WIN SHYAM SARAN16-1571153989898
India's former foreign secretary Shyam Saran says the personality of a leader plays a role in moulding foreign policy. Image Credit: Nilima Pathak

New Delhi: One of India’s finest career diplomats and strategic thinkers, Shyam Saran joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1970 and subsequently served in different capacities in the Indian diplomatic missions in several capitals of the world including Beijing, Tokyo and Geneva.

As a Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office in 1991/92, Saran advised the prime minister on foreign policy, nuclear and defence related issues. As foreign secretary and later as the special envoy on nuclear issues, he made a significant contribution to the Indo-US nuclear deal. He was the Foreign Secretary to the Government of India from July 31, 2004 to September 1, 2006.

Robert Blackwill, former US Ambassador to India, said of Saran: “Arguably the most brilliant Indian diplomat in the past four decades, Shyam Saran’s breathtaking command of the ancient foundations and Cold War dimensions of India’s foreign policy provides for most of us an indispensable frame of reference for the country’s current external challenges. A former India foreign secretary, Saran has had a ringside view of the most critical events and shifts in Indian foreign policy in the new millennium, including the epochal India-US nuclear deal.”

In 2011, in recognition of his contribution to the civil service, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan — the third highest civilian honour in India. Recently, he was conferred with Japan’s second highest national award — the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star — for his contributions to strengthen the strategic ties and enhancing mutual understanding between India and Japan.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Saran speaks on wide-ranging issues including India’s foreign policy, climate change and the Modi doctrine.

What’s your reaction to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit for a summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

The fact that the summit took place is a positive sign. In the run-up to the summit, there were tensions between the two countries over the Jammu and Kashmir issue. There was a valid perception that China is perhaps not as sensitive as it should be to India’s core concerns. One did not expect any major outcome with respect to some of the outstanding issues, except keeping the relationship on an even keel and ensuring relations between two countries do not acquire a negative dimension. We can agree to differ but must be open to the opportunities of working together for mutual economic interests.

Which means overall the summit was a success?

Certainly. Both India and China are the largest emerging economies in the world having certain political stature in Asia as well as globally. So, they must have the ability to cooperate, collaborate and manage their relationship by not allowing differences to overwhelm the possibilities of cooperation. China is facing some trade problems with the US and other countries, so, access to the Indian market, one of the largest in the world, is an important consideration. The same goes for India. If we get easier access to the Chinese market and become a more preferred destination for Chinese investment in India, such conditions should be created.

But will Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” China be able to pacify Islamabad, citing Beijing’s own economic interest of One Belt One Road (OBOR) projects worth billions of dollars there?

I don’t know what the current state of these projects is. It is heard that some of these have been abandoned and that in Pakistan itself there are major concerns about whether it will be able to bear the debt trap that it might fall into as a result of the large loans taken. Also, what giving China access to the Pakistan economy will mean to the local industry and business, these are concerns expressed in Pakistan’s business circles. We have to recognise that because Pakistan has been a long-standing ally of China, the latter does feel the need to assuage the other’s concerns. But what is important is what they are going to do about it. They made statements, which India countered. So, while we need to be watchful, out strength is that whatever China or Pakistan may be doing, there has not been any kind of international traction, which would have been a worry for India.

You spoke about the full toolkit (a mix of peace talks and hard power and soft power) when fashioning India’s Pakistan policy. What’s the way forward?

Presently, it’s difficult to say how we can at some point resume the dialogue process and political engagement with Pakistan, because the dust has to settle on the latest developments in J&K. What I had said is that regarding the best strategy or policy to adopt vis-a-vis Pakistan is that we should not end up with a situation where the leadership in India has only two options (if there’s a major terrorist attack or a security challenge) wherein you either engage in armed hostilities or do nothing. We should have a range of options between these two ends of the spectrum.

Would you say that dialogue between countries should not be interrupted and that any breakdown in direct communication leads to third-party intervention?

I believe that the more difficult the relationship, the greater the need for a dialogue. Talking or not talking is no policy. That is an important principle to keep in mind. Whatever the objectives (of the policy), it is during the engagement with the country that one should try to achieve those objectives. Since no bilateral talks are happening, somebody will suggest international mediation, which we have always rejected. Also, now much depends on how quickly we are able to restore normalcy in J&K. The sooner that happens, the less will be the international focus.

What else can have an impact in such a situation?

A distinction should be made between dealing with the government and dealing with the people of Pakistan. Modi has also said that our policy with regard to our opposition to what Pakistan is doing is with respect to what its government is doing. We don’t have a problem with people of Pakistan, with whom we share a cultural and historical affinity. So, the greater the exposure of the people of Pakistan to India and the people-to-people relations, may over a period of time reduce some of the hostility and prejudice that exists between the two countries. And it is to our advantage in the long run.

But then won’t India be seen as a soft state?

