Transcript of Special Briefing by Foreign Secretary on Prime Minister’s visit to South Africa and Greece (August 21, 2023)

August 21, 2023

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: A very good afternoon to all of you. Thank you for joining us, and I would request, if cell phones could be kept on silent, for joining us for this special media briefing on the occasion of the Honorable Prime Minister's visit to South Africa and to Greece, which begins tomorrow. To give us a sense of the visit, we have the pleasure of having with us Shri Vinay Kwatra Sir, Foreign Secretary. Also joining us on the dais, Secretary West, Joint Secretary Central Europe, as well as Joint Secretary East and Southern Africa. Sir, may I hand over the floor for your opening remarks.

Shri Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary: Thank you very much, and good afternoon to friends from the media, Namaskar. Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon for this briefing on the upcoming visit of the Honorable Prime Minister of India to South Africa for the BRICS Summit and then onwards to official visit to Greece. Honorable Prime Minister will depart tomorrow morning for Johannesburg, where he would be participating in the 15th BRICS Summit, that actually starts tomorrow only and concludes on 24th of August. Just to recall, Honorable Prime Minister had last visited South Africa in July 2018. That was for the 10th BRICS Summit, and then in July 2016 for a bilateral visit. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, he had visited India in January 2019, where he was also the chief guest for the 70th Republic Day celebrations. The two leaders had also met in June 2022 in Germany, on the sidelines of the G7 Outreach Summit, and most recently they spoke to each other just a few weeks ago. South Africa is, as you all know, the incumbent BRICS chair, and the theme of the BRICS Summit this year is ‘BRICS and Africa – Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development and Inclusive Multilateralism’. This would be the first in-person BRICS Summit after three consecutive years of virtual meetings owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. You are all aware of the importance that India attaches to the BRICS grouping and consider it as an important expression of global multipolarity. India last held the BRICS chairmanship in 2021. For us, it is also a platform that can address a number of global challenges and also by contributing to building a fairer, inclusive and open international architecture with sustainable development and economic growth at its core.

