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May 1, 2023

India’s Neighbourhood: Challenges in a Changing World Order: An Interview with Amb. Kanwal Sibal

Written By: Rami Niranjan Desai

Rami Desai

The world has gone through troubled times in the last 3 years. We have seen the pandemic, we have seen the Russia-Ukraine war, we have seen tensions in the South China Sea, and we have also seen the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. In your opinion, how has India negotiated this development on a macro level because the world really seems to be in a flux?

Kanwal Sibal:

The world has always been in flux. This is not the first time that we are facing these kinds of problems. Look at our own relations with the United States. Until we signed the nuclear deal, it is the country that punished us most strategically in terms of sanctions, making sure that we didn’t develop our strategic capabilities. The Soviet Union collapsed as a result of which we had huge issues with regard to maintaining our military preparedness. Russia was our biggest economic partner and that trade collapsed. The Taliban has been in power in Afghanistan before, so it’s not as if this has not happened before. In fact, it is after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that the United States, Saudi Arabia and others built up these jihadi forces to fight the communists in Afghanistan, which has left a very bitter legacy in terms of terrorism and extremism and everything else in our neighbourhood. So, it’s not as if India is facing entirely new challenges, which we haven’t faced before. In fact, in some ways the challenges we faced earlier were more difficult as we were weaker economically. Today we are much stronger. We are the 5th largest economy now, with the leadership that is respected all over the world because there is a feeling that India is achieving its goals and is rapidly going to become a power to reckon with in the international distribution of influence and power. That’s why there is an effort to court us. We have the 3rd largest military force in the world, so it’s not as if we are unable to defend ourselves. In fact, if you look at what is happening on the Ladakh front today and earlier in Doklam, we have stood up to China. We have the self-confidence that 1962 is over. In fact, that was another difficult period that we have gone through. So, I am very confident that we can manage and navigate these difficulties. It will always be a challenge because we have to balance things. There is no way that we can join this side or that side because that will mean we will become prisoners of either side and lose our capacity to manoeuvre. Is it easy? It is not as easy as it sounds because there are pressures,  we are linked to the global economy, and we have serious challenges on our border- territorial challenges from China as well as Pakistan. So, we have to make sure that we have enough partners who will value India’s territorial integrity and its future growth in their own interest. Our population now is more than China’s, we are now the largest market in the world, and look at the unfulfilled consumption in this country- young population with a low per capita income. So, in a sense the huge, huge potential for the rest of the world makes it look at India with very different eyes and make sure that the biggest country in the world by way of population, otherwise one of the largest countries, a democratic country, is able to play its role in terms of the shaping the future of the world to the advantage of everyone.

 Rami Desai

India has different interests in the Eurasian heartland and different interests and policies in the Indo Pacific region. So, how does the foreign policy work on the global stage?

Kanwal Sibal:

