Official Spokesperson (Shri Vikas Swarup): Good evening friends and welcome to this media briefing on Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to Russia and Central Asia.
We have with us today Secretary (MER) Ms. Sujata Mehta, Secretary (West) Mr. Navtej Sarna, JS (Eurasia) Mr. Shambhu Kumaran, and JS (MER) Mr. Charanjeet Singh. The order would be as follows. First there will be an opening statement on the BRICS Summit by Secretary (MER), then there will be a statement on the Central Asia part by Secretary (West), and then we will open up to questions.
Secretary (MER) (Ms. Sujata Mehta): Thank you, Vikas. Good afternoon everybody. I guess this is a briefing after a year, the last time was just before the last BRICS Summit.
The upcoming meeting in Ufa is the 7th BRICS summit, and the third time that our Prime Minister will be interacting with his peers in BRICS. He had attended the 6th BRICS Summit in Fortaleza last year, and then there was a meeting of BRICS leaders in Brisbane on the margins of the last G20 meeting. On the 8th and 9th of July, the 7th BRICS Summit is going to be held.
As you can imagine, the Prime Minister is leading the Indian Delegation to the summit. The manner in which the summit will unfold is the following. On the 8th, the leaders are going to meet in an informal milieu over dinner.
The formal summit programme will begin on the 9th. There will be an official welcome. Then there will be the customary meeting that leaders have with members of the BRICS Business Council. The BRICS Business Council comprises five business leaders from each member state. The Business Council stays in touch through the years and they present an annual report to their leaders. So, that will be the business that they will transact in that meeting. Thereafter the formal summit programme begins.
This is a two-part programme. There is a restricted session which includes a working lunch and a plenary. The theme of this summit is "BRICS Partnership – A Powerful Factor for Global Development”. The agenda for the summit covers both political and economic issues, but the emphasis is on the economic cooperation. After the plenary there will be signing ceremony, and the formal BRICS part will conclude with a media interaction.
Subsequent to that, continuing the practice that began about I think two summits ago there will be what is called a BRICS Outreach Session. Russia as the Chair of BRICS has invited the leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, both Members and Observers, as well as the members of the Eurasian Economic Union as also Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. So, there will be a total of 12 leaders who will be meeting the five BRICS leaders for that session. That Outreach Session is anticipated to carry on about an hour and a half and then it concludes with the reception.
What I do want to say is that the normal cycle of activities of BRICS includes a large number of activities which carry on through the year. So, in the course of the Russian Chairmanship there have been a large number of pre-summit meetings. These include a meeting of Trade Ministers, of the BRICS Business Forum, a meeting of National Statistical Authorities, a meeting of the Economic Forum, as also of the BRICS Academic Forum and the Think Tank Council. In other words, these are both governmental and non-governmental level meetings that are part of the normal cycle.
Russia is convening a meeting of Finance Ministers immediately prior to the Ufa Summit in Moscow on the 7th of July. Other meetings that have been held in the run up in the last few months have included a meeting of Environment Ministers, of Health Ministers, of National Security Advisors, of Ministers of Culture, the BRICS Civil Society Forum which took place a couple of days ago, and a BRICS Youth Summit which is happening now. That is as far as the programme itself goes.
For us, we regard this as a very important forum for consolidating positions among five significant economies in the world on issues of common interest. The most significant issues in this format are issues of governance as well as of coordination and cooperation on global economic and financial issues.
In our view, some of the most significant achievements that this forum has registered are the New Development Bank. As you perhaps may recall, the first President of the BRICS Development Bank is an Indian, the eminent banker Mr. K.V. Kamath. He will be at the summit. He has already started his activities as the President, and he will be joining the leaders at the summit. Prior to that he will be in a meeting of the BRICS Bank Board of Governors also in Moscow on the 7thof July. In addition, there has been significant interbank cooperation among the Development Banks of the five countries. And other fora for economic interaction have crystallized. I have been speaking about the BRICS Business Council, there is a BRICS Business Forum, and so on.
