South Asia remains top priority, says Jaishankar

South Asia remains top priority, says Jaishankar

He also speaks of need for more coordination between the MEA and economic Ministries.

Building connectivity in the South Asian region and coordinating economic issues will be top priorities of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) , said its new Minister S. Jaishankar, who leaves on Friday for Bhutan, his first destination abroad a week after he took office.

Mr. Jaishankar indicated that the government had chosen to invite leaders of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) rather than leaders of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), because there was a higher likelihood of making progress with BIMSTEC, as it doesn’t include Pakistan.

“SAARC has certain problems which are known to all. Even if you put the terrorism issue aside, there are trade and connectivity issues…BIMSTEC leaders were invited for the swearing-in ceremony because we see today an energy and a possibility in BIMSTEC and a mindset which fits in with that very optimistic vision of economic cooperation that we want,” Mr. Jaishankar told an audience of businessmen organised by the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry), think tank Ananta and Swiss consultancy Smadja and Smadja, in his first public comments as Minister.

Mr. Jaishankar also spoke on need for more coordination between the MEA and economic ministries. He said he had spent a substantial part of his first week in office dealing more with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal.

The comments reflect the economic challenges the government faces immediately, given the United States decision to withdraw India’s ‘GSP’ preferential trade status, and the emerging costs of replacing Iranian oil after sanctions. Mr. Jaishankar will receive U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 25-26, where many of the trade issues, including data localisation and Washington’s push to have Chinese telecom major Huawei banned by friendly countries, are likely to be raised.

Huawei issue

In a veiled reference to the Huawei issue, Mr. Jaishankar said it showed that the line between economics and politics was “vanishing”. “When a country invokes tariffs on national security basis, the line is pretty much gone,” he observed and asserted that India had a “strong tradition of independence” which it would adhere to.

The MEA announced on Thursday that Mr. Jaishankar would travel to Thimphu on June 7-8 to meet with the King of Bhutan, Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, and Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji. Hinting at a possible visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the near future to Bhutan, the MEA, in a statement, said the two sides would discuss “upcoming high-level exchanges, economic development and hydro-power cooperation”.

Mr. Jaishankar emphasised the need for more regional exchanges, saying India needed to “incentivise cooperation in the neighbourhood” by being “generous” to smaller neighbours. “It cannot be reciprocal by the very fact that we have more resources and in many ways have a larger interest in the region,” he said, referring to the improvement in relations with Bangladesh in recent years as an example of how India’s neighbours can “leverage” their relationship for benefits.

“Never dreamt this”

Mr. Jaishankar, who demitted office as Foreign Secretary last year and joined Tata Sons as their President for Global Corporate Affairs, said he did not expect his appointment as External Affairs Minister. He told the gathering that until a few days ago he was part of the executive committee organising the very event he was addressing, and had wondered which minister they would invite. “I must confess that I never dreamt that I would be the minister in question,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience.

He also credited his predecessor Sushma Swaraj for helping “’Indians in trouble worldwide”, and declared that he would follow in her footsteps.

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