When India's Ambassador to China S Jaishankar arrived from Singapore last August, he filled two rooms with books and travelled out of Beijing to remote Chinese provinces every chance he had. In his first exclusive interview to an Indian newspaper, Jaishankar described learning Mandarin like a 'slow Indian goods train' and why it's time to refocus bilateral ties based on self-interest and not sentiment.
Interview by China Correspondent Reshma Patil in Beijing...
What has impressed you most about China in the six months since you've come here?
The obvious answer is the modernity and infrastructure. But I would really say it's the mindset, the pragmatism, openness and willingness to do things. When you go to them with an idea they are very responsive. That's not the answer I would have given had I been in India.
Any lessons for India? And what could India teach the Chinese?
<b1>I try to travel as much as I can and interact with Party authorities. I always make it a point to see Chinese business, preferably not in a meeting room, but where they produce things. Then I always try to see historical and cultural sites, out of my own curiosity and interest...and it's a matter of pride for them too. I try to find the time away from the keepers and handlers and get a sense of the place. It's been an education.
When you see the company that produces turbines for the Three Gorges Project, or people who produce bullet trains faster than those of the Japanese and Germans or Huawei and ZTE that are so critical to the efficiency of our telecom sector, you really learn a lot. To repeat Mrs Thatcher's quote on Gorbachev: we can do business with them.
The first thing if you want to do business is to learn to stand up for your rights and learn to express your interests loudly and forcefully...which you've noticed. To me, this is not about sentiment. We have an interest. They have an interest. They are not going to do more than they need to. Why should they? We have to articulate our interests. People appreciate clarity. Nobody has accused me of confusing (them).
China's trade surplus with India is only increasing. Why is it in China's interest to balance the trade?
The Chinese too have to appreciate that if they want a long-term and really big relationship it can't be an unbalanced relationship. The first issue, is are you playing for the short-term or long-term? Big imbalances may be okay in the short-term. You can't do this decade after decade.
I'm not suggesting that they be good to us. I'm suggesting that they be sensible about their own interest. Every relationship between countries, especially between India-China, needs public support. It requires larger societal approval to flourish. To do that, you have to be seen to be fair, to be a two-way street. We need to convey that an equitable relationship is in the enlightened self-interest of China.
You have said China has unduly high trade barriers to manufactured exports from India. What specific products are we talking about and what has been the response to India's concerns? Has India also asked for service sector access to the Chinese economy?
When I came here, I found out what my briefing papers had told me. I also held three to four rapid meetings with businessmen in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. What I am suggesting is not a theoretical position. It's what the industry feels.
There's a very complicated combination of buying practices, tariffs, rules about who gets to bid for what...it's all a complex web. During the commerce minister's visit in January we got very high-level assurances that 'we have heard you, we'll try to do something'. We'll wait and see.
I can't define a specific product. We're an industrialised economy. Look at the basket of what we export. We've focussed on four priority areas of IT, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and engineering goods.
Nobody can say Indian IT is not competitive. We believe we should make a big push for Indian IT. Why should China buy IT only from the west?
China has growing health needs and our pharmaceutical industry is competitive.
I'm not suggesting that China buy something where we're not competitive. We are prepared to help as well. If the Chinese work with Indian engineering companies it'll help them face issues in India as well, like labour issues.
The point is that my pitch is not one-sided, not unrealistic. There's something in it for them. It's a reasonable suggestion. If the Chinese buy Indian IT/pharmaceuticals/agricultural and engineering goods it'll help create better trade balances and more companies will seek a Chinese relationship. They'll end up the better for it. I'm a great believer in self-interest...tell people how they stand to benefit. Certainly, the Chinese like it.
Has the visa row ended?
It was not a row. We were changing our system and needed to explain nicely to the Chinese that it's good for you. Chinese employees on employment visas in India are now so much more secure. I tell Chinese companies, I've put you on a better footing. There are less public complaints and comments.
In early March, we got 50 Chinese companies with projects in India in the same room and explained the new system.
Why are Sino-Indian relations marked by erratic ups and downs? Last year saw a sharp exchange between India and China over the border issue, especially after PM Manmohan Singh's visit to Arunachal. How do you interpret the strength of the Chinese response?
