At an e-Adda held this week, days before he left for Moscow for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meet, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was in conversation with The Indian Express Contributing Editor C Raja Mohan and Associate Editor Shubhajit Roy. He spoke on the complex relationship between India and China, engaging with the US and his new book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World
On in his new book
I think I’m quite a competitive person. And when you’re a competitive person, you’re always on an energy high. And so what happens is, if it’s a passion in a way, the book is already inside you. All the time you are talking to yourself, you’re talking to others, you’re listening to everybody around you, so, in that sense, I mean if you ask me, was it hard to write? My honest answer would be no. The more difficult bit was when to stop. And what to say and what was equally important was what not to say.
And I must share with you, initially when I started off, may be the first 25 pages or so, I told myself, look, I am not talking to a profession or tribe, the ministry, or even a government, I am actually trying to talk to a larger audience out there, primarily an audience in the country, but to some degree an audience outside the country, to people who have an interest but may not be think tanks, may not be media, may not be a diplomat, but people with a general interest in foreign policy, and try to explain it to them. So, the challenge for me in writing it was to get into that mode, but, as I said the book was inside me and it came out very fast.
On a changing world
The Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture (2019), in a more expanded form, is one of the chapters of the book. And I call it ‘The Dogmas of Delhi’, since I used that term in the lecture. But what is the book about? I think the starting point would be that it’s a very different world and I can’t emphasise that enough. Because all of us, myself included, we are all creatures of habits, we are creatures of assumptions. So we tend to fall back on that’s how it was before or the last time I did it. This is a human habit. So why I emphasise that it’s a changing world and a different world is because if you look at the players, you look at the weight of the players, you look at the relationship of the players, you look at the idea that what is even a relationship, what is influence, what is power. All of this has changed. Some of it changed gradually, some of it came very suddenly, but you had a series of shocks I would say, which suddenly focused everybody’s mind on what happened in the American presidential election, what happened in Brexit, the consequences of the rise of China and you know, how that is projected outside.
So the sense I had was that this was not the world I knew. And if someone like me was sort of grappling to deal with this world then imagine how much more complicated it would be for others. So, I therefore had this sense, that let me try and apply my experience and my insights to these changes, try to explain it in a way in which people will understand. I will give you one example. We tend to have a black-and-white understanding — this country is a friend and this country is not. Now, the reality is that black and white matters less and less. You have differences even with countries who are your friends, even with people who are adversaries, you actually have some common point, some shared agenda. So it increasingly becomes a world of convergence. And because you are pulled in different directions…if you’re a smaller power, you have a smaller agenda, you have a lesser agenda, then you can tie yourself in more firmly with a certain set of relationships.
The bigger you become, and this is also part of the different world as we are not what we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago. So the entire ecosystem is changing and we are changing autonomously. Now, what that then does is that it produces this world of convergences, of issues where you agree or disagree, of working arrangements. In the foreign policy business, you use this very ugly word, the world of plurilaterals. I remember in a magazine, you had a split screen. The Prime Minister with China’s president and Russia’s president on one side of the screen, and the American president and the Japanese prime minister on the other side. And by the way, this was a photo of the G20.
Now, to someone who’s not comprehending or appreciating what is happening, this looks like, what’s going on here. So they’ve got to understand now that this is the kind of world which we have to be prepared for.
On the need for a new vocabulary, new ways of thinking about the world
I wouldn’t claim that the book has new concepts and terminology, but I spend a lot of time explaining two or three examples. Take Indo-Pacific. What is different? The fact it had a history. But it clearly doesn’t mean what it did before. So, why is there a necessity for Indo-Pacific today? Or I’ll give you another example. You know, we had this acronym called SAGAR.
SAGAR group came out of a speech which Prime Minister Modi gave in Mauritius in the March of 2015, where, for the first time, somebody, at least in recent times, laid out a comprehensive maritime outlook and said, look, this is India, these are the oceans, these are our interests, this is how it looks to us. The term SAGAR entered. Look at some of the terms we’ve been using. And by the way, once you use this and people get it in their consciousness, it’s very helpful.
So, you have to get the terminology, you have to get the acronyms, you can’t give paragraphs to people every time. You’ve got to give them a few words which they then internalise and understand, okay, this is how it’s going to be.
On alluding to the Mahabharata
Well, you know, I began by telling you that the book was inside me. The Mahabharata part of it was even deeper inside me. That is because I sort of grew up in a household where politics, history, were regular topics of discussion. And very early on, you know, we read the Mahabharata, we were encouraged to read the Mahabharata with a very implicit message. I mean, nobody actually said this explicitly as I’m saying it, which is if you are to think of all the issues in contemporary politics and security, etc, those situations, those concepts, those dilemmas, they are all there.
