Three Years as Foreign Secretary
(Sree Chitra Thirunal Memorial Lecture,
Thiruvananthapuram, 14 November 2009)
S.Menon Your Highness Padmanabhadasa
,Professor MD Nalapat,
Shri T P Sreenivasan,
Shri T Ravindran Thampi, General Secretary of the Samithi,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for asking me to deliver this prestigious lecture. It is a double honour and pleasure, to come home and to have the privilege of delivering the prestigious Sree Chitra Thirunal memorial lecture. A most distinguished roster of previous speakers has set a very high standard for these lectures on aspects of our public life.
It is a particular honour to speak in memory of one who, more than most, was the father of much that is admirable in Kerala, -- our high educational standards, the preservation and development of traditional culture while we modernise, the democratic foundations of our political life, and the beginnings of social equality. For all this not just Kerala but India as a whole owes Sree Chitra Thirunal a great debt of gratitude.
But there is more for which we must be grateful to him and which makes it important that we commemorate his memory. For while achieving so much that was pioneering in the public sphere, he also set an example of modesty, humility, principle, and rectitude in the private sphere that one wishes were more widely practiced today in both public and private life. The stories are legion about his exemplary behaviour, which led to his being called a “modern Ashoka” or Buddha, and to Gandhiji paying him tribute as a true Mahatma. Sree Chitra Thirunal’s conduct remained the same throughout the long period when he was with us, whether he was the Maharaja, the Rajpramukh, or, as he himself reminded people, an ordinary citizen of the Republic. It is difficult for ordinary mortals to live up to the extremely high standards that he set. But his is an example that we should remind ourselves of often.
Occasions like today’s are both fitting and necessary to remind ourselves of the great contributions and the example that he set for us.
It was suggested to me that I might speak on three years as Foreign Secretary. I can claim no credit for this topic. For this you have the indefatigable TP Sreenivasan to thank. But when he suggested it I thought it might be a useful tag to see whether Foreign Secretaries are actually capable of learning from experience.
Besides, the three years when I was Foreign Secretary, from 2006 to mid 2009, were years when the world situation underwent what can only be described as a phase transformation or a fundamental change. This was a period when boom turned to bust in the West, when the unprecedented expansion of the world economy and world trade and investment came to a sudden end in the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the thirties. It was also a time when political developments in our immediate vicinity, (like the rise of China, the transformation of India and other powers, and internal crises in our neighbours), changed our geopolitical situation, creating both challenges and opportunities for our diplomacy.
I therefore thought that I might speak about the international situation in this period, describe the major challenges that we in India faced, and then try to see whether one can draw conclusions from the experience of those three years.
I. The International Situation
In many ways, the period after 1991 was the most favourable to our quest to develop India. As you know, the primary purpose of India’s foreign policy is to create, to the extent possible within our means and the given situation, an external environment that enables the domestic transformation of India into a modern, democratic, secular society in which each citizen has the opportunity to achieve their potential. To do this we require an environment of peace, free of external entanglements, and with the access to technologies, markets, raw materials and capital that international trade and economic cooperation provide. As a necessary and essential corollary, we also require security, a stable environment, and strategic autonomy for ourselves if we are to have a chance of growing equitably at the 8-10% we require until at least 2020 if we are to abolish mass poverty in India.
Why do I say that the post Cold War external environment after 1991 of a globalizing world without rival political alliances was the most supportive of our quest that we have known since independence? The breakup of the two Cold War blocs gave India the opportunity and strategic space to take initiatives with her neighbours, to improve relations with major powers, and to rapidly develop beneficial external economic and other links. The risks of direct conflict between two or more major powers had diminished due to interdependence created by globalization. And the unprecedented growth and strength of global capital and trade flows was directly beneficial to emerging economies like India, China and others.
It was therefore possible for India in this period to engage much more actively with her neighbours, through repeated attempts by successive governments to improve relations with Pakistan, the border related CBMs with China, free trade agreements with neighbours starting with Sri Lanka in 1998, the Ganga Waters Treaty with Bangladesh and several other steps.And yet, by mid-2006 the first signs were visible that this, historically speaking, brief and unprecedented moment of opportunity for India (and others) might be coming to an end.
Why do I say so?
1. The situation in our neighbourhood was deteriorating.
What had begun promisingly in 2004 January with Pakistan had come to a stop after the multiple bombing of Mumbai suburban trains in July 2006, and ceasefire violations and infiltration by terrorists from Pakistan. Bangladesh seemed to be heading for an election where, (as was later proved), 10 million voters amounting to almost 15% of the persons on the electoral rolls would have been fictitious! In Sri Lanka the civil war seemed endless in its toll of human suffering. And in Nepal the double transition to democracy and mainstreaming the Maoists was stalled.
