|Union minister for external affairs S Jaishankar.|
Covid-19 has affected foreign affairs and the world order much like it has everything else — external affairs minister S Jaishankar spoke about this, and other pressing issues in an interview with Shishir Gupta and R Sukumar on his forthcoming book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World.
That comes against the backdrop of an ongoing border stand-off between India and China, and continuing reluctance by Pakistan to act against the perpetrators of terror. Edited excerpts:
Let us start with China. Where does the situation stand now in the context of the transgressions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in East Ladakh?
We are engaging China through diplomatic and military channels. There are essentially two elements in our approach. One is starting 1993 and then every few years, we have had a series of agreements (with China). Their import is that both sides will keep minimum force on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). But that is not the case now.
We have very large number of Chinese forces and frankly, we are at a loss to know why. There are also certain norms of behaviour that were prescribed. Clearly, if we want peace and tranquillity on the border, we need to adhere to those agreements. Second, I accept there are some differences in perceptions in the LAC.
But there is again a clear understanding that neither side will attempt to unilaterally change the status quo. It was because of these agreements and the adherence to them that the bilateral relationship moved forward in other, different spheres, including the economic one.
And this must continue if the relationship has to grow. But there will naturally be issues if the peace and tranquillity is put under stress.
China says that India needs to see the big picture. Who isn’t seeing it right, India or China?
(Laughs) The answer I can give. Just read my book. I wrote it over a two-year period before the present set of incidents happened. It is this very issue that I have tried to address in the book. What is the big picture in the world?
How have the Chinese risen and how do they see the world? How has India risen and where do we stand? (How the) repositioning of the United States has consequences for the entire world, including India and China.
No question, the rise of China is the most remarkable event of our times. It is transformational. In more or less the same time frame but perhaps not to the same degree, India has also risen.
The rest of the world recognises the rise of India and also gives it weightage. Just as China is entitled to its ambitions and aspirations, so is India.
So how do we find an equilibrium? We are both billion-plus (population) civilisational states who once had an important place in the world. Today again, on the ascendance. So how do we accommodate each other? That willingness to accommodate is at the heart of the relationship. And it is not going to be easy as we have a complicated history.
One can understand historical baggage with India, but China has also had issues with the US and ASEAN over the South China Sea and Taiwan; with Japan over Senkaku Islands; with Australia, etc. And that too at a time when the world is facing the coronavirus pandemic. Why open so many fronts?
I have joined many dots in my book to present the rise of a potential global power and that too at India’s doorstep. This rise will be reflected in various ways, whether you like it or not. But we need to wake up to the implications of the rise of that potential global power. We need to fashion our path and look at our strategy, keeping that in mind.
The world order post 1945 is coming to a state where it cannot be repaired by patchwork. We are clearly at a point where there are fundamental changes. The last time a global power rose was in the middle of the World War — the Soviet Union — but it was masked by the conflict. This time, it is not only (about) the rise of a potential global power, but repositioning of another global power, which was fulcrum of the world order. And the two are linked.
You have to look at the effectiveness of the US and its alliances. We have grown up to a concept of united and cohesive West. But today, there are legitimate questions on that. An example is Iran, where the US and Europe are not on the same page.
What you have now is a repositioning or retrenching of the US, rise of China, a changing Europe and a more vigorous Russia. In all this, you also have middle powers like Japan, Australia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Indonesia trying to look for a bigger role.
In this changing world, the concepts and doctrines of the past, which were relevant at some point, may not be so relevant any more. It is a multipolar world, with much of the G-20 being non-Western countries.
Contrast this over the last 70 years with G-7, which was completely a Western group. There has been economic, political and military rebalancing and I have also made a case for a cultural rebalancing in my book.
There are now more players, less or weaker rules, and fewer areas of agreements. It is going to be a very much tougher world.
Is that not a recipe for chaos?