I think that is as much as I want to say at this point. The rest we look for your questions. Thank you.
Secretary (West) (Shri Navtej Sarna): Thank you Vikas and good afternoon everybody.
The Prime Minister would be going to Ufa for BRICS after visiting two Central Asian countries, and on his way back from Ufa he will be visiting three other Central Asian countries. What I will do is I will just talk about the Central Asian visit, all five countries.
In terms of programme details, the first country he visits on the 7th is Uzbekistan. This will be followed by Kazakhstan, and then he goes to Ufa for the BRICS and the BRICS Outreach. Thereafter, on the way back he will go to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in that order.
In all these countries there are normal programme details. There will be discussions, there will be restricted meetings with the leaders, there will be signing of agreements, there will be all the ceremonies related to these visits in terms of banquets and all that. The details of each programme I do not think I need to get into, but I can touch upon some of the major things.
For instance, in Uzbekistan he will be having an interaction with Indologists and Hindi language students. Tashkent is one of the centres of Indology in the world and which has a very extensive history of indological studies.
In Kazakhstan he would be making his major address at the Nazarbayev University. He would also be inaugurating the India-Kazakhstan Centre for Excellence in ICT where a PARAM supercomputer has been stationed. There will be a business event also in Kazakhstan with leading CEOs from both sides.
In Turkmenistan there will be the inauguration amongst other things - I am just mentioning certain highlights and not the whole programme – of the Centre for Traditional Medicine and Yoga. This is the first such centre that is going to be set up in this entire region with the participation of the Turkmen Government. So, while there may be many private clubs practising Yoga, this would be different, and it is not just yoga it is also traditional medicine.
In Kyrgyzstan he has also got a packed programme in which he would be inaugurating, I am just mentioning one event per visit, the E-Health link. So, a virtual link is being set up with one of the hospitals in Bishkek with hospitals in India. This is a pilot project which will then be hopefully replicated in many other cities.
Similarly in Tajikistan he would be having very detailed discussions with President Rahmon and he would have a number of other engagements. Each of these visits, I want to underline, is an intensely packed, very short visit. The Prime Minister will be barely spending 24 hours at the maximum in any of the countries.
To give you some idea of the region, I am sure you are all familiar with different aspects of it but very broadly speaking to talk about the approach, this is a very important region and it is not very far away from us. Modern politics may come in the way but it is actually an extended neighbourhood of India and there are very old historical, cultural linkages which can be traced back at least 2,500 years.
There is a huge groundswell of goodwill for India and we have been working in these countries since they became independent countries in 1991, in different areas, in health, in capacity building, in entrepreneur development, in training and in several projects.
The countries of this region have several things going for them, particularly they are resource rich countries, there is a potential for great partnership with India which can be very critical for providing us energy security in oil and gas. Just to give you an idea, Turkmenistan has the fourth largest gas reserves in the world. Kazakhstan is one of the major oil producers. Kazakhstan is the largest uranium producer in the world. And the other countries are also rich in several other minerals.
There is a potential for increasing our trade and investment which so far has been hampered by the fact of lack of surface connectivity. So, while we may be very close, it is very difficult to get containers across there. This is something which I will come to and what we are sort of looking for. But there is a potential for increasing trade and investment. So far it is patchy and it is not at the level that we would like it to be.
There is a complementarity in the needs of these countries and what India can provide in many ways whether we are talking of health, we are talking of education, we are talking of training, we are talking of developing hydro projects, we are talking of developing potential for fertilizer production. And there is a complementarity here, there is a matching here at the economic points that our country is and these countries are which needs to be explored. Hence these very short but very critical visits to all these countries. Incidentally this is the first time that we know of in recent years that any leader is doing all five countries in one go.
