Does India have an identifiable world view or a strategic framework through which it interprets the world around it? How templates of the past along with patterns of thinking and cultural attributes acquired over centuries influence its engagement with the world? These are some of the broad questions which were dealt with during a discussion on former foreign secretary Shyam Saran’s book “How India Sees the World: From Kautilya to 21st Century” at Observer Research Foundation on September 27.
Discussant for the session Ms. Suhasini Haider, Deputy Resident & Diplomatic Affairs Editor of The Hindu, commented how the book aligns theory with tangible negotiations and policies of the government, making it a book of ideas which puts foreign policy into practice. According to Ms. Suhasini, by making reference to thinkers of the past like Kautilya, Kamandiki, Thucydides and Lord Tennyson, this book challenges the idea of one single way of doing things. It also accepts the faults and constraints in the system and gives space to the missed opportunities of India’s foreign policy narrative, for example the Siachen negotiations with Pakistan.
Delving into the specifics of the book, China was a subject of ample discussion during the session. Ms. Suhasini propounded the need to understand China and how the book indicates that the way to deal with China lies in history. Mr. Saran was of the view that India-China relationship in the last 15 years is characterised by regular engagement at the leadership level, and therefore despite the ups and downs, a message goes to the world that the leaders of the two countries want to keep the relationship on an even keel. To tackle the border issue with China, Mr. Saran stated that the Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993 does not suffice and there is a need for a framework that takes into account the changed scenarios of the two countries.
During the discussion, it emerged that India-Nepal relationship can be used as a template for foreign policy in the region, which is characterised by open borders and free movement of people back and forth. Mr. Saran pointed out every neighborhood relationship will face unexpected issues. With recent developments in Nepal like the Madhesi blockade, and opening of infrastructure to the Chinese side, this “template” also stands tested. According to Mr. Saran, India’s relationship with the neighbours can be managed more efficiently by increasing engagement, which can prevent issues converting into crises. The neighborhood should enjoy highest priority in Indian foreign policy. Adequate human and economic resource should be invested to understand the political, economic and social situation of all the neighboring countries, he said.
The argument that Indian foreign policy focus should shift from SAARC to BIMSTEC, due to a lack of solution on the Pakistan issue, was bought into the discussion by the chair of the session, Dr. Harsh Pant, Distinguished Fellow and Head, Strategic Studies Programme, ORF. In Mr. Saran’s view, using BIMSTEC rather than SAARC to indirectly engage with the Pakistan is not a solution, as both sets of regional initiatives are necessary for sub regional cooperation. The way to handle the Pakistan situation is not by turning away from it, rather the solution lies in understanding that the historical narratives of the two countries are poles apart creating an adversarial relationship. The effort should be to not let this relationship escalate into an armed conflict.
During the session, a question regarding India’s options with climate change and economic growth in the backdrop of the recent developments around the “Paris Agreement” was put forward to Mr. Saran. This veering the discussion towards the issue of global cooperation regarding problems which transcend borders like Climate Change. Mr. Saran stated that India’s stance on the Climate Change since the Copenhagen agreement was based on the United Nations Framework for Climate Change (UNFCC), rather than its own economic interest. With the recent Paris Agreement, the world has essentially agreed to put aside the UNFCC, making it irrelevant. In this scenario, according to Mr. Saran, India must safeguard its positon, first by acting on areas which essentially promote the country’s interest. For example, the shift from fossil fuels to renewable clean sources, to ensure energy security in the future. Second, India requires a supportive international regime which does not constrain its development. Therefore, as the negotiations on the Paris Framework proceed, India has an opportunity to drive an agenda which includes fair rules that do not restrict growth.
The stimulating discussion ended with a questions answer session which brought to the fore front the importance of India’s engagement with its neighbours, to effectively deal with the mismatched perceptions in the region. In order to play a credible and effective global role, it is imperative for India to manage its immediate periphery. The idea of expanding Indian foreign policy should be taken forward and opportunities of convergent interests availed in order to create bilateral and multilateral pursuits of reassurance.
This report was prepared by Damini Singh, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi