I recently got a chance to sit down with Mr.Arun Shourie to discuss matters pertaining to India’s foreign policy as well as China-India relations. Arun Shourie is an Indian economist, journalist, author and politician. He has worked as an economist with the World Bank, a consultant to the Planning Commission of India, Editor of the Indian Express and The Times of India and a Minister of Communications and Information Technology in the Vajpayee Ministry (1998–2004). He was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1982 and the Padma Bhushan in 1990.
Yash Johri (YJ): In C. Raja Mohan’s recent Indian Express column titled: “Raja Mandala: India and Trump’s world“, he concludes by stating, “Delhi must avoid conflict with the powers with which it has serious disputes. It also needs to lift self-imposed limits on security cooperation with the powers that are ready to boost India’s material power. In these troubled times, transactional diplomacy, and not political posturing, holds the key to achieving India’s national goals.” Do you agree with this statement sir, that we need to become more transactional and not depend on earlier arrangements that we took for granted?
Arun Shourie: Of course, everybody’s transactional these days but who is the reliable transactional partner varies by the month. Is Russia a reliable transactional partner for us? Because its one of the biggest suppliers of arms to China and it has now started supplying arms to Pakistan. Similarly, is the United States completely reliable? Trump’s diplomacy is completely unpredictable, there doesn’t seem to be much mind to it.
On the other side, analysts like Raja Mohan have been telling us to enter into strategic partnerships with the United States, which really are tying us into the US network, starting with the nuclear deal. I had stated at the time that this is the first of 5-6 treaties that India will have to enter into including the logistics treaty which actually gives them rights in India, to use Indian bases. So, is that very good? And if we ally ourselves so closely, thinking that we are doing transactional diplomacy then will China sleep?
And the question to ask is if China does anything to India, let’s say in Arunachal Pradesh, will the US or Japan do anything? No. They will look after their own interests. Therefore, while it’s a truism that we should look for transactional relationships, we have to be extremely alert with whom we will be transactional partners at any time and for how long and on what issue.
Yash Johri: In the first year of PM Modi’s government, he visited numerous countries – putting emphasis on the importance of building and maintaining our relationships around the world. However, while today there is still the normal amount of engagement with external powers – do you feel the government’s actions in the ambit of foreign policy are being conducted with elections in mind at all times? How does an observer differentiate between actual strategy and public rhetoric?
Arun Shourie: I’ll quote a senior foreign ministry official. At one stage, Mr Modi had visited the Indian Ocean Rim states. I thought that was a wonderful idea because we need to establish very close relationships with them given the fact that Chinese naval vessels are now surveying the bed of the Indian Ocean systematically for strategic purposes. About a year after his chakkar, I asked this official what follow up has been done to the wonderful initiative of visiting the Indian Ocean Rim states? He replied, ‘Follow up? You must be living in a different world, our foreign policy is just another selfie, so it’s just a photo opportunity. Just see the little Maldives whose population is less than Karol Bagh have shown the thumb to us so has Seychelles, we aren’t sure what’s going to come of the new airport project in Sri Lanka.’
So actually speaking, foreign policy has been reduced to another event, there’s big projection in the Indian media – but in reality, nothing really happens. This is not a function of being understaffed at all, we have never had as large and as weak a PMO as we have today. It’s not that he lacks staff, but he doesn’t listen to anybody, he doesn’t need any advice – for him, it’s just an event and the success of the event is how much projection I have been able to make of it in the Indian media, that’s all. One of our previous National Security Advisors, a very deep thinker, told me that India is now not being taken seriously in any corner of the world – that’s the net result.
Yash Johri: Following the Doklam incident, at the informal summit in Wuhan earlier this year the Prime Minister and Xi Jinping had long discussions and then met again on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Qingdao, with Xi Jinping agreeing to visit India in the first half of next year. At present, there seems to be a spirit of detente between the two Asian powers – what is your reading sir of the current state of the relationship? Is it following the usual trajectory of ups and downs or can we say there’s a break from the past?
Arun Shourie: Did the jhoola ride in Gujarat signal any détente? No. So, we don’t know what has actually transpired in meetings. An observer like Pravin Sawhney has written, at the Wuhan meeting – Modi just gave away all rights to Doklam, he has recognized the Chinese position. We are celebrating the fact that we prevented them from building the last bit, but up till that point they have structures and barracks for an entire operation – they’ve built two highways coming up to Doklam so what is it that we’re celebrating. One can keep talking to the Chinese and they will say yes, thank you very much, we have listened to you.
Look at the disgraceful treatment by India of the Dalai Lama, he doesn’t have any political events, but there are instructions that nobody can attend his events. Is that because they are very staunch Hindus now and they see Buddhism as different or because they don’t want to offend China in any way? The previous government also had a similar approach, but it is a wholly wrong approach.
My perception of the Chinese is that, as they have stated, they see themselves by 2049 becoming the leading power of the world, and certainly they see themselves as the principal power in this region. And we are just for them a potential nuisance, not an actual nuisance especially if we tie up with other countries like the US. Therefore, much of the India-China engagement should be seen as preventing India from going over the American side completely.
Yash Johri: By opposing the One Belt One Road initiative that Xi Jinping had initiated in Astana in 2013 – India has taken a very defiant stand, increasing distrust Indian distrust in China’s activities in surrounding countries as well as hampering cooperation between the strategic and business communities of the two countries? Given the scale, direction and multilateral approval that this initiative garners, do you think it’s smart for India to be so publicly defiant, or should we be more nimble and accept partnerships with the Chinese along with other countries and aim to keep a check on Chinese activity through active engagement?
Arun Shourie: I don’t think we can keep a check on Chinese activities until one has real strength. And the fact that others are going for partnerships with China, shows the economic strength which China has already attained. Take Central Asia for example; what can India do in Central Asian countries that will prevent them from cooperating with China? Their economies are now linked to the Chinese economy, in mineral exploitation, 60% of Kazakhstan’s area is open to China for oil exploration, so what can we really do to persuade them to cooperate with us?
In Nepal, we should have genuine partnerships, but actually, we have pushed the Nepalese into the Chinese lap. Now you think that by engaging with China you can prevent it from utilizing the opportunity, how can that be the case? I don’t know about the idea of opposing it publicly or privately, I haven’t yet studied the options. There’s one good point that the Indians have been making, which is that much of the expenditure will tie countries like Pakistan into a debt trap with the Chinese as we are seeing in Sri Lanka. Now whether these countries will heed our warnings and thank us for these warnings 30 years later I don’t know, but the fact is, at the moment, we cannot do anything to prevent other countries from cooperating with China so long as China has economic might.