In terms of programme, upon his arrival on 22nd, the Honorable Prime Minister will participate in the first event, which is the BRICS Leaders Retreat, later tomorrow evening itself. This would be a closed-door engagement and the expected agenda is likely to include discussions on global developments of concern and the role that the BRICS can play in addressing some of those developments and challenges. The next day, on 23rd August, the Prime Minister will participate in the 15th BRICS Summit. The Summit itself is structured into two sessions – one, a closed plenary that is likely to focus more on items pertaining to intra-BRICS cooperation as also the reform of the multilateral system and counter-terrorism issues. Thereafter, there is an open plenary, which would actually see participation of other entities and organisations that are associated with BRICS. This would include the President of the New Development Bank, the Chair of the BRICS Business Council and the Chair of BRICS Women's Business Alliance. The participants are likely to deliberate on issues such as global economic recovery amid ongoing geopolitical challenges, sustainable development goals, something that would, I think continue throughout the different sessions of the BRICS Summit, women-led development as also addressing the concern and interest and priorities of the Global South. The Summit would conclude on 23rd and on 24th, the Prime Minister will participate in BRICS-Africa Outreach and BRICS Plus Dialogue. We understand that the host country, South Africa, has invited a number of guest countries from Africa as well as other emerging markets and developing countries to participate in this event on 24th. Partnership with the partnership with Africa can actually shape and contribute to the development of the Global South – will figure as one of the important items in the deliberations on 24th. You are all aware of India's own views and efforts in this regard, which were very clearly and in detail reflected in the Voice of Global South Summit that was hosted by the Honorable Prime Minister in January earlier this year. These priorities of the Global South, just to touch upon here, are also going to be reflected in the upcoming G20 Summit also, given the fact that this G20 presidency of India will see the largest ever participation from Africa in the Summit to be held next month. For the 15th BRICS Summit, a business delegation from India is also travelling to South Africa to attend the BRICS Business Tracks meetings and also the meetings of the BRICS Business Council, BRICS Women Business Alliance and the BRICS Business Forum. After completing his engagements in Johannesburg relating to the BRICS Summit and to the BRICS Outreach and BRICS Plus Summit, the Prime Minister would travel to Greece for an official visit on 25th August 2023 at the invitation of His Excellency, Prime Minister of Greece. A ceremonial welcome on arrival in Athens, which would be followed by the visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the Prime Minister would lay a wreath. The Prime Minister will thereafter have restricted and delegation-level talks with the Honorable Prime Minister of Greece. Both leaders would also address the key businesses of both countries later after the delegation-level talks. Prime Minister would also interact with the Indian diaspora in Greece. Just to recall here, the Honorable Prime Minister had met the Greek Prime Minister in New York last in September 2019 on the sidelines of the UNGA. The important thing to mention here is that the last Prime Ministerial visit from India to Greece was in 1983, so it is after a considerable length of long period of time actually that a Prime Ministerial visit from India is taking place to Greece. Previous high-level exchanges between the two countries have also included a visit by former Presidents of India, late doctor APJ Abdul Kalam and also former President Shri Ram Nath Kovindji in June 2018. The Greek President had also paid a state visit to India in 1998, and the then Greek Prime Minister had visited India in 2008. Greece is one of India's important European partners, is a member of the EU, of NATO, and a gateway to Europe and also to the EU market, and enjoys a privileged position at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa. Both India and Greece are not just modern democracies, but we also share close and age-old historical and cultural relations. Important elements of our partnership include defense and security, shipping, and most recently the elements relating to the migration and mobility are being given shape in terms of structural partnership between India and Greece. Greece has also been a strong supporter and a partner with India on issues of core interest in the UN and other international organisations, including their support to a permanent membership in the expanded UN Security Council. During the Honorable Prime Minister's visit to Greece, both sides will look to expand and diversify the trade and investment segment of cooperation, deepen and expand the defense and security partnership, infrastructure cooperation, shipbuilding industry, something which is a great strength of Greece and where the opportunities, extensive opportunities are there, energy, agriculture, education, and as I mentioned earlier, migration and mobility. The visit would give us, give both sides an opportunity to discuss also the regional and global issues of mutual interest and help broaden and deepen our bilateral engagement. I would stop here and if there are questions, we will try and answer them. Thank you.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you very much, sir. Ground rules, please introduce yourself and the organization you represent. I will start with Yeshi.

Yeshi Seli: This is Yeshi Seli from the New Indian Express. Sir, what are the chances of PM Modi having a bilateral with Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping.

Sidhant: Sir my question is, India's stance on the expansion of the grouping. And another question, this is on Greece, basically. What will be India's focus when it comes to connectivity plans connecting India with the Mediterranean via the Arab world?

Madhurendra: Sir, Madhurendra hoon News Nation se. Defense aur security ties ko lekar aapne baat kahi India aur Greece ke bich mai, kya is par aur aap focus kar sakte hain ki kin kshetro mai dar asal defense sector mai dono desh apne jo ties hain usko badhayenge aur maritime mai kya hone wala hain?

[Question in Hindi, Approximate translation] Sir, I am Madhurendra from News Nation. You spoke about the defense and security ties between India and Greece. Can you further elaborate on which specific areas, both countries are enhancing their ties in the defense sector? Additionally, could you provide insights into what is expected in the maritime domain?

Manas: This is Manas from PTI. Around 40 countries have shown interest in joining BRICS, and 23 countries have already submitted their applications. So what will be India's approach in expansion of BRICS, and how we are going to support the countries? What will be the criteria?

