of the Indian Ocean can be actually unique.

I just threw the idea at my colleagues to see who would want to snap up a university opportunity. I do not think we should pretend or try to be monopolistic and get every good idea for ourselves. This is a shared aspiration, and we would be willing to work with anyone who thinks that this university could be situated there. Of course, India is always ready and willing. It is just an initial idea. It is, shall we say a twinkle in the eye and we will wait a little bit longer for it to move forward. But I am convinced that the sense that I received was that this is an idea that will be pursued diligently and quickly.

Question (Mr. Archis Mohan):This question is a little unrelated. Your predecessor, at his press conference after he quit, seemed to suggest that your present job required experience. With your relative inexperience - and you are the youngest Minister on the CCS – is that a hindrance? How steep has been the learning curve? What have been the changes that you find compared to your last stint here? How are you coping with a very hectic weekend with all that has been happening outside and not just in Delhi?

External Affairs Minister:I hit the ground running and I must say I was pleasantly surprised with the remarkable number of initiatives and the speed at which we are moving forward. I was very pleasantly surprised with an exceptionally efficient foreign affairs office, the Ministry of External Affairs. The talent is no less than it was when I was last in this Ministry. I think it has actually grown and it is certainly looking far greater than I saw it last time. There is a lot more work to be done, but greater efficiency and competence is visible even at first sight. I would not use the word being in great awe, but I would be happy to use the word awesome. It is a word you understand I think and more people understand these days than understood in the past.

There will be a lot of learning to do because there are a lot of new things that have happened in the world. The world has changed while I was away from this Ministry. But since I was not asleep all these years, it is not that I was rubbing my eyes and discovering the world. A lot of this is frankly familiar to me. A lot of what you have been writing and telling people is something that I have been reading since there is no extra cost on reading what you write on external affairs. I was not sure I would never come back to External Affairs. But I will not pretend to say that I never wanted to come back to External Affairs. So, I am happy to be here. I feel greatly honoured that I was found fit and suitable to be in this office. But there are some very experienced Foreign Ministers around the globe. And some of them said that they welcome me to the travelers club. So, I know that I have a lot of travelling to do.

Let me just say that the first three days have passed somewhat pleasantly and I am very happy to see that I will be chased around by eminent and successful and wonderful journalists like all of you, and that it is going to be a little more difficult than answering questions in Uttar Pradesh. So, let us just take it a step at a time. I am willing to learn. I have been a teacher too. So, I will learn from those who can teach me and I will teach those who can learn from me. That is what I wish to do.

Question (Ms. Anchal Vohra, NDTV):Sir, this is also unrelated but something that I really wanted to ask and now that you are really…(Inaudible)… What is the update on the Kazmi case, on the attack on the Israeli diplomat in India because Kazmi has got bail. We found out that Israelis are very unhappy. Has Israel’s Ambassador got in touch with the Ministry of External Affairs, has he expressed his unhappiness? What is happening on that?

External Affairs Minister:Let me just say this to you that of course people remain in touch all the time and people do not get in touch only when they are unhappy. People are in touch all the time because their messages have to travel, and that is the whole point of having diplomatic missions and having Ambassadors that you ask questions and you give information and you seek assistance and you urge and persuade the host Government to pay attention to what is your concern. I can assure you that just as we remain concerned about issues that are of great importance to us which we convey from time to time to the diplomats representing other countries, we also certainly pay heed and attend to any concern that they may address.

In this context, which is after all a matter of rule of law, we do not and cannot interfere in the pronouncements of courts. We can assist the courts through best possible counsel and the material that can be supplied by agencies that are required to supply material to the courts. Our impression is that the evidence with which and the concern that we expressed in the investigation of the matter and ensuring that the people responsible are brought to book and produced before court, there was a great satisfaction expressed to us. I am not sure if that satisfaction level has come down, but if at all anyone has any concern, that concern will be factored in. And I am sure that the agencies under the law who appear in the matter would do their utmost that they have to. I think everyone understands that India has a very strong rule of law and that the courts are entirely autonomous, independent. We can at best assist courts. We are not always happy and necessarily satisfied with the decisions courts take, but the courts do take decisions that we have to respect. That is the final word. We do not have a system in which we can go beyond a decision that the courts can take. I think trust and faith in our courts is paramount for our democracy. And I hope that all our partner countries and friends will understand this as well, just as we understand decisions that are taken by their independent and autonomous courts of law.

Question (Mr. Saurabh Shukla):Mr. Minister, just two quick questions. India and Pakistan will be resuming the cricket ties. Pakistan cricket team is coming to India. There have been some reservations in certain quarters. Bal Thackeray has written about it. How does the MEA and you as the Minister view this?

