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Opening keynote interview by External Affairs Minister at the FT-Indian Express webinar

May 20, 2021

Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times: Welcome to everybody watching from India, China, the US, Europe and beyond. I'm Jamil Anderlini, Asia editor of the Financial Times and I'm delighted to be co-hosting this session with Raja Mohan, Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, and he's also a contributing editor on foreign affairs for The Indian Express. Our distinguished keynote guest is Dr. Jaishankar, India's Minister of External Affairs. He is the first former Foreign Secretary to head the Ministry of External Affairs at the Cabinet level. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1977, and had a glittering diplomatic career, including stints as Ambassador to both the US and China. That's where I first met him in Beijing and I can honestly say he was the most impressive member of the entire diplomatic corps, that I had the pleasure to meet despite, or maybe perhaps because of the fact that he was not a China specialist. I found his analysis extremely insightful and his friendship and hospitality of the highest order. Given the momentous geopolitical changes we're seeing today, this session could not come at a better time, and we're very grateful to have the Minister joining us. Now I'll hand over to Raja for the first question.

C. Raja Mohan: Thank you Jamil. You talked about the geopolitical moment that we are in. I think some people are saying this could be as consequential as the early decades of the 20th century, when new powers were rising, the old economic order was breaking down, and you had new political equations emerge. Today that geopolitics is centred around China and the US, and our entire conference is focused on the fundamental transformation of this geopolitics. Minister, could you tell us how you're looking at US and China? Both these relations have been very dynamic in terms of India's own approach. And that is taking place in a very fluid global context. So maybe you could tell us about both, how you view both the world's most important powers, as well as the context in which your geopolitics is playing out.

EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar: Well before I do Raja, first of all Jamil, it's great to see you again. It's been a long time. And I look back on those days as well, with a lot of nostalgia. And good to see you Raj. Look, I think when one contemplates the world today, it's important to first understand what it is not. It is not Cold War 2.0. It's not Cold War 2.0 because you don't have that kind of sharp military confrontation which Cold War 1.0 did, or the systems are not as firewalled as they were in that era. And I know that era, that's when I started my career.

It is also not today, an issue of nationalism and internationalism. I think, a lot of things have become so much clearer in the last year in terms of the behaviour of states. And I would also caution against, analysing the world, in western and non-western terms. I think the West isn't cohesive, and the non-west is so differentiated, that there is no such concept, really. So what is it? I would say it's a paradox. It's a paradox of sharpening geopolitics, as Raj you mentioned, where values, systems, beliefs, freedoms, have kind of come back into the debate. But that is set off against a very deep interdependence, which has been fostered by 40 years of developing globalisation. And, in fact, there's nothing really like the COVID challenge to remind us of actually how interconnected and interdependent the world has become, but it's not just COVID, I would argue climate change is another example. So, you have a situation where at one level national divisions could be sharper, but at another level global compulsion is greater. So even with COVID, for example, the issues of trust and transparency that they have raised, they reflect both because there is today, an urge to secure yourself, but also an understanding that you have to work with others to make supply chains more resilient and reliable. And my third point is that when we speak about US, China, I completely grant you there is a uniqueness to their relationship. But I think the point which Secretary Blinken made early in the Biden administration, that, the US has to have the ability to both compete and collaborate at the same time. Now, that is for him to define vis-à-vis China. But I would argue to differing extents that is true of all our major relationships that you will see, between US and Europe, between Europe, between India and other power centres. So, US, China are very key elements obviously of the global situation. But the landscape is really far more differentiated, much more granular, much more nuanced than the headlines would make it out.

Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times: No doubt that's absolutely true. But we did see last year, border clashes for the first time where guns were even fired on the border between China and India, we saw dozens of soldiers on both sides, when you add them up, together were killed. I mean, really sort of shocking and horrific events on the border. Where is the relationship now between India and China? And you're right in the middle of this, and you were based in Beijing before, where do you see things between India and China? Where do you see things heading?

EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar: Well, I would say honestly, Jamil, I don't have a clear cut answer at this point of time for this reason. We had the border conflict of 1962. And it took us really 26 years, to have the first Prime minister's visit in 1988, when Rajiv Gandhi went to China. And there was, I would argue, a sort of a 1988 consensus, which has stabilised the border. So if you look at the first decade of the relationship, it was focused on stabilising the border. And there were two very important agreements in 1993 and 1996, which have thereafter led to another 30 years of peace and tranquillity in the border areas. Now, those agreements essentially stipulated that you would not bring large armed forces to the border, and that peace and tranquillity, the line of actual control would be observed, would be respected, there would be no attempt to change the status quo unilaterally. Now, what we saw last year, was actually, frankly, China departing from the 1988 consensus and why I say this is, if you look today at the economic relationship, the relationship in other sectors, they all followed the stabilisation of the border. Through the 80s and the 90s, the focus was on the border and once that settled down, then other things happened.

