With Rajapaksa’s back at helm, past must not shadow India-Lanka ties: Shyam Saran

With Rajapaksa’s back at helm, past must not shadow India-Lanka ties: Shyam Saran

This story first appeared on www.etvbharat.com

In an exclusive conversation with Senior Journalist and SAWM member Smita Sharma, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran expressed deep disappointment in India’s decision to pull out of the RCEP and underlined that despite similar domestic arguments the decision of the Narsimha Rao government to liberalise the economy in 1991 reaped huge dividends for India. He argued that if India shied away from RCEP, the chances of it striking an FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with an advanced country like the US is even dismal. He questioned the claims by Home Minister that the situation in Kashmir is normal and cautioned that if it does not improve soon even friendly countries will get more critical.

New Delhi: Amid the return of the Rajapaksa brothers to power in Colombo, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran cautions that the shadow of the past must not influence the future trajectory of India-Srilanka relations.

The former top diplomat also underlined that advancing the influence of China in the neighbourhood is a reality and China is the real challenge for India.

Pakistan is a threat only because of it being in league with Beijing but New Delhi is re-hyphenating itself to Islamabad by constantly talking about it on the international stage.

In an exclusive conversation with Senior Journalist Smita Sharma, Saran expressed deep disappointment in India’s decision to pull out of the RCEP and underlined that despite similar domestic arguments the decision of the Narsimha Rao government to liberalise the economy in 1991 reaped huge dividends for India.

He argued that if India shied away from RCEP, the chances of it striking an FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with an advanced country like the US is even dismal.

He questioned the claims by Home Minister that the situation in Kashmir is normal and cautioned that if it does not improve soon even friendly countries will get more critical.

On the issue of diplomatic row with Kathmandu over-representation of Kalapani in newly released political maps of India, Saran called it uncalled for and blamed it on certain vested political forces in Nepal who were trying to create a controversy over a map which is no different from the earlier ones as far as the India-Nepal border is concerned.

Here is the interview with Shyam Saran for ETV Bharat

Key Highlights:

With Return of Rajapaksas, Past Must Not Shadow India-Lanka Ties- Shyam Saran

‘China Real Threat, India Re-Hyphenating Itself With Pak’-Ex FS

‘Row Over Kalapani Misplaced, No Cartographic Aggression By India’

ETV Bharat in conversation with Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

Q- Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been elected as President in Sri Lanka and Mahinda is the new PM. The commentary in India has been focusing on fears surrounding the influence of China again. What should New Delhi watch out for?

It is always a very good idea in diplomacy to not let the past become a stone around your neck. While I see there are certain concerns about what return of the Rajapaksa means for India-Sri Lanka relations, but we should assume that there are still very large opportunities present to us for taking the relationship forward.

It is a relationship marked by very strong affinities, the strong economic partnership between the two countries. In the past many years a certain kind of organic integration of Sri Lanka has been taking place with the southern Indian states which have brought a lot of benefits to Sri Lanka as well.

So if the Rajapaksas are pragmatic leaders, like I believe they would be, I think they would also see benefits of advancing India -Sri Lanka relations and not let the shadow of the past influence how we take the relation forward.

As far as China factor is concerned there is a certain sense of caution in Lanka also that the kind of investments coming in from China may create a certain dependency and economic challenge for them.

So perhaps a more balanced relation with India and China is warranted.

ETV Bharat in conversation with Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

Q- Is it possible for India to simply take a backseat and watch things play out domestically? We witnessed the domestic power struggle between former President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe on many occasions with India at its centre.

If my experience in dealing with neighbours is anything to go by it is not a very good idea to really insert yourself into the domestic politics of neighbours. Sometimes it becomes unavoidable but it is a good policy not to become too heavily involved in domestic politics.

Trying to label leaders in neighbouring countries as to who is a friend, who is not a friend, it has never given us dividends. It is better to pursue these relations on the basis of certain common interests, convergences and principles that gives more dividends than anything else.

