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‘Chinese like to tell us: Remember, our GDP is five times yours’

Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran tells Hindustan Times India’s relationship with China is different from what it was a decade ago. Today, the Chinese believe that their interests are better served through the US.

india Updated: Sep 08, 2017 07:25 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran at the Hindustan Times leadership summit 2013.
Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran at the Hindustan Times leadership summit 2013.(HT file photo)

Shyam Saran, one of India’s foremost diplomats, speaks with Hindustan Times on the nature of Indian foreign policy, the challenge of China and the threat of Twitter.

A former Indian foreign secretary, Saran was one of the architects of the Indo-US nuclear deal and special envoy for climate change. For years at the helm of India’s relations with China, Pakistan, Nepal and Southeast Asia, the Mandarin-speaking diplomat has just released his first book How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century, published by Juggernaut.

On how India see the world

The reason I used this title is that there has always been a question as to whether India has a worldview, does it have a prism through which it views global events.

So I tried to explore that question and concluded: Yes, it has a worldview, one influenced by its history, geography and culture.

Two important elements give rise to this worldview.

One, since ancient times there has been among the people of the subcontinent a geographic sense of the area that they occupy, a sense of cultural affinity. This has been very much influenced by being at the intersection of old maritime, old caravan routes over a long period of time.

All of this created a sense of what I call a “cross-roads culture”. This is the second element. The cross-roads culture is inherently cosmopolitan in nature and it provides the prism through which Indians see the world. This makes India more comfortable about dealing with the rest of the world, about dealing with other cultures. More comfortable, I would say, than other countries like China which have been more insular in their history.

On how cross-roads culture has helped Indian diplomacy

It has imbued us with a sense of cosmopolitanism. If you look at Southeast Asia, it is a region that, over a long period, has experienced a diffusion of trade, culture and religion from all over. Over a period of time, this experience has evolved into an openness to other cultures and other ideas.

India has a similar sense of comfort with plurality and differences. This cultural thinking has an influence on Indian foreign policy, giving it an inherent kind of quality of engagement with rest of world.

Even when India’s economic and military capabilities were limited, its embrace of an active role in the international arena was accepted as something quite natural. And I believe this derives from our history.

Look at the 1950s, when we were involved in a number of regional issues, welcomed the embrace of the United Nations and contributed to its peacekeeping operations, embraced an international role and an engagement with rest of the world that was not aligned with the country’s economic and military capabilities. Yet this was considered quite natural -- because of this history.

India has no inhibitions in engaging with the rest of the world. A constant theme in our national discourse is that it is important for India to have an international role. Like seeking a permanent UN security council seat. I would say this is a natural aspiration for a country that has such a history.

On success and failure in diplomacy

Success and failure are a matter of strategic choice and an ability to grasp strategic opportunities when they come around. Opportunities in diplomacy have a short shelf life and they soon evaporate if not grabbed quickly.

Most importantly, it depends on whether there was a political willingness to see the opportunity and grab it. In the case of the Indo-US nuclear deal there was a strong commitment by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to see it through.

In the case of the Siachen glacier, we came to the point when it could have been pushed through. But at the critical moment the political will was not evident, unlike what we saw in the nuclear deal.

Professional diplomats can take it up to a certain point, but after that only the politician can make the decision as to whether a certain action is worth doing. The role of political leadership is very important.

On diplomacy in the 21st century

In my book I have discussed the problem of diplomacy in an age of instant communication and tweeting leaders. I consider myself a diplomat in the traditional role.

I believe diplomacy can only work when interests are dressed in gray. If you project your interests as a nation in black and white there is little space for diplomacy to work. You have to project ones views in gray so you leave space for deliberation, give yourself space to assess events as they happen and get a sense of what they mean. If you have to react instantly every time then how much space is left for the deliberative process? That is a worry I have. Instant diplomacy is a contradiction in terms. So I think one of the challenges for diplomacy is how do you maintain your relevance in an age of instant communication.

On China

Over the last 15 years, the management of the China challenge by successive governments in India has been quite successful.

The policy has two elements. One is recognition of a mix of areas of real convergence – the economic opportunities that China offers and vice versa, certain policies in respect to climate change, the WTO or even later the G-5, G-20. In all these areas there has been a certain parallel interest as how best to align our interests.

During this time, in both India and China there was a recognition that we were most likely to succeed working together rather than working alone.

The other element is exemplified by the border issue. Which is when India’s interests are being threatened, that needs to be confronted. How do you construct an engagement which both confronts the Chinese and also builds a structure of confidence building?

