Moderator (Dhruva Jaishankar): In this region, in some ways it’s becoming increasingly contested, a lot of stresses on ASEAN as an institution. From your perspective, what role can India play in your region, what would you like to see India doing more of?
SMS: There’s a lot that India can do more of. As we are on the topic of world expectations, it would be useful for us to set out the context of this discussion on global circumstances as there is a lot of things that is happening around the world today.
First, the world order as we know is changing, certain long-held norms are being questioned, the global economy is being tested, and global powers are having tensions (in terms of trade). Secondly, the challenges that we now face, like terrorism, cybersecurity, climate change, or even lately ‘fake news’, are all increasingly cross-border. Thirdly, we have stepped into a digital age which heralds a new set of challenges and of course, opportunities. So against this backdrop of global circumstances, let me turn to the expectations of Southeast Asia and Singapore of the role that India can play.
I would like to frame my comments within the context of Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue, where he articulated a comprehensive web of strategic partnerships between India and major countries and regions, propelling India’s role on the world stage. For Southeast Asia, Prime Minister Modi signalled clearly the intent to deepen regional engagement through economic, defence and strategic partnerships. So the intent, from India’s perspective, is indeed very clear.
From the region’s perspective, we support Prime Minister Modi’s vision for India to play a more substantial role. So let me outline some of these in three broad areas: one, the economic opportunities that exist; two, the strategic opportunities; and three, the digital opportunities.
First, as anti-free trade cries strengthen and markets shaken, it is timely for India to exercise leadership on the economic front. As the fastest growing economy in the world, and a market of over one billion people, India’s actions are closely watched; by remaining open to trade and pressing on with economic integration, India will send a strong signal that it remains open for business. I think that is very important.
From Southeast Asia’s perspective, there is certainly much more business to be done. In 2017, ASEAN’s trade in goods with India stood at US$73.6 billion while the same figure for China, Japan and South Korea ran upwards of US$150 billion each. So much more can be done between India and Southeast Asia.
We are also working towards the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will create the world’s largest trading bloc once finalised, and includes some of the world’s largest economies. As one of the largest economies in the grouping, India’s efforts have a significant impact on the conclusion of this agreement. So India’s moves to resolve bilateral trade issues with other RCEP partners like China is a positive step that will help bring us closer to the finalisation of this agreement.
Beyond economics and trade, we also see India playing a much bigger role on the defence and strategic front. India’s continued participation in ASEAN on platforms such as the ADMM-Plus or the East Asia Summit remains crucial in addressing the common threats, like piracy, and opportunities in the region. We look forward to greater practical security cooperation between India and Southeast Asia, particularly through the inaugural edition of the trilateral maritime exercise among India, Singapore, and Thailand in the Andaman Sea in 2019.
Lastly, on digital opportunities, new areas of cooperation such as Fintech have emerged and India is well-placed to lead in FinTech developments given its strong expertise in IT and the great strides it has made within India itself. To this end, Singapore and India have paved the way by greatly strengthening digital connectivity such as linking up India’s RuPay digital payments with Singapore’s Network for Electronic Transfers (NETS) to facilitate cross-border financial transactions.
So to close, the current global geopolitical and economic climate present opportunities for India to open a new stage of development and shape its external profile. It is not a straight-line trajectory or without challenges, but we in Southeast Asians are optimistic that if India has the will, it will be able to play the forward looking and constructive role that PM Modi set out in his speech at the Shangri La Dialogue.
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QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION
On air connectivity and smart cities as priority areas for India-ASEAN collaboration.
SMS: Absolutely. Air connectivity is one key area we think has big potential for India. If we look at businesses, most firms would tell us that if there is little connectivity, there is very little that they can explore where investment is concerned. For example, in Southeast Asia when Cambodia opened up its air space in Siem Reap, it benefitted tremendously in terms of tourism. And if you do the same thing in India, India would reap benefits from regional open skies policy.
On the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept.
SMS: The concept of Free and Open Indo-Pacific has been discussed quite a bit and I think the consensus is that there has been no consensus in relation to what it really means. ASEAN Ministers spoke about it, discussed it, during the Shangri La Dialogue and several other platforms. And indeed, there is no consensus with regard to its nomenclature, its geographic scope, or even the focus area so I think it’s still open for discussion. What is important really is, from Singapore’s perspective, that we are open to any of these proposals but they must meet certain conditions. One, the proposal supports the centrality of ASEAN, (which) Prime Minister Modi also mentioned in his speech. At the same time, the proposal should articulate a coherent strategy for economic engagement in the region. Thirdly, (it should) espouse a rules-based world order that is anchored on international law. And finally, (it should) support a regional architecture that is open and inclusive. I think, as we continue to engage on this topic, we should remember these broad criteria.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
11 JANUARY 2019