It is very important to go across and underline serious intent that India has of becoming a partner with these countries and to bring across the potential of modern India, whether we see it in terms of science and technology or capacity building or even space to these countries and to leaders and to build personal relationships with them.
We are also going to address the major problem which is connectivity. There is the North-South Corridor which has been discussed earlier, which has been worked upon for a few years now. This is an opportunity that we will be hoping to push this further so that we can get a wider membership in the North South Corridor. As you know, we have recently made moves in Chabahar and ultimately this is something which is also going to link up. There are other transit agreements there which are in operation in the region which we hope to explore and to see how we can utilize existing arrangements to promote our trade and investment until the point that we can actually have straightforward connectivity.
It is also an area which has seen stability but also seen certain amount of instability and threat from extremist groups and terrorist groups. So, there is a commonality of concern there in terms of building counterterrorism linkages. We have Joint Working Groups with many of these countries. But this visit we hope will provide further impetus to this cooperation at a time when these countries and the entire region in fact is worried about extremist forces.
I am talking about the post 2014 Afghanistan scenario also as at least three of these countries I think border Afghanistan, some of them have extensive borders. Tajikistan has almost 1500 kilometres border with Afghanistan. So, the impact of what happens in Afghanistan concerns this area, concerns India. So, we are looking forward to having extensive discussions on the regional issues, particularly in the context of the SCO which is a regional organization also concerned with issues like terrorism and drug trafficking and so on.
I am just giving you a feel of what is the sort of approach to the visit is and what are the kind of issues that will come up. We will be happy to take further questions and carry on the conversation. Thanks.
Official Spokesperson: Thank you. We will now open the floor for questions. Please note that this briefing is confined to Prime Minister’s visit to Central Asia and to the SCO and the BRICS Summits. So, please confine your questions to that.
Secretary (West): Thanks you so much for reminding me. That is a major project which has potential from our energy security point of view. TAPI will certainly be a point which will be discussed and we will have to explore how we can move this project forward very quickly. It has tremendous potential for helping us get Central Asian gas to India.
Question: My question is regarding the ISIS activities. What will be the major issues for the BRICS because usually when the BRICS takes the issue there is a resolution on this. How do you see the threat if there is any security concern to the BRICS countries?
Secretary (MER): I think the BRICS Declaration, the Declaration that the leaders issue at the end of their discussion, has a section on regional issues. So, it is envisaged that this time too there will be such a declaration and contemporary issues will figure. As this is still under negotiation, I do not want to talk about what specifically is going to be in or what will be the formulations. But contemporary issues do get reflected in the declaration.
Question: Is there any bilateral meeting scheduled with the Pakistani Prime Minister and the Chinese President?
Official Spokesperson: The schedule of bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the SCO and the BRICS have yet to be finalised. So, I do not have anything to give you at the moment.
Question: This is regarding BRICS and SCO. Is India going to get full membership of SCO this time? What is the major outcome of BRICS and SCO meetings?
Joint Secretary (ERS) (Shri Shambhu S Kumaran): I would just like to say that Prime Minister will be attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit which is being held in Ufa as was mentioned on the 10th of July. As you are aware, India had formally applied for membership of the SCO prior to the summit in Dushanbe in September 2014. The only update to offer since then is that the SCO Foreign Ministers met in June in Moscow and they have made a positive recommendation regarding India’s membership to the summit, and we await further developments. Prime Minister had received an invitation from President Putin to attend the summit.
Joint Secretary (ERS): I did mention that the only developmental report on our membership application is that the SCO Foreign Ministers met and they have made a recommendation that India’s membership be considered. And it is for the summit now to take a view on this and we await further developments on that at the summit.
Question: Because there are two Secretaries, which is rather rare in briefings, could one ask one question each?
Official Spokesperson: Okay, special dispensation for today.
Question: Thank you very much. I want to ask about the possibility of the BRICS countries conducting trade in their respective currencies, and also the formation of the Parliamentary Forum of all the BRICS nations. Can you kindly expand on that?
