In an apparent reference to Pakistan, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on Thursday said that SAARC has problems, and that BIMSTEC leaders were invited for swearing-in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month because there is energy, mindset and possibility in latter’s regional grouping which fits in with Indias very optimistic vision of economic cooperation.
Speaking at an event here, his first public function since taking over as the Minister on May 31, the former Foreign Secretary said India should follow a generous policy to pave the way for better connectivity with countries in South Asia and should incentivise cooperation in the neighbourhood by often stepping out and not emphasising too much on reciprocity.
“SAARC has certain problems and I think we know. Even if you were to put terrorism issue aside, there are connectivity issues, there are trade issues out there,” Jaishankar said.
He was apparently referring to Pakistan, with which India is unable to cozy up because of continued terrorism emanating from that country and hurting this country.
Pakistan is a member of the eight-nation South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) grouping along with India, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives.
When Modi took oath as Prime Minister for his first term in 2014, he had invited leaders of this grouping, including Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who had attended the event. The idea was to assert his special focus to India’s neighbourhood.
However, this time, he chose to invite leaders of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), another regional grouping in which six SAARC nations are members but not Pakistan.
“If you look why BIMSTEC leaders were invited for the (PM’s) swearing-in, because we see today an energy, a possibility, a mindset in BIMSTEC which fits with our very optimisitic vision of economic cooperation,” Jaishankar said.
The BIMSTEC is a seven-member grouping of nations lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal constituting a contiguous regional unity.
While five member states are from South Asia – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka – two are from Southeast Asia – Myanmar and Thailand. Their leaders were among those invited for swearing in of Modi on May 30.
Jaishankar said that boosting connectivity in the countries of South Asia had received a lot of attention in the past five years and “will be among top priorities in the next five years”.
He said that South Asia was among the least connected regions of the world due to factors such as history and was losing out on opportunities .
The External Affairs Minister said India has the primary responsibility to work towards boosting connectivity as it is the largest economy of the region, its growth can help lift ties with the neighbours and New Delhi should not “over-negotiate” it.
“We need to incentivise cooperation in the neighbourhood by often stepping out ourselves,” he said, adding that it cannot be reciprocal because India has more resources and larger capability.
“I will like to see a generous policy where we pave the way,” he said, adding that there were already substantial lines of credit and programmes on the ground and livelihood in some neighbouring countries also derives from economic activity in India.
The Minister also noted that despite its general lines of credit to various countries, the Ministry had come up short on project execution, particularly in the African continent.
He said these “were left to much smaller enterprises, who didn’t have the bandwidth to operate in other geographies,” he said, adding that this problem had been resolved to a large extent by putting in place a “much stiffer pre-qualification system” for awarding project contracts.
On the issue of project funding, he said that the Finance Ministry has become progressively understanding in this regard. He also laid stress on the need of different ministries working in an integrated manner to deliver results.
He said the government has strengthened the expectations of change in the country and people feel that India’s stature in the world has risen.
The minister said globalisation was under stress and many assumptions of globalisation like global supply chains, mobility of talent, market access were no longer assumptions that can made to the same degree.
Jaishankar said growth of nationalism can be witnessed in different parts and in Asia it was about confidence, but in many other parts of globe it is about insecurity.
Recalling the work of his predecessor Sushma Swaraj, he said there MEA is seen as rooted in society and the ministry was taking greater care of Indian nationals.
Jaishankar, who was participating in the opening plenary session of The Growth Net Summit, said he was part of its preparations and had never thought he would take part in the proceedings as a minister.