‘Early visit of PM Modi to the U.S. would have a positive impact’

Several recent developments indicate the need for India to strategise long term: China’s ambitious connectivity infrastructure in South Asia, the arrival of a new U.S. president, and New Delhi’s increasing political distance from Russia, a traditional ally. Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has been speaking about careful strategising of India’s policies since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014. In this interview, Mr. Saran, who was also a a key negotiator with the U.S. for the nuclear deal, assesses India’s key foreign policy choices. Excerpts:

In the context of recent developments in the U.S., what do you suggest are the best possible options before India to strategise priorities for its global aims?

India will have to deal with the reality of the likely persistence of a Trump administration grappling with domestic political turmoil, the resistance of the Washington elite to several of his policies (witness the strong blowback on his efforts to improve relations with Putin’s Russia), and the growing polarisation in American society. This could mean that external engagement of the U.S. may well suffer, with its global profile becoming relatively diminished.

Nevertheless, India-U.S. relations have become much stronger and broad-based in the past decade and enjoy bipartisan consensus. This is a valuable asset and a factor of stability even in uncertain times. India should seek to expand the relationship wherever possible. Despite its current preoccupations, the U.S. is and is likely to remain the foremost economic and military power in the world and the source of cutting-edge technological innovation. Therefore, it will continue to be an indispensable strategic partner in India’s trajectory towards great power status. Our engagement with the Trump administration should reflect this. An early visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington would have a positive impact.

Following the temporary suspension of premium H-1B visas, there are new concerns about the future of India-U.S. ties over Information Technology. Is the U.S. violating trade ties by suspending the visas? Can India take the U.S. to the World Trade Organisation for violating trade conventions?

One hopes that the suspension is only temporary. The trend towards limiting visas to Indian IT professionals offering their much sought-after services in the U.S. began during the (Barack) Obama administration and is likely to continue. Since issuance of visas is considered to be an immigration issue and not a trade issue, one cannot take the suspension to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism. What we can do is to highlight the fact that Indian IT services contribute to enhancing the global competitiveness of U.S. companies, that Indian IT companies are providing significant employment in their operations to U.S. citizens, and U.S. tech companies in India are some of the most profitable in the world. This is a partnership in which both parties gain.

Furthermore, in negotiating with the U.S. on this issue, we should leverage the fact that India is a growing market for U.S. products and services, in particular for defence hardware and technology. There should be some element of trade-off. Indian IT companies should also adapt to the changed situation by diversifying markets away from the heavy dependence on the U.S. There are expanding opportunities in other parts of the world and within India itself. Advances in digital technology should be used to offer services over cyberspace rather than personnel to clients abroad.

Several attacks have taken place recently against Indian immigrants in the U.S. Do you think that India will have to come up with a new policy on immigration and look at other parts of the world as more favourable immigration destinations?

The hate attacks against Indian citizens and Indian-Americans are most reprehensible. When there is a general anti-immigration sentiment unleashed by the government itself, people with prejudice feel empowered to abuse and attack people who look different from themselves. What is reassuring is the reaction of ordinary American citizens and local communities in support of the victims and the promptness with which local and central administrations have responded. Nevertheless, there is an anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping across the world and we need to be mindful of that. We do not have an official policy to encourage emigration of Indian citizens, but it is the duty of the government to look after the welfare of those who have chosen to seek employment abroad. The ideal situation would be the availability of employment opportunities to all strata of society within our country itself, so that there is less pressure to seek jobs abroad.

There seems to be growing support for the position that given the protectionist policies of the U.S., India should avoid getting too close to the U.S. and invest more in other international partnerships, such as with Russia. Is it time to be more cautious towards the U.S. and build a more robust relationship with Russia, or a quad with Japan, Australia and New Zealand?

The premise behind this question appears to be that we have neglected our relations with the other countries referred to, in favour of strengthening relations with the U.S. In fact, the objective of Indian foreign policy has been to develop and expand a diversified set of relations with all major powers and with countries in the developing world. These relations are never mutually exclusive, nor do they constitute a zero-sum proposition. Even if protectionist trends are visible in some sectors in the U.S., such as IT, there are opportunities to expand trade and investment in other sectors. We have concluded Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements with Japan and South Korea and a Free Trade Agreement in trade, investment and services with the ASEAN. We are participating in negotiations for the conclusion of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership among ten ASEAN countries and India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. These open up significant opportunities to expand our external trade and investment with a broad range of countries. Similarly with Russia, we have been expanding our trade and investment relations, particularly in the energy field. However, we must acknowledge the fact that India is no longer a priority country for Russia in the commercial field. Its focus remains on China and Europe.