Manish Jha: Sir main Manish Jha hoon TV9 se. Mujhe jitna samajh mai aa raha hai sir ki ab tak bharat sarkar ye kehti aayi thi post May 2022 ke baad ki jab tak PLA apni position se pichhe nahi hat jata tab tak India aur China ke political relations normal nahi ho sakte hain, toh agar Prime Minister Modi aur Xi Jinping ki mulakat hoti hai BRICS se alag hokar to kya hum kahe ki PLA apki position se hat gayi hai? Aur agar nahi mulakat hoti hai toh kya kahe ki PLA abhi tak usi position pe bana hua hai?

[Question in Hindi, Approximate translation] Sir, I am Manish Jha from TV9. As far as I understand, the Indian government, post May 2022, has been stating that until the PLA withdraws from its position, till then the political relations between India and China cannot be normal. So, if Prime Minister Modi and Xi Jinping were to meet on the sidelines of BRICS, could we conclude that the PLA has retreated from its position? And if such a meeting doesn't take place, can we infer that the PLA remains in the same position as before?

Nivedita Mukherjee: Sir, Nivedita from the Sunday Guardian, two questions. If you could please share the details of the business delegation accompanying the Prime Minister. And also, is there any likelihood of the Prime Minister taking up the issue of…many countries which have expressed interest in joining the rupee trade arrangement? Would that be part of the business talks?

Shri Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary: Let me group the questions relating to India-China meeting. Yeshi asked, and then others asked the same question in different ways. Aapne kaha hoti hai nahi hoti hai…[Answer in Hindi, approximate translation] You said talks happen or do not happen…all I would say is that, as I mentioned in my remarks, the host countries, South Africa has invited a large number of guest countries, besides, of course, the BRICS members who would be present there. The Prime Minister's schedule in terms of bilateral meetings with those leaders who would be present in South Africa is still being developed. As and when we have details of confirmation of honorable Prime Ministers, different bilateral meetings, we would definitely apprise our media friends of those meetings.

Second set of questions relating to BRICS expansion. You know, somebody mentioned about 40, 23 large number of countries having expressed interest in the expansion of the BRICS. Look, there is no doubt that there is considerable interest in many countries to become a part of BRICS, to associate themselves with BRICS, to leverage different opportunities that the BRICS and the cooperation under the BRICS presents for itself. In so far as the BRICS expansion is concerned, we have been very clear from the start that we have a positive intent and an open mind when it comes to the BRICS expansion. As you all know, BRICS works under the modality and principle of consensus. And all the BRICS countries have to have full consensus on how they would want BRICS expanded, what should be the guiding principles of that expansion, what would be the criteria for such an expansion. Those are the subject matters of ongoing current discussions between the Sherpas of the BRICS in South Africa. And I would not want to prejudge the outcome of these discussions, except to say, as I said earlier, that India has a positive intent and an open mind when it comes to BRICS expansion.

With regard to the set of questions relating to…specific questions relating to the BRICS business delegation, which the colleague from the Sunday Guardian asked. The business delegation is the BRICS business platform, including the business forum, the Women Business Alliance, is a very robust and vibrant mechanism and pillar for the intra-BRICS economic cooperation. And we are expecting a sizable business delegation to participate in these meetings. The component which is part of the BRICS Summit deliberations itself, which would be in the open plenary, is a much smaller delegation. And we'll share the details with you once that part of the delegation of…who would be present along in the session where Honorable Prime Minister will be there, will share with you. Otherwise, the delegation representatives from the business entities would be participating in associated events of, as I said, the BRICS business forum, the BRICS Business Women Alliance.

With regard to the question on greater cooperation with Greece, whether it is defense and security or the economic trade aspects, I would request my colleague, Secretary West, Sanjay Verma, to speak. But if I can just, before doing that, just touch upon the connectivity question which was asked. We look at connectivity as, I would say, as one of the driving impulses for a greater and a stronger and deeper cooperation between any two sets of countries. Connectivity has always been an important element in our discussions with all our partners. And we don't limit the connectivity discussions only to infrastructure connectivity projects. The connectivity for us has a far wider conceptual connotation that includes digital connectivity, connectivity between the people. So when we speak of mobility and migration, it is connecting the two societies, connecting the two people, financial connectivity. So there was a question relating to the India rupee trade, for example. It is one of the key instruments of connecting the trade ecosystems between the two countries. So there, I'll just make that remark on the larger connectivity point you mentioned.