The first time I read Mahabharata, I read it in English, I read Rajaji’s short account, after which I have read many accounts. And it came out of that. My father encouraged us and, in fact, my brother and I would often in our youth, use characters in Mahabharata as code names for people. The more I reflected on it, two aspects of it sort of struck me. Here I am grappling with decisions and yet I have an account, my account, it’s that knowledge, that sense is there within me, so why am I searching for answers when many of the answers are there. So in a sense, this is my Aatma Nirbhar Bharat moment. That look, I have a resource here, I have knowledge here, how do I use it? The other bit of it, I must honestly admit, was competitive. I’ve lived large periods of my life abroad, different geographies, looked at other cultures, listened to their narratives and their metaphors and their stories and wondered to myself, why is it that I know their stories, but they don’t know mine.
So, this has been sort of troubling me. So a part of it is a framework which is actually very apt to describe today’s world, which is why I used it so vividly. But it was also, for me, a part of what I would call cultural rebalancing. I would like the world to know and appreciate that this is their civilisation, this is their history, this is their epic. And, I think the world needs to know more about it as we rise. So I think that was part of it as well.
On mastering mind games with China and the US
When I wrote the book, and even otherwise, I meant this more as a general, broad mindset. I mean, I didn’t have a particular country or a particular situation in mind. So in a sense, I would say, mastering mind games would for me be a general approach. I obviously use it in world politics, foreign policy and that sort of thing. But to me, it’s a natural part of the competition. You look at any sport, say cricket. Look at the mind games which accompany cricket. My generation would remember Steve Waugh’s Australia, even Ricky Ponting’s Australia.
Look at the mind games they would play with you before the test series started. So how do you build your competitive skills? Because when any country rises, the country will be tested, it will be challenged. The world will not let any country, any society rise — you can call it kind of Newton’s third law of politics. For every rise, there will be a pushback. So you have to manage that push back. When you’re tested, you have to stand your ground. And there will be issues where you have to dig in and manage it with a lot of finesse. But at the end of the day, are you really willing to stand up and be countered where your core interests are concerned? It’s interesting you asked me this because if I had a competitive relationship with another country, obviously this makes sense. If I had a really adversarial relationship, it makes even more sense. But I would argue even with countries with whom I have good relations. Today, friends and well wishes will have their asks, they will have their pressures and demands.
There was a term which I learned as a political science student, which is from this English philosopher called Hobbes. It’s called ‘all against all’. Now, in reality, you don’t have an ‘all against all’ world because there are many things which are restraints. They are tempered by interdependency, by convergence, etc. But there is a high amount of ‘all against all’ kind of behaviour, which is increasing in the world. So sometimes, even with your friends, you are bargaining.
On whether India misread the strategic intentions of China
I don’t think we misread. I would dispute that. I think you are overdrawing the parallel and, quite honestly, reaching some wrong conclusions as a result. I’ll tell you why. The fact that there is a considerable degree of competition between India and China is not rocket science. I mean, everybody knows it, everybody understands it. They know it, we know it. You don’t have to be in foreign policy. It’s a sort of a common working assumption. We can argue how much of a competition, what is the intensity, the bigger power and in their case, right now economically, they are a bigger economy. So they may have a different view of that then we do. But the fact that there are elements of competition between India and China, and that we have a difficult recent history is not a secret to anybody. So when you say, how did we misread China, I would actually ask you to reflect on it. What are the conversations we’ve been having about China? We’ve been having conversations today about their position on issues of deep interest to us. It could be sovereignty issues, security issues, connectivity issues, economic issues.
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So the fact that we actually have been having active conversations on issues where our interests have not converged, don’t suggest any complacency. Now, if you actually look at the last two three years, in 2017, because there were so many issues of active conversation, the feeling was that the leaders of the country needed to engage each other directly. Not have their conversations mediated by people who would write up their speaking notes. They wanted direct conversations. This was agreed to in June of 2017 in Astana. A few days after that we actually had the Doklam problem. So the meeting actually didn’t take place in 2017. The meeting took place a year later in China. It happened in Wuhan. And then last year, it happened in Chennai. Now you look at this conversation. I wasn’t there in Wuhan but I was there in Chennai. These were conversations about, we are rising, you are rising, we are going to be among the major powers of the world. We are both civilisation States, we are the only two billion-plus, we are the only two old civilisations which will make it into the fourth industrial revolution.
There is both a past we need to take into account and a future that we need to sort of cater for. And we happen to be neighbours, and we also happen to be rising approximately in the sort of same parallel timeframe. They have moved earlier than us and in a more sweeping way that I quite accept. So actually, the conversations were about strategic intentions, strategic posture and how do you find accommodation. I think that was quite different from the conversations that I have read because you had fewer conversations in the 50s. There was only one meeting at that time between Nehru and Mao Zedong. There was Zhou Enlai in the middle. But I wouldn’t draw that parallel at all. Honestly, I don’t see any similarity.
