Negotiations with China are ongoing, says External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, and hints that they could even take years, in an exclusive interview to Suhasini Haidar. Speaking about his book The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World (reviewed here), where he lays out a treatise for Indian foreign policy, Dr. Jaishankar also defended the government’s moves on Article 370, Citizenship Amendment Act and trade protection.
In your book, India Way, you have devoted a chapter to ‘Managing China’s rise’. You open with the story of Shatranj ke Khiladi, where the Nawab of Awadh is playing a game while the kingdom is lost. Later, when you speak about the Mahabharata, you say you cannot have fatalism disguised as deliberation. Yet, nearly eight months after we have seen China amass troops at the Line of Actual Control, and then the Galwan incident where for the first time in so many decades, Indian soldiers were killed, the sense is that the government’s reaction has been more diplomatic, rather than trying to push back against China at the LAC. Is this not a ‘sense of fatalism disguised as deliberation’?
No, no, not at all. Not at all. I would say, I don’t think it is factually true to suggest that there has not been a military response. I think there’s been an enormous military response. If you look at the troops we have deployed there, it is pretty much unprecedented. Of course, it’s because their deployment is also unprecedented. The boundary question is a complicated one, and, you know, it’s been under negotiations now for many years. Now, I would urge you to look at the trend line. Not necessarily at an incident, however important an incident may be, because it is a trend line that gives you the real picture.
The bottom line right now is that we have bilateral agreements that commit both countries not to amassing a large number of forces along the LAC. Without credibly explaining why, the Chinese have chosen to violate that compact. The second aspect of it is that the progress in our bilateral ties have been very much predicated on peace and tranquillity along the LAC. If that is disturbed, as has been the case this year, then obviously, the rest of the relationship cannot be unaffected.
Also read: Indian Army says 20 soldiers killed in clash with Chinese troops in the Galwan area
We are not saying that progress in ties depends on solving the boundary question, but it clearly does on maintaining peace and tranquillity, while seeking a solution. And that has been the approach over three decades, and we have been consistent. The challenge today is whether we have the wisdom to be guided by the big picture. I used that term, I think in my book, whether we can take a long view of the relationship.
Also read: Realism should shape India’s China policy: Jaishankar
Now, from the Indian perspective, I believe that we are very grounded in realism. We have never shied away from acknowledging that there are differences. But the challenge is, when you have differences you work on those differences and narrow them, not worsen them and make them into disputes. Which is why we have regular engagement, very intensive engagement, including at the highest level. And I believe, as someone in diplomacy, that this is something which is necessary for two co-rising powers because they are both rising. My sense is that India approaches China more bilaterally, but with the challenge of global rebalancing. In contrast, I think China seems more affected by third parties, whether in our own region, or whether, you know, in their global calculations. So, for our own long-term future, it is important that we take a bilateral path that is mutually respectful and mutual sensitive. And because that is really is what you expect of self-confident polities to do otherwise.
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You said peace and tranquility is necessary. Right now, we have had eight rounds of military talks, you met with the Chinese Foreign Minister, and there has not been any incident in the last few months. But the troops remain amassed. There are reports in Depsang and along Pangong Tso North, that Chinese troops have taken over territory, or have made it impossible for India to patrol territories it used to. The question is, if there is no other incident, is the status quo today acceptable to you?
I don’t believe your question sets out fairly the totality of the ground picture. I think they have made their moves, and we have responded. I think the situation on the ground is far more complicated than what you are suggesting. I don’t want to talk about it because it is ongoing and negotiating with them, or not negotiating through you. I don’t think that would be helpful. We are very, very clear that both parties have formally taken on responsibilities to observe and respect the LAC. That to my mind is the bottom line. Beyond that, on the question of what is happening today with China and Ladakh, I will be very honest with you, I won’t be answering any of it because, as I said, I am in the middle of an ongoing negotiation.
It has been ongoing for some time, which is why the questions keep coming…
Well, I don’t know if you remember Sumdorong Chu [India-China standoff in 1986 that ended only nine years later]. I mean, I know in this day and age, there’s a lot of media pressure on you and on me. But you know, there are complicated issues [that] will take time and I will go for what is my interest and my bottom line. I mean, I will not be stampeded into accepting something which is less.