And you said you would be a frequent traveler now. How will you cope up with people like India Against Corruption who are obviously taking up stuff in your Constituency Farrukhabad?

External Affairs Minister:I am not sure that anyone is moving residence to my Constituency. If they are, it will rid India of them because they would be concentrating on one Constituency. As far as I have responsibilities to fulfill I think the nation would be conscious that anyone that represents a nation abroad represents the nation and not a party, and not just the Government. We have a responsibility to speak for India, with our without banners my job is to speak for India. I speak for the whole country. I do not speak for one segment, one section or one group of people.

As far as issues about handling any dissent in our democracy or any disagreement in our democracy is concerned, there are Ministers and party officials who are obviously authorized and mandated to deal with subjects that come under their purview. I think that you would all agree that the Foreign Minister of India should be left to look after India’s interests globally rather than be distracted by dissent and disagreement on something that has happened within the country. We have a lot of very competent people both in the bureaucracy, the Council of Ministers and in the political parties - not my party alone - who can handle issues in a democratic manner.

On cricketing ties, I like watching cricket. These are issues that are decided from time to time by people who have the authority and who have the mandate to decide how far they should go. I think that we should have faith in them and we should trust them. It is not always that the matters require Government intervention. But as far as cricket is concerned, we are certainly concerned about issues that relate to accountability for a very unwholesome attack on our citizens. We expect all countries including our neighbouring country Pakistan to deliver on their frequently indicated promise, or for that matter an indication that they will make those people accountable. There is no question of dilution of our demand, expectation as far as that is concerned.

But my understanding of dealing with difficult situations with neighbours has been that we do put aside some issues on which there is an immediate resolution, and we continue with those issues on which consensually it is possible to have improvement of relations. I do not think isolation or cutting of any contact or any communication has ever helped. We do hope that this will be seen more as an attempt to persuade people that this is collaborative effort, and what was a conflict must be put to an end. It is a conflict on which there must be delivery of expectations that we have. But we do not want the clock to come to a standstill. The clock does move forward.

I think a degree of aloofness was called for, and I think that aloofness was shown by our cricketing bodies. If they in their assessment have come to the conclusion that there is now time to open a window, I think we should respect their decision for this. Of course, it is always possible to review any decision we take. This is not an irreversible or a permanent decision that they would have taken. And as and when they need advice from us or we need to advice them, I am sure that will be done. Not everything done is done publicly. A lot of this has to be done discreetly and has to be done behind closed doors because we do not want our attitudes to be projected in unfavourable light.

We are cautious, we are careful, we are committed to the security of our country and our people. We are committed to accountability for the wrong that has been done. But we do want to look at a possible future, a future that is not held hostage by the past.

Question (Mr. Sachin Parashar, The Times of India): Sir, my question is about Sri Lanka. In the past few weeks we have seen that there have been repeated calls by forces from within the Government including their Defence Secretary that Sri Lanka do away with the Thirteenth Amendment altogether. I want to ask you if you took up this with your counterpart who you met this morning. If yes, what was his response?

External Affairs Minister:Sorry, I do not understand the thrust ofthat question because my understanding is that we would rather support the Thirteenth Amendment and that we have been given indications from time to time formally, officially, even privately, we have been given reaffirmation of the Thirteenth Amendment. If anything, we have understood that there is a demand from one side for going beyond the Thirteenth Amendment and that the Thirteenth Amendment would not be adequate. This is my understanding of the distance between the two sides on moving forward. We have no indication whatsoever that there is an issue of dilution or a reversal of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The bottom line that we know is that the Thirteenth Amendment stands and the Thirteenth Amendment is reaffirmed, but that there is now an expectation that has been placed that there is need to go beyond the Thirteenth Amendment. How soon that is possible, if at all it is possible what will be the procedure and the process that will be undertaken to examine this further, what will be its impact on the deadlines and dates that Sri Lanka has set for itself for elections in the Northern Province which is sometime next year, this is the matter that we will have to watch and wait for. I think that it is an internal matter for that country. It of course has an implication for us, but it is an internal matter for that country and there are, I am sure, some very competent people and sensitive people.

I would like to share with you that my meeting with the Sri Lanka Foreign Minister was a very rewarding meeting. It so happens that he is a senior of mine from Oxford, and perhaps Oxford people speak the same language. So, I may have understood his language better than I might have understood anyone else’s language. I did have a very rewarding and very satisfying meeting with him. I must say that we had a very candid and a very frank exchange of views, and an extremely helpful exchange of views.

Official Spokesperson:Thank you very much.

With that, we come to the end of this interaction.

(Concluded)

Gurgaon

November 2, 2012




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