Transcript of Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at the Ministerial Session of the 12th Delhi Dialogue in New Delhi, India, 16 June 2022

17 June 2022

Your Excellency Dr S Jaishankar

Minister of External Affairs


My fellow ASEAN Foreign Ministers


Ladies and Gentlemen


            This morning we had our Special ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, commemorating the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations.


2          But actually, the relations between India and ASEAN go back not 30 years, but thousands of years. Over these thousands (of) years, the cultural, linguistic, religious, commercial, and people-to-people ties have bound us together. Even our religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam either originated from, or vetted through India into Southeast Asia. The Indian classics, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, have left deep imprints on our culture, festivals, and in our stage productions in Southeast Asia. Even names like Retno and Balakrishnan are obviously originated from India. I daresay that even Pornpimol have Sanskritic origins. So, my first point – this is not something new. Both India and many of us in Southeast Asia were colonies and we probably lost about at least two centuries. Part of the reason why we ended up being colonised was because we missed the last Industrial Revolution, which began in the UK and Europe. They were able to parlay advanced insights and technology and economic power into real power, and therefore reached out and used our regions for resources, spices, markets and the rest of it. We are clearly in a post-colonial phase, and in the last seventy to eighty years, particularly for those of us who avoided being on the wrong side of the Iron or Bamboo Curtain, and who advanced or owned productive capacity of our people and connected ourselves to global markets, in fact saw unprecedented progress, peace, and prosperity.  If you do not believe me, just look at the figures today: India and ASEAN have two billion people – one quarter of the world (and with) a combined GDP of almost of USD 6 trillion.


3          It is not just the static snapshot, but the fact that the potential for growth in GDP, for both India and ASEAN, can double and quadruple in the next two decades. At that level of potential, we will be a vibrant, essential pillar of the world. On the global strategic stage, we have transited from a unipolar moment – we are going past the bipolar world – and are emerging into a multipolar world. In that multipolar world, India will be a major tent pole, and so will, I hope, Southeast Asia. The question then is what could possibly derail our fulfilment of that potential? I would focus on three areas.


4          The first is that if we are able to maintain a rules-based, international order, and rules, not just written and codified and fossilised by the Western world, but one that recognises the diversity and wisdom of the ages from Asia, and makes the necessary adjustments to the post-World War II international institutions like the United Nations – I know India has an interest in the Security Council – the Bretton Woods Institutions, the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank; the Generalised Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which is now the WTO (World Trade Organization). If we can make these institutions updated and fit for purpose and to adapt to the potential and diversity of Asia, this will be a big plus for us.


5          Another point on the rules-based international order has been highlighted by the invasion of Ukraine. If we continue to go back to a pre-World War means of engaging other countries, and if we continue to believe that might is right, and that big countries get to redraw boundaries, citing historical errors and crazy decisions, then all bets are off. That is why Singapore and ASEAN have taken a strong position against this invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is right, and over the weekend when he addressed the Shangri-La Dialogue, he said that the battles for the rules are being fought on the battlefields of Ukraine. My point here is not to get into the details of Ukraine versus Russia, but that we do need a universally accepted rules-based world order in which all of us have a say, all of us big or small, wealthy or not so wealthy are equal, and that those superpowers will feel, and will assess that it is in their own enlightened self-interest to restrain themselves and act in accordance with international law.


6          The second pre-requisite for us to fulfil our potential is in trade and investments. For Singapore, certainly the last 57 years, one key propellant for our progress has been the fact that we were able to build trade relations across the world and attract investments from all over the world in order to enhance our productive capacity. Today if you look at trade between – let me just cite Singapore and India, for example, even during the last two-and-a-half years of COVID-19, our trade with India in fact increased by 35 per cent over one year (2020 to 2021). If you look in terms of FDI into India, I always find it amazing that 30 per cent of FDI into India has come through Singapore. Can you imagine when India is fully connected to the entire Southeast Asia, in the same way that we have made a start between Singapore and India? Can you imagine the trade flows, the investment flows, the investment in infrastructure and connectivity? Can you imagine where this will lead to? The point is that trade and investment is strategy in our part of the world. India is not only a giant. If you look in terms of the modern economy – if I were to ask you, who is likely to be the pharmacy of the world? Who is likely to be the breadbasket of the world? After all, India is already the world’s largest exporter of rice, and rice has a sacred meaning in Southeast Asia. But beyond rice, just examine India’s ability to export agricultural products. If you ask yourself, which giant is likely to be the capital of digital services of the world? You know the answer to my three rhetorical questions are: India, India, India. And now if you link that with Southeast Asia, which has a population half that of India, but whose GDP currently is neck-and-neck with India, and if both of us can double or quadruple our GDP over the next two decades, the sky is the limit. So, I am making the argument, Jaishankar, for greater economic integration between India and Southeast Asia.


7          My final point is on new technologies. We all know about digitalisation. We know that artificial intelligence is undergoing a revolution. We know that there are whole new professions being created. I think just 10 years ago, if your son came to you and said he wanted to become a data analyst, you would scratch your head and say, “what’s he talking about?”. If he said he wanted to be a cybersecurity expert, you would say, “well, possibly”. But my point is the digital revolution is in fact, a complete revamp of the means of production and of wealth generation for the future. This is another area which India has a natural lead, and if we can complement India’s capability and the latent, nascent abilities and markets in Southeast Asia, then we can remake not just the next two decades, but, I hope, at least the next half century and beyond.


8          Let me conclude by saying, again, that the relationship between India and Southeast Asia is not something new. It has gone on for millennia. It was interrupted because we missed the last Industrial Revolution. But we are not going to miss the next Industrial Revolution. So long as we keep a peaceful and stable world based on international law, so long as we open the arterial connections between India and Southeast Asia, and as long as we train our young peoples to harness the opportunities that the digital revolution provides us, we have a great future ahead of us.


9          Thank you all very much.

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