So I would not be very concerned about what internal dynamics in Sri Lanka are just as I would not be concerned about internal political dynamics in other neighbouring countries because how much of agency do you have to be able to direct those domestics politics.

Watch carefully what those domestic dynamics are and see how best we can locate ourselves in terms of common interests we enjoy with each one of our current neighbours.
Q- The Modi government focuses a lot on optics. MEA Jaishankar landed in Colombo soon after Gotabaya’s swearing-in.How much does it matter that Gotabaya should come to Delhi on his first official foreign visit?

It does matter. We cannot get away from the fact that a lot of foreign relations is about perceptions and optics. I would not dismiss that as unimportant.

ETV Bharat in conversation with Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

It is a good thing that Mr Jaishankar did go to Sri Lanka immediately after the swearing-in of the new government as this demonstrates that we attach a lot of importance to our relations with Sri Lanka. Of course, optics are never enough. They have to be followed by substantive action.

That is where our focus needs to be going forward. It is a good thing that Gotabaya has also shown that he attaches importance to relation with India by making it the first country for his official visit. But that could also be an occasion for us to really address some substantive issues.

Like the economic partnership agreement- in what ways can we really promote the economic partnership between the two countries. I believe there is an ambitious plan for a cross channel cable for the supply of electricity to Sri Lanka. Things like that will really cement our ties.

The Colombo port is one of the most important in terms of transit trade. It has been of great value to India. So how do we build upon those existing relations? There is a tremendous amount of traffic taking place between the two counties (Sri Lanka and India) which have gone unnoticed.

Something like 120 flights a week with India plus there will be new flights. These are things you can celebrate and also build upon.

Let us be very clear that China expanding its influence in the neighbourhood is a reality. And given the gap between capabilities we have, resources we are able to deploy, we are at a disadvantage.

We have to look at ways to overcome those disadvantages be it in Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bangladesh. What are the real assets we have that we can leverage in our relations with these countries so that we retain a degree of primacy in terms of calculations of our neighbours on foreign policy?
Q- Former NSA and Foreign Secretary SS Menon in an interview with ETV Bharat cited an example of the Colombo port and argued that India must not object to Chinese BRI (Belt and Road initiative) entirely. We would like to know your views on it?

Any platform that is created as long as whoever is creating that platform does not demand exclusive use over it, why should we not utilise that platform if it is in our interest.

Even with respect to Colombo port, a couple of new terminals added to it have been done by China.

Even then those terminals are available for international shipping. So we should not say that just because this has been built by China so we should not have anything to do with it.

The call has to be made by China itself and by the country that is hosting the platform.

Q-But India’s opposition to BRI is centred around CPEC in PoK?

It is caution that is well-founded for a variety of relations.

You look at the contrast between AIIB (Asia Infrastructure Bank) or say the BRICS development bank?

In both of these India has been an enthusiastic partner even though the lead has been taken by China. In AIIB second-largest shareholder is India.

ETV Bharat in conversation with Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

In the shaping of both these institutions, India had a very major role to play, in how it should be structured, how it is lending policy should be, what ways in which you decide what is the viability of a project and India is today one of the larger recipients of the loans from AIIB. Why is BRI different?

Because it is not a multilateral project, it is a Chinese designed, Chinese resourced initiative in which we have had no part in how it is structured of which we have no idea because it is quite opaque.

So there has been no consultation in how this supposedly global initiative is going to be rolled out.

If for example in any third country, there is a project in which India and China can cooperate because it is of interest to both of them and the partner country then we do not have any problem. We are not taking an ideological position with respect to BRI.

Q- Can cooperation on BRI be used as a lever with China on other areas of friction?

I would not advise that. We have very reasonable doubts about the shaping of BRI. I wouldn’t give that up because there is something else to be had. Despite our reservations about BRI, I would say that do not close yourself off to working together with China wherever it is economically viable and makes sense for the interests of both of us and the third partner country.

