India’ top diplomat S Jaishankar urges Western foreign-policy elites to engage in serious dialogue and compromise
By JAVIER M. PIEDRA
India has been sending a consistent message to the West over the past several years – apparently to no avail. The US may think in terms of a (conceptually problematic) Indo-Pacific region, but India is part of the Eurasian landmass; it sees itself more as a land/sea power than a maritime one.
India, as a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), seeks a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific within the greater Eurasian context. This means that India will continue to deal with Russia, Iran, China and Myanmar (and anyone else) as it sees fit.
India perceived the changing dynamics in international relations long before Western foreign-policy elites caught on. It will decide matters of national security and external affairs according to its own perception of its interests.
Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, in recent public appearances, has been trying to drill some sense into the ossified heads of Western foreign-policy elites.
One sometimes feels he has taken a leaf from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. The one in which two tailors convince the Emperor they can weave him a wardrobe that is invisible to fools or incompetent servants of the realm when in fact they make no clothes at all. They persuade onlookers to believe that the Emperor is wearing invisible clothes.
Jaishankar’s message is that the policies of Western intellectuals have not been working, and unbeknownst to themselves, they are walking around buck-naked. Afghanistan, of course, has drawn devastating attention to their nakedness.
Global politics have changed
If the West wishes to engage India meaningfully, it should pay attention to Jaishankar. As former foreign secretary of India and ambassador to the US and China, he has repeatedly counseled the West’s foreign-policy elites to ditch their post-1989 obsession with geopolitical gamesmanship – not his words – and engage in serious dialogue and compromise with other countries.
In other words, Jaishankar is saying that just as the East India Company (1697-1857) and the British Raj (1858-1947) are things of the past, so is the post-1989 unipolar world. Global politics have changed.
Jaishankar is calling on the West to reflect on many of its failed approaches to problem-solving in foreign affairs and accept that a rebalancing is taking place in the world. In his view, genuine dialogue and teamwork are more appropriate to current world affairs than the one-sided unilateralism, whining and zero-sum vision of Western foreign-policy elites of recent years.
Multipolarity is more than a weighted distribution of power among states – however that might be calculated – in which several groupings of states have roughly equal diplomatic, military, cultural, and economic influence. There’s more to it than that. A foreign policy viable over the long term, he insists, must be based on the inherent rights of sovereign nation-states. It does not matter however strong or weak, to engage, co-exist and have independent voices despite power asymmetries.
Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington shortly after being appointed external affairs minister, Jaishankar stated that “a country keeps [its] relationships well-oiled with all the major power centers. And the country which does that best actually has a political positioning in the world which may be superior to its actual structural strengths.
“Good diplomacy,” he continued, “means more today than it did a few years ago.” He was urging the West to re-examine its current approach to foreign policy or risk irrelevance by alienating otherwise potentially friendly nation-states and disrupting the international system.
An Indian proverb captures this nicely: “When the direction of the wind changes, adjust the sails on the boat.” That’s what India expects of the West. Namely, to institute a course correction lest sticky situations that could be resolved diplomatically descend into chaos. Afghanistan today is a good example, and there are many others.
The West must not forget that history weighs heavily on India, which played no important role in the post-World War II order, and which had only a limited say in the Partition of British India in 1947.
The days of the British East India Company are over
Because of this, and given India’s undeniable rise in the 21st century, the West must be careful not to exclude India from the “high table,” as Jaishankar has said. The West must neither be seen in India as using the country to underwrite its own geo-strategic objectives nor as a toll road or platform for its own commercial interests.
The days of the British East India Company are oer. Its motto, “By Command of the King and Parliament of England,” no longer applies to India. And much less to Eurasia.
India is a forgiving nation but has a long memory. At the Atlantic Council in 2019, Jaishankar reminded the West of India’s “two centuries of humiliation” at the hands of the British.
He would never have said that in an open forum with the cameras rolling unless he wanted to remind his audience that Britain extracted from India the equivalent of some US$45 trillion during the colonial period. He wanted to convey a message: It’s high time the West rethinks its approach to international engagement, and especially to India.
The West must come to grips with the fact that “there is a very radical change underway in the world. A radical change in the sense that this time around, really, the 1945 world order is running out of gas.”
At the India Economic Conclave this March, Jaishankar said that China “has strategically ‘out-thought’ the West over successive generations. That explains why they are where they are. I’ve always seen lessons in China’s growth. In China’s importance, salience, centrality, call it what you want. To me, yes, China is a neighbor. And in many ways a challenging neighbor. It should inspire us.”
India sees the use of military as a last resort
One might infer Jaishankar thinks that if the West picks a fight with China, it must be the right fight. If it bites off more than it can chew, the outcome could well be far from pleasant. India sees the use of the military as a last resort. It was evident when India, in 2020, deployed reinforcements to Ladakh’s Galwan Valley.
