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India’s Foreign Policy: Is ‘Politician’ Jaishankar Doing His Best?

‘Politician’ S Jaishankar may be at odds with his diplomat avatar. How does it affect India’s foreign policy?

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
India-China relations or ties with the new US administration, can External Affairs minister S Jaishankar deliver as a politician? 
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(This article was originally published on 7 December 2020 and has be republished from The Quint's archives in the backdrop of Union Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar’s comments on China.)

In an interview to an Indian daily on 3 December, external affairs minister S Jaishankar dwelt on several significant current and enduring aspects of India’s external engagement. These included: India-China ties which are going through a period of the greatest stress after the events of 1962; India’s neighbourhood policy at a contentious time with some countries; India-Pakistan relations; and, much more.

Jaishankar treaded the beaten path in much of his articulation but some of his views—and their—implications merit attention. For, they give rise to significant queries and conclusions.

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Can China See India Isolated from US?

Jaishankar stated that India and China should “for our own long-term future… take the bilateral path that is mutually respectful and mutually sensitive”. Currently, he noted, “India approaches China more bilaterally, but with the challenge of global rebalancing”. On its part, China, according to him, “is more affected by third parties, whether in our region” and “in their global calculations”.

Thus, Jaishankar suggested that China should not consider its relations with India as a sub-set of its relations with the United States and as secondary to its ties to Pakistan. And, if China did this, India, in turn, would only look at it in the bilateral context through the “challenge of global rebalancing”.

Jaishankar’s proposition raises several serious issues. Can China insulate its India relationship from its larger diplomatic push?

Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the country has embarked on a serious quest for great global influence on the back of the comprehensive rise in its national power. The dominant obstruction it faces in its path is from the United States. It is therefore inevitable for it to construct its overall external approaches to meet the US challenge.

Is India’s China Policy Valid After Galwan and Doklam?

Further, for over five decades China has sought to ensure that Pakistan drags India down. It has steadfastly supported Pakistan’s hostility towards India and helped it in acquiring the where withal to do so including in going nuclear. Hence, can China pull down a fundamental pillar of its India policy?

More importantly, if China—accepting Jaishankar’s suggestion—insulates its India relationship from its global thrust and also modifies its Pakistan policy, can India afford to remain indifferent to its rise? Or, is it Jaishankar’s assessment that China’s rise will be effectively stymied by the US and India can therefore take a hands off approach in this whole process?

In other words, is he advocating to go back to a Nehruvian non-aligned policy?

In the context of India’s present problems with China, Jaishankar drew attention to the bilateral impasse Sumdorong Chu—which took years to resolve. He correctly said that “complicated issues will take time” and that under media pressure a sub-optimal deal should not be accepted. His reluctance to avoid going into details because of ongoing negotiations is understandable. However, the real issue is if after this year’s developments the premise of India’s China policy continues to be valid.

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Jaishankar’s Baffling Terms of Engagement with China & Pakistan

Jaishankar candidly admitted that South Asia “cannot be insulated from the rest of the world”, hence China cannot be kept out. He said that India will have to develop improved and more intense cooperative ties with its neighbouring states to match the competition. He asserted that India was working to comprehensively enhance its linkages with the neighbourhood.

The real issue is how India will address its security concerns with China’s ingress. Surely, that cannot all be through only benign cooperative mechanisms with neighbouring countries.

Jaishankar is right in forthrightly maintaining that India-Pakistan dialogue cannot begin till Pakistan continues to adhere to terrorism. The criterion he indicates to judge this for the renewal of the dialogue, though, is baffling.

It is that the Pakistani authorities’ “distance” themselves from a terrorist attack. Thus, contact is whimsical: there was engagement after the Pathankot attack but Pakistan did not cooperate after the Uri attack. The question is what did India’s cooperation with Pakistan after the Pathankot attack achieve? The criterion for renewing purposeful contacts with Pakistan should be one, and only one: its abandonment of terrorism and that means putting an end to all terrorist infrastructure.

Is ‘Politician’ Jaishankar Better Than His Diplomat’s Avatar?

Jaishankar is sanguine about the maintenance of the upward trajectory in India-US ties both on objective factors and because he knows the people who will hold office in a Biden administration. The former aspect is right but it is in the latter that he may be in for a surprise.

He has now donned the mantle of a BJP politician and he will interact with his counterparts on through this avatar, not his former diplomat’s persona.

He has himself emphasised that he is now a politician. His interlocutors will give him little quarter on human rights issues. Indeed, if anything, they may push him more to meet the very US political figures he has shunned till now. It will be interesting to watch how he will handle all this.

That no trade deal should be signed unless it is in India’s interest is a no brainer. If Indian industry and manufacturing would suffer through such an agreement then it has to be obviously avoided. The premise of India’s approach during the Manmohan Singh era was that international competition might give a period of pain but would be eventually beneficial. Jaishankar points to the continuing poor shape of Indian manufacturing to implicitly question the validity of the old approach.

The question, though, is how will India avoid the message that has gone out through the RCEP negotiation.

That India is turning inwards and is becoming protectionist. An audit of the entire negotiating approach in the RCEP has to be undertaken to examine if a different track should have been adopted.

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Jaishankar ducked the question on the utility of Prime Minister’s Narendra Modi’s 18 meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It would be interesting to know what minister Jaishankar would have to say on what foreign secretary Jaishankar said in July 2015 on the value of Modi-Xi Jinping meetings.

He had said that India and China, both rising powers, had “agreed on a constructive model of relationship” and added “Those of you who would have watched the Modi-Xi interaction in Xian would have noted this approach was reflected in their demeanour”.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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