Q- Did pulling out of RCEP make sense for India?

I feel disappointed that India did not join the RCEP because given India’s ambition to be a major regional and global player, you cannot do this on the margins of the regional or global economy. It is a defensive position which is not warranted.

Q- India cites domestic concerns of turning into a dumping ground for Chinese products against RCEP.

I was in the PM office during the then PM Narasimha Rao’s time , precisely when there was a crisis situation and we were debating if we should open the economy or not, should we have chronic reforms and liberalisation, I am afraid all the arguments that are being made today are exactly the arguments which were being made then.

But yes the political leadership at that time took a certain call and it was a politically risky move on part of the then government. But you saw the results over the next twenty years. Indian economy from 3-3.5 percent growth went up to 8-9 percent growth. How have you come to a point where you are actually aspiring to be a regional leader, a leading power?

It is precise because of the capital you have accumulated over the last twenty years with that 8-9 percent growth. So you have a proven record.

Your experience shows that by adopting reforms, by opening up the Indian economy, by embracing globalisation, you have actually accumulated the economic capabilities and therefore the securities to be seen as an emerging great power.

Having had that experience why are you now repeating those same arguments again and going back to what was a very failed import substitution economy.

Q- Was it a political calculation in view of outcomes of recent state elections?

Elections will be held in India all the time. When we were negotiating the Indo-US nuclear deal, every time we were trying to make some advance, someone would come and say hold it for the time being because we have one or another election taking place.

The political landscape would always face elections. I would have thought that here is a government which unlike the past enjoys an even greater majority in the second term than in the first. You have a PM (Narendra Modi) who has not only charisma but an extraordinary amount of influence both domestically and has a certain standing in the international arena.

That even though this may seem to be a political risk, it is one worth taking.

Q- But how much of India’s international standing is centred today on our growth story? We have the ambition of becoming a 5trillion dollar economy by 2024. But if our economy looks a lot gloomier, with growth rates revised downwards, what impact will it have on our foreign policy?

The latest reports state that the NITI Ayog has cautioned that if do not get back to a high growth path, the 2024 figure will be a much bigger economic challenge.

There is a certain realisation that we are not in a very good place as far as the economy is concerned.

Our economic growth story is the base for us to project a certain foreign standing. It is the foundation of everything else. The reason why India has enjoyed certain credibility as a major power and has been welcomed as an international actor is precise because its economic and security capabilities are advancing rapidly and therefore it makes sense for other major powers to have strong relations with India.

That is what gives us diplomatic space. We got the Indo-US Nuclear Trade because of this perception. There is a gap between India and China but India is rapidly shrinking that.

The perception is that India may become the next China in terms of its economic and commercial opportunities.

Look at our response to the Tsunami in 2004. We were perhaps the first country to send out supplies, assistance, using our naval forces even before the US or other major powers got into the act. It made a big impact that here is a country that has real projection capability. So it is able to deliver public goods.

The hyphenation with Pakistan got broken. The nuclear deal got possible for India but could not even be thought of with respect to Pakistan.

ETV Bharat in conversation with Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

Q- But is that hyphenation with Pakistan really broken? Especially in view of the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and developments on the international stage that have followed.

We have to be honest that that hyphenation (With Pakistan) is coming back.

Q- How much of it is because of New Delhi itself?

It is how much salience you give to that relationship is how others will look at you? Our challenge is really China. If Pakistan is seen as a threat it is because it is in league with China. Not because of being Pakistan. Even on the issue of terrorism which is a major concern for India, but after maybe 30 years of Pakistan indulging in cross border terrorism has it been able to dent the emergence of India as a major economy?

Has it been able to in any way impact India’s economic performance? No. In fact more correct to say that it has eroded Pakistan’s own position and created more crisis for it. So be concerned about terrorism but look at it from an overall perspective.

