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Mr. Dhruva Jaishankar is a Fellow in foreign policy studies with Brookings India, New Delhi and the Brookings Institution, Washington D.C. His research explores India’s role in the international arena and the impact of global developments on India.

In this interview, Dhruva talks about India’s relationship with China and Pakistan, the changing geo-political scenario and what it means for us, the role of institutions, implications of various treaties currently in the works and India’s own shortcomings, in context of its aspirations. 

Interview by Mridul Razdan, Sailesh Buchasia and Tushar Singh.

Mridul: Apart from the two-front war we face from China and Pakistan, are there any other security threats that India faces, given that our international stature is bound to grow in the next decade?

Dhruva: India has faced a very large variety of security challenges, right from Independence. I think about 25% of the territory that we have today was at some point of time or another either under threat from separatism or was being claimed by some other country- from Sikkim, Goa, the north part of India, Hyderabad and Junagarh in the beginning (1947 and 1948) to Chinese invasion in Arunachal Pradesh or separatism in Punjab. So, I feel that domestic security challenges have been always first and foremost.  Thankfully now, compared to 25 years ago, we have moved beyond a lot of these and they are not as existential as they were.

Neighborhood security is also very important, and this extends to the Indian ocean. For a country like India which is so dependent on energy resources and trade, sea line communication is very important. And for a long time, the Indian ocean was not a zone which was contested. Now, increasingly it is being more and more contested. I think we will see, by necessity, India having to play a bigger role in preserving the security of the commons particularly that of the Indian ocean.

Obviously, there are two very adversarial relationships with China and Pakistan. Both are revisionist powers. Both seek territory held by India and both are nuclear-armed countries. This makes things more manageable on one level, as I don’t think we will see a major conflict. But the prospect of limited conflicts is certainly possible for which the armed services are prepared.

Finally, I would mention the number of international threats that are not necessarily located in one place but which could affect India, just as it could affect any other country. International terrorism, cyber threats, non-state actors and new military technologies are in some ways new types of challenges. I would add that as another security challenge on top of everything else.

Sailesh: China is trying to displace rather than replace the United States. What is your say on this? Do we see an uni, bi or multi-polar world in the future and what amongst these is the most beneficial for India?

Dhurva: It depends upon how you define a unipolar or a bipolar world. In certain ways, I would say that we are already in a bipolar world, dominated by the US and China. Clearly, India, which is in the second tier of powers below that, would want a position for itself and is obviously hoping that a multipolar world is what happens. Traditionally, multipolar world systems tend to be more unstable, more uncertain and the only way to manage things is by having a better system of understanding and governance amongst the major powers. This is what happened in Europe in the middle of the 19th century, where the five or six major powers managed to work amongst themselves. India would obviously prefer a multipolar world rather than a bipolar or a unipolar world where India doesn’t have a say. But as multipolar systems tend to be more difficult to manage, India would also want institutions in place to manage things, including relations with China and US, that ensure that the system as a whole is not unstable.

Tushar: On that point, do you see existing institutions like the IMF, World Bank and United Nations being reformed, or do you see new institutions like AIIB or SCO gaining more prominence?

Dhruva: So, I think it is a little bit of both. You know part of the reason is that the transition from the Cold War to the post-Cold War period was very unusual and wasn’t accompanied by a major conflict. So, there wasn’t an opportunity to completely rewrite the systems and the rules of the institutions of the old order. And today, many of these institutions are really legacies of the Cold War.

This is less of an issue on the economic side. You still have institutions like the IMF, World Bank and WTO that remain.  WTO has expanded; China and Russia have entered, India is playing a bigger role and so is Brazil. IMF and World Bank have evolved less and have become more marginalised as a consequence. Therefore, you see parallel institutions like BRICS New Development Bank or Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank being set up after the global economic crisis in 2008. In the economic order you have more reforms like the G8 has seen some transformed into the G20, which is a more accurate reflection of the rising economies of the developing world.

At the same time, you are also seeing the rise of some parallel institutions when there is no reform of the old institutions. You feel like the BRICS was set up with the explicit purpose of advocating the reform of the IMF and World Bank. The other area where I think we haven’t seen much reform is on the security architecture. While we have seen some evolution on the economic side since 2008, the security order has not evolved as quickly, and most of the institutions that remain today are vestiges of the Cold War. That, I think, is a bit more of a troublesome area.

Tushar: We’d like to know your opinion on two potential free trade agreements: European Union-India FTA (and now a potential Britain-India FTA post-Brexit) and the RCEP. Are they going to change the dynamics for the Indian economy?