This is true of every country. It’s not that we are alone in this. Look at the United States of America. It is the strongest power in the world and doesn’t have to make choices. It is there everywhere. It thinks that its security begins in every corner of the world. That’s why it has the largest military force in the world to protect its interests. It follows contradictory policies. It has been extremely supportive of Israel, but also very supportive of the Arab world. Turkey is a NATO member and it is flirting with the other blocs, and the United States is tolerating this. In the South China Sea and elsewhere, it has all these alliances. Japan is at loggerheads with South Korea, but the United States has alliance with both countries. It has revived its ties with Philippines. Under Duterte Philippines was ceding a lot of ground to China. But United States has been  managing this. Even if you take Russia- it is a different matter that today Russia and United States are at loggerheads and the relationship has collapsed- but Russia while supporting and promoting multipolarity, and that was the origin of the Russia, India, China dialogue, was reaching out to the United States. It is a different matter that the United States had a different vision on how to deal with Russia in the future- take advantage of the Soviet collapse to permanently weaken Russia. These are just illustrations of how countries have to protect their interests, have to pursue policies which cannot be mathematically so well balanced that they don’t make compromises here and there. They deal with contradictions in the pursuit of their national interests, and India has to do that. The Russians launched the Russia, India, China dialogue at a time when US unilateralism was at its height and it was changing the map of the world wherever it could, especially in the Middle East with regime changes, and then destabilizing the periphery of Russia with these colour revolutions. That’s how the problem in Ukraine initially began; also, Georgia. Now Russia and China have become very close together because United States has openly, formally declared both as their adversaries, one the short-term adversary and the other the long-term adversary. They have cut off all relations with Russia virtually. They want to isolate Russia, weaken it . They don’t want to buy Russian energy. So, what does Russia do? China is hungry for resources right next door. They can buy whatever Russia was offering to the rest of the world, to Europe and the United States, especially Europe, be it oil, energy, raw materials. China would want more and more of all this in order to have as much autonomy as possible in these areas, not be dependent or be vulnerable to interruption or disruption of their lines of communication especially with regard to oil through the Indian Ocean and Straits of Malacca. China can supply consumer goods to Russia. It can supply certain technologies that Russia would now need, including semiconductors. The balance in the RIC has now changed. Earlier on, Russia was top dog, China was in the middle, India was the weakest link. Now Russia and China have become very strong partners. So, in this triangle, India has become even weaker than before. It is very important, therefore, that we maintain our ties with Russia to make sure that Russia continues to see value in its relations with India, besides presenting some kind of a disincentive to China to not rock the SCO, BRICS  etc. Russia has this goal of multipolarity, which will not advance if the India- China relationship is not better controlled. And finally, although the Russians won’t admit this publicly,  they now need India to balance China. They know that they are becoming far too dependent on China and need to reduce it. Just as we are doing in our own way. We are in the QUAD, support  the Indo-Pacific concept and  have very strong relations with the United States. But we don’t want to become prisoners of this choice, and therefore want to maintain our ties with Russia. And also keep our dialogue with China open. This gives us flexibility and manoeuvrability in our diplomacy. So, Russia would also want to do the same  in the RIC triangle. So yes, balancing is a problem, but it’s a manageable one. 

Rami Desai

So, you said that it would be in our benefit for relations to improve with China, but we have seen that China took an aggressive position on our borders and we have seen India also not really backing down or bowing down to this pressure. Do you think that this trust deficit that we have with China can be overcome? What do you think is the future for India-China relationship and what is the road map for this bilateral relation?

Kanwal Sibal:

I don’t think there was ever any trust between India and China. That trust evaporated completely in 1962. Even in the lead up to that, there was really no trust. India was trying to manage the new situation we were faced with China occupying Tibet and for the first time in history becoming our immediate neighbour. Remember Sardar Patel’s note to Nehru at that time. Even then it was very clear that we foresaw that China will be a big problem for us. The question for us has been that of managing a big power. And that problem continues. The trust is not there. On the issue of trust, international relations are never really built on trust beyond a certain point. Trust only comes in to the extent that if you have an agreement you expect it will be honoured.  The challenge is to create disincentives for the other side to not  break the agreement. With China, this has not worked as we would have wanted. We entered into all these peace and tranquillity agreements in order to manage the border and avoid the potential of an actual military clash. This was working. It was not based on trust; it was based on our thinking that the Chinese would also see it in their own interest to keep the borders stable, essentially because their major problem is in the Western Pacific where they are facing United States power. They are not facing US power in our region. So, they should have no interest in having a two-front situation. But with President Xi Jinping and his vision of China’s global role and its sovereignty, he has injected a very destabilizing element in our ties with China. There was no need for him to station 50,000 forces on our border. China thinks that it must be the Lord of Asia, and potentially the Lord of the world, that Heavenly Kingdom complex. India is the only country in Asia that can challenge China. So, they want to retard India’s growth as much as possible, keep India under pressure, use the period of India’s relative weakness to increase their presence around us, penetrate our neighbourhood, make it more difficult for us to exercise our influence there, and keep building Pakistan as a strategic counterweight to us. It’s a challenge, but we will face it.

Rami Desai

I want to shift our attention to another troubled area, which is the North-Western Frontier. We have seen the Taliban takeover; we have also seen organizations like PTM or TTP and their role in Pakistan. Do you think Pakistan was premature in its celebrations of the Taliban takeover? And how do you think it’s going to impact Pakistan in the long run?