Navtej, could you tell us something about Chabahar? How long will it take for the whole thing to be ready so that the trade between Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and Kandla can happen?
Secretary (MER): Actually the possibility of intra-BRICS trade occurring in the currencies of the BRICS member countries is something that is envisaged. The Exim Bank represents India in that forum. The Development Banks have actually been preparing and signing in that order documents on this topic. They are looking at extending letters of credit in local currencies, they are looking at developing other arrangements which would facilitate this. The process is yet to be established or to be utilised, but the preparatory work is actually happening.
As regards Parliamentary Forum the thing is that it is pretty much up to each BRICS Chair to determine in a sense what sorts of activities they want to pursue during their year. BRICS is basically an intergovernmental grouping. The Russian Presidency had arranged a meeting of parliamentarians. I would not call it a BRICS Parliamentary Forum in an established formal sense, but they had arranged a meeting of parliamentarians. There is not a BRICS Parliamentary Forum so to speak. So, that is where we are.
Secretary (West): Thank you, Venkat, such a refreshing thing not hearing you ask about the Security Council.
Let me just say that Chabahar is one of the options that is being worked out, and useful discussions have taken place as you know recently. This is something on which we hope there will be quick resolution and we will able to get that up and going. But, when we are talking of these connectivity issues and you are talking of going from Mumbai to St. Petersburg and onwards, these are complicated spaces. So, this is just not one Chabahar, you have to see the rail connections after that, the road connectivity after that, the membership of the entire region has to be brought on board.
For instance in the INSTC it is targeting Bandar Abbas, from Bandar Abbas up to the Caspian, and through the Caspian to Russia. So, that combines rail, road, lake. So, there are various things happening. Somewhere you are missing a rail link, somewhere you are missing a road link, somewhere you are getting a positive development. Recently the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran rail link was inaugurated. That is a positive development. I cannot fix a time on these things, but I think it is in the mutual interest of all the countries involved to establish these connectivity routes. I do not know if that is much help but that is the kind of things we are working with.
Question: Madam, I would like you to comment on the Indian expectation of the positive result of the summit. What will be a positive as per India? And Mr. Secretary, could you please clearly mention the days of each and every Republic of Central Asia?
Secretary (MER): The last BRICS summit in Fortaleza had mandated the officials who deal with BRICS to come together and create an economic cooperation strategy document. As it happens, the Trade Ministries of all five countries have been actively engaged in this exercise; the experts have been working on this; and I think we are close to agreement on an economic cooperation strategy. So, I think this is going to be a very major step forward.
I think the fact that we are now just a day ahead of the summit holding the first meeting of the Board of Governors of the New Development Bank which Russia as the first Chair of the Board of Governors is going to be leading, I think that is another very positive outcome. All five countries have now ratified the Contingent Reserve Arrangement which was set at Fortaleza. So, I think this is going to be concretised at the Ufa summit. So, I think this is going to be a substantial step forward in cooperation within BRICS.
Secretary (West): As far as the dates are concerned, 6-7 is Uzbekistan, 7-8 is Kazakhstan, 10-11 is Turkmenistan, 11-12 is Kyrgyzstan, 12-13 is Tajikistan. So, it is half days on both sides, sometimes arrival at night and departure the next night. This is the way it is.
Question: Could you please say something about the agreements India might have with the Central Asian nations in the area of capacity building in defence?
Secretary (West): I think there are agreements in each of these countries of a different nature where they would be covering defence in some countries, training, capacity building, culture, tourism. These are the areas. But at this stage I cannot delineate for you what agreements in each country because both countries are following their internal processes still until we finally get the approved agreements. So, you will just have to be a little patient.
Question: Madam, will Make in India and Yoga be included in the discussion in BRICS summit?
