Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei): Observing that India’s “Look East” policy has been consciously developed over time, Vice-President Hamid Ansari hoped that his visit to Brunei and Thailand would help forge stronger ties with these two nations and improve the country’s standing in the region.
During his five day visit, which began on Monday evening, agreements on defence cooperation, health and education will be signed. Discussions will be held on cooperation in civil aviation, space, trade and investment besides hydrocarbons, and information and communication. India will also be looking to improve its energy security by tying up with oil and gas rich Brunei for setting up a fertiliser plant on its shores, the way it had done with Oman earlier.
Ansari, is accompanied by his wife Salma Ansari, Minister of State for Home Haribhai Chowdhry and MPs Rajiv Shukla, Anu Aga, Bhupendra Yadav and Prem Das Rai arrived on Bandar Seri Begawan on Monday. He later met members of the Brunei-India Friendship Association. His main official assignments begin Tuesday when he would be received by Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah and Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah.
In an interaction with the media aboard his special aircraft, Ansari told the media that Brunei Darussalam may be a small place, just about the size of Sikkim, but it is an “old friendship”. They are “bhale log” (nice people), he quipped, observing that while the Sultan of Brunei has made three bilateral visits to India, from the Indian side there had been no bilateral visit of a dignitary yet. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had visited the country for the ASEAN-India Summit and the 8th East Asia Summit in 2013, those were for multilateral events.
Oil and natural gas
Pointing out that Brunei was rich in oil and natural gas, Ansari said India has been buying about $1 billion worth of fuel from it. He acknowledged that while the prospects of improving trade were limited as Brunei consumed little but there were other possibilities. “Brunei has already tied up with other nations like Japan and South Korea for sale of its natural gas. So we are proposing using its gas locally by setting up a fertiliser plant here.”
According to the Ministry of External Affairs, India also believes that there is still an enormous potential for collaboration in the upstream and the downstream hydrocarbons sector, and the imports of $ 935 million from Brunei, can be pushed up.
India also views Brunei as a strong political ally since it had served as India’s country coordinator at ASEAN for two years. Brunei has also been supportive of India’s stand on Jammu and Kashmir and extended its support for India’s candidature for permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council.
As for his visit to Thailand, which begins on February 3, Dr. Ansari said it is a “much closer neighbour” and important ASEAN member. He said the substantive relations in the field of defence cooperation, active cooperation in checking terrorism and bilateral trade – which is to the tune of $9 billlion – would be further strengthened. Though Thailand is now under military rule, following the coup of 2014, India is keen on ensuring that the investment flow continues. “We are more interested in its investment for the “Make in India” initiative, which is a work in progress.”
With a million Indian tourists visiting Thailand every year and nearly 100,000 tourists from Thailand visiting India, there is belief that these numbers could be improved.
On the issue of the rise of Islamic State in South East Asia, Dr. Ansari said as far as the ideology of trying to achieve some objectives using terror goes – as was seen in Indonesia recently – the countries are dealing with it the way they should. Thailand has extradited some very well known and important terrorists in the recent past, over the past year. India is also working with it on issues like money laundering, counterfeit currency and smuggling of drugs.
Asked to comment on his call for arming the Rajya Sabha Chairman with more powers, Ansari said he was on the trip in the capacity of Vice-President and not the Chair. But he then added that while the parliamentary democracy presupposes discussion, debate and dialogue as means of reaching a resolution, that process has got disrupted from time to time. “The question is not of arming the Chair with police powers. It is of developing an attitude in which all sections of the House discuss, debate and decide, rather than otherwise.” On whether that would be possible in the current political climate, Dr. Ansari quipped, “I am not an astrologer”.