Q- So is India raising the issue of terrorism and Pakistan on the international stage constantly counter-productive?

The more you talk about Pakistan, naturally you are also giving a handle to others to talk about it. How can you get away from it?

ETV Bharat in conversation with Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

Q- How do you see India’s diplomatic challenge in defending its position on Kashmir internationally today. German Chancellor Merkel, Finland’s government, has made some sharp comments. There have been two hearings in the US Congress in nearly a fortnight.

It will be a bigger challenge if the situation in Kashmir does not get normalised in a manner that most people understand normalcy.

I know Home Minister (Amit Shah) has said that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is entirely normal. I do not think it is really a true picture of what is happening in the valley.

If you still do not have internet availability after more than 100 days, still have major restrictions on use of your mobile phones, if you have major political figures under detention, political activity by established political parties are not being permitted, comparing the situation in Jammu and Kashmir with the condition in any other state in India, I do not think it is correct to say that the situation is normal.

I would also say that if in the next few months the situation in the valley really does improve, that relative normalcy in the way we understand it does get established, some of the concerns we see articulated by our friends in Germany or US would diminish. But if the situation does not improve further over the next months then why should you be surprised if there is greater comment and focus on this even among your friends.
Q- What is really holding back the India-US trade agreement and how much will it impact the overall bilateral ties?

The weakest pillar of India-US relations is the economic pillar undoubtedly. We are doing very well on security, political aspects.

There is a certain bipartisan consensus even in a very polarised US attaching great importance in building a relationship with India.

While I welcome the effort being made to try and see how we can overcome some of the frictions in the trade relations, also the desired interest to look at the possibility of FTA, if we were not able to stomach RCEP I see very little prospect of our being able to conclude FTA with the US.

Q-This even as other FTAs that were in place were scrapped or being reviewed?

Not scrap them but we have been expressing reservations about those FTAs.

If you look at various trade agreements, the RCEP is actually a relatively low-quality FTA in terms of what it demands from its participants, not only in tariff reductions or adhering to higher standards of environment, health and others.

Today’s game in trade is not about tariffs but about standards. We do not want to invest in raising our standards. If you are not able to do that at a relatively low level in the RCEP, would you be able to do this when you are seeking FTA with an advanced country like the US where those standards are much higher?

We have to rethink some of these issues. If you are thinking that if you do not want to make concessions on RCEP, I will go and get some better concessions from the US, or I will revive free trade negotiations with the EU and get a better deal, No you may not be able to get that.

For the simple reason that in those markets (US/ EU), the standards that are expected of you in terms of market access are higher than what was on-demand in the RCEP.

We are focused so much on tariffs when the rest of the world has moved away from it and is competing on quality.

The sense in India that we are a huge market, where will they go, they have no alternatives, that is a completely misplaced assumption.

For example, much of the textile trade is now moving away from China because of higher wages and certain concerns about the operations of foreign enterprises there.

But where are they going? Are they coming to India? They are mostly going to Vietnam as the first target, many others are going to Bangladesh next door. To think that there are no alternatives that foreign partners or investors have, that is a misplaced assumption. You have to get your act together. Unless you are more competitive as an economy and you have the ability to do that because of your size.

But if you do not accept that to have accelerated growth over the next 20-30 years, take advantage of the demographic dividend which will not be available unless you are growing at 8-10 percent per annum. You cannot do that by closing down your economy.

Q- How do you see domestic politics over NRC affecting bilateral ties with Dhaka? The outgoing Bangladesh High Commissioner has made some critical remarks against India.

So far the assurance that has been conveyed to Dhaka is that they need not have any worries about those who have been identified as illegal immigrants to be somehow pushed across the border into Bangladesh.

But even though we present it as a purely domestic issue which should not have any implications for our relations with our neighbouring countries, the fact is it will.