Secretary (MER): As I said, the BRICS Declaration is still being negotiated and this is really something that represents essentially the economic cooperation possibilities. To the extent the strengthening the cooperation in the manufacturing sector as part of the economic strategy document, it is implicitly there. But we do not actually normally in the BRICS document seek endorsement of national policies. Because this is a multilateral document, so we are not seeking endorsement of specific national policies.
Question: According to some reports in Indian media Mr. Yang Jiechi and Mr. Ajit Doval are going to have a sideline meeting in the BRICS summit. As you mentioned, sideline meetings are not yet finalised. But can you tell us if India and China are preparing for such a meeting to happen?
Official Spokesperson: You have already said that they have not been finalised. So, can I confirm anything?
Question: Sujata Madam, JS ne bhi bataya ki workout ki ja rahi hain, details divulge nahin kar sakte unless it is worked out. But kya kam se kam aap yeh confirm kar sakti hain ki India ya Pakistan ke taraf se formal request bilateral meeting ki hai ya nahin?
Secretary (MER): Sahab, yeh Vikas aapko batayenge kyonki main BRICS ke baare mein kehne ke liye aayi hun.
Official Spokesperson: Aur main aapko kuchh nahin bata sakta hun.
Question: Vikas, some of the Russian Administration recently banned Hath Yoga in Russia. Is there any plan to take up this issue and dispel the myth that it is a religious cult?
Official Spokesperson: We are not talking about Prime Minister’s bilateral visit to Russia. We are talking about Prime Minister’s visit to Russia for two specific multilateral engagements. So, I do not think this is a right forum for us to raise such issues.
Joint Secretary (ERS) (Shri Shambhu S. Kumaran): What we have seen from Russian media reports is that apparently the city administration has withdrawn that circular. We will update you if there is any further development.
Question: Is any business delegation also going along with Prime Minister or any other Minister also?
Secretary (West): A business delegation is being mounted by FICCI and CII for Kazakhstan. And I presume there is another delegation I think going for BRICS. But there is no Minister going on the Central Asia tour.
Secretary (MER): As I said during my initial remarks, there is a BRICS Business Council meeting going to happen on the margins of the summit, immediately prior to the summit, and the members of the Indian Chapter of the BRICS Business Council will be there. FICCI is the coordinating agency for India for business interaction. So, they are taking their own delegation.
Question: I know this is a speculative question but are you preparing to have a discussion about a nuclear deal with Iran that will have been concluded, or are you expecting this summit to take place against the backdrop of continuing discussion bearing in mind that obviously you have got two members of the Security Council taking part in these talks at this summit?
Secretary (MER): Let me put it like this that I do not think the Declaration of the summit which is still being negotiated is going to anticipate what may or may not happen. In the event there is an agreement, I would assume it would find reflection. But in the event that agreement does not come into existence as on the 9th, then I guess we will wait.
Question: Is there any military or strategic dimension to the Prime Minister’s visit to Tajikistan? We have had a military hospital there in the past. There has been talk in the past of us having some involvement in the Ayni air base? Is this a military/strategic aspect of this visit?
Secretary (West): Maybe I will remove the slash and half of your phrase from there. Prime Minister does not go on military visits. But strategic, I would not only keep it to Tajikistan. I think it is a strategic visit, strategic and political and economic terms. If you see the location of the five countries, and I hesitate to put all five countries in one homogenous sort of basket, they are all separate countries and they all have their separate advantages for us and separate angles of relationship. But if you see the set of countries, their very location is strategic. As I said, sitting on Afghanistan they have long borders with other important countries in the region, there is a potential of critical resources including oil, gas and other minerals, there is a potential of cooperation in counterterrorism, there is a potential of defence cooperation in terms of training and exercises. All this is strategic. So, I can only agree with you that yes it is a strategic visit.
Question: Can you please specify what India’s interests are in SCO, how does SCO suit India’s interests?