2. It was also clear that the Asian balance was shifting.
While the US was engrossed in Iraq and Afghanistan, thirty years of reform and 10% growth in China, over twenty-five years of 6% growth in India, and changes in Indonesia and South Korea had changed the geopolitics of the region fundamentally.
3. And more perceptive observers were already seeing an end to the economic boom in the west, though no one foresaw the nature or extent of the crisis that would hit the heart of the capitalist system in 2008.
On the positive side, we had the benefit of the gains of several years of successful diplomatic effort, and the capacities that India had built thanks to sustained effort over sixty years. India’s engagement with the world economy was already of the order of over 250 billion USD a year. Unlike the seventies, we were no longer the issue in our neighbours’ internal political crises, though attempts continued to drag us in. Our relations had improved with all the major powers. The fact that we had done so simultaneously with both China and the USA was a matter of some admiration abroad, and some concern in Pakistan. The civil nuclear initiative, which was unfinished, was the most visible example of a much broader relationship on sensitive issues of substance that we enjoyed with the USA and with each of the major powers. And, most important, we had the confidence and weight that comes to a power that has grown her GDP at 6% for over twenty-five years, thus creating capacities, markets and social change at a rate that not even Britain had matched at the height of the industrial revolution. And this was happening simultaneously in India and China, (where double digit growth in the defence budget and investment in infrastructure and heavy industry was their chosen use for their money).
II. The Challenges
Given this evolving situation around us, it was clear in mid 2006 that our twin tasks were to maintain and grow the gains for India of the post Cold War era, (for want of a better term to describe the period from 1991 to 2006), and to prepare for the changed situation that might be coming. (To be honest, the first person who spoke to me about the likely changes in the situation was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who foresaw the deterioration as early as 2005.)
In practical terms what we were faced with in the Foreign Office was, as usual, a series of day to day decisions and actions that only cumulate to a grand strategy in the eyes of subsequent observers. Allow me to briefly describe the main challenges that arose, how we attempted to deal with them, and the situation we face today, beginning with our neighbours.
III. The Neighborhood
In mid-2006, we had made considerable progress in all three tracks of the dialogue process with Pakistan begun in January 2004. Some progress had been made in addressing difficult issues, including J&K, Siachen and Sir Creek; trade, travel and other links had been restored and, for the first time, had also been set up across the LOC; over 100,000 Pakistanis visited India in 2005; and trade had grown rapidly from 200 million USD in 2003 to 1.5 billion USD in 2006. But the entire process was premised on General Musharraf’s solemn promise not to permit terrorism in any manner against India from territory under Pakistan’s control, and on the ceasefire that had been declared in November 2003. Both were being brought into question by Pakistani actions which began in 2006 but have since culminated in the 26/11/2008 attack on Mumbai. The horrific serial bombing of Mumbai suburban trains in July 2006 was the most visible of these events. Infiltration of terrorists across the LOC and the first ceasefire violations by Pakistan had also begun to rise again by this time.
Our response was to effectively suspend the dialogue while telling Pakistan that she had to prove her bonafides on the issue of terrorism. When PM Manmohan Singh met General Musharraf in Havana in September 2006 on the sidelines of the non-aligned summit, we gave Pakistan one more chance to do so by setting up a Joint Anti-Terror Mechanism to address the crucial issue of terrorism. I will not go into the tortuous story of the next three years, where Pakistan failed each successive test and could not bring herself to act against the terrorists who targeted India from her soil with support from elements at the core of the Pakistani establishment.
The story of Pakistani behaviour and links to the successive attacks in our cities through 2007-8, in the bombing of our Embassy in Kabul in July 2008, and the attack on Mumbai on 26/11/08 is too well known. Less well known is the story of Pakistani prevarication and dissembling in the official exchanges in the Joint Anti-Terror Mechanism and during other meetings when the subject of terrorism was formally raised by us with Pakistan.
Simultaneously, Pakistan was sinking into a domestic crisis of her own making. The lack of legitimacy of regimes in Pakistan has led them to extreme measures of political manipulation in 1971, 1977 and again in 2007-8, each time with unfortunate results for stability and the polity. By the end of 2007, Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated, and by March 2008 President Musharraf’s own political future was in question. In these circumstances, a democratic government came to power after the elections in Pakistan with promises of better relations and of action against terrorists. Our dilemma remained. Who in Pakistan would, or could, deal with our issues and relationship in a realistic and practical manner, abjuring terrorism as an instrument of Pakistani state policy against India (and Afghanistan)?