But if I could just quickly answer the specific part relating to India rupee trade. Look, it has been our strong and proactive effort to see how the instruments of trade expansion, how best we can position them in any given relationship. One of the first India rupee trade arrangements in recent months, has been the one which was announced with the UAE. I am given to understand that the initial shipments relating to India Dirham Rupee trade have commenced and have successfully been completed. We are soon going to bring out a set of the standard operating procedures also, do an extensive outreach to the business community for them to see, how this India rupee trade arrangements could be leveraged. Naturally, it would be our interest to see that it could be expanded to as many countries as possible. The India trading arrangements in another currency always have very extensive regulatory elements, but also the elements that involves the commercial banking channels, something which requires extensive due diligence. But as a matter of priority, we would definitely be pursuing them. How far we reach with them is something to be seen.

With this, if I could request my colleague Sanjay to speak on to the elements of cooperation between India and Greece during this visit.

Shri Sanjay Verma, Secretary (West): Well, thank you, Foreign Secretary. The question was specifically pertaining to cooperation in the defense sector. As you know, Greece is pivotally located in the Eastern Mediterranean. It has been a significant maritime power. In merchant shipping, it controls probably one of the biggest shipping lines in terms of dead tonnage. And that spin-off runs into its naval capacities. It apparently has the third best navy in the European Union. Just a matter of weeks ago that we had a naval exercise with the Greeks in Greece, which just preceded in April the multinational aviation air force exercise. The objective of the visit, Prime Minister's one day official visit, would be to strengthen security and defense cooperation, would be to increase the pace of exchanges at the military level, training personnel, invite Greek capacity into the Make in India programme, especially in our defense industry, and consider joint production, technology exchange, etcetera. As Foreign Secretary mentioned, both Greece and India have shared core foreign policy interests. And security and defense interests are somewhere at the heart of core interests. So we believe the Prime Minister's visit will take this agenda forward in a more substantial and future oriented manner. Thank you.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you. More questions? Shashank.

Shashank Mattoo: Thank you, Foreign Secretary. Shashank Mattoo with the Mint. Sir, there's been a lot of speculation in the run up to the Summit about this idea of a BRICS common currency. The President of Brazil voiced his support for it. The Russian Foreign Minister was also seen to comment on this matter. Of course, our Foreign Minister made it very clear that there was no discussion about something like a BRICS common currency. Have there been any talks on this? If you could put any speculation on this to rest. Has there been any conversation about some sort of currency trading arrangement? And what would be India's position on this particular proposal of a common currency?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: If you could keep it short. Thank you. Yeah, please.

Jayprakash: Sir main Jayprakash hoon Dainik Jagran se, mera sawal hai ki last year jo BRICS Summit tha usme FTA ko lekar baat hui thi, BRICS Free Trade Agreement, aur kayi baar pahle bhi ispar china ki taraf se mudda uthaya gaya hai, bharat ka ispar kya stand hain?

[Question in Hindi, Approximate translation] Sir, I am Jayprakash from Dainik Jagran. My question is regarding the BRICS Summit that took place last year, where discussions were held about the FTA, BRICS Free Trade Agreement. China has raised this issue several times in the past as well. What is India's stance on this matter?

Abhishek Jha: Hello, sir. Abhishek Jha from CNN News18. My question will be regarding so many leaders gathering there. And about 40 leaders are going to be there. You said those bilateral meetings are still being worked out. If you could share some of the meeting that has been confirmed yet.

