It is good to see a serving minister write a book. Why did you write it?
This book has been more than two and a half years in the making. My purpose is obviously to shape the foreign policy debate in the country. And to underline the rapid pace at which our world is changing. India matters more in such a world and it is important for us to understand that. So, our views, commitments and expectations must be clearly articulated.
What is this change? Why is it important and how does it matter to Indians now?
There are five key developments underway. The rise of China, the repositioning of America, the rebalancing of the world including India’s role in it, the relevance of rules, and the changing metrics of power. All of them need to be analysed and understood. We can’t simply continue on the basis of past experience. Foreign policy is too serious to be run on just mantras and muscle memory.
What do you mean by changing metrics of power?
When I started out in diplomacy, in Moscow actually, we gave primacy to military capability and its derived political influence. The end of the Cold War led to greater awareness of economic and soft power. Today, trade relationships, connectivity projects, technology choices and financial exposure are key factors. How to assess power
has become a more complex exercise.
How do you deal with China in a post-Ladakh crisis context? I ask this because, as India’s longest serving ambassador in Beijing, you know our China dynamic better than most.
Over the last three decades, we had steadily normalised our relationship on the assumption of peace and tranquillity prevailing on the border. This was the basis for the policies of successive governments. The state of the border and the future of our ties, therefore, cannot be separated. That is the reality. But as my book underlines, reaching an equilibrium with China is not going to be easy. We will be tested and we must stand our ground. Part of the answer is for us to also occupy more of their mind space.
Is our growing closeness to the US part of the problem?
Look, India is China’s largest neighbour, one with a matching civilisational history. Our ties are fundamentally bilateral in character. The relationship is not only hugely consequential for both nations, but for the world. We must therefore understand each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations accurately. Now, China may have its own issues and problems with the US. But to view us through an American lens would be a serious misreading of India. And clearly do the relationship great disservice.
And where does the US feature in our calculations?
As I see it, there are two trends at play. One, that the US is engaging the world on very different terms. There is the Trump phenomenon but some signs were visible even under Obama. Two, there has been a sustained American interest in strengthening ties with India. Both sides, each in their own way, are coming to terms with growing multi-polarity. This is an era of convergences and the new vehicles include plurilateral mechanisms.
We first met in Japan in 1999. That relationship has completely transformed and you have been part of that too. Where does Japan fit into this multipolar world?
There is certainly a sea change there. Japan is a strategic factor that can lead to the emergence of a multipolar Asia and a greater role for middle powers.
You have spoken of greater multipolarity but less multilateralism. Will India be a different kind of power?
Absolutely. Some of that is our post-colonial history; some our inherent approach to the world. India must be identified with the quest for a more just global order. That means respect for international law and rules. And contributing to global good, whether in disaster situations, peacekeeping or in responding to pandemics. Development partnerships become particularly important in that context, as does our commitment to better delivery. This is not just idealism, it is enlightened self-interest at work.
You have talked about auditing our past performance and the relevance of non-alignment. How do you see the future?
I have actually been objective about the past, constantly underlining that it has a context. But no idea is immutable. And a big country like India will always be independent in its judgement and choices. To question that is either a lack of self-confidence or playing games. We understand our own interests clearly and are quite capable of acting on that assessment. In doing so, it is all about finding the right balance. One between hard security and soft power; between bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral; national interest and globalisation; and between values and strategies. In essence, that’s what my book is all about.