We still have no easy answer to that question and that is one reason why Pakistan policy occasions so much debate in India, with more heat than light, (apart from the fact that I cannot think of an Indian who is not an expert on Pakistan).
But, seriously speaking, Pakistan’s quest for an identity of her own has led powerful parts of her establishment to do violence to her own culture and to try to impose a radical Islamic identity and polity on a South Asian society and economy. Portions of the Pakistani establishment have found it useful to propagate an extreme version of political Islam; the Pak Army has found this useful against mass-based democratic parties and the left, and has found anti-Indian rhetoric a patriotic cloak for their own actions.
The results of this futile attempt to fight the facts of geography and history are apparent to all, including thinking Pakistanis today. Today Pakistan is internally besieged by the very jehadi and terrorist groups which were nurtured by the Pakistani state and Army to attack India.
It became clear after 1971 to Pakistan and the world that India had successfully overcome the strategic disadvantages imposed by Partition by creating an integrated polity and growing economy, and had removed the existential threat of further communal division and separatism. The Pakistani establishment’s reaction to this fact was two-fold. Prime Minister Bhutto decided to “eat grass” if necessary to build nuclear weapons, and the Pakistani establishment began the use of terrorism and political Islam in their most extreme forms against India in Punjab and Kashmir and against Afghanistan.
These attempts failed, but that required considerable effort by us, an effort that we are still forced to expend. Pakistan is the epicenter of global terrorism and remains a source of constant concern for us.
In Pakistan today there are multiple power centers. Extremist and terrorist organizations have gained power not just across the Indus but in Pakistani Punjab. State organs work with them and the resulting threats to us are multiple, not just of other attacks like Mumbai but also of the consequences of state failure in Pakistan on the custody of their nuclear weapons and material.
There is no easy way forward out of this situation. A stable Pakistan at peace with itself is clearly in India’s interest and would be better than all the alternatives. That is an outcome that one would hope for. But the struggle in Pakistan will ultimately have to be settled within Pakistan itself, preferably by the Pakistani people.
We must continue to engage with those in Pakistan who like us stand against terrorism and extremism and believe in the potential of good relations between India and Pakistan.
In the second half of 2006 Bangladesh was drifting towards an election that no-one believed would be fair or free or reflect the people’s will. It was at that moment that the Bangladesh Army stepped in, cleaned up the electoral rolls and process under a civilian caretaker government, and kept its word by holding elections in less than two years, (an achievement that very few military regimes have matched in the world). Both with the caretaker government and with the new Awami League government that won the election by an overwhelming margin, we attempted to rebuild our bilateral relationship, and have had considerable success.
Why was it possible for Bangladesh to create the present moment of hope in her internal political evolution? Bangladesh has several advantages that comparable states lack. These include an active civil society, real mass based political parties, a popular commitment to democracy, and, most important, a strong and vibrant Bengali culture and identity. Bangladesh has made great progress towards democracy, and has a remarkable economic record of success in this decade, though fragilities in her polity offer extremists and others opportunities.
Our task through this period was to create the enabling international environment that permitted this smooth transition in Bangladesh, without interfering in her internal affairs.
In Nepal, by mid-2006 it seemed that the peace process had stalled and that there was a real risk of a return to anarchy or civil war. Nepal is attempting a difficult double transition, mainstreaming the Maoists and writing a Constitution for a new republic. Neither of these is easy by itself, and the consequences of failure in either attempt will affect India directly. [Clearly if the Maoists are not mainstreamed, it could impact our Naxalite problem. If the democratic project fails, the door would be open for inimical influences to operate again in Nepal.]
Our task was therefore to work with all the forces in Nepal and those abroad with influence in Nepal to try and restart the peace process so that there could be agreement on elections to a Constituent Assembly, and on terms under which the Maoists would sequester their arms and combatants, thus returning to the mainstream.
This was largely achieved, though no agreement can ever be proof against the normal operation of individual ambition in the subcontinent, particularly when issues of such fundamental and long-term significance are being settled in Nepal. The road ahead therefore seems unclear at times, but such regression as has occurred has not completely derailed the process or sent the Maoists back into the jungle as insurgents yet.
Our role in Nepal is particularly sensitive. We are asked by all the Nepalese political forces and parties to intervene and play a role in producing the outcome they desire, and we become the issue if the outcome deviates from their preferences! This is a true test of diplomatic skill, complicated by the fact that there is an open boundary, free trade and movement, and so many links between us that Nepal, like our other neighbours in the sub-continent, is also a domestic issue in India.
4. Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is the other example of a foreign policy issue that is also centre stage in domestic politics. The dénouement of the Sri Lankan civil war with its grisly human toll coincided with a period of heightened political sensitivity in Tamilnadu and the build-up to our general elections in 2009.
Throughout the period from 2006 to 2009, we were engaged in multiple tasks: trying to protect and assist the Tamil civilian population who were the major victims of the LTTE and the civil war; defeating LTTE terrorism; and, working for a political dispensation within the Sri Lankan framework in which all the communities of Sri Lanka could feel that they are in control of their own destiny. If this was not complicated enough there were also external interests added to the mix.
It is for history to judge how successful we were in this effort to pursue India’s interests in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka itself, the civil war has ended militarily, but the hard political work remains, to rebuild and rehabilitate a multi-ethnic society destroyed by twenty-seven years of civil war. President Rajapaksa is committed to resettle the 230,000 internally displaced Tamil civilians who are in resettlement camps, and we will do all we can to make this possible. At the same time a lasting settlement requires a political dispensation in Sri Lanka within which all her communities feel comfortable. This is an attempt in which we have tried to assist Sri Lanka since the early eighties. There is an opportunity after the end of military hostilities, but it needs to be taken by all the communities in the country. Whether they will do so is still an open question.
Our largest neighbour is China. Fortunately, as a result of several years of effort we had, by mid 2006, arrived at a modus vivendi in which we were able to manage difficult issues like the boundary problem in practice (through CBMs and the 1993 and 1996 Agreements); we had agreed not to let the difficult issues prevent the growth of our bilateral relations; our economic and commercial links were rising exponentially until China became our largest single trading partner in 2007; and we were working together on international issues where we found congruence.
The rise of China is probably the major geopolitical development of our times. But it has happened in a very different way from the rise of previous powers in the international system. If China is rising, other Asian powers like India, Korea and Indonesia are also being transformed, in an already crowded Asian balance of power. And China is intimately linked to the US economy for her growth and development. We are not the only power affected by the rise of China. Like the others, we have opted to build on cooperative elements in our relationship with China while trying to solve difficult bilateral issues like the boundary and trans-boundary rivers, and to embed China in positive international relationships.
There are elements of both competition and cooperation in our relations with China. To oversimplify, we have economic complimentarity and China is our largest trading partner with over 52 billion USD of trade last year. We also have considerable congruence in our approach to major global issues such as climate change and energy security. At the same time we have significant bilateral issues such as the world’s largest boundary dispute. We also differ in our approach to handling some regional issues such as terrorism from Pakistan.
We are dealing today with a new China, a China that has grown by over 10% for over thirty years. The result is a young, assertive and confident China, which is looking to consolidate her position in the international hierarchy. We see this on issues like Tibet, the boundary and Tawang.
Dealing with this complex of issues and our relationship with China will be the greatest test of our diplomatic and strategic skill in the immediate future.
IV. Global Issues
1. The USA & the Civil Nuclear Initiative
By mid 2006 our relationship with the USA had been transformed and was steadily growing in scope and significance. PM Manmohan Singh’s July 2005 visit had set the parameters for a wide ranging engagement in areas of mutual interest. Over twenty eight dialogue forums in areas as diverse as energy, agriculture and high technology were making steady progress. But the one aspect of the relationship that assumed extreme salience in the political and public mind in India was the civil nuclear initiative. In this the US pledged to work with us to remove restrictions on international cooperation with our civil nuclear programme, without insisting, as before, on our placing our entire programme, including the strategic programme under international safeguards to guarantee its peaceful use. This amounted to de facto recognition of our strategic nuclear programme and of our status as a nuclear weapon state. It also opened up the possibility of our cooperating with the US and other friendly countries to access a clean, safe and economical source of energy for our energy hungry economy. Our first task was to negotiate a 123 agreement with the USA that embodied these understandings in legal obligations by both sides. That was achieved satisfactorily, as even opponents of the initiative admitted subsequently. You are all familiar with the political firestorm that followed, and the rather tortuous process by which our domestic decisions were ultimately taken. From the Foreign Office point of view it took professionalism of the highest order to deal with the complicated negotiations with the USA, other countries, the IAEA, and ultimately to get a clear and unconditional clearance from the Nuclear Supplier Group countries as a group. At the same time, as civil servants, we had to stay out of the domestic political process in India, leaving that to the politicians. I think we succeeded in both. And I am proud to have had a small part in bringing about the moment when India actually broke the nuclear apartheid that we had suffered since 1974.