That was last year. This is this year. I'm a forward-looking person. What's behind us is behind us.
How will the 60th year of diplomatic ties impact relations?
There's a huge challenge doing something not done before. Instead of a few high-profile places we're doing it with a decentralised, bigger and maybe lower footprint in 33 cities. There's a big China outside Beijing.
There will be business events in the morning and a cultural festival of India in the evenings. There's a big market for contemporary Indian culture and we want to make the most of it. The name of the game is to get in the minds of the people. The more you do, the more they see, the more society's feelings can be positive.
In this business, intangibles are very important. We are playing tangible and intangible at the same time. We'll focus on our business priority areas and also make people feel better about us. We were hardly ever turned down by any city while organising this.
I'm not expecting a miracle at the end of six months. I thought to myself, why not do this differently? Why not go out there and try to sell India. When we were planning, I had to consult the map to know where some of the 33 cities are located. There's so much out there waiting to be tapped.
What role does the Dalai-Lama Tibet issue play in Sino-Indian relations today?
History is history. We are where we are.
How would you characterise the present state of the border talks? What does India hope to accomplish in the near future?
You have to understand how incredibly challenging it is to solve a border issue of this magnitude. Countries have taken decades to solve issues of pockets of 5 sq km. You're talking about tens of thousands of kms. There are Special Representatives tasked with this responsibility. It's for them to worry about.
If you look at the broad direction of the talks...nobody can say the broad direction in the last 15 years is negative. We'll take time. The nature of the media is to be impatient. We've been steadily moving forward.
The India-China relationship is now being talked about in broader terms than the border issue...
We are changing. They are changing. We are both rising. They may be rising faster. We are both in a world whose rules were not framed by us.
There are two ways to handle it...fashion a very competitive relationship imbued in negativism, or self-interest, my favourite word.
If China can help advance our prospects, why not look at it? A sensible way to look at a relationship is to deal with problems in a civilised way but also to start thinking about how the other country can be used to further interests.
There are so many areas where we have common interests. In Copenhagen, we were closer to the Chinese than the Europeans and Americans.
We need a self-interest driven, unsentimental, non-emotional view of relationships as a way forward. If you remove the emotions given our difficult history, we should say that if working with China helps us, why not?
Some sectors of the Chinese establishment have interpreted India's closer relations with the US as being aimed at them. How have you explained India-US relations and what has been their response?
I don't have to explain anything. The fact is every country works with everybody. Look at the extent of China's relationship with the US...can you say India's relationship is bigger? I've not encountered anybody who could look me in the eye and say they have an issue with India's relationship with other countries.
Does China see India as a rival, potential friend or just another neighbour country? How do you characterise the perceptions Indians have of the Chinese and vice versa and how does this make the relationship more difficult or easier?
We see what we want to see. There isn't a single view or a few views on either side. To me, sensible people always see opportunity. We are one of the biggest business destinations for Chinese equipment and projects. We are today a country with which China has worked very closely on a very critical issue that is climate change. An issue that is often neglected is that we are China's neighbour. There's stability in the south. That border is untroubled.
Are you learning Mandarin?
I don't want to live in a country where I don't know what's going on. My wife Kyoko and I decided early on to learn. She's progressing like a bullet train. I'm like a slow Indian goods train.
When we go out, she does most of the speaking. I'm at a level where I am able to manage my shopping, restaurant eating and make Chinese people happy that I'm making the effort.
I speak a number of languages equally badly. But Mandarin is easier than Japanese. It's more direct and less error-prone. Yes, I do homework also.
How do you spend your free time in Beijing?
We pick a place and wander. Beijing is very livable if you don't have food issues and have basic navigational skills. I play squash. We do activities designed around our 11-year-old son Arjun. Each weekend is different.
What's on your reading list?
I just finished Martin Jacque's When China Rules the World. Interesting book, even though I don't agree with much of it. I'm also reading A Great Wall by Patrick Tyler. It's fascinating to see who gave up what, in return for what, in China's diplomacy.