Since the 1950s, a whole series of confidence-building measures have been constructed to manage our border dispute. Also, over the last 15 years both sides have accepted the value of regular high-level engagement, so we meet at bilateral, multilateral venues on a regular basis.

This frequent high-level engagement has been able to impart a certain balance to the relationship. The summits sent a positive signal through the whole system.

This can be seen in the Brics summit in Xiamen. In 2009 the Copenhagen climate summit the two sides met just after a sharp exchange about the Dalai Lama visiting Arunachal Pradesh. There was rising tension in the relationship but the summit brought the temperature down. There is great value in continuing this high-level engagement.

I would say that, by and large, India has been quite successful in tackling the Chinese. But the context in which we are looking at Sino-Indian relations today is different from what it was a decade ago.

Whereas a decade ago, China saw its interests aligned with the major developing countries as we saw in Copenhagen, which ended with four emerging countries on one side of the table and Barack Obama sitting on the other. This gave a sense to the rest of the world that the emerging economies had arrived.

Today, the Paris agreement is based on a template arrived at by US and China not the Brics (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) countries.

China today sees itself as being benchmarked with the US, hence its use of the expression a “new type of great power relations”. It believes that the critical relationship is that between the US and China. Chinese interests are better served through the US rather than working with other emerging economies.

In our interactions with the Chinese we hear this constant refrain: Our Indian friends should know that our GDP is five times yours. In other words, in the hierarchy of states you are not in our league.

China’s view of us has changed. A strong partnership with India was in the past useful to China. There was a strategic dimension to India-China relations in Beijing’s view. Today, the relationship no longer has that sort of resonance.

On the United States

There have been some shifts in the relationship depending on the president. The initial period of the Obama presidency, for example, there was a recalibration of the relationship of the two countries. We did not see the kind of personal commitment to the relationship under Obama as we saw under George W Bush.

The US was also looking at China as its primary partner in the global sphere in the early years. Obama’s first visit to Beijing indicated what came to be called a “G-2” policy but this idea soon dissipated after China treated him shabbily.

This helped make the Obama-Singh relationship look more positive and this was therefore consolidated afterwards. In the final years of Obama we saw a major uptick in the relationship, especially in the defence sector where we moved to the idea of the co-development and co-production of weapons, and received much better tech access. The Mumbai terror attacks helped make counterterrorism cooperation much stronger and it remains one of the most important areas of cooperation. Yes, the Trump presidency has brought in an element of unpredictability and uncertainty, but this not only true for India but for the whole world. But on balance, looking at the whole relationship, the opportunities arising from working with the US remain considerable and we should look out for them.

On the country’s smaller neighbours

We should recognise from our own foreign policy behaviour, the anxiety of coming under the dominance of a power that is stronger than you.

I am not surprised that India, in this region, with its economic and military capabilities being so much larger that these countries are worried about Indian dominance. It is inherent in the nature of the region. Our challenge is how we should reassure our neighbours that India is an opportunity rather than a threat.

On Indian foreign policy in the past

It is important to be aware of the historical opportunity in which we are making foreign-policy choices. The phase in which we promoted nonalignment was not a period of failure. The nature of the postwar period, one in which had just gotten independence and emerged from two centuries of colonial rule, was one in which the people of India would not have been comfortable with being a subordinate partner of one or another political blocs.

Nonalignment, in that way, was a rational choice. In retrospect we can make a different argument, but in the historical context we made that decision it was sensible.

India needs to have that sense of strategic autonomy – the ability of a country to make relatively autonomous decisions on issues that are vital to its interests. How we tackled issues may have changed in different phases of our history. But I consider that early phase as a relatively successful period of exercising our foreign policy choice.

How do you leverage the asymmetry between India and its neighbours in a positive way and use it to overcome the barriers in the way of developing a congenial relationship with our smaller neighbours.

With the economic reforms we are now a much larger market for others. The expansion of wealth India has experienced can become an engine growth for the region.

But to do so means improving connectivity. This means not only visible infrastructure but, as Manmohan Singh once said, ensuring that borders should become irrelevant so goods, ideas and people can flow freely across. We have fallen rather short of that vision.

There are domestic issues in India, a poor delivery record when it comes to connectivity, and while we have opened our markets somewhat we still limit the access of many neighbours to our market.

This is our intellectual vision, but we have not converted it into practical action. Successive governments have accepted that this is first priority of our foreign policy -- but this has not been translated into actual action on the ground because of capacity constraints.