Smita Sharma: Hi, I am Smita Sharma, Independent journalist. On the BRICS Summit itself, is there a request from the Chinese to still discuss their peace plan on the Ukraine war during the Summit meeting? And keeping in mind that India is the world's largest democracy, we are chairing the G20 Summit in the next few days. The refugee crisis in Greece, which has led to a lot of criticism of pushing back on asylum seekers or migrant workers, shoddiest conditions, is that something that the Prime Minister will take up during his discussions?

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: With the Greek authorities? That’s what you meant? Yeah.

Takashi Ishihara: Hi, hello. This is Takashi Ishihara from Asahi Shimbun Japanese newspaper. I just want to ask the basic question about the Indian diaspora. The security mentions the Prime Minister Modi ji is going to have engagement with the diaspora in Greece and maybe South Africa. So every time, everywhere, Prime Minister Modi ji visit, he's having the engagement with diaspora. So how important for India and the Prime Minister to have an engagement? What is the reason?

Subhajyoti: This is Subhajyoti from BBC News. It has been announced that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will attend the BRICS Summit. So will there be any meeting at the sidelines between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Hasina in Johannesburg? And I have two supplementaries in this. Firstly, are we supporting Bangladesh's candidature to be a new member in the BRICS alliance? And secondly, there has been recent media reports, that India has made its reservations about US visa policy and pro-activism over Bangladesh to Washington clear. Now, I'm keen to know what is India's actual stand on that.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: No, hold on. Let me clarify yours. On the last one, certainly in the realm of theoretical discussion or hypothetical, if the meeting happens, this is not the venue to discuss bilateral relations with Bangladesh. About possible meeting, I think, foreign secretary was pretty clear about the bilats but I will leave that to Sir to answer. Sir rest of them, I pass them to you.

Shri Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary: Thank you. Let me just first address this question of what bilateral meetings will the Honorable Prime Minister have on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit. As I've already mentioned to you, there are going to be a large number of leaders present there. We understand also that the Honorable Prime Minister of Bangladesh also may be there. That's what we have been informed by the host country. But the schedule of Prime Minister's bilateral meetings on the sideline of BRICS is still evolving. And once we have firmed up those meetings with the leaders, we will definitely share with you as we go along.

Shashank, to your question on the BRICS common currency trading arrangement and the Dainik Jagran se jo aapka BRICS FTA ko le ke jo prashna tha. [Answer in Hindi, approximate translation] And the question from Dainik Jagran related to BRICS FTA;

See, the substantive part of trade and economic exchanges and discussions that have been a part of BRICS discussion, have so far, in a major way, focused on how to increase trade in respective national currencies. Which, writing for the Mint you would know, is considerably different from a common currency concept. Again, you would know that the common currency discussions have several prerequisites before you can even talk about a common currency framework. The discussion framework in BRICS, the substance of that discussion framework in BRICS, have focused principally on trade within the national currency and not the other element which you mentioned.

Dekhiye jaha tak BRICS FTA ka prashna hai, aur ye prashna kevel BRICS FTA tak hi seemit nahi hai, ye prashna kisi bhi desh ke sath jab FTA pe varta hoti hai us par bhi lagu hota hai. Ye FTA ki jo discussions hain woh ek prakar se rajnitik hain magar ek prakar se kafi takniki bhi hain. FTA ka swaroop kya ho, FTA ke vibhinna chapters kya ho, FTA me kitni tariff line consession ke liye aaye, khali goods pe ho, services pe ho, ya investment pe bhi jaye. Achchha khali trade, goods, services ye investment ki baat nahi, baki arthik sahyog ke elements bhi uske bhag ho ya na ho. Toh jo focus BRICS ke andar raha hai, woh adhikanshtaha is baat par kendrit hai ki BRICS ki countries ke bich mai jo aapsi sahyog hai, paraspar sahyog hai, uska vikas kaise ho, uski gehenta kaise badhe, usko kis prakar se naye se naye keshtron mai le jaya ja sake. Ab uska structural swaroop me FTA ho, trade in national currencies ho, aur koi framework ho, woh chize aisi hain jo experts log hain woh aapas me discuss karke uspe nirnay karenge, toh BRICS mai jahan tak intra-BRICS sahyog ki baat hai woh aarthik sahyog pe kendrit hai uspe koi do rai nahi hai. But uska swaroop kya ho woh jo hai dusri baat hai.