It depends on how confident we are. Rather than constantly worrying about being seen as a hard state or a soft state, we have to first determine our ‘real’ interest. Because if we start tuning our policy to what the perception will be outside, then we will not be able to do a good job of policy-making. That’s why in diplomacy we say that you must make a distinction between a policy, which is like a weapon and diplomacy, which is its delivery system. The substance may be different from the packaging but it is substance that is more important.

India’s ‘neighbour first’ policy of aiding SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) nations is known. But the present government is keen on investing and offering a credit line to African Union members and Central Asian nations too. Are we making our presence felt?

India being an important global actor, it should not be unexpected that it also attaches importance to relationships with countries in other parts of the world. Even though it is a developing country, it has significant technological and economic capabilities. India is in a position to share its resources with the larger family of developing countries. In that context, focus on African countries becomes important, as it is essentially a kind of solidarity that we are projecting with other developing countries.

Though the ‘Quad’ countries (India, US, Japan, Australia) meeting is a consultative process and not a military alliance, will the “fab four” be able to tame China on trade, tariffs and the South China Sea adventures?

Quad came about in 2004-2005 during the tsunami when India’s navy took the initiative to deliver assistance to a number of tsunami-affected countries far away from its shores. (Countries like the US, Japan and Australia came in later.) It was perhaps the first time there was recognition that India was capable of dealing with such maritime emergencies and its naval forces had the ability to project power across the oceans.

I was foreign secretary then and every morning would have a conversation with my counterparts in other countries. Later, the four democracies decided to have a forum to exchange ideas on how to deal with the security and other maritime challenges. It was mainly a consultative forum. Importantly, the focus was never on China. Ever since, our articulation has been that any sustainable maritime security architecture in this region needs to be inclusive, transparent and balanced. So, quad should not be looked as an anti-China alliance or one that is directed against any country.

Even the ‘2+2 Dialogue’ between India and the US, and India and Japan were to stop the dominion of one state in the Asia Pacific region. Do you think these meets are fruitful?

There are important reasons why we have a very strong partnership with the US and similarly with Japan. In terms of India’s economic objectives, we have to see who can help us more in developing and modernising and bringing high technology to our economy. Partnership with these countries makes eminent sense. The global economy is shifting from the trans-Atlantic to the trans-Pacific. So, it’s important we create security architecture in this region, which promotes economic dynamism and does not lead to fragmentation. But if any country says that establishing dominance is its way of ensuring its security; obviously, it is not acceptable to us, just as it won’t be to any other country.

What do you believe should be India’s relationship with the West?

The West is not a monolithic kind of identity and our interest lies in each of the major countries in the West. The US is obviously a key partner and this partnership makes sense for achieving India’s own economic objectives. The US continues to be a very important source of knowledge and technology — things that India needs to emerge as a vibrant modern economy. The US also looks at India as potentially being in the front ranks of future knowledge societies. For both, it makes sense to have a strong relationship. But not just the US and India, but also Japan and Europe have a common interest in ensuring that the emergence of China does not become a disruptive factor for international peace and security.

India also has good relations with France and Germany. But we are not very happy with the Brexit that’s taking place and Europe not being able to retain its coherence as a whole. That’s because a strong, relatively independent and united Europe is actually good for India. Our preference is for a more multi-polar world, which means having more centres of power around the world. And India will also be one such pole.

How has India’s foreign policy evolved over time? Have there been distinct phases and how would you define the current phase?

Overall, there’s continuity in India’s foreign policy. The manner of its being exercised and projected alters because of the change in the international situation. India has also undergone a major transformation, so we cannot expect that foreign policy will not be influenced. Also, sometimes the personality of the leader makes the difference. And I think the impact of Modi’s leadership has certainly made a difference to India’s foreign policy. His style is very distinct and he believes in having personal engagements with other leaders. This plays a very important role in terms of diplomacy. I don’t think since Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, we’ve had a leader who was so much directly engaged with his counterparts. Even though earlier governments also placed importance on the role of the Indian diaspora, this government has given the diaspora a much bigger profile so there are certain nuances, which are noteworthy.

Who is Shyam Saran?

• Shyam Saran was born on September 4, 1946.

• The 1970 batch Indian Foreign Services (IFS) officer has served in China, Japan and France.

• He was India’s Ambassador to Myanmar, Indonesia and Nepal and High Commissioner to Mauritius.

• Joint secretary and policy adviser in former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s office.

• Appointed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy for the Indo-United States civil nuclear issues and later as Special Envoy and chief negotiator on Climate Change issues.

• Served as Chairman of India’s National Security Advisory (NSA) Board.

• Appointed as Foreign Secretary in 2004 and held the position until his retirement in 2006.

• Recipient of the third highest national award Padma Bhushan in 2011 for his contribution to the Civil Services.

• Author of ‘How India Sees The World: From Kautilya to the 21st Century’.

(Shyam Saran will be speaking at The Oberoi in Dubai on October 19. The event is sponsored by IBPC. These lectures are a part of an ongoing series on India’s role on the world stage, which is a non-partisan public service initiative that aims to provide a fuller understanding of India.)