Joint Secretary (ERS): We are looking at all items on the SCO agenda. As you know, SCO is a functioning, regional organisation. It has been in place for several years, more than a decade. India has been an Observer since 2005. We have been actively participating in various mechanisms. If you wish me to pick out a few items, obviously as was mentioned we would be looking at the elements related cooperation in energy, counterterrorism, security related cooperation, anti-narcotics, we would also be interested in economic aspects of relations because the SCO is currently negotiating Development Strategy 2025. So, we would like to engage strongly on the developmental aspect of the SCO agenda. That will be a priority for us.
I think lastly of course these are countries with which we already have extensive bilateral relations and we find this to be another opportunity for us to have regular interactions at the leadership level. That is the general approach.
Question: This is a follow-up to Vishnu Shome’s question. Would the Prime Minister be paying a short visit to Ayni airbase? There was a proposal to station some Su-30s there. Is there any progress on that front?
Secretary (West): The second part I did not understand what you mentioned. But the finer details of that day’s programme being the last leg of the visit are still being worked out.
Question: Madam Secretary, what is the relative relevance of the BRICS Bank now with the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Bank with more than 50 countries backing it? Has there been any diminished relevance/utility to the BRICS Bank with the launch of AIIB?
Secretary (MER): Thank you for asking that. I would argue not actually, in a sense the two are not competitor banks. The AIIB by its very name is going to be focused on infrastructure in Asia. The New Development Bank has a much broader ambit. It is intended to be a global bank. The AIIB, yes it has come into being, the process has been faster, but to my mind I think the BRICS New Development Bank actually represents an alternative form of global economic governance because here we are starting with five countries that are going to be the original shareholders which are actually going to be at par. So, in a sense it is a direct I would not say counter but it is an alternative model to what the Bretton Woods institutions do.
So, given the fact that it has a global character, it will draw into its membership eventually any member of the United Nations. Everyone is eligible to join if they should wish to and the fact that it is an alternative model, I think that gives it a relevance and a salience which does not actually suggest that there is a competition between the two.
Question: Madam, …(Inaudible)…
Secretary (MER): I did mention during my introductory comments that the National Security Advisors of the BRICS countries do meet and they do discuss issues which are pertinent to their responsibilities. The Declaration that the leaders adopt reflects some of their thinking on contemporary issues. But at the essence of BRICS is the fact that these are significant economies, these are major economies and what binds this group together is the prospect, the potential, the reality of economic cooperation. So, that is what I would say in response to your question.
Secretary (West): Since you have asked me, I have consulted our SCO expert. He tells me that to get into details of the possible agenda for a summit when we are still technically speaking Observers would not be good.
Question: Madam Secretary, do you think that the crises in Greece and Europe would also be on the agenda? Also could you give me some comments from your side on this crisis?
Secretary (MER): I would put it in slightly different terms. I think the hope and the assumption of the BRICS members is that the rather fragile balance of the global economy will not be disrupted in any way. So, it is our hope that whatever the economic situation within Europe, within the Euro zone in particular, will not have ramifications beyond Europe. Whether the BRICS leaders will pronounce themselves on the Euro zone issue, I do not expect that. Let us see.
Question: What would be major issues that would be discussed in the BRICS Business Council? Is there any plan or will it be discussed when the business will start?
Secretary (MER): The BRICS Business Council leaders have actually been talking to each other. They are going to be meeting on the 7-8, and they then actually offer an annual report to the leaders. So, we are waiting for that.
Question: Mr. Secretary, Sir, what is the total trade with all the Central Asian countries? Are we having an upper hand?
Secretary (West): As I told you, it is not a very impressive figure at the moment. We have a total trade of USD 1.6 billion which is more or less balanced. But I think clearly the potential from both sides to increase this is huge and it needs to be worked on. And as I said, despite best efforts I think the major challenge in the trade has been the connectivity angle.
Official Spokesperson: This concludes the press briefing. Thank you all for coming.