Kanwal Sibal:

It’s not that they have made this mistake for the first time. They have committed a series of mistakes and the biggest mistake they have made is to not get over their paranoia about India. Other countries in the course of time have tried to overcome the misunderstandings and conflicts of the past wherever they could. Even US and Russia tried that. It’s a different matter that because of NATO expansion and cornering Russia the effort to have a stable security architecture in Europe collapsed. But Pakistan has never given up on its basics- Kashmir, Hindu India, Jihad, and terrorism  which has continued till today against India. There is no change in the thinking of their policy makers. They have always felt that since geographically they are a narrow country, within the reach of our Air Force, even our artillery and Brahmos etc., they are very vulnerable. They don’t have depth at all. They wanted two things – one  to get strategic depth by controlling Afghanistan. Second, especially General Zia who was radicalizing Pakistan,  they felt that an Islamic force in Afghanistan would be far more congenial to their strategic and national security interests than a secular government which would have more leanings towards India. With the Islamic government there, it would give them added strength towards India. Third,  the base of terrorism in Afghanistan gives them deniability, and there is history of Afghans from this region generally, even in 1947, coming as raiders into Kashmir. So, these were their calculations. One  more important thing was that they felt that if there was an Islamic government in Afghanistan, there won’t be a national government. And if that were the case the Durand Line issue would recede into the background. They miscalculated even in the earlier phase when the Taliban was in power, when the Taliban didn’t accept the Durand line, and even now they don’t. Now the Taliban is trying to gain independence from Pakistani overlordship. Pakistan’s efforts to put the Haqqani group there in order to control them from within hasn’t entirely succeeded. So, Pakistan is in a very difficult position. Added to all this Pakistan’s economy has collapsed. Pakistan now has to manage its own affairs first.

Rami Desai

Do you think there might be a balkanization of Pakistan? If so, what sort of impact does it have on India?

Kanwal Sibal:

I don’t think there will be a balkanisation of Pakistan. The o possibility of this would only arise if the Pakistan military collapsed. Punjab absolutely dominates Pakistan in terms of everything, including the armed forces. And if the adage is true, that Pakistan is a military with a state, then the military will keep the state intact. The other reason is that China will not allow this to happen as much as they can as they have huge strategic stakes in Pakistan: the CPEC, Gwadar, a potential naval base in Pakistan. Indeed China entire strategy of keeping India under check. We also have in India elements which might give the impression that there is a tussle between the centre and the states in some parts of India. In our case it is more a reflection of our democratic life. In  Pakistan ‘s case, it has a different dimension. It is the absolute over-domination of Punjab, which breeds resentment in Sindh, Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. So, I think that even if there are these internal fissures in Pakistan, both the logic of creation of Pakistan and the power of the armed forces, plus the external support that they have, will sustain them.

Rami Desai

Pakistan seems to concentrate on India and that has been their internal policy for decades. General Bajwa, even recently as per news has said that the Pakistani army doesn’t stand a chance against the Indian Army. Yet they seem to use terror as a state policy towards India. Recently we saw the attack in Poonch sector as well. How do you think India should be reacting to this? And do you think that India has now completely moved on from Pakistan and is positioning itself as more of a global player than recognizing itself only in terms of the India-Pakistan issue?

Kanwal Sibal:

The ceasefire is continuing and there is no effort on their part to break it. These little pinpricks here and there will continue. This is to keep this situation in Jammu and Kashmir, if not on the boil but relatively unstable because these sporadic terrorist attacks here and there can create an atmosphere that things are not under control. It is not an easy situation for us. At the end of the day we have to step up our own efforts on the ground to control and eliminate these terrorists and pursue the path of development in Jammu and Kashmir. With Pakistan collapsing and India rising globally, neither we nor the world equates India and Pakistan any more, including in terms of regional politics. We see ourselves as a global player and so does the world.

Rami Desai

Let me come back to China because the rest of the neighbourhood seems to be rather impacted by China’s infiltration or stake-holding in their countries. We have seen a regime change in Myanmar, there has been a military takeover. We have also seen China’s footprints in Myanmar. How does India negotiate its relationship with Myanmar, and does it make a difference to India because India, being a democratic country upholds democratic values?