On the border standoff and what he would tell his Chinese counterpart
The broad principles around which my position would be constructed would be that if you looked at the last 30 years, because there was peace and tranquility on the border that allowed the rest of the relationship to progress. And there were problems also; I’m not disregarding that. As a result, China became a second largest trading partner. So, if peace and tranquility on the border are not a given, then it cannot be the rest of the relationship continues on the same basis because clearly peace and tranquillity is the basis for the relationship. I used that phrase in the book, the state of the border cannot be delinked from the state of the relationship. And I wrote this before that unfortunate incident happened in Galwan. Now, the issue also brings into focus the fact that we have a number of understandings with China on the border management which go back to 1993. Now, those understandings, for example, fairly clearly stipulate that both countries will keep forces at a minimum level at the border. Also, the subsequent agreements that we have, sort of shape the behaviour of troops and what are the restraints which should be on them. Now, if these are not observed, then it raises very important questions. I note that this very serious situation has been going on since the beginning of May, that this calls for, I would say deep conversations between the two sides at a political level.
On India-China future
India and China must try to find mutual accommodation because their ability to do that will determine the Asian century or not. So, I am not confidently asserting, oh, this will surely happen or oh my god, that definitely will not happen. Now the point is, finally, what does it come down to? As I said, two billion-plus societies, two civilisational societies, two neighbouring societies. This is very unusual because it’s not often in history that you have proximate neighbours rising parallelly. Often the other powers which rise are often some distance apart. We have overlaps of our periphery, every country has some sense of what is its periphery. Now, when you are neighbours, your periphery also overlaps. So, the point is that today, I regard this as a very, very complex relationship but it is my responsibility to steer it in the right direction. And that is what to my mind, Indian diplomacy should focus on.
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Now, again, this is not a spin, this is not a placebo. It’s not making it sound easy. I am very, very cognizant of all the challenges that we have. I’ve described it in many ways, as succinctly as I can, that we have problems leftover from history, which still continue to be an overhang on the relationship. And even the border issue, every time there is a new friction point and this one, you know, was obviously something of a very different order, it revives memories. So, mostly I am right now in a position to dissect the situation rather than suggest to you, oh, here’s a formulation, and that’s what’s going to solve it. So this is one area my crystal balls are a little clouded.
On the special interest with the US
To some degree, part of the answer is in history. If you looked at the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, even part of the 80s, the United States behaved in a way in which we could reasonably conclude that it was not comfortable with our development and rise, so people often would attribute it to the conflicts, you know, where were they in Kashmir on 48? How did they behave in the 65 conflict with Pakistan, 71 Bangladesh, which Indian doesn’t remember it? So those are all there. Then the fact that they were particularly close at that time with China and Pakistan, and I’ve actually said that to me that period, the 1970s were really the dangerous decades because the term dangerous decades was used by Selig Harrison in a book to describe India domestically. But if you looked at it from a foreign policy angle, when US-China-Pakistan came together, it was actually a very serious challenge for us, we of course responded to it. So, I think that to some degree colours people’s imagery, perception, narrative.
Now, the irony is during the same period, actually, the United States also did a lot of things in our support. You know, the United States helped us after 1962. I remind people we actually had a defence agreement with them in 1964. The United States actually, if you look back at history and read some very good accounts of that period, had a big role to do not just agriculture, of course, everybody knows Green Revolution…even the space programme, the first nuclear reactor, your fertilizer plants, your hydro projects, your canals, many of your institutions. So it was all there. But, you might say the traumatic moments were a stronger memory, but there’s a second factor and I’ve addressed that — there’s also an elite attitude problem. So, a lot of this suspicion of America is very much a Lutyens’ Delhi problem. The Indian street actually realised the value of the American relationship much earlier than Lutyens Delhi did. Part of it is, you know, people here make it out as though it’s very nationalistic. Frankly, they had a kind of what I would say is a London School of Economics outlook to the world.
On analysing Trump
When I sort of articulated that particular phrase that don’t just demonise Trump, analyze him, I think I did it in a talk at Gateway House in Mumbai. One was an American audience or I would say world audience, which was like ‘look, fine you had these big changes, but maybe it’s worth your while to try to understand why did that change happen? I mean, there must have been some reason. You may like it, you might dislike it, that’s a different issue. But surely given how profound the change was, is it not worth your analytical time to figure out what led to it. The second audience I was addressing was an Indian audience. And to the Indian audience, the message was, look, they have their politics, they have their conversations, okay. It matters to everybody, because who’s president of America matters to everybody, I quite accept that. But, at the end of the day, don’t let their debates and their conversations confuse you.
We have to look at what was happening in the United States from the perspective of our interest, and see what are the policy reprioritising I need, adjustments I need, how do I now work this to my advantage? Because if we get sucked completely into their debates, then I’m not actually even approaching this issue from my interest viewpoint. And in a globalised world, this caution is necessary. Because sometimes you have these very polarised debates in one society, which then feed off debates in another and then it feeds back out there. So, the point is that, to me, the issue you raised, look, if there is the administration of the day, I have engaged that administration. I have engaged that administration much better than most of the world did. I have advanced Indian national interest. I’m very frankly satisfied with that. I would give myself in all modesty, a good score. But that is what I did before. Remember, we are the same people who engaged Obama as well. Here I’m not talking politically, I’m talking about India as a country. We have engaged successive American presidents who have different worldviews, different priorities, with a focus on how to take the relationship and our national interest forward. So, to me the idea that, you know, somewhere, you’ve done too much with the administration of the day, it doesn’t make sense.
On reorientation the economy
Yes, you know, if you look back at the last 20 to 30 years, nobody can, nobody objectively can deny that our manufacturing has been significantly severely impacted actually by cheap imports which have come from outside okay. And let’s be honest, we are not dealing with a level-playing field that the sources of import are often economies where, you know, where there are advantages and subsidies of various kinds which are given. So, what has happened is if we look at our external arrangements, if we do an audit of that, the reality is your deficits with a certain number of countries have gone very very high. Because as I said, you know, they have inbuilt advantages. Now, we had taken globalization as saying we will become more competitive, you know we will keep in touch with the world. Now, fast forward 20 years, what are you actually seeing? Can you honestly tell me that, oh yes, because of this openness, because of all these FTAs today, India is more innovative, India is more competitive, Indian manufacturing is thriving, Indian exports are booming, and they’re not. If they’re not, there’s a good reason. I agree that you cannot be a rising power without being a rising economy. To do that, you have to build your domestic capacities.
Look, we are one of the few countries where today we have to give our own industry a level-playing field at home. What have we gone and done to ourselves? So, my point is that today we must be sensitive, we must be caring of building capabilities at home and I think that Aatma Nirbhar Bharat is a motivational effort, it is a policy effort as well. And by the way, building on national capacity doesn’t make you anti global. On the contrary, I would argue that if you don’t have capacities, you end up as a market for other people’s goods. That’s not being global, in my view.
If you want to participate in global supply chains, you must have domestic capabilities. I would say if you want to actually participate more vigorously in the global economy, you must build stronger domestic capacities, and do what it takes for the gaps to be closed as a result of decades of disadvantage.
On zero diplomacy with neighbours as the new diplomatic tool
This is not a question of zero diplomacy and you know, I have a core interest and I have a problem and therefore I’m not engaging. It is an issue of who is setting the terms of engagement, what are the terms of the engagement, what is the framework of the engagement? What is the kind of conversation, who will determine it, who’s making the move to shape the direction, and pace, shape the agenda, determine the agenda in a way. For a country, any country and that to a country like India, to forego that option, to say, okay, I’d love to have good relations with everybody and by the way you set the agenda and I will come. I don’t think that’s the foreign policy we should have. Okay, now specifically with Pakistan. What has been their attachment to cross border terrorism in these years. Okay, and how what all they have done and what are all the big incidents which have happened.
Now, when you say you have zero diplomacy, ask yourself the opposite question. If they do all these things, what am I supposed to say, oh well the Pakistanis are like that only and therefore I accept that as a normal and then I engage them now on terms that they have set and the term that have settled, well, sorry, we will continue to practice terrorism because we think that’s right. At the end of the day, a lot of this is about us also, you know, developing the mental strengths. Today, as we get bigger, we can’t continue to behave and react the way we are doing and in a sense that is the plea of my book. However, you know there is a chapter in my mind, which I didn’t write, that chapter would be how I would have correlated what is happening in our foreign policy with what is happening in cricket. See the rise of India today is also reflected in the rise of Indian cricket. There was a time when we said well, you know, that’s the deal ICC offers, this is how empires behave, this is what playing conditions are. What happens when somebody hits you on the shins when you are crossing to take a run and that’s our karma and we take it. Then you start to change.
Okay, so you have a Ganguly who brings an attitude, a positive attitude to the field. You have a Sehwag who brings that confidence to the opening. You have a Dhoni who is able to outthink the other party and you may occasionally have a Gambir who would also use his elbow well. So, my point is, these are the kind of attributes today which you also need in foreign policy.
Floor open for questions
Nikolay Kudashev, Russian Ambassador
I express my appreciation of your continued contribution to bilateral ties as well as our global partnership. Your book is a fascinating journey. On page 100, you say that to the uninitiated the pursuit of apparently contradictory approaches may seem baffling. This week, you’re expected to travel to Moscow for the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) ministerial. How does one reconcile contradictions between QUAD & SCO groupings?
Jaishankar: Ambassador, I’m of course looking forward to my visit, one, because the SCO is a very important forum. We have joined it recently. And we see great value because of the Eurasian span that it has. It clearly addresses one very large part of India’s foreign policy interest. Secondly, of course, it is always a pleasure to go back to Moscow. As that is where I began my career, so, that is an additional source of satisfaction. Other than what happens in the SCO, I naturally use that to talk to a lot of my other colleagues.