[Answer in Hindi, approximate translation] See, as far as the question of the BRICS FTA is concerned; and this question is not limited to just the BRICS FTA, it applies to any country with whom there is a discussion about a FTA. These discussions regarding the FTA are somewhat political in nature, but in another sense, they are quite technical as well. What should be the nature of the FTA, what should be the different chapters of the FTA, how many tariff line should be under FTA for concessions, whether it's only about goods, or services, or even investment. Well, it's not just about trade, goods, services, or investment, but also whether other elements of economic cooperation are part of it or not. So, the primary focus within BRICS has principally centered around how to enhance mutual cooperation and collaboration among the BRICS countries, how to develop it, expand its scope, and take it into new areas. Now whether it's through a structural form like FTA, trade in national currencies, or any other framework, these are matters that experts will discuss among themselves and make decisions about. So when it comes to intra-BRICS cooperation, the emphasis is indeed on economic cooperation, and there is no second opinion about that. However, the specific form it takes is another matter altogether.

As I mentioned to you…this is Smita to your question, that when the leaders meet during the retreat, during the closed plenary, and also if they have a chance for a sidebar on the sidelines, the discussions would obviously focus on what the developments, the global developments which are of key priority and interest and the challenges that they throw up. As of now, I'm not aware of any specifics in terms of what's on the table, but the generic nature of global developments, the challenges they throw up, how BRICS comes together to mitigate some of those challenges, particularly the economic challenges to the countries of the Global South, is something that, you know, they would obviously focus on.

On your questions of the…on your other questions, and also the question from our colleague from the Japanese media on diaspora engagement, I would request Secretary Sanjay Verma to speak on them.

Sanjay Verma, Secretary West: Well, thank you Foreign Secretary. Smita, on a question on refugees. I think, let me address it from two aspects. One is, of course, Greece is a place in the Mediterranean and it is what you call a frontline state for refugees coming into Europe. This is a sensitive subject, it's an important subject, it's also very topical and sensitive. It is also a fact that the European Union is currently negotiating a migration treaty which is in the works. It would be out of place for us to raise this issue. We trust the European Union would find the best way to deal with this recurring problem and we consider it an issue which is internal to the European Union and it is best left to them how they resolve it. The correlation as it appears on the agenda of our visit is that a migration mobility agreement which we have signed with a slew of countries is to address this issue indirectly of to encourage legal migration. So we hope to see some progress on that subject there.

On diaspora…on most, if not every foreign visit of the Prime Minister and engagement with the Indian diaspora is a very important part of the program and it also emanates from the fact that the relationship with diaspora is also a very important pillar of India's foreign policy particularly with the current government. Prime Minister always looks forward to occasions of spending time interfacing, interacting with the Indian diaspora and in Greece it would not be any different. We have a diaspora which is about 11,000 to 12,000 strong and this will be another occasion for our Prime Minister to interact with, what is increasingly effective bridge that our diaspora forms between us and the country they reside in. Thank you.

Shri Arindam Bagchi, Official Spokesperson: Thank you, Sir. Thank you very much, Foreign Secretary, Sir. My thanks also to Secretary West, Shri Sanjay Verma, Joint Secretary Central Europe, Shri Arun Sahu, as well as Joint Secretary East and Southern Africa, Shri Puneet Kundal for being here today. Thank you for joining us. Please stay tuned with the updates that we'll have on social media as the visit unfolds. Good afternoon.


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