Kanwal Sibal:

When was Pakistan a democratic country, and when was Nepal until recently one? We deal with our neighbourhood based on political realities. We have now excellent relations with the Gulf monarchies, but they are not democratic countries. So, I am very clearly of the view that we should not use this language of democratic values in international relations. This is just an American formulation in order to justify their hegemony. Promotion of democracy and human rights gives them the opportunity to interfere in the internal affairs of countries, and given the dark chapters of their own history, they try to seek higher moral ground. We keep saying that we are the largest democracy in the world, the oldest democracy in the world, that we share democratic and other values with the United States. But then, we were punished by the United States until the nuclear agreement. During that period and beyond, China has been built up by the Americans. The Americans have been dealing with a Maoist regime in China, ignoring India’s democracy. With regard to Myanmar, we can’t control the internal affairs in our neighbouring countries. Of course, Aung San Suu Kyi had old relations with India. She won the elections fairly and squarely. And purely from that viewpoint, what has happened there is absolutely wrong. But supposing we take that position then what follows. We won’t be able to protect our interests in Myanmar. We have to therefore reach out to the military government, for two or three reasons. One, we have direct border with Myanmar. We have insurgencies in that area positioned on the other side. We need the Myanmar military help to control this insurgency. India’s Act East policy can never really succeed on the ground without Myanmar. So, we have to nurture that aspect of the relationship. We may have to make sure that Myanmar doesn’t fall into the lap of China more and more. China has created this Myanmar-China corridor. There are reports about they doing some mischief on the Coco islands. So, we have to make sure that we don’t alienate the Myanmar regime to the extent that the Chinese in fact gets an opportunity to further increase their stranglehold over Myanmar. We have, therefore, to deal with that regime.

Rami Desai

You mentioned about Coco Islands. Similarly, like the militarization of Coco islands by China, there has been a certain amount of impact on other geographically smaller but strategically important neighbourhood countries like Sri Lanka or Nepal. How do you think India can develop its relationship to counter China in these countries and maybe how can they respond to their relationship to India as well?

Kanwal Sibal:

We always had great difficulties with our neighbours. Nepal is, in fact, in some ways even more difficult for us than our other neighbours because it has direct contiguity with Tibet. It has played the China card against us since the time of King Mahendra. I  have seen that on the ground myself and have dealt with the issues they have been raising for us in a very provocative manner. Now, the Maoists are in power. Whether India did the right thing or wrong thing in helping the Maoists to come to power under the garb of democracy, I don’t know. It is an open question. But the king was always problematic for us. I suppose policymakers at that time weighed the options, and they felt that let Nepal be democratic anyway. China has penetrated Sri Lanka in a very big way. Sri Lanka, since the rice rubber deal with China in the 60’s, has always played the China card against us. It’s always been a problematic country for us. We have seen the case of Hambantota and Colombo port projects awarded to China. In Maldives, we have succeeded in recovering our ground, but  some anti-Indian mischief by local elements there, with China’s encouragement and involvement, continues.  China has been trying to undermine our strategic interests in the Indian Ocean as part of their larger maritime strategy. In Bangladesh, they are the biggest supplier of arms to Bangladesh. China has a lot of money. It comes with bags full of money. They buy up the local elites. It’s very different way of functioning.

Rami Desai

There is also the debt trap.

Kanwal Sibal:

Yes. But if you talk to the Sri Lankans, they still don’t admit it’s a debt trap. They will give you all kinds of statistics. It’s a narrative that they will continue to build. So, we can’t compete with China in terms of their money power and their absolutely fantastic ability to develop infrastructure, which they have done inside China and, as part of the BRI, are extending it all over the world. There is now some backlash against it. That’s a different matter, but if we get into this game of competing with China rupee for rupee, we will never win. So, we need to accept the fact that our neighbours will play the China card. We should concentrate on which areas in which we can build closer ties with them, whether we have done enough of that, whether we should integrate Nepal into our economy as much as possible before it is too late, because once China builds all those connections, railways and roads and everything else, linking Tibet with Nepal, then you have a huge issue for Chinese goods coming into our country. These are very significant challenges. But to answer your question very specifically, we should work to our strength. And I think what the Modi government is also doing rightly  and which can yield long-term positive consequences is the building on the cultural and religious foundations of our ties with our key neighbours, which China cannot ,with the appeal it has at the people’s level.