And, I mean, typically, these are gatherings which are used, as Ambassador knows, to do a lot of bilateral business. The paragraph that the Ambassador quoted (from my book) is to my mind exactly that point I told you, which is, the RIC (Russia-India-China) and JAI (Japan-USA-India) plurilaterals. But, you can have an SCO and a QUAD (Quadrilateral). And this is sort of the complicated world in which we operate and I think our country which masters that, would do itself a great favour.
Jan Thompson, Acting British High Commissioner
Can you say something about multilateralism versus multipolarity and how do you see the rules-based international system evolving in the years ahead. Also, how would India like to edit current rules or shape new ones?
Jaishankar: Well, multilateralism is a necessity. At times, it may fall short, but I would still say that means more multilateralism, not less. Multipolarity, in my view, is inevitable because our world has a natural diversity which for various historical reasons was kind of suppressed or reduced and I think the world is now finding its natural expression. So, we are going to have greater multipolarity, which in an immediate sense is going to make multilateralism more complicated, because in the old days, multilateralism was the prerogative of a few. But I would say even in the short medium, it’s a good thing because if more countries have a sense of ownership and a sense of contribution, multilateral rules will not only be more creative, they will also be more acceptable. So, we need, a much broader stakeholdership of the world. Part of it, of course, is reflected in bodies like UNSC, etc. But as a general proposition, I would argue for sort of a broader ownership of world politics with stronger roots.
Vincenzo De Luca, Italian Ambassador
First of all, let me thank Minister Jaishankar for the very interesting book. Since Italy will chair the G20 in 2021, and India will chair the G20 the year after, we are interested in your views about the role of G20 on two global issues — the pandemic and health policies and climate change and sustainable development.
Jaishankar: Ambassador, in my book, I cite the G20 as a positive trend, which illustrates the political-economic rebalancing. It was an outcome from the 2008 situation. And today, there is a forum where there is a spread-out representation of power on who are able to discuss big issues. I think it’s very, very good for the world. About the two issues that you raised, where climate change is concerned, we have taken a very clear, strong position since Paris. We are very clear about fulfilling our nationally determined contributions. You can see the entire discourse in this country has changed. Today people have realized the value of, say solar energy to give you the most obvious example or energy-saving programmes like LED bulb distribution, it’s not just the programmes and the action, it’s actually the entire thinking in India. We have as much riding on this as anybody else, probably more. That I think has been a very, very big change and it has been led by the government. The Prime Minister personally has had a lot to do with it.
Now, I would say in most of the world today, the dangers and the challenges of climate change are appreciated. I acknowledge that this is not unfortunately a universal phenomenon. But, we are very clear on which side of the debate we are on. We are actively leading efforts out there. Regarding the pandemic, there are different directions this is going to go. What the pandemic did immediately was to raise issues of health security, everybody scrambled for masks, and everybody scrambled for PPEs. Then there was a bigger debate, what medicines, where do you go, etc.
That has now moved into the vaccine domain. So, we can only hope that there would be greater cooperation when vaccines start coming out. But the second (effect of the pandemic) was because it disrupted economies and highlighted the importance of global chains. It has in a sense also brought about a new debate on resilient supply chains. So, the case which I make in the book, and I would dearly love to be proved wrong here. I actually predict that we are heading for a more difficult world, that the post-COVID world would be more difficult, most of the world will be much more self-centric, and that a lot of the debates which we saw earlier will become sharper, more aggravated, and different kinds of, for want of a better term, nationalisms would be a dominating feature. So, I predict a tougher world and as I said, this is one area, I sincerely hope I’m wrong.
Vishwaprasad Alva, Managing Director, Skanray Technologies
In med tech, food, health and knowledge technology are very critical for the country and also for the world. In health sector, we need the involvement of the MEA. A long-term policy takes about 10 years to establish the ecosystem. We are not very sure if our relationship with China will improve, so what do you see as long-term possibility? And in case we do not see something happening in the near future, can we create a parallel ecosystem with let’s say, Israel, the US, Italy, Russia or Britain a form of med tech quadrangular or pentagon and see if something can be done? The most important thing here is a continuity of policy, 10 years undivided attention whichever government comes, what do you think is the right path for us?
Jaishankar: My answer essentially has two parts — one, I agree with you completely that foreign policy today needs to take into account issues of technology, and various domain policies you referred to, med tech and health as a result. In fact, it is for this very purpose that we actually created a Technology Division because technology itself is a strategic capability but the application of technology has strategic consequences as well. On the other issue of building capability, I would actually say rather than worry about this is the current situation, I would urge you to focus on building a capability for the sake of national capabilities. Tomorrow whether there is a problem or not, India should still have that capability. Ask yourself this question, till March this year, isn’t it a commentary on all of us that this country made no ventilators. What does it say about the capability of our manufacturing. So, I will not ask you to look at it as a response to an immediate challenge. I really think what you have done should inspire other people in different areas of manufacturing, saying if Skanray can do this, we can also do this.