Now, if you disturb the peace and tranquillity, if you have bloodshed, as you pointed out, if there is intimidation, if there is continuing friction on the border, then obviously there's going to tell on the relationship. So my honest answer to you is, I think the relationship is at a crossroads. And which direction we go depends on whether the Chinese side would adhere to the consensus, whether it would follow through on the agreements, which we both have done for so many decades. Because what is very clear in the last year is that the border tensions cannot continue with cooperation in other areas.

C. Raja Mohan: Minister if I can stay with China for a moment, beyond the border question I mean, there have been other tensions too that have emerged in terms of the Chinese pressure points in the neighbourhood. Its attempt to undermine India's supremacy in the subcontinent, its projection of power into the Indian Ocean. So, there are other difficulties too that are emerging which are complicating the relationship. Maybe you would want to say something on that.

EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar: Look Raja,international politics is competitive. Countries will expand their influence and secure their interests. So I am prepared, and I will do everything I can to be competitive as well. So it’s not that I expect that I will progress in world politics without contestation and without competition, but naturally as the competition gets sharper, I will then also use all the instruments and possibilities that are available to me to strengthen my position. But, you know, it's one thing to compete, it's another thing to have violence on the border. So I would make a differentiation here. Look, I am fairly confident, I'm not a small country, I have my capabilities, I have a high degree of cultural comfort and natural connectivity and societal contacts with my neighbourhood, and not just neighbourhood, I go beyond. I mean, today, my interests extend all the way deep into the Indo Pacific on one side, and to Africa and Europe on the other. So I'm ready to compete. That's not the issue for me. The issue for me is, how do I manage a relationship if the basis of the relationship has been violated by one side.

Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times: I'd like to ask you about the United States. And I think it’s a great dream of American strategic planners that it could draw India into some sort of alliance that would allow it, help it, to contain China. It's sort of the great dream, I think of many in the Pentagon, for example. How is India's involvement in the Quad helping to maybe reassure Americans? Do you see the Quad as China seems to see it as part of an nascent alliance structure with America and other interested countries in the region?

EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar: You know, everybody is entitled to their dreams. And I'm sure the Americans are not the only people who are dreaming. I mean from where you're sitting, I used to hear the word dream as well. So, that's fine. You know, my dreams have to have a basis in reality, if they are to become real. Look at the world, you know. That's why I'd come back to my first point. We need to get over this cold war precedent, which has so conditioned our thinking, because what happens is, because the United States had its way of managing the world through alliances and treaties and the hub and spoke arrangements, etc, there's still an overhang of people who don't understand that's not the world we live in anymore. And it's not just the United States. I mean, we hear from the Chinese as well, this is cold war. Look arguments of the Cold War cannot be used to deny other countries their right to maximise their options. Again, I put it to you, a multipolar world doesn't mean you're talking of alliances and treaties and that kind of rigid international relations. Now, there are anachronistic people who use that term, because they haven't got it. And there are smart people who use that term to deny you options. I will be praying to neither, you know. I'm very clear, I have my interest, I have my strategy, I have by the way my dreams, let me also tell you that. So that's the way it is. So again I think it's important to get in-depth. The issues are more complicated, the players are more balanced vis-à-vis each other. Sometimes what I hear, it's almost very culturally self-centred in a way. I think we need to put all of this into the sort of matrix, churn it and really look at what is the reality we are confronting.

C. Raja Mohan: To follow through on what Jamil asked about the Quad, I mean, if you saw the first Heads of State, Heads of Government meeting of the Quad that took place a little while ago, there the scope of the joint statement increased from the traditional focus on military, freedom of navigation, those kind of issues to one of actually talking about vaccines, talking about collaboration to create resilient supply chains. So in some sense, the agenda has widened with the US, in terms of not just being about balancing China or constructing new coalitions if not alliances, the wider framework that we're talking about, which is to be able to work on resilient supply chains, to be able to create new frameworks for technology partnerships. I know India is going to participate in the G7 plus three summit next month. The idea of technology coalitions too has emerged so how do you see these and where does the US fit in as one of our top partners in the strategic and technology areas?

EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar: Look Raj, with the passage of time, any initiative will mature. I mean it is natural that the second meeting, the fourth meeting, would take it forward. So as someone who was there when the first meeting of the Quad started, when I was still foreign secretary, I've seen it grow. And I agree with you that the agenda has expanded. But I want us all to stop and think about that. Put aside this gamesmanship, that this is directed against somebody, so we shouldn't be doing it because it's called return of the Cold War and that's gamesmanship. Look at the reality out there. The reality is, you have today multiple countries who have a growing degree of comfort with each other, who find that they have a shared interest on key global and regional challenges, like connectivity, like maritime security, like technology, like vaccines, like resilient supply chains, like by the way even climate change, And why is that happening? That is happening because the United States of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s is not the United States anymore, and the Americans have got it. The Americans actually are much more willing to work with other partners, than they were before, and trust me, I mean, I first started doing the US account exactly 40 years ago, that was not the United States I first met. Now, to a great degree, Japan has come out here, and has started to have clearer positions, in terms of its own interests in the world. So has Australia, and where India is concerned, today the fact is more than 50% of my economic interests actually lie East of India. And when I looked at my major partners, which includes Japan, and Korea, and Australia and so, I have a natural interest and activity in the Indo Pacific. So I would actually put it to you that today Quad in a sense fills a gap, a gap which cannot be addressed simply by four bilateral relationships aggregated and a multilateral or a regional structure which isn't there. So something has to fill that space. There is global good there, there are global commons, which need looking after. And I think the Quad helps to fill the gap.

Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times: Staying with China for a second, the US State Department and the Parliaments of the Netherlands, Canada and the UK have all declared the situation in western China, in the region of Xinjiang, to be a genocide. And we have hundreds of human rights groups calling for a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games because of that. I'm very interested in India's view of what is happening in Xinjiang. I'd like to give you the context, we put it to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, well this same question, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan seemed to not have heard of Xinjiang or Uyghurs before. Well, that's what he pretended. So I'm very interested in India's perspective on this question.

EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar: But I don't know if you're going to get a perspective from me Jamil, because I have enough issues with China as it is. I've shared some of them with you. So I would rather focus on the issues that are already on my plate.

C. Raja Mohan: Minister, the focus, I mean, we talked about US quite a bit, both US and China. But Europe is a very large player today, one of the largest economic entities being the European Union. And we've seen in the last few months and weeks, that you've been spending quite a bit of time both reaching out to the Europeans as well as the British who are looking and trying to tilt towards the Pacific. So this is certainly new, because historically we've had problems with both Britain and Europe. But today, how do you see them in relation to US and China? Are they part of your middle power coalition? Or are they partners in consolidating the relationship with the West? Or is it diversification of your overall a great power calculus?

EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar: I think it's sort of a some of the above, all of the above answer. First I'll give you the Indian perspective which is you look at the change in our relationship with the United States. It is natural that the very same logic, in many ways, also makes a stronger case for a better relationship with Europe, including the United Kingdom, which is now out of the European Union. So, at one level, you can say that the broad strategic calculations now unfold with the different set of partners. The second, in a way, it is historic. We had at one time fairly close political relations certainly with Europe and then for a variety of reasons that kind of trailed off. People don't readily figure out that EU is actually our biggest trade and investment partner. So when you look at their weight at the challenges that we face, the interest we have today in resources and technology and best practices, I think, there's a very powerful case for that relationship. But from their perspective, I think they see India,the rise of India, the gains from a stronger partnership. But I think both of us realise one thing that Europe cannot be in a position where it thinks that it has a global interest, but its own activities are limited to Europe. That the world will come to Europe, whether Europe will go to the world or not. So I've spent a lot of time interacting with my European colleagues, and I think this Prime Minister actually has invested more diplomatic energy in Europe than probably any of his predecessors. Jamil, we've just had two important summits which have taken place. Now, understandably, because we are in the middle of the COVID challenge, that's been overshadowed. But in both cases, we have agreed to move forward on our FTA negotiations. These are not just empty statements for the occasion. I actually have a perspective on the progress that has been made. I see in areas like connectivity, on resilient supply chains, or technology, are much stronger bonding with Europe. And to me, most interesting is actually today European countries are embracing some kind of an Indo Pacific strategy. They call it by different names. You have a much greater European presence and a British presence and activity in this part of the world. And I think that's good, because again, it helps for a much more diversified, stable, I would say, management of the global commons.

C. Raja Mohan: Minister, we're beginning to run out of time. Thank you, Minister Jaishankar for joining us and giving us this time and to engage with us in this event organised by Financial Times and The Indian Express. So I want to thank all our audience who are here. I want to just tell them that this show will be accessible on the event website for next 30 days. And I also want to remind the audience after this session closes, within 10 minutes, we have the next session, and that one is going to focus on India-China relations. And it is going to be moderated by Financial Times Chief Foreign Affairs Columnist, Gideon Rachman. So please join us at the next session. And thank you for being with us. So let me conclude by thanking the minister again.

EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar: Thank you both. Pleasure being here.

Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times:
Thank you very much.

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