“India’s relations with Russia are independent of its relationship with USA”
“Despite being active in the Quad and Quad + India has not charted any alliance against China as yet . But foreign policy will have to adapt to changing realities on the ground and India will have to go along with the like minded countries and democracies to protect her territorial integrity and crucial non-negotiable interests,” said Former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya and Malta, Anil Trigunayat in an exclusive interview with Ravi Mishra. Excerpts:
How do you see India’s Foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
The Indian foreign policy with its “ Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam “ diktat continues to have certain elements that serve India’s national interests and guide its global discourse and interactions . However under PM Narendra Modi it has acquired increasing depth , adaptability and a broad expanse in outreach efforts . The policy has become far more result oriented be in in political , economic or strategic domain or for the welfare of the diaspora and engaging them far more constructively and openly . India’s Neighbourhood First policy enunciated by PM Modi by for the first time inviting all leaders from SAARC to his swearing in ceremony in 2014 was a watershed. Despite certain inherent imitations due to China and Pakistan’s reluctance to change course from their anti-India , expansionist or terrorist agendas it has largely been successful. Although SAARC has not taken off that well due to Pakistani intransigence to contain cross border terrorism , He again tried to bring about a joint effort to launch a fight against Covid 19 as a regional leader. India’s sub regional cooperation mechanisms like BIMSTEC,BBIN etc. Were given a new orientation and focus . Look East policy was converted to ACT East policy through enhanced connectivity and closer interactions including invite to ASEAN Heads of State to be the Chief guest at the Republic Day . and closer relations through North Eastern part of India . Relations with Japan and South Korea and Vietnam acquired a strategic character both in bilateral and multilateral context . In my view the biggest success of the Modi Foreign Policy was his West Asia Policy as the relations with all major countries were taken to much higher strategic orbit and India successfully waded through the competing interests in the region be it Israel or the Arab countries or for that matter with Iran which remains engaged with India despite the hiatus caused by US sanctions in bilateral projects . India also reached out from Small pacific island nations and provided assistance and deserving respect to them. Speaking at the Ugandan Parliament he outlined the ten Guiding Principles of engagement with the African Continent for mutual benefit and as per their decision and requirements . Relations with major powers like US , Russia and France and Germany and UK remained robust and with the US they acquired a greater depth . India’s soft power continued unabated as during the Covid 19 , India provided medical assistance to over 150 countries from the most powerful to the poorest . PM Modi along with French President Macron also created an International Solar Alliance as well as credible leadership role in Countering Climate Change . Multilaterally India played a key and positive role be it in G20 , BRICS, SCO , RIC , IBSA , G77 , WTO, WHO or for that matter UN . India was elected to the non-permanent seat this year with 184 votes . India intends to play a more robust role in strengthening UN in its 75th year and with an approach and conviction of Samman (respect), Samvad (Dialogue) , Sahyog(cooperation) Shanti (Peace) and Samridhi (Prosperity) by working towards a more representative and robust rule based and reformed international system especially the UN. India has also emerged as the reliable first responder in case of emergencies and natural disasters especially in our neighbourhood.
With the changing international dynamic the foreign policy will have to face newer challenges by being agile and responsive so that India’s current and future developmental challenges are handled appropriately .
China has unilaterally tried to change the status quo at Line of Actual Control in Ladakh which India is responding strongly. Will it be a turning point in India’s foreign policy.
China’s reckless, expansionist and unabashedly authoritarian aggression against India and its ASEAN neighbours is a cause of concern and has evoked an unprecedented response. China’s credibility, as a responsible power, is at its lowest due to its role, lack of transparency and suppression of information during the onset of COVID crisis. India has tried to maintain reasonable and good neighbourly relations with China through highest level interactions in the spirit and understandings reached at Wuhan and Chennai. Even speaking at Shangri-La Dialogue PM Modi sought and spelt out an inclusive Indo-Pacific strategy that did not exclude China .Even now despite being active in the Quad and Quad + India has not charted any alliance against China as yet . But foreign policy will have to adapt to changing realities on the ground and India will have to go along with the like minded countries and democracies to protect her territorial integrity and crucial non-negotiable interests .
In the wake of growing India-US ties, what would be the future of India-Russia relations? I asked this because few people think that India is destroying its relationship with Russia.
India’s relations with Russia are independent of its relationship with USA or any other country even though sometimes there may be an overlapping inherent and intrinsic competition . I believe that for India’s “Strategic Autonomy” it is imperative that we maintain robust relationship with both . It is not like sailing in two boats it is more to do with the ground realities of the expanse and depth of our relationship with Russia . Trust and reliability are most important factors even though they are predicated by the national interest and strategic calculations at a given time. I understand that both President Putin and President Trump appreciate it even if grudgingly . I do not think India is ready for entering into any formal alliances but may not abstain from issue based alignments .
Is it possible for India to maintain a decisive relationships with both US and Russia simultaneously?
Yes , Today the world is in a flux and there are several middle level powers and power centres . Menu is big enough for each one to be present.
The India-US trade deal is still a big issue. What do you think about it?
Under the current US Administration protectionism and lack of respect for multilateral organisations and treaties are quite evident which is further accentuated by off the cuff Twiplomacy and sanction ready and “America First” approach of President Trump. This brings about greater uncertainty in a set of negotiations and responses . Trade wars have negative consequences and when combined with overall foreign policy objectives can have disastrous outcomes. US imposed duties on Indian goods and services and withdrew GSP benefits and demands extraneous considerations from India . Trade is a two way street and given the strategic nature of our relationship and India’s market size including in the defence and civil nuclear areas as well technology trade there are great opportunities for both . US remains India’s largest trading partner .
Problems if any should be resolved through dialogue and without the intent of scoring brownie points for domestic consumption.
What is the future of India-Iran relations amid US sanctions and growing Chinese presence in Tehran?
Iran and India have enjoyed civilizational ties and is an important country in West Asia that is our extended neighbourhood. As a signatory to NPT it is expected to honour the commitments it has undertaken. Unfortunately the inherent insecurities and desire to extract ever more have led to the US leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was signed by P5+1 in 2015. This was followed by more stringent crippling US sanctions which have made Iran more intransigent and a near war like situation has been inflamed in the already volatile region. China -US -Iran conflict has given a readymade opportunity to China to expand and deepen its footprints and engagement with Iran and the region which is extremely important for its own economic and energy security . In view of the ongoing US sanctions, on even third countries, India had to reduce its imports of oil from Iran and hold back some of the important projects . Chabahar port agreement was one of the most significant for India’s strategic connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia and I would hope that with the Sino-Iranian relations expanding the Iranians will calibrate the medium and long term benefits by staying engaged with India . Old dictum goes that there are no permanent enemies and friends -only interests are permanent . Although Chabahar is exempted from the US sanctions , India must also look at other ways like creating Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) and barter or Rupee-Rial trade and investment to avert the gambit of unilateral sanctions . But it takes two to tango.
How do you see the one year of Dr. S Jaishankar as Foreign Minister?
Dr. S Jaishankar , a fellow JNU alumni, is one of the finest and brightest foreign service office we had . He has tremendous clarity of purpose and vision. His immense experience in crucial diplomatic assignments and as Foreign Secretary give him a unique edge . I believe he has done amazingly well under the most challenging circumstances during the past one year as a professional top Indian diplomat . He is widely respected for his straightforwardness and communication skills by his counterparts across the world . He is the right fit to carry out PM Modi’s foreign policy vision.