Ugo Astuto, Ambassador of the European Union
What are your views on the need for cooperative work, internationally, for a digital future, which fosters innovation but also reflects views of an open and pluralist society.
Jaishankar: We, as a world, have a digital future which gets stronger by the day. But as a country, ours is progressing at an extraordinary pace. I mean, if I were to look back at what has been, we are still in the middle of it, a very difficult year for all of us. If there is one domain where actually we have moved forward in a very discernible way, it is on the digital side. A lot of the delivery of the government today has been possible only because of the strength and emphasis which we have put on the digital capabilities in the last five years. Even if you look at our response to contact tracing, we have tried to strengthen contact tracing by using a digital app. So, I mean, if I were to move well beyond the corona-impacted world and in a sense before it as well, about a knowledge-driven economy, a more digital world to my mind will put a premium on talent, on trusted talent, on a global workplace. And habits of that will be very interesting. I mean, till now a lot of that was on mobility, but I think we are going to see much more Work
From Home habits. I’d be very intrigued how this actually impacts a whole range of business habits. And I suspect it’s going to be pretty radical. So, I see digital as a key element of our national solutions, because almost everything we do, the efficiency of it, the impact of it, the integrity of it, is more. But having said all of that, it always comes with a rider because you have so much, you bet so much on it, digital security also therefore becomes more important. But I also see this is not as an India issue, but a global issue. We are also going to see very sharp digital debates. And, a lot of the contradictions or the conversations in the world are going to revolve around these sorts of issues.
Rémi Maillard, President, Airbus India, and Managing Director, South Asia
My question relates to the India-France relationship. Today our two countries are exceptionally close and trusted partners. The relationship is at an all-time high. So, what is your government’s plan to take the ties to the next level for the establishment of institutional G2G (government-to-government, or foreign military sales) mechanisms for stronger and faster defence, trade and commerce?
Jaishankar: Well, in my book, I made some references to it, though not in great detail. They will make you happy because today, if you look at the relationship with France, at its content, the key areas which countries deal with – defence, nuclear, space – these are all areas where actually our cooperation has been extraordinarily close. Also, our political and strategic cooperation has intensified in many ways. Our relations are really exceptional in many ways, but it has been in the making, going back to the nuclear test and the independent stance that France took at that time. And at various points thereafter, where France has been sensitive, it has actually been very perceptive about India’s growth. I think, that sensitivity and judgments and the policies that grew out of it, are largely responsible for why the relationship has done so well.
Garima Mohan, Fellow, Asia Programme, The German Marshall Fund of the United States
My question is about Europe. Germany released an Indo-Pacific strategy last week, naming India as a key partner on supply chains, 5G, reform of institutions, India is mentioned everywhere. Where does Europe stand in India’s worldview, particularly in our ambitions, and post-Covid world? And, what will be the priorities of our relationship with Europe over the next five years?
Jaishankar: Well, personally, in the one year I have been minister, I’ve travelled more to Europe than to the rest of the world. Also, I suspect that this Prime Minister perhaps has, again, invested much more time and energy on Europe than most of his predecessors. So, that in itself should tell you something. Now, for reasons of history, we’ve tended to look at Europe much more in terms of its national states than its collective sort of profile. So typically, I would say Indian diplomatic focus was more on Berlin, Paris, London than it would be on Brussels. Now that has changed, not that one has come down, the other has gone up. We now do annual summits with the EU. Europe has become a collective, as someone, for example, who is conversant with business in Europe. There is an intricate supply chain within Europe. Europe may have its debates on various issues, but on many issues, certainly in India, I think there is complete unity on the importance of that relationship. So, what does that relationship mean for us? Today, whatever you might say, in terms of technology, in terms of application of technology, Europe has strengths which are phenomenal. And as we look at a more digital, much greener and sustainable future, I would argue that, in many ways, Europe has capabilities and experiences which are very valuable for India. Now, if you have counted the UK as part of Europe, actually collectively Europe was both our largest trade partner as well as our largest investor. So, even if you treat the UK today as separate, Europe is still among our top economic partners. And, about our knowledge economy and talent partnerships, Europe has been very receptive to a lot of this. So, I would argue that by most material metrics, there is a very strong case to be made. But then, I come to the other part. We all have our beliefs, values, and comfort levels. A chapter I have on the West, I deliberately made it a collective West, I did not make it an America chapter. Because, to my mind, we need to understand that there is a sort of a collective connection out there in certain domains. And that is relevant to us – what do you think, what do you practise, what do you believe, what are the organisational principles of your society, all these make a difference. And, I think, today, there is a much deeper valuation of that on both sides. So, with Europe, I’m actually very, very bullish on where I see that relationship going.