It could appear to be disorder. But then disorder is order waiting to happen. Just think back over the last 40 years. In 2020, we have coronavirus; a decade before, the global financial crisis; one before, we had 9/11; and then before the Soviet Union broke up. If four such big changes happened, how can we assume that the world is still the same?
How has the pandemic impacted foreign relations in general?
I believe major shifts will come in the aftermath of the coronavirus. Countries were already behaving more nationalistically (before it) — be it in Brexit, American nationalism under President Trump, the China Dream under Xi Jinping. But all nationalisms are not the same and in this, Indian nationalism is very unique. As opposed to some societies who have turned insular, in India, be it young or old, there is a greater interest in and willingness to do more with the world. In the past five years, India has stepped out to contribute — after the Nepal earthquake; Yemen civil war; we sent relief material to Beirut after the explosion; gave medical supplies to 150 countries in the world to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In this country, we feel that doing good for the world is part of what the rise of India is all about. In the post-corona world, we should promote Indian technology and talent, looking at a global workplace.
The US presidential elections are round the corner. Is Donald Trump better for India or Joe Biden?
If you look at the last four American presidents, two Republicans and two Democrats — each very different from the other. Yet, each raised the level of relationship with India further. Each President has developed on the legacy of the previous one when it comes to India.
And if you follow the debates in the US now, you will find many differences between the competing candidates, but India is a common point. There are many other policies in which the candidates criticise each other. But that is not happening when it comes to India. I actually believe that India has bipartisan, or in a sense non-partisan, support in American politics.
Our footprint is very wide and so is our acceptability. Different sets of politicians who disagree on many things agree on India. And I think that is a very good place to be.
Pakistan has already rejected the NIA charge sheet in Pulwana attack, where both the country and the perpetrator from that country has been named. This has happened before in Pathankot attack and in 26/11. With Pakistan living in absolute denial over in-house terrorism targeting India, is there any way forward in this relationship?
Many countries have disputes with their neighbours and it is not that unusual. But can you show me where in the world you have a neighbour who openly practises cross-border terrorism? And not just today, but for some years now and does not even bother to hide it?
A neighbour who will not do normal trade with you even though you are offering a most favoured nation status. Who will not do normal people-to-people contact. And who will not allow connectivity at a time when the world is becoming more connected.
If the fundamentals of international relations are not working with one particular neighbour, the question that I ask myself is should you or should you not be calling that out.
To me, the issue is not under what mechanism or instrument should the engagement take place. That is what has preoccupied political and media debates in our country. My point is that the very basis of international relations between neighbours need to be addressed.
This is a very, very unique situation. There is no country that uses cross border terrorism in such a prolific and open way. And not just against India.
We must have the self-confidence to tell that country that this cannot be the basis for conduct of relations.
QUAD is the new acronym that everyone, particularly China, is looking at. Can you explain what QUAD means and where does it go from here?
When the world changes, you will not only have new acronyms but new concepts. QUAD is one of the plurilaterals, a working arrangement, a convergence. The Cold War was a world of agreements, a Western Bloc which like the opposing Soviet Bloc agreed amongst themselves. Today, your interests will coincide with others on certain issues.
So, the overlaps are issue based and therefore, you would have convergences with different powers. QUAD reflects the convergence of participating countries in areas like maritime security, connectivity and counterterrorism.
It is part of a future world. Even though people are attributing a novelty to this, there is another acronym called RIC (Russia, India and China) going on for 20 years. BRICS is yet another one. They too are plurilateral and issue based.
China sees QUAD as an alliance against itself and this has led to people like Imran Khan saying that US is using India as a frontline state in the context of current Ladakh stand-off?
Think about it: India is a civilisational state of very unique nature. Look at our history. Because we went through two very difficult centuries, we particularly prize our independence. Some people feel that because they did something, we will also do the same. India has a certain self-perception of itself. India has a personality of its own.
India has interests of its own. India has a character of its own. It cannot be defined negatively as being against somebody.
Those who say all this — they are perhaps reflecting their own history and their own self-worth. This is certainly not India.