ETV Bharat in conversation with Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

Whatever rhetoric you have here to think it will not influence opinion on the other side, is not realistic. What the outgoing Bangladesh envoy said or comments from Bangladesh itself, it is becoming more salient.

We have to watch out and be very careful to make certain that whatever major gains we have made in our ties with Bangladesh in which the current PM Hasina has played a very key role, it should not be that we undermine her or position of any other Bangladeshi leader by thoughtless rhetoric.

Q- The issue of the depiction of Kalapani in the new Indian political maps released post reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir is leading to a diplomatic confrontation with Nepal. Given that Nepalis still talk about the ‘economic blockade’ some years ago, how do you see the row?

It is somewhat difficult to understand why there has been this kind of eruption on the Nepalese side.

Even though these maps were issued in order to reflect the changes made in Jammu and Kashmir, it had nothing to do with Nepal.

As far as the India-Nepal border is concerned, none of these maps is showing anything different from all earlier maps. So these maps are not showing certain cartographic aggression that is taking place against Nepal.

If there is no departure, then why this sudden anger at the publication of these maps. There is any number of earlier maps that are no different. So what is new in this that has annoyed them.

Secondly, with regard to say Kalapani, these were originally drawn on very small scale maps. We have seen the problems we have had with MacMohan line on the eastern sector which was drawn with a very broad nib.

So the difference between the top and below parts is something like 20 kilometres because of the small scale. It is quite apparent that in several places there is a genuine difference of perception as to where the line is drawn. In the old days, there was no old line.

Q- So if this is not a different map then who is fanning this image of Indian aggression?

When you are looking for ways in which you can mobilise public opinion in your favour, after all, who started it out -it was from the left, the Maoist breakaway faction.

Then people from other parties said that look if we do not join in then we will not be able to present ourselves as great nationalists and that is how it started snowballing. This has happened before as well.

Reality is no difference in terms of depiction of the India-Nepal border. Even though these differences had been brought out in the past we had put in place a mechanism to deal with it.

There is a foreign secretary-level forum to deal with this. It seems it has not met for whatever reasons but it is not as if there is a refusal on the Indian side to address some of these concerns.

In 2000 India-Nepal Friendship Treaty was raised at the level of Prime Ministers that this was somehow causing great angst on the Nepali side, that this was an unequal treaty and we need to revise it.

So an agreement was made to address this. Again a foreign secretary-level mechanism was set up which met only once.

In that one meeting we said that if we have to have a more reciprocal kind of treaty then some of the privileges you now enjoy under the treaty, you (Nepal) should also be ready to give that up.

After the first one, no other meeting has taken place. We are ready to sit down and have a substantive discussion about this, but you do not want to.

ETV Bharat in conversation with Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

Let us also not forget that 98 percent of the India-Nepal border has actually been settled. There are some 180 or more very detailed strip maps of virtually every section of the border agreed upon by both sides. So that 98 percent of the settled border does not seem to matter at all and you want to pick up these two.

In the case of Susta, it is because of the changing course of the river. You have to then decide if you will agree to a riverine border or are you going to say that no matter how the course of the river changes it will be the border.

That is something you have to decide by consensus. I do not see it as something that will somehow be a major issue in India-Nepal relations.

If for some reason some political forces in Nepal wish to make it something big, well this is not the first time.

Link to original story

About Smita Sharma

Smita Sharma is a senior award winning independent journalist. She writes on foreign policy and security issues for various news organisations including ETV Bharat and Huffington Post. She was the Consulting Executive Editor for TV9 Bharatvarsh and Deputy Editor with The Tribune in the past. In more than 16 years of her journalism career she has also been a bilingual prime time anchor and foreign policy Incharge with leading TV news channels- India Today/ Aajtak/ CNN-IBN/ IBN7 and DD News. Her reportage of the Kashmir conflict in 2010 won the Ramnath Goenka Award. She is a an alumni of the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies (DKI-APCSS) in Hawaii.