On the security side, it also makes sense for India to work with countries with which we have convergent interests but avoiding getting into a military alliance. We have strengthened our security relationships with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Australia and with several ASEAN countries. At the same time, we have maintained the long-standing military relationship with Russia, which continues to be a major defence partner, including in hardware and technology. Even with China, we have maintained military-to-military ties, and will work together with it and other partners in areas of shared interest, such as counter-terrorism, in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Robust relationships should be built with all partners and such relationships should not be seen as mutually exclusive. The more broad-ranging and diversified are these relations, the more options will India have in pursuing an optimal foreign policy.

Have developments in the U.S. left India more vulnerable to China’s aggressive trade and territorial moves?

It is too early to say how developments in the U.S. will affect global geopolitics. If the global footprint of the U.S. and its Western allies diminishes, this may create spaces for other major powers to play a bigger role. We see this already in Russian activism in West Asia and recent Chinese initiatives on the Afghanistan issue. However, it is not clear whether the U.S. under Mr. Trump will reduce its global engagement, so we should wait and see. Furthermore, not all Chinese activism should be considered negative from an Indian perspective. For example, if China is able to contribute to peace in Afghanistan and is able to restrain Pakistani meddling, that should be welcomed.

While India-China relations are influenced by India’s relations with other major powers, it would be a mistake to look at these relations as a mere derivate of the state of Indo-U.S. relations. The future of India-China relations will be determined by how the two countries handle the several bilateral issues between them and whether there is a readiness, despite differences, to seek areas of convergent interest and shared concern and develop a habit of working cooperatively on them. There is an outstanding border issue between the two countries and China reiterates its territorial claims, such as on Arunachal Pradesh, regularly. Recently, the former State Councillor and Special Representative for India-China border talks, Dai Bingguo, stated that India should make concessions in the eastern sector, including Tawang, and China would respond by making appropriate, though unspecified, concessions in the western sector. This is despite the fact that in 2005, in the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles concluded between the two countries, it was agreed that settled populations would be taken into account in any settlement. Both sides understood that this referred to Tawang, which is the only area with a significant population in the border area. We should continue to reject Chinese claims even while seeking an early settlement. At the same time we must strengthen our border defences and capabilities, so that we are able to effectively foil any aggressive moves by China on our borders. Having said that, we should welcome the fact that the India-China border has remained peaceful over the past four decades.

As far as trade is concerned, enhancing the competitiveness of Indian goods and services, developing a modern infrastructure, and improving trade practices and support facilities will be the keys to confront the Chinese challenge. India’s relations with other countries is not really a factor.

Compared to trade and immigration, there is greater convergence over counterterrorism and security between India and the U.S. Yet, India’s concerns on Pakistani involvement in terrorism seems to not be getting the necessary support from Beijing, and surprisingly from Moscow.

Since the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, India-U.S. cooperation on counterterrorism has expanded significantly and has contributed to the security of both countries. Such cooperation is likely to continue and even expand under the Trump presidency. To the extent that Mr. Trump considers jihadi terrorism a threat which needs a robust response, this is positive because it also puts pressure on countries like Pakistan. Some recent measures announced by Pakistan, including the arrest of the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief, Hafiz Saeed, are a response to the likelihood of Pakistan being targeted on the issue of terrorism. While this is welcome, we will have to tackle crossborder terrorism on our own. It cannot be outsourced to the U.S. or any other country. India has garnered support from the international community on the issue of terrorism and no country needs convincing that Pakistan is the breeding ground of terrorism. China, in fact, has isolated itself, and its credibility as a partner in the war against international terrorism has taken a dent as a result of its brazen move to prevent the inclusion of JeM chief Masood Azhar in the UN terrorists list. This is a blow to China’s credibility, not India’s.

Russia has not joined Chinese efforts to shield Pakistan. It has, however, changed its position on the Afghan Taliban and has joined China in initiating peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. There is no reason for India to object to this. However, it is true that Russia has recently improved relations with Pakistan and entered into a military hardware relationship with it for the first time in several decades. This is a matter of concern for India and should be clearly conveyed to our Russian friends. Our response should be to enhance our engagement with Russia rather than react by limiting it.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 11:18:59 AM |

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