In your book, you referred to the Wuhan summit and Mamallapuram summit, as “pure realism”. Prime Minister Modi actually met President Xi Jinping 18 times in these six years. Did India fail to read China’s designs?
I don’t think that’s the right way to take it. If India counts for more, and is more active, obviously, we will meet more. I’m sure if you do the bean counting for Japan or Europe or, you know, Angela Merkel or the President of the United States, you will similarly come up with higher numbers than before.
Also read: India and China going through unprecedented situation, says Jaishankar
Now, if I meet somebody, it doesn’t automatically solve the problem. And just because I meet somebody, and then there is an issue like we have today [LAC in Ladakh], it doesn’t mean necessarily that I misread the fact that there were differences. Having said that, obviously, we expect the Chinese to abide by their commitments.
In the last decade, particularly in the last six or seven years, if you look at the figures of trade, investment, infrastructure, the number of students going from South Asian countries to China and the number of tourists being exchanged between the countries, India’s primacy has not only been challenged, it has been overrun by China on each of these parameters. How do you hope to counter this?
China today is, you know, in nominal terms, the second largest economy in the world. It is impacting every region of the world in trade in connectivity and so, the South Asian region cannot be impervious, cannot be insulated from the rest of the world. When I see global changes, I can’t say, you know, I don’t like these global changes. I must gear up and be competitive myself. I should obviously improve my connectivity, my trade, my education, my medical travel, my institutional linkages. And that is precisely what I am doing. Look at our LOCs (Lines of Credit), our grants, our connectivity projects, the travel to India. So pretty much use any parameter, and you will see India-South Asia also going up. An entitlement-driven approach to world politics is not a smart approach. You have to compete.
At the same time, India is being more accommodating of other powers in the region, when the US, for example, ties up or has a military dialogue with the Maldives; India no longer objects when the U.S. plans more in terms of its millennium challenges programme in Nepal or Sri Lanka, or Japan does. India is not just accommodative, India actually sees it as complimentary. Do you think that’s a reaction to the fact that China has been such a big player now in the region?
No, it is a reflection of where we are with the United States. I have said in the book that the United States was a very hostile power for India in the past. The biggest sort of challenge we had strategically was when the United States, China and Pakistan came together. So, you know, if the U.S. is strategically negative, I will have a certain reaction. But if the U.S. is no longer strategically negative, I have a different assessment.
In your book, you say “generosity and firmness” must go hand in hand in the neighbourhood. With Nepal, India has had a fractious relationship over its Constitution. This year, Nepal brought out a map showing Indian territories, to which India objected, but now we see Indian officials travelling to Kathmandu, while Nepal hasn’t budged. How would you judge the success of firmness?
As I said, don’t take an incident as the ultimate yardstick of judgment. Problems will happen. I mean, show me any two neighbours between whom there are no problems. Most of our neighbours today are democracies. The point is, they have their politics, we have our politics, there will be issues. The question is, how do you manage it? How do you find the common points, mitigate the issues of friction? At the end of the day, for when the smoke clears after a year, two years, three years, you say, have I moved forward? And I would suggest, looking at the neighbourhood, there is an enormous change. Since your questions focused on Nepal, I would say, yes, there was a period where we had issues, but I think we can clearly see in the last few weeks India and Nepal have decided [to move ahead] and it’s something mutual.
Everything you say about Nepal, and how India has dealt with it, comes in contrast to the way the Modi government in particular has dealt with Pakistan, where we literally are not talking at any level. In your book, you use the parallel of the Mahabharata where the Kauravas are offered several chances to avoid conflict. Are you saying that a conflict with Pakistan is now inevitable?
No. The parables and parallels I used in the book were not specific references. Look, our challenge with Pakistan is this desire for better ties was evident from day one. I mean, from the fact that, you know, the Pakistani Prime Minister was invited to be swearing in 2014. We tried very hard to make it work, including [in] that the Prime Minister actually visited Pakistan. But the fact was that what we saw from the other end, where, you know, [there were] egregious acts of cross border terrorism. Now, the fundamental issue to my mind is, you know, the question with Pakistan is not, you know, will it be this format of talks with that agenda? I think there is a basic underlying issue — are you as India willing to accept the reason as something normal? Is it a legitimate diplomatic instrument? I think it’s not. So, don’t make me out as the unreasonable party that are not talking, when they are the guys who are unrelentingly practising terrorism.
