Shyam Saran Suggests That India Isolate China, But Doesn’t Say How
Shyam Saran’s recent book offers an insight into the nuclear deal yet keeps mum on the policy of non-alignment.
Few Indian diplomats write their memoirs. More often than not, we see retired Indian foreign policy practitioners pontificating in the op-ed pages of Indian newspapers, often berating their counterparts in the MEA for situations going awry. This leaves those on the outside wondering why this wisdom was not imparted or internalised while in office. Students of Indian foreign policy also find it difficult to trace the decision-making processes in Indian diplomacy because of the reticence of Indian diplomats.
Shyam Saran’s book, How India Sees the World: From Kautilya to the 21st Century, is therefore a welcome addition to the literature on contemporary Indian foreign policy because it comes from one of the finest and most cerebral Indian diplomats of his generation who was also part of some of the key foreign policy decisions in recent years.
His book follows another recent one by Shiv Shankar Menon, Choices, which recounted five significant foreign policy decisions made by India in the last two decades. None of these two books is a memoir but Saran’s book goes further in bringing his own role in key negotiations and events to the fore.
Insider Account on India-Us Nuclear Deal
As India’s former foreign secretary and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy for Nuclear Affairs and Climate Change and later as chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, Saran has had a ringside view on some of the key decisions taken by New Delhi. Not surprisingly, his chapters in the US-India nuclear deal and the Copenhagen climate change negotiations are the most interesting, where he tells us the story of how India negotiated these two pacts.
Much has already been written about the nuclear deal negotiations but as a principal participant, Saran’s account underscores how difficult and tenuous this process of achieving the US-India nuclear rapprochement was.
His insider’s account adds significantly to our understanding of what considerations drove Indian negotiators and how they held the Indian red-lines.
Interesting Tale About Sino-Indian Engagement
On the climate change negotiations at Copenhagen, the story of Sino-Indian engagement paving the way for a common BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) position is again interestingly told.
What is fascinating is how China reached out to India, even trying to drive a wedge between India and the US by pointing out that the reference to South Asia in the Sino-US joint statement of 2009 during then US President Barack Obama’s first visit to China was due to America’s insistence!
Notwithstanding Saran’s argument that Kautilya’s teachings provide an underpinning to Indian foreign policy practice, it is China that seems to have imbibed the instrumentalities of sama, dama, danda and bheda with greater perfection.
No Insight on ‘Non Alignment’
The chapters on Pakistan and Nepal are also part memoir, so make for an interesting read by going into the details of how New Delhi handled these two neighbours at critical junctures. It is China which, not surprisingly, occupies a large part of the narrative in the book. Saran has been a longstanding observer of China and knows the country better than most in the Indian foreign policy community. His observations are nuanced and particularly pertinent given the present state of Sino-Indian relations.
He concludes his China chapter by suggesting that not only is it imperative to build India’s comprehensive national power but also that “India must seek to align with other powerful states to countervail the main adversary [China].”
There is nothing controversial about this statement but it is indeed surprising that one of the key quasi official documents of which Saran was one of the authors doesn’t find any mention in his discussion.
In 2012, Saran was part of a group of Indian foreign policy experts which came out with a report on the nation’s grand strategy titled ‘Non Alignment 2.0’ offering a vision of “allying with none” as the best foreign policy option for India.
Its key recommendation was that India should remain “nonaligned” well into the future and refrain from cementing strong strategic “alliances” with other actors. It’s not entirely clear what has changed between 2012 and 2017 for Saran to not only ignore the report but to suggest a closer alignment with the US. One would have liked to know his opinion on the report’s conclusion in today’s context.
How Can a Multipolar System Work for India?
Like a good diplomat from that ubiquitous group called the ‘emerging powers’, Saran is emphatic that the world needs a multipolar system.
Given his knowledge, it is inconceivable that he is not aware of the havoc that multipolar world orders have wreaked on the international system in the past.
There is voluminous literature that without some form of hegemonic leadership, global institutions don’t tend to work.
So how can we move towards some form of global order is a question one would have liked to hear from one of India’s finest foreign policy minds. As academics, we can talk about the need for a stable balance of power till the cows come home but from practitioners we would like to know what exactly Indian options are when it comes to the Chinese onslaught amid a relative American decline and retreat.
Saran also disappoints by playing it too safe when it comes to Modi’s foreign policy. There is a fascinating debate on the change and continuity in Indian external relations of the Modi era from the past. His colleague Menon feels that Modi’s foreign policy is more style and that it lacks an overarching conceptual framework. There are hints here and there but we don’t really know where Saran stands even after reading his 300-page-long book.
Doesn’t Offer Options on Foreign Policy Front
There is one person who is named repeatedly as someone who stood on the other side of an intra-bureaucratic struggle with Saran: MK Narayanan, India’s National Security Adviser of India from 2005 to 2010. This was always known in the foreign policy community in India but to have it from the proverbial horse’s mouth, will add much to the foreign policy analysis of the Manmohan Singh era.
Yet it is hard to believe that during the course of such a long and distinguished career, the only person with whom Saran fought bureaucratic battles was Narayanan. More such details would have made this book even more worthwhile for the students of Indian foreign policy decision-making.
Saran has written an important book. It adds much to our understanding of Indian foreign policy making and the larger worldview shaping Indian diplomats. But this is a time when New Delhi cannot avoid sharp choices given the complexity of its external environment, a fact acknowledged by Saran. A more categorical discussion of these choices would have elevated the discussion even further.
How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century
(Harsh V Pant is Distinguished Fellow and Head of Strategic Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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