Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, says both India and China have stereotypical images of each other. In an interview with Yeshi Seli, the Padma Bhushan awardee talks about his latest book, the complexities of India-China ties, India’s neighbour policy, the ongoing row over the remarks on the Prophet, and several other issues. Excerpts from an interview:
What has prompted you to write a book on China and its complex relationship with India?
China is India’s neighbour and its most significant security and economic challenge. Yet most Indians know very little about China and how its current perceptions of the world and India are influenced by its history, culture and the temperament of its people. Both India and China nurse stereotypical images of each other, mostly negative, I would say. My latest book, How China Sees India and the World is an attempt to help people in India understand China better, decode what to many people appears as an enigma.
Do you see the challenges between the two nations narrowing down in the future?
China and India are Asian civilizations with a long history. In some respects, there are affinities between their cultures. There are significant differences too. For example, the Chinese language has no alphabet and Chinese characters are ideograms, each character is a word. Even though spoken Chinese may be different in various parts of China, the written script is the same and this is a strong basis for Chinese sense of common identity and unity. India, on the other hand, has several languages and scripts and what is striking is India’s plurality with a certain deep underlying cultural unity. There is no reason why India and China cannot co-exist as proud and successful nations. Better mutual understanding and engagement can facilitate that.
China claims it is India’s largest trading partner. Is trade likely to help improve diplomatic and political relations?
Trade and economic relations can help in promoting mutual understanding, but cannot be a substitute for it. As you have stated China is today India’s largest trading partner, but this has neither eased the tensions at the border nor persuaded China to lower these tensions. Even though it is difficult to find alternative sources of supply in the short term, it is the government’s policy to progressively reduce trade dependence on China and restrict its investment in India’s digital economy.
What is the upcoming BRICS Summit likely to bring on the table for India?
I do not think anything substantive will be achieved in the current political environment. However, India’s persistence in maintaining its presence in a number of regional and international forums underscores the view that India’s range of interests today demands various interest-based coalitions rather than exclusive partnerships. Attendance at the BRICS summit will be an important demonstration of that.
How does Pakistan’s proximity with China impact India?
Any coalition of two hostile powers ranged along our borders is a security challenge. The China-Pakistan alliance is a low-cost, low-risk Chinese proxy to contain India within the sub-continent and constrain its efforts to play a larger regional and global role. There is also the potential danger of a “two-front war” which India must always be prepared for.
What role can India play in fortifying its ties in the neighbourhood?
India has adopted the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Obviously if a hostile China entrenches itself across our borders, as it has done in Pakistan, India’s security interest will be threatened. Instead of trying to catch up with China project-for-project, we should leverage areas where we have strengths and assets that China does not have. Our aim should be for India, as the largest economy in the sub-continent, to become an engine of growth for all our neighbours, leverage the cultural affinities that bind us and lead the way in helping resolve shared challenges such as Climate Change.
There was an outrage from Muslim countries recently on remarks made on the Prophet. Does this reflect a shortcoming in diplomacy? What should be done to deter a similar situation from arising in the future?
In our globalised and densely inter-connected world, what happens in one country instantly becomes news across the world. It is very difficult to insulate foreign policy from domestic politics. Therefore, for every State, it is important that domestic political discourse doesn’t complicate the safeguarding of the national interests. Political leadership must ensure that such intemperate behaviour is not tolerated in competitive politics.
Any suggestions that would help India’s foreign policy?
For a country like India whose international engagement has been expanding rapidly, the small size of its foreign service is a major constraint. Indian diplomats are expected to handle all aspects of India’s foreign relations — political, economic, commercial and cultural. They need to be trained in different disciplines to enable them to become better negotiators.
Diplomacy is usually associated with carefully deliberated responses. However, there is nimbleness that latter day diplomacy requires. Diplomats need new skills and this, too, requires capacity building.
We also need to pay far greater and continuous attention to our neighbourhood. Our engagement with our neighbours is at times episodic, that is, we become intensely involved when a crisis erupts, but then tend to lose interest when things settle down. Relations with neighbours need to be nurtured over the long term and at every level.