The joint press conference of US Secretary of State Anton Blinken and Indian EAM Jaishankar on July 28 in Delhi further confirms that India lost patience with Western sermons about India’s violations of human rights, which India does not deny. But when similar violations are leveled against the West, somehow the “Emperor” is fully decked out in new clothes.
Jaishankar was nothing if not diplomatic when reacting to Blinken’s criticism of Indian democracy. Jaishankar made three pointed observations: “Number one, the quest for a more perfect union applies as much to Indian democracy as it does to the American one – indeed, to all democracies.
“Number two, it is the moral obligation of all – of all polities to right wrongs when they have been done, including historically. And many of the decisions and policies you’ve seen in the last few years fall in that category.
“Number three, freedoms are important, we value them, but never equate freedom with non-governance or lack of governance or poor governance. They are two completely different things.”
To criticize the United States at a press conference is not an everyday event. India is telling the West that diplomacy comprises many views, opinions, and approaches. No single country holds a monopoly on virtuous political views and economic leadership.
Dealing with China
India knows that the West has the habit of switching sides. There are many examples. Jaishankar reminds his Western counterparts that “when India was defeated in 1962, the West actually came to the assistance of India. But in less than a decade in 1971, when it seemed to the West that India was seeking primacy in the subcontinent, the West opposed India.”
There are certain red lines that should not be crossed; the West must be more consistent in its policies and show greater loyalty to its friends. It is a reasonable assumption that, here, Jaishankar is thinking of Pakistan’s historically close ties to the US.
With respect to China, Jaishankar continues to meet with his Chinese counterpart, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. As reported on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, “China-India relations still remain at a low level, which is not in the interest of either side.” Nevertheless, expect the two sides to continue to engage in smart and tough diplomacy, making every effort to refrain from military encounters.
India will hold its ground, especially on matters of territorial integrity. But in the first instance will negotiate to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. In this respect, Indian Army Chief General Manoj Naravane, like Jaishankar, understands the seriousness of the ongoing Sino-Indian border dispute along the Line of Actual Control. But rather than hurling bombs at the Chinese in public, he exudes a calm optimism. Showing no signs of paranoia or fear about China’s encroachment across the LAC.
“Trust but verify”
“China,” he says, “is trying to force its way and change the status quo with little regard for the interest of neighboring countries … trying to bulldoze its way. [Countries] need to take a stand and safeguard their interests…. [But] we must believe that China is serious this time [about finding a non-military solution to our northern border] and that [it] will abide by all clauses of this particular and previous agreements.”
The Indian army chief then calmly said that India’s approach to China is to “trust but verify.” It is ironic to hear a foreign statesman evoke Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” mantra at a time when Western leaders have veered so sharply from Reagan’s (wildly successful) approach to ending the Cold War.
India and China recognize that the border issue is “visibly impacting the relationship in a negative manner.” But as reported in the Kashmir Observer in July, “India and China have once again agreed to resolve their border standoff in Ladakh as prolonging the existing situation ‘was not in the interest of either side.’”
And as David Goldman predicted in his Asia Times article “Cardinal Richelieu and the ghosts of empires past,” “India will quietly make its accommodation with China.” That seems to be the direction of Sino-Indian relations, whether the West likes it or not.
Those in the West who are trying to convert the Quad from a strategic dialogue to a NATO-like military alliance should think twice, because the Indians will oppose its militarization.
No ‘Asian NATO’
“The idea that when we come together and there is some sort of a threat or messaging to others, I think people need to get over this.… Using words like ‘Asian NATO,’ etc, is a mind-game which people are playing,” said Jaishankar.
“I can’t have other people have a veto about what I’m going to discuss, with whom I’m going to discuss, how much I’m going to contribute to the world. That’s my national choice. That kind of NATO mentality has never been India’s. If it has been there in Asia before I think it’s in other countries and regions, not in mine.”
One hopes that “neo-Mackinderite” proponents of the “Great Game” in Eurasia are listening.
As Jaishankar has said, the “Quad is an expression of convergence of interests of many countries. It’s in many ways a reflection of the contemporary nature of the world order. We have to put the Cold War behind us; only those who are stuck in the Cold War can’t understand the Quad.” Going one step further, Jaishankar sees South-South cooperation as further evidence of the rebalancing that is taking place.
The West’s double standards
Minister Jaishankar, on his second trip in two months to Tehran, was more than clear when speaking of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi: “A warm meeting with President Ebrahim Raisi after his assumption of office. Conveyed the personal greetings of PM Narenda Modi. [Raisi’s] commitment to strengthening our bilateral relationship was manifest. So too was convergence in our regional interests. Looking forward to working with his team.”
Another disheartening moment for “neo-Mackinderites.” Jaishankar is not taking issue with the West for holding Iran accountable for human-rights violations and the export of terrorism, but he is saying that India will hold talks with anyone it pleases; 1989 is so yesterday.