Yoginder Alagh, Former Vice-Chancellor, Jawaharlal National University (JNU), Delhi, current Vice-Chair and Prof. Emeritus, Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research, Ahmedabad, and former Union minister
I really enjoyed your strategic perspective and I’m going to spend some of my hard-earned pension money to buy your book. I think you’re right that given the demographics, if we can handle our technology, our globalisation and our infrastructure, we should be a major power in the decades to come, because the demographics are all in our favour, particularly, we can get our girls in school. But the kind of thing you talked about, your father was a collaborator with me, and the whole issue of national security is something that we worried about. So, I have a specific question, I don’t know if you will answer it. Is it true that China is trying to encircle us? It’s not just Ladakh, it’s our fuel lines from Central Asia, and shouldn’t we approach countries like Bangladesh, and Nepal, in that context, as a part of our strategic response to all of this? As you said, this is not an MEA meeting, I didn’t realise that, but if you can throw some light, I’ll be very happy.
Jaishankar: I’m actually very happy you recognised the huge change about girls in school, because, there is the saying of ‘a woman holding up half the sky’, and, actually, that is one area where we’re really lagging behind. So, when we talk of India’s rise as a power, etc., we have not paid enough attention historically to the social side of a power strikes. If you look at our human development indices, they are not what they should be for a power with our aspirations and that is why today there is the emphasis on realising SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) through national campaigns of various kinds. The bit about what should we be doing with Nepal and Bangladesh look, again, I put it to you this way, it is a competitive world. In competition, people will try to get what they can. We cannot expect any power to refrain from pushing its interest to the limit unless we show the ability to compete as well. Now, with respect to neighbours, a neighbour should have good relations with India, not because I’m contesting a neighbour with some other power, I need good relations for its own sake.
Today, for me, if you look at Bangladesh, and I have repeatedly made this point that if there’s one big neighbourly relationship that has changed in the last five years, it is Bangladesh. You can see how much we have bonded, and what benefits we are both getting out of closer structural linkages. Our Look-East Policy actually starts with Bangladesh, because if our relations with Bangladesh go as we hope it will go, you get a totally different access eastwards. So, the gains on that are enormous. The case I make with neighbours is, look, all our neighbours are smaller than us, I’m not counting China here in that category, and we need to be non-reciprocal, we need to be generous, they will have their own political cycles, there will be issues, after all, they will have their politics and a lot of the politics addresses us. We must accept that as a fact of life. But I would universally make the case again with that one westerly exception, so it’s not actually universal, that we need to have a very different view of our neighbours and actually that’s what we’ve been trying. Again, I’m not suggesting it would be automatic, smooth, not have its problems, it will, but we have to look beyond that.
Amitabh Mattoo, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Dr Jaishankar, it’s a commendable book, so well-written, and very accessible. I enjoyed the chapters on managing China’s rise, particularly the cryptic chess openings since I’m fond of chess and also on the Mahabharat. Even though you describe it not as your personal memoir, which it is not, but really, you dedicated this book to your father, K Subrahmanyam, who was a strategic guru to many generations, to all of us, who studied him, read his books, and to Irwin Dave, who’s an unsung diplomatic hero of the Indian Foreign Service who had a better credible record in Nepal. But I thought I’ll ask you as a scholar of international relations, who are the other thinkers who helped shape your strategic thinking along the way?
Jaishankar: I dedicated the book to two people who shaped my education, my thinking. One beginning at home, but home was like a built-in university or school, you could say, and the other was actually the person, who, in many way, from the time I came to the foreign ministry, took me under his wing and taught me the ropes of this business. I would say, what was perhaps very academic at home and in JNU was made very practical when, I learnt my diplomacy first under Ambassador Arvind Deo. But I worked with some really perceptive and insightful people in service. Outside of service, there would be foreign secretaries. I was with (JN) Dixit in Sri Lanka, (MK) Rasgotra, who kind of introduced me to the US, and (K) Shankar Bajpai, who unfortunately just passed away. I regard him as a sort of guru on America. So, the problem is if I listed everybody who influenced me, there won’t be a book, the entire book would be about that.
Manjeet Kripalani, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Gateway House, Mumbai
To be engaged in global supply chains, India also has to be in trade agreements. We are in very few, largely because our traditional domestic condition is not strong still. But there is also digital and virtual trade in which we can lead and become global rule takers. Are we on that track?
Jaishankar: We need to think this through. I’m not sure that there is a congruence out here, that to be a part of a global value chain, you must necessarily be part of free-trade agreements (FTAs). And if you are not, then you are out of it. Because you look at the example of China itself. China joined the FTAs very much later. So, I think there are two separate issues and we should not use one as a panacea for the other. To my mind, becoming part of a global value chain, making it easier to do business, to have a trade-facilitation regime which addresses that, I think that’s a different issue. You can then debate the merits of whether, somebody would say, should you be doing FTAs with countries which are very similar to you? Should you not be looking at dissimilar countries? So, should we, for example, focus more on Europe or on the United States rather than more competitive economies in Asia? It’s a legitimate question, I’m not giving you a determinative answer. But I would say, at this moment, today, for us, to be much more deeply linked to global supply chains and global value chains, I would regard that as very important and to me the answer lies in building capacities at home.