There were moments when one thought that the civil nuclear initiative might suck all the oxygen out of the room, leaving little energy for the rest of our wide ranging relationship with the USA or our other preoccupations. Fortunately, the Indian system has infinite resilience, and this never happened. Today, the India-US developmental agenda is going well, levels of bilateral consultation and cooperation are unprecedented, and the US is working with us on issues of concern to us. Of course, the health of the relationship in the future will depend at least partly on how US policies globally and regionally affect India’s security.The domestic controversy around the civil nuclear initiative also revealed one very significant feature of our system.
After an initial phase of learning about the complex arrangements and agreements that constitute the initiative, including the 123 agreement with the USA, the controversy was primarily political. It was about the merits of trusting the USA or the consequences of a particular line of policy rather than about the substance of the agreements themselves. And this political controversy was conducted as it should be among the politicians and political opinion in the country without dragging in civil servants. For us as apolitical civil servants, it was possible throughout, no matter how high the emotions or the stakes, to give calm, reasoned, professional advice, not just to my Minister and the PM as government, but to leaders from the opposition who sought clarifications --- leaders from the BJP, CPM, CPI and others. For me this is one of the great strengths of our system: That civil servants can and must be apolitical, giving calm, reasoned, professional advice in private, speaking truth to power, and that power seeks that advice. That was an extremely heartening experience. Not many countries can make this claim.
2. Global challenges and the World Economic Crisis
Not all our attention in the Foreign Office was concentrated on bilateral relationships. In 2006 the world was poised on the cusp of great changes, and this was reflected in various ways in discussions in the G-8 and other forums. Climate change as an issue was probably first discussed at the highest level again after many years at the G-8 Summit at Heiligendamm in 2007, when we made it clear that dealing with the consequences of the developed world’s profligacy with our atmosphere could not be at the cost of our development. Energy security became an issue with oil prices soaring in 2007, as did food security for several other developing countries.By 2008, however, it was clear that the world was facing a major recession, possibly another depression, and that for the first time this was caused by the heart of the Western financial system. The problem is still only partially dealt with, since the stimulus solution to recession has actually worsened the deficits that were a structural cause of the crisis. For our Foreign Office, the task remains to understand and deal with the geopolitical consequences of the global economic crisis.
One immediate consequence, recognizing a more even distribution of the power to deal with the crisis, is the new role of the G-20. Five years ago macro-economic coordination and regulatory reform after a crisis would have been dealt with in the small Western club of the G-8. It is now being coordinated in the G-20, where re-emerging economies like China and India are present. These are signs of the times.
Can one draw lessons from this rather prolix description of some of the challenges we faced in an eventful three years? It would be presumptuous on my part to do so, and three years is too short a period. But it is hard to resist the temptation after thirty-seven years in the profession of diplomacy. So, to provoke a discussion, let me suggest some themes:
I have tried to show you how great the change and flux in India’s situation has been in just three years. Over the longer term, such as my generation’s lifetime, it has been truly staggering. In 1948, waving expansively at a map of the world, Nehru exclaimed to a young Indian Foreign Service officer, “We will have forty missions around the world!” Today we have over one hundred and sixty-three missions and posts abroad.
(i) If our foreign policy experience teaches us one thing it is that change is inevitable, rapid and often discontinuous. There is hardly an international boundary between two states that is where it was two hundred years ago. The speed of the rise of China and India in the last quarter of the twentieth century is proof of the rapidity of change. History has accelerated but not the speed of our thought. We invariably underestimate its pace and the fact that it is almost always discontinuous. It is hard to think of a single major political development which is a straight line extrapolation of existing trends and therefore predictable. And yet we continue to do precisely that, analysing politics and the international situation as though they will follow a linear course extrapolating present trends.
(ii) Since the balance of power is relative, small shifts have exaggerated effects on the international system. Today we are in a completely changed situation. Whether it is the Asian balance or the global economy, both have been so transformed in the last three years that we probably need to rethink our assumptions. There is no going back to the earlier pattern of the global economy. Nor are we at the end of the crisis.
(iii)There are opportunities in this situation for India. We have been relatively less hurt by the crisis. There are opportunities in terms of access to technologies and commodities, and to achieve other economic goals, even though international markets may turn increasingly protectionist. Lower commodity prices work to our advantage at this stage of our development, and global excess capacity, particularly in capital goods and infrastructure building, could be tapped.
(iv) Our subcontinent has shown a remarkable paradox. Multiple, serial, internal political crises in