But you have dealt with Pakistan, despite terrorism after the Pathankot attack, for example, India actually invited a Pakistani team to come and visit and to start an investigation…..
That was because the Pakistani government also took a certain position on Pathankot, which was to distance itself from [the attack]. But post-Uri, we haven’t seen that.
Would you say, in that sense, diplomacy is not being contemplated now?
No. I think the ball is very much in Pakistan’s court because they have to make up their mind on what they are going to do on the issue of cross border terrorism.
At present, they’re accusing India of it….
That’s just a bad fiction.
In the South Asian context, though, hasn’t India given Pakistan a veto over the SAARC process….as India will not visit Pakistan to attend the summit, whose turn it is to host it?
The way you put it clouds the issue by really making their actions seem on par with us and I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. Look at SAARC. If SAARC is a serious regionalism initiative, and [Pakistan] blocks trade and connectivity and people-to-people ties….what regionalism are we speaking of?
Turning to the U.S., will India need to build a new engagement with the Biden administration, or will there be a seamless transition from the Trump administration?
Whether it is President Trump or President Biden, I don’t think it is a sharp binary option. I think there will be certain policies, which are American policies, because again, bear in mind is not just a President, there’s also Congress, and sometimes administrations carry on with the policies of those before. When it comes to the United States, there will be strong elements of continuity. Obviously, there will be elements of change because at the very least, the storyline, the method, you know, the modality of dealing with others, would be different. But none of this should really worry us. Because when I look at the potential administration, I mean, I see familiar figures with whom we have worked for many, many years, including the period when I was Ambassador, and then Foreign Secretary. Secondly, if you look at the debates in America, you know, serious policy debates, a lot of it is actually centred around other geographies: China, Russia and the Middle East. I think there is a general consensus on India. There are no very sharply different policy views. So, I am reasonably confident that we will pick up and carry on.
Do you expect the same kind of commitment from the U.S. on the Indo-Pacific policy, given that Mr. Biden is making America’s traditional alliances his priority?
I cannot judge my relationship with the United States in comparison to what the U.S. has with an ally because I am not an ally. My sense is that when it comes to the Indo Pacific, there is the recognition today that you cannot deal with the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as separate watertight theatres.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Tokyo that he would like the Quad to collaborate against China. Will Mr. Biden do the same?
I think different people say different things. I am responsible for what I say. And I listen to what others say, out there. And, you know, the Quad also has Japan and Australia as members. I think we look at it as a positive agenda, a diplomatic mechanism, as a diplomatic platform, if you will, with a certain agreed agenda, which is, you know, issues like maritime security, connectivity, counter-terrorism, whatever we have agreed on, those are what we discuss and exchange notes on.
On concerns that the Biden administration will be more intrusive on India’s domestic issues, are you worried?
I have worked with all of them before. We know them, and more importantly, they know us.
As a diplomat, perhaps you would never have thought of boycotting the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting (December 2019) because of the presence of an individual (Democratic U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal). Do you think you have changed because you have become a politician?
A politician by definition is different from a diplomat. Obviously, when others do diplomacy, when it’s a diplomatic situation, you deal with it through diplomacy, when others do politics, you deal with it politically. Of course, I am a politician. You can’t expect me as EAM (External Affairs Minister) to behave as me as Foreign Secretary.
As External Affairs Minister, you have had to defend India, internationally, on a number of domestic decisions — Article 370 and the strictures in Jammu & Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the exit from RCEP. In your book, you say that the “mandarins must listen to the masses” and that the “Indian street knows more than Lutyens Delhi” does. How challenging has this been?
No, I don’t think it’s been challenging at all. I think the issue is India is changing. I don’t think anybody can deny that. It’s important to communicate those changes abroad, to tell people, look, you know this, today, we will look at this India, it is proof of a successful democratic experience. It’s a much more grounded India, a much less elitist India and that we these are the changes which we have undertaken to strengthen our nationhood or secure our economic interests. One important part of diplomacy and international relations, is to make other people understand what you do. So, to me, it’s a very, very natural part of what a Foreign Minister and Indian diplomacy does. And, you know, each of these decisions make perfect sense.