Rajiv Mehrotra, Managing Trustee, Public Service Broadcasting Trust
I should start by acknowledging that I’ve been an unworthy student of the Dalai Lama for a long time, I say unworthy because I fear he might disapprove of my question, but I speak in my personal capacity. Much of the conversation today has been on China and the problems you’ve described that’s left over from history. How has this impacted the relationship of successive governments with Holiness the Dalai Lama? Here is a man who repeatedly describes himself as a son of India, the country calls him a guru, while he serves as an apostle of civilizational heritage. He works tirelessly for its revival and presentation, being celebrated and admired across India and around the world, except perhaps for the Chinese Communist Party. Every year there is the discussion whether he gets the Bharat Ratna, the Gandhi Peace Prize. Not that they matter to him, but what are we waiting for?
Jaishankar: I think you know the government of India’s policy in that regard, it has been remarkably consistent. So, I take this question as an expression of your own feelings for His Holiness and I understand that completely. I know that he understands that this is something which I would not like to get into a public discussion about.
Monish Tourangbam, Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education
We are entering a world of greater multipolarity and weaker multilateralism. Based on these two juxtapositions, how do you see the future of India’s national power? How would India align its capability and navigate such uncertain international systems?
Jaishankar: Look, the navigation of this world is going to be more difficult, because the waters have changed, the reefs have changed, the charts have changed. So, actually, it’s not ‘add something, subtract something’, it’s actually going to require a different kind of imagination. That in a sense is what I’m trying to convey and to some degree there will be trial and error. But again, everybody will have their own view, and, in this matter, the world is not flat. Because one country has this view, even if a powerful country, doesn’t mean everybody else follows suit. We should do what is in India’s interest, what is in a sense the Indian way, and the Indian way is to do more with the world. To my mind, it is in our interest, other than it being good for the world, it is in our interest that the world has rules, but the rules must be broadly agreed upon, it should not be defined by a few and imposed on all.
Dr Karthik Nachiappan, Research Fellow, National University of Singapore
My question is about technology. Technology is critical to India’s economic and geopolitical future. In a post-Covid era, India will need digital security, and then open the internet to power its economic growth, and deter cyber threats. Yet technology also doubles as the source of many problems, including rising cyber attacks, stringent global rules around the use and sharing of data, and the growing power of unaccountable social-media companies that often amplify and exacerbate internal divisions. To manage and deter these problems caused by technology and leverage its benefits, India will have to shoulder greater burdens of international rulemaking around cyberspace and digital issues. Will India shape the rules of the digital world going forward?
Jaishankar: I think, this is a challenge which we’ll have more and more, new domains will arise, many of the new domains will not be governed by rules, many of the old rules will not address this by extrapolation. So, India perforce will have to be more active, and, in my view, this is actually a time to reassert our interest in multilateralism. In India, as my book argues, we are more nationalistic, but Indian nationalism doesn’t say I reject the world or I have a grievance against the world. Indian nationalism actually is deeply interested in the world. It wants the world to think better of India. It wants to be more present in the world. So, we are becoming more global because we are becoming more nationalistic. It’s an interesting difference from a lot of other countries.
Bharat Joshi, CEO, J-Curve Ventures
My question is on Japan, which has been an essential partner for a lot of what we’ve been discussing, the Pacific, etc., and, more recently, the discussions on the trilateral supply chain along with Australia. Now with Shinzo Abe’s resignation, what will change? And, the economic engagement, will that also catch up?
Jaishankar: I’ve been dealing with Japan for about 25 years now. And I go there very often, for a variety of reasons. The point I would make is, when I look back at this era of Prime Minister Abe, and I used the word era because it was an extraordinary period in our relationship, my sense is he’s not only changed the relationship, he’s actually changed Japanese thinking about the relationship. His views and his analysis are today part of a larger systemic view of India. So, I have every confidence that the relationship will remain very strong. In fact, I see that very much as a testimony to Prime Minister Abe’s tenure. And, on the economic side, we have to find ways of making ourselves attractive to Japan, and, at the same time, working out contemporary partnerships, because sectors will keep changing and we should not benchmark ourselves against our own past and say we’ve changed, so why don’t you come? Any business will look at the rest of the world at that point of time and compare you. Similarly, on the Japanese end also, I think, they should not be satiated with what they have. They should keep setting higher goals. I think this is a very, very promising relationship that, to me, a very high ceiling. And I hope both sides are ambitious enough for that.
Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express Group
I have one question. One of the things that we see, especially in America, is how closely American governments work with American corporations. They are almost like agents for these corporations, they kind of push their business interests so closely. You see India doing something like that, getting more intimate, is it too politically hard to do that?
Jaishankar: Given my brief corporate tenure, if I give you a positive answer, you will cite that as conflict of interest.