Rami Desai

On Bangladesh, like you said there is a Chinese footprint in Bangladesh in terms of mega projects that they are investing in. Recently in a speech, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that the US is aiming for a regime change. If a regime change happens, considering that we enjoy stronger relationships than ever with Bangladesh right now, but if the regime change happens, how does that impact India in terms of one of our greatest threats seems to be the Rohingyas or the illegal migration and be with Chinas mega projects. Do you think we need to speed up our investments there for instance, the water sharing agreements?

Kanwal Sibal:

I think we have been over generous already with regard to water sharing. 80% of the waters of the Indus basin have gone to Pakistan. We signed the Ganga Accord with Bangladesh. All this as if we are a country overflowing with water, We are already water stressed ourselves. But we made these concessions. We were willing to deal positively on the Teesta Barrage issue but Mamta Banerjee, because of local politics, has been a big hurdle. So, I don’t think water sharing is an issue which we can resolve to Bangladeshi’s satisfaction because the West Bengal government is involved. China is building huge projects on the Brahmaputra. How this may affect the water flow South of the Himalayas and how it may affect India and Bangladesh, and whether we should join hands together and deal with this issue is a question. So far, I don’t think we have succeeded in this. The irony is that China didn’t recognize Bangladesh for many years. They were against the creation of Bangladesh. There are forces in Bangladesh which have been historically anti-Indian. And they will play those games in any case. And if Sheikh Hasina is ousted from power ,because it’s not as if she doesn’t have challenges on the ground herself, we will have a political challenge. I must say she is an extremely brave woman. She has taken the Islamists head-on, hanged many of them. What she has done durably is that she has created connectivity with us in so many areas that it can’t be easily reversed. Therefore, even if there is a change in government, things may slow down, but t what has been achieved cannot be reversed. It will be in our interest to see Hasina succeed once again electorally, but this is not in our hands.

Rami Desai

We have a neighbourhood first policy. How important is it, considering a lot of other countries around the world don’t practice the same?

Kanwal Sibal:

You know each government, when it comes to power, talks about neighbourhood first. On paper, it makes sense that if you have less problems in your neighbourhood you have more time to concentrate beyond the region. But our problems in our neighbourhood will not go away. Pakistan will not go away. Nepal is going to be a problem, Bangladesh for the time being is our biggest success in our neighbourhood.. Sri Lanka, despite all that we have done,  allowed the Chinese spy ship to come. One doesn’t know what the future may be, because they are not easy to deal with. In Maldives, there are still forces which want to disrupt the India-Maldives ties, but at the moment they are under control. But the leaders there are volatile, much depends on personalities there, how they manage their internal politics, and the impact of all this on our bilateral relations with Maldives. These are not things under our control. But I say very often that all big countries have problems with neighbours. The United States has problems with neighbours. Russia has huge problems with neighbours, China too has huge problems with them. So, in a sense, you have to accept the fact that a big country will have problems with neighbours. The problems in our neighbourhood haven’t stalled India’s economic rise. We continue to rise; we will continue to rise. So why should we think that unless we manage our neighbourhood we won’t be able to become a big power. We are becoming a big power despite our neighbourhood. Yes, as a broad policy, “neighbourhood first policy” is the right policy and attention should be devoted to it, finances too, and political capital should be invested in it. I fully agree. But I don’t buy the logic that unless you manage your neighbourhood better, you won’t be able to be a big power.

Brief Bios:

Kanwal Sibal: Ambassador Kanwal Sibal was Foreign Secretary to the Government of India from July 2002 to November 2003. His diplomatic career spans 41 years. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey (1989-1992), Deputy Chief of Mission in the United States (1992-1995), with the rank of Ambassador, Ambassador to Egypt (1995-1998), to France (1998-2002) and to Russia (2004-2007). He was a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board from November 2008 to November 2010. Ambassador Sibal writes regularly for national journals and periodicals on international affairs.

Rami Desai: Rami Niranjan Desai is Distinguished Fellow, India Foundation.

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