Another point worth reflecting on: What must Eurasian countries think when the West condemns Communist China, as it should, but showers praise and taxpayers’ money on Communist Vietnam? Vietnam’s leadership, after all, are committed communists whose track record on human rights is less that brilliant. The West’s double standard at the ideological level is surely as clear to Jaishankar as it is to everyone else.
Ties with Russia
India and Russia have just wrapped up joint anti-terrorist military exercises in the Volgograd region in southern Russia. On a three-day visit in July to Moscow to prepare for the India-Russia bilateral annual summit, Jaishankar tweeted, “A warm and productive meeting with FM Sergey Lavrov. Reviewed preparations for our bilateral Annual Summit. Wide-ranging discussion on regional issues: Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Libya and Caucasus; ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific.
“Spoke about recent global developments including Russia-US relations. Satisfied with our cooperation in multilateral organizations including UNSC. The quality of conversation reflected our special and privileged strategic partnership.”
To fill in the gaps, it wouldn’t hurt to read Jaishankar’s speech “India-Russia Ties in a Changing World” that he recently delivered at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
And at the sixth Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 3, Prime Minister Modi reiterated the special and privileged partnership between India and Russia.
“India and Russia will be partners in opening of the Northern Sea Route for international trade and Commerce.…. The friendship between India and Russia has stood the test of time.… India will be a reliable partner for Russia….
“I am happy that the Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor is making headway. This connectivity project along with the International North-South Corridor will bring India and Russia physically closer to each other.” Eurasian connectivity and Indo-Russian partnership is clear-cut.
There is much for the West to reflect upon. Jaishankar is not spouting “talking points” when he says that “the West [at different times] didn’t want India to get too weak, and the West didn’t want to let India get too strong.”
He seems to be saying that it will not be easy for India and the West to build a lasting strategic relationship unless India is no longer viewed, as it was in the past, as a pawn in a much larger geo-strategic game that is still going on in the minds of foreign-policy elites. Post-1989 hubris must stop.
Rarely heard in Western media, Gravitas, a Delhi-based Indian news channel, has produced a provocative commentary that captures, rightly or wrongly, the sentiments of many in Asia toward Western foreign-policy elites, especially considering the debacle now playing out in Afghanistan.
“The US needs India’s strategic partnership at this point to tackle China, to tackle climate change, to beat the pandemic. Tells you how flimsy their ideas really are. You see, every friendship has a red line, in this case, that red line is domestic interference.
“The US cannot waltz in and weigh in on Indian democracy. No country can. And that’s the whole point of mutual respect and sovereignty. The question is ‘how can India and the US find a balance?’ The United States has no permanent friends, just interests.”
The West must work harder to convince India, through words and deeds, that it sees India as more than a strategic pawn, a customer for military equipment or a platform to secure supply lines from China. Climate change, infrastructure, connectivity, capital markets, digital, data and people exchanges are all well and good, but in the final analysis, India, as any nation-state, wants to be treated with respect and dignity.
G20 has really replaced G7
Western elites must get used to the fact that, as Jaishankar says, a geo-strategic repositioning is taking place in Eurasia. “And if there is a single way by which to capture [the much larger strategic and cultural recalibration under way], it is the fact that today the G20 has really replaced the G7 as the primary body for global deliberations.”
Jaishankar might be on to something. The Group of 20’s broad membership and penchant for constructive diplomacy just might induce our “neo-Makinderites” to reassess the politics of confrontation, and the Quad to become more inclusive and a mechanism for constructive engagement.
Speaking at a meeting of the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council on September 2 in Bled, Slovenia, Jaishankar observed: “Europe needs to know that it has friends in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific; that a lot of the principles and the outlook that Europe has, a lot of other countries share. I think that the binary – Western/non-Western – is a false binary.”
India will act as India wants
In other words, India rejects the thinking that justified the British Raj, and that still dominates the post-1989 reasoning of many Western foreign-policy circles. India will act as India wants; we can expect others to do the same.
And so, as the Emperor and his foreign-policy mandarins strut about in their “new clothes” (while in reality being buck-naked), pretending to hold the keys to the kingdom, the bringers of peace, prosperity, and stability, EAM Jaishankar, and others, have the temerity to point out, “But the Emperor has no clothes!”
NATO’s botched Afghan policy and exit, the further unraveling of “neo-Mackinderite” foreign-policy thinking, the forward march of Eurasian economic and cultural ties, and the rebalancing that Jaishankar has been talking about for years, just might force the much-needed agonizing reappraisal of Western policy that was needed in 1989, and again in 2001, but never happened. Perhaps this time it will.
Javier M Piedra is a financial consultant, specialist in international development and former deputy assistant administrator for South and Central Asia at USAID