On the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), actually, it was Bangladesh and Afghanistan that seem to have been hurt the most, because it’s premised on the idea that India has concerns about the domestic issues of other countries. How do you reconcile the idea that India is sensitive about anyone else speaking about its domestic issues, but it even passes laws that do that for other countries?
(Laughs) I would very much differ with the way you put it, I think, in a sense, these are legacy issues. I don’t think it’s an issue of, you know, our passing judgment on them. Now, I mean, we have a reality here, we have a large number of stateless people, you know, that. So, the CAA reduces the amount of statelessness in it, and that’s a good thing. It’s not a blame game between us and them. And so, again, say, part of our job is you should put it into people with a certain amount of directness and candour, I think people often get it. We will have heated debates as part of a democracy. But if their views are shaped or misled by one part of the debate, then it’s also my obligation to do something.
But are those concerns really being quelled? Many of the Biden appointees have said they are concerned about the treatment of minorities in India, as have Bangladeshi leaders as well…
I think if you look at the mainstream policy world, which I deal with, I do not share the concern that you have raised.
Just yesterday, we heard from the Canadian Prime Minister, concerned about the treatment of farmers in India….
Well, a number of Canadians spoke up, not just the Prime Minister. But you saw what the social media had to say on the subject. We made a statement, which lays out our position very clearly.
In your book, you describe the three burdens of India’s foreign policy as Partition, delayed nuclearisation, and delayed liberalisation, yet in a speech you gave recently, you actually criticised Free Trade Agreements, you criticised the impact of globalisation. You said free trade agreements had forced India to de-industrialise, and in the name of openness, we have allowed subsidised products and unfair production advantages from abroad to prevail, which has been justified by the mantra of an open and globalised economy. Is this not taking India back, in a sense, to pre liberalisation times?
No. I think that would be erroneous reading both of my speech and of the global situation and our policy. I don’t think anybody is in denial of globalisation. The real issue for any country, especially ours, is what are the terms with which you enter the globalisation process and engage? I was talking with specific reference to specific agreements we had to sign. I said don’t get into a false choice on globalisation: are you in or are you out? That’s a false choice. The question is, what are the optimal terms? My urging is, negotiate better, get better terms, what works for us. Don’t enter a process because somebody tells you that’s the politically correct thing to do.
What you say about free trade agreements has been contested. For example, I will quote from one study, which says trade deficits with India’s bilateral partners accounted for 12.6% of the overall trade deficit in 2007. But in 2017, a considerably smaller part of India’s trade deficit — 7.5% — came from these free trade agreements. Others have said that it is the downturn in the GDP growth since 2016 that is responsible. Manufacturing exports actually grew on an average by 12%. And there is this government’s insistence on a strong rupee — these are all some of the reasons why there is a deficit. So, are you making free trade agreements, and in particular the ones that were signed in the last decade, a straw man of sorts?
Number one, just look at your grade figures with RCEP countries and draw your own conclusions. Secondly, this is the Lutyens debate which I mention. Go out there, go and visit an industrial district and see what the last 15 years has done, the kind of problems our MSMEs face. See how they feel competition, fair or unfair, is affecting their business.
So, would you say, competition, free trade agreements, liberalisation is something India still has to put off for several years?
No, I would say negotiate optimal terms. You are again, making it binary, black and white.
Well, the government did negotiate RCEP for six years…
And at the end of it all, we reached a point where we looked at the terms on offer, you know, which are sort of the final offer and we said it doesn’t meet our concerns. So, I think we need to have the confidence today to negotiate, to get optimal terms. And if you don’t get optimal terms, you should have the courage to do what is in your interests.
We are in a situation today where India has walked out of the RCEP, is reviewing all existing free trade agreements, and there isn’t much movement on new FTAs. The bilateral investment treaty that held together a lot of the trade with Europe has been cancelled. Is India turning protectionist?
No. This is about standing up for Indian producers, it is about standing up for Indian employment, it is about not allowing your economy to be flooded by people using unfair advantages, it is about getting fair market access abroad, it is a clear message to the world that I will strive for optimal results.
Given that the government is clearly not going to rethink joining RCEP, will India consider the request from RCEP countries to join as an observer?
I think, at the moment, what I have said should give you a fairly clear picture of our thinking.