Dhruva: So, these are the two major free trade agreements India is potentially eyeing. I would not hold my breath for either of them, particularly with the European Union. My understanding is that the talks got stalled on a very small set of issues like auto parts, intellectual property issues and agricultural export issues. It really came out to be a very few issues at the end.

However, what we have seen since then politically is the growing protectionism in both the countries, driven in turn by growing protectionism in other countries including both China and the US.  The partial closing of China and the US has spurred more protectionist sentiments in both Europe and India, and other large economies like Japan. So, that in some way has stalled the talks. While talks have been resuscitated particularly after Brexit, I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere very fast.

Also, India feels that while it is not competitive on the goods side (barring some areas), it is much more competitive on services and labor mobility where the Europeans are not willing to budge for their own political reasons. I think we are a bit stuck. The talks would still continue because it is in the interest of both sides to keep this alive, but at best we will get a watered-down agreement and it may take a long time still.

RCEP I think is a bit closer to being finalised. I think they hope to have some framework in place by the end of 2019. We have big concerns about China, with whom we have a massive trade deficit of 60 billion dollars, which will only be exacerbated. India is seeking certain dispensations – a carve out-  from China in negotiations.

Even if we take China out of the equation, I think there are concerns around certain core goods that India will be swamped with, by competitors from ASEAN. India was hoping that there will be more benefits in terms of services and labor mobility, but those have been watered down significantly- there has been protectionist sentiments growing in Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore- and therefore, I think India doesn’t have too many options on the table. My concern is that India may find itself in a bad situation, as there are costs for India to join including certain sectors in the Indian economy but there are equal costs for not joining, both strategic and economic. So, in some ways, it is quite a dilemma for India and it will only be resolved after the general election.

Mridul: What is your near-term prediction for the unstable states of Afghanistan and Venezuela?

Dhruva: Venezuela is having an older issue related to the collapse of its economy under Hugo Chavez and then his successor Maduro. We have a situation recently where certain powers like the US and Europe are trying to take advantage of the current economic crisis to lead to a change in government. I don’t know how that will pan out. Russia is very involved in that as well. India does have a role to play in Venezuela as it is India’s second largest importer of crude oil which is not only Venezuela’s largest export good but also a source of revenue for it. So India has been keeping a low-profile role on the Venezuela crisis but it surely has implications on India.

Afghanistan is much more immediate, because the future of Afghanistan has very direct security implications for India. India has suffered under Taliban and other times when Afghanistan became a safe haven for terrorist groups. So, there is a very direct stake over here. The problem with Afghanistan is that the number of variables in the next few months, which makes it very uncertain and difficult to predict what will happen. This includes the state of politics in Afghanistan – we have the Presidential elections coming up with a large number of candidates. We expect an increase in fighting in summer. We also have some divisions emerging within Taliban as well. The state of peace talks involves two parallel processes, one involving the US and the other led by Russia.  Both are very tentative but not many developments have taken place. At the same time, a lot of external actors like Russia and Iran are changing their stance on what end-state they would like to see in Afghanistan. Pakistan, obviously, sees an opportunity here but is constrained in taking the advantages. China’s role also has come into play.

Amidst all these uncertainties, strangely enough, it is India that has been quite consistent in terms of what it would like to see. It is helping the Afghans, the state and the people, in terms of providing aid, capacity building and now some very early but limited security assistance. India has recently become the largest export destination for Afghanistan and is also building connectivity infrastructure via Iran. India is certainly playing a critical role which is appreciated by the Afghans, but I do not think it is always recognized by Indians or other countries. At this point of time, India could just continue with its position because everything else is very uncertain.

Sailesh: Will the potential black-listing of Pakistan by FATF be beneficial for China as such a decision will cut off Pakistani access to international sources of credit, making China its lender of last resort?

Dhruva: It is difficult to say. The China-Pakistan relationship is quite old, it dates back to 60s or somewhere. It has taken on different guises during different times. Starting in 1976, China provided nuclear technology to Pakistan and then in late 80s and 90s started providing missile technologies to Pakistan. CPEC in some way represents another phase of China-Pakistan relations, a much more significant and a deeper one because it is really about the intertwining of the two economies.

I think China would not want to take all of Pakistan’s problems on its lap. It has been happy with the US and other powers like India dealing with Pakistan’s problems, while reaping the benefits of that relationship. In fact, some of the leaked documents to the Pakistani press on CPEC suggest that the Chinese have concerns about over-investing in Pakistan as well. They believe that they can only invest up to a billion dollars and Pakistan can only absorb two billion dollars because it would lead to secondary order effects for the Pakistani economy.

I think there have been a lot of wild figures thrown around CPEC. The amount is neither insignificant nor inflated, like 60 billion dollars, that is being floated around. Thus, it will still have implications on Pakistan’s macro-economic stature in terms of paying off these debts. Many of these debts will come to haunt Pakistan around 2020-2021, mostly in the power sector. So, we will see a situation where Pakistan will inevitably be more indebted to China. The FATF will have a marginal effect on that. I personally doubt that China will be willing to blacklist Pakistan as they are unwilling to condemn Pakistan on Mazood Azhar, which is much more minor issue, because Jaish-e-Mohammad has been already listed as a terrorist group in the UN Security Council.

The only reason China was willing to grey list Pakistan was because India was willing to back China’s vice-presidency in FATF. So, I think it would require India to give something significant if China has to budge and even then, they may not do so. So I am a bit sceptical, obviously there will be a lot of pressure on China not only from India but others as well who will be pushing the case to blacklist Pakistan but I think the relation with Pakistan is far more important to China.

Tushar: We’ve talked about China, Pakistan, Venezuela, Afghanistan and the inevitable rise of India. Keeping this in mind, do you think that the Ministry of External Affairs is understaffed, considering that we have the 12th highest number of diplomatic missions in the world, which is not bad but not the best?

Dhruva: My understanding is that there are a few more embassies opening in Africa. India has the 8th or 9th largest number of embassies (not counting consulates) in the world. So it is spread very wide and spread very thin. Obviously, the diplomatic core is quite small, it is a little over 1000 now. The diplomatic intake is somewhere around 40 per year, and this is an increase from 12 per year in the 1990s. I suspect the intake to stay there.

The problem has less to do with the diplomatic, the foreign services in particular, and more with administrative reform in India as a whole. The IAS, which staffs many ministries at the senior level, not to mention state governments and districts, is not that much larger than the IFS (about 5 times larger). So, I think there is a larger issue in India of bureaucratic capacity and bureaucratic reforms that has to be addressed. The Foreign Service is one part of that. The idea that IFS can be expanded without expanding the rest of the bureaucracy is a nonstarter in an ideal world, given India’s interest. In the meantime, as there has been this marginal increase in the foreign service, I think they are trying to explore other alternatives to increase the capacity. One is that there has been a lot of lateral entry, particularly from the armed forces. 60-80 military officials are now stationed within MEA, grouped in various divisions. There is now a small program for consultants from academia to come in, and I think there are about 20 currently in the MEA. You have people from other ministries now staffing the embassies as well (from science and technology, commerce and things like that). There is now a unit which coordinates with think tanks, primarily in India, to improve things like public diplomacy and public messaging.  A lot of counsellor services (passports and other services) have been outsourced and privatised. These are some attempts made to increase the capacity even though the number of diplomats hasn’t increased dramatically. But, again in an ideal world, obviously, India, given her growing demands, needs more diplomats. I don’t see that happening without a very large scale bureaucratic reform in India.

Tushar: Do you think there is a gap between the actual position of India and the perception of India abroad? Do you think that India is still not given as much importance as it should be?

Dhruva: Absolutely, there is a gap between perception and reality. One of the things I find myself doing is simply telling people what the reality is and people are more often surprised that not. I’ll give you one example, there is this idea that India is a very reluctant partner in the Indo-Pacific. Sometimes, I have to lay out what all India is actually doing in the Indo-Pacific, and these are not things I would like India to do but activities India is doing already, whether it is naval patrols in the Indian Ocean, whether it is the number of logistics agreements India has signed in the last two years, whether it is patrols in the Malacca Strait in the Gulf of Aden, whether it is the capacity building efforts like providing patrol vessels to Sri Lanka or Vietnam. Simply telling people about it is actually quite interesting, as it shows how little is often known. Some of this has got to do with poor public messaging, some of it is part of an old mindset that will take time to evolve and some of it is deliberate underplaying of Indian effort.

I’ll state another example. I am often asked why India is not playing a bigger role in the Rohingya Crisis between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The fact is that India was playing a role, whether it was providing aids to the camps of Bangladesh or back-channel discussions with both governments. Particularly for political sensitivities, India didn’t want a high profile role as there was risk of alienating both partners. But there was a widespread perception that India wasn’t doing anything. I think there is this gap which will continue for some time and in some places it is very much warranted that India is not doing enough. There is this growing demand and expectation, whether it is Africa or Southeast Asia for India to do more. Sometimes, there are some unrealistic expectations that India can play a role akin to China 10-15 years ago, which is not possible for a variety of reasons, even if the Indian economy is in a similar state as the Chinese economy was in 20 years ago.

So, I think sometimes there are some unrealistic expectations but India needs to do better job of managing these expectations – saying what is possible and what’s not, what are the costs and the benefits. Another very good example in recent time was of  the Maldives, where there was an expectation that India would play a very assertive militaristic role, which is very contrary to the past where people worried about India playing a militaristic role. And ultimately, India decided, for a variety of reasons, to play a role in facilitating the transition back to democracy without using any overt military tools. In hindsight, it paid off but at the time there was a very robust debate. So, all these are signs of growing expectations of the international community.

Sailesh: “The next Dalai Lama could be found in India”. How important a statement do you consider this to be by the 14th Dalai Lama, in terms of the relations between India and China in the upcoming years?

Dhruva: The politics of the reincarnation of Dalai Lama is a very tricky issue, which is central to his fleeing to India that eventually led to the 1962 border war. So, it is a very sensitive issue for both India and China. There is a large number of Tibetan communities in exile primarily in India and in other countries as well. I think given the experience of the Panchen Lama, where you did have two disputed Panchen Lamas, one backed by the Chinese communist party, there is an expectation that there will be two Dalai Lamas declared. One in exile possibly in India or else-where and one in China. I think the current Dalai Lama understands that there is a certain possibility that this will happen.

I think the question not just for India but for the Tibetan Community in exile is, “What happens after the passing of the current Dalai Lama?”

There are conflicting forces. On one hand, you have a less-pacifist youth who were born in-exile and never went back to Tibet. On the other hand, there is an expectation that Dalai Lama will remain more of a religious than a political figure. As a matter of fact, you had the elections for the Sikyong, that is, the Tibetan Prime Minister in-exile. This suggests, perhaps, that the political role played by the current Dalai Lama may not continue after him and might take up a more secular characteristic. This will then lead to questions regarding where the leadership for the Tibetans in-exile would come from. They themselves are divided amongst various sects, and the Dalai Lama represents only one of those sects. So, there might not be a consensus candidate on that front and all of these uncertainties will emerge. It will have very important and direct implications for how China perceives its control over Tibet. What we are seeing in Xinjiang is China becoming much more insecure about its rule: mass detentions of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even up to a million people. The question will be – what will be the response in Tibet?

Tushar: This is more of a prediction than a question. In 1996, APJ Abdul Kalam released his vision called ‘India 2020’ which represents India’s ambition of becoming a superpower in 2020. One year before 2020, in the interim budget, the government released ‘India 2030’. Now we say we want to become a superpower in 2030 because it’s pretty clear we won’t be a superpower by next year. So, what’s your prediction? Which year would be the year by which India will become a superpower?

Dhruva (laughs): It depends on what you mean by a superpower. It is also good to have aspirations, even if those aspirations are not matched. To give a more mundane example, India has set a very ambitious target for renewable energy, 100 gigawatts by 2022. Even if India falls short of that, and makes it by 2025, that’s still a good thing. So, I think it is useful to have such targets and aspirations because without them we are not going to get anywhere. I think, the main question in this modern age is, “what is a superpower”, and in some ways, India already is one. You are a country having the world’s largest diaspora, third largest energy importer, largest arms importer, soon to be the world’s largest population, and one of the world’s largest work forces. So, from a human capital perspective and from a market perspective, India in some ways is already a superpower.

In other aspects, obviously, it is very far away from being one. If you look at the most per capita indicators, India falls very short. So, on certain issues, defense and security, for example, it is the aggregate and the collective that matters more. The Soviet Union was a superpower and was asserting influence around the world even though its economy wasn’t in good shape. Clearly, that’s not sustainable and I am not advising India should be like the Soviet Union. All I am saying is that you can have different dimensions of power at the same time and in certain areas, like aggregate power which India will have first, will matter more. In other areas, the per capita basis will matter more and India will be many decades away from being a Switzerland. So, that is very unrealistic.

I do think here the comparisons with China are useful up to a certain extent. India won’t be like China in many ways. There are a lot of things that China can do just by the virtue of its ‘command and control’ politics and its economy that India, even if it had the same GDP, would not be able to do. But that being said, China has been a very positive pace-setter. We forget that in the 1980s, the Indian economy was bigger than China, and today the Chinese economy is almost 5 times bigger than that of India. China has shown what is possible. I think what it has shown is that it is possible to grow very rapidly over 20 years. I am not saying that India will do that but certainly, India can aspire to greater things. So, who knows? In some ways, by 2030-35, India will be a superpower while in other areas it may take fifty years, and maybe even never in some.

So again, I think it depends very much upon how you define a superpower.


Had a fun time? Listen to the complete conversation here: Podcast with Dhruva Jaishankar