Strobe Talbott, former US deputy secretary of state who now heads the Brookings Institution think tank, tells Rakesh Sinha why China’s assertiveness in the region is worrisome, and why no sensible American is thinking about an India-US alliance.
As someone who has engaged and tracked India very closely, what are your first impressions of the Narendra Modi government?
My sense is that President Obama and Prime Minister Modi hit it off quite well and that doesn’t surprise me, knowing a little bit about my own President and having heard some things about your Prime Minister. They are both highly pragmatic, they don’t go in for ceremony for its own sake, they are sort of get-things-done guys. They tend to get down as quickly as possible to the basic issues, see if they have a common view and then figure a way to maximise collaboration between the two countries.
The mood in the American private sector is a mirror of the mood in the private sector here. Americans who are interested in investing in India, trading with India, take seriously the Prime Minister’s stated and restated commitment to streamlining the process, making India investment-friendly and essentially getting the mojo back into the economy.
So their talks would have factored in a greater Indian role in the region?
My impression was that keeping in mind or within the limits of some differences, there was nonetheless a meeting of minds on some big questions, particularly having to do with neighbours or near neighbours.
The three big issues that preoccupy the US right now are all in regions closer to India than to the United States. By that I mean ISIS, which is accompanied by a larger crisis in the Middle East; Russia and its annexation of Crimea, its use of force to dominate Ukraine and intimidate its neighbours; and then, there is the worrisome assertiveness of the People’s Republic of China with regard to neighbours, particularly neighbours with which it has maritime, territorial disputes. And as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) made very clear at the time of President Xi Jinping’s visit to New Delhi, that includes India big time.
India and Pakistan are not quite moving…
I think it is a very positive thing that Prime Minister Modi has reached out to Nawaz Sharif, he seems to be interested in breathing fresh life into and making SAARC more robust. The Brookings India Centre is doing some serious work with regard to SAARC, coming up with some practical ideas on how to make SAARC more useful.
But the core is: As long as a critical mass of influential forces in Pakistan sees India as an existential threat to Pakistan, there is going to continue to be danger and from time to time some serious trouble. I have seen, talked to and been convinced by Pakistanis who want to put Partition, and the lingering disputes from Partition, behind them, and to strengthen the Pakistani State.
Unfortunately, there are others who either believe or profess to believe that protecting the Pakistani State requires them to continue a virtual conflict — not just the dispute but a virtual conflict — through proxies, proxies of the kind who caused such horrors in Mumbai and elsewhere. And until that strain in Pakistani elite opinion, particularly in the military and ISI, gives way to another attitude, there is only so much India can do. As I see it, the existential threat to Pakistan as a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia is inside Pakistan itself.
Wagah strikes me as a gruesome, tragic, outrageous metaphor for Pakistan’s dilemma. To the best of my knowledge, 65 people died. None of them was Indian… That strikes me as a crystalline, horrible symbol of what’s wrong with Pakistan. Because the powerful forces that treat India as the ultimate threat are inadvertently, presumably, creating what is the ultimate threat to Pakistan — that it is going to tear itself apart.
You said there’s so much India can do. What needs to be done to get the two sides talking?
I have no responsible answer to that, except to welcome what is clearly both Prime Minister Modi’s outstretched open hand and Nawaz Sharif’s outstretched open hand. It seems to be a perverse theme in India-Pakistan relations that when a Pakistani leader reaches out, makes an overture of some kind to at least tamp down the disputes and mutual distrust, he or she ends up with additional domestic opposition, sometimes with tragic and fatal results.
Can you point to specifics where India and the US can make progress?
Yes, a couple. Iran… We are sanctioning Iran, you are engaging Iran… India may have policies that are different from the United States but they are not at loggerheads with the United States. India does not want Iran to be a nuclear weapon state any more than the United States does. But India is a treasure trove of expertise on Iran, and if there were to be a mitigation of what has been a kind of cold war between the United States and Iran, it might be easier for us to work together. That’s one point.
Second, I would hope that India under Prime Minister Modi would continue to do something that occurred during the Congress government and the last BJP government. And that is to take a more active diplomatic role in East Asia… India is a must at the table of a fully engaged, robustly active board of directors of the world, which by the way has its virtual form in the G-20, and I think the role that Prime Minister Modi is going to have at the Australia meeting is very important in that regard.
… I don’t see a very strong argument for India hanging back from East Asia. I think it was the BJP government that first sent my dear friend Jaswant Singh to the ASEAN Regional Forum. He and Prime Minister (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee extended the bounds of active Indian diplomacy around the Straits of Malacca.
In the US, there was a lot of admiration and optimism about Prime Minister Modi’s decision to go to Japan and to develop what was already a good relationship with Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe. Japan is a treaty ally of the United States. But no sensible American is thinking about an India-US alliance. That is off the table. And it is not just because of the heritage of the non-aligned movement. It is because that just isn’t the way the world should work now. No sensible American should promote US-Indian relations as a strategic counterweight to China because that is unworthy of the two countries involved – United States and India — and will only have a provocative effect on China.
So do you miss Jaswant Singh?
I miss him in the most profound human way. But when I say I miss him, he is still alive and not a day goes by when I don’t pray for him. I correspond as often as I can with (his son) Manvendra and I have conveyed through him my sentiments to Jaswant’s wife… As I was rushing from the airport to our meeting, I saw the army hospital and I almost wanted to ask the driver to slow down so I could just silently offer yet another prayer for my friend who is in there… I hope that his extraordinary strength will allow him to recover… His country needs him and the world needs him.
Where do you see Sino-Indian ties headed?
I am cautiously optimistic. I think China is manifesting policies, behaviour that risk the security of the region and could, if they even continue to escalate, actually adversely affect. South Asia and East Asia have been both drivers and beneficiaries of what I would call healthy globalisation. That’s in large measure because the two largest countries in this vast landmass, India and China, have opened their economies and became stakeholders in a rule-based world order and world market… The last point is the inevitable cliché — clichés get to be clichés because there is truth to them — what’s the difference between China and India? One is a democracy and the other is not. We in the US have huge economic interest in China, well beyond that we have here. I think there is a huge gap to be filled in the US-Indian economic relationship. But when it comes to values and the way in which we govern ourselves and the way we have made pluralism and diversity an idea, we are both idea states and not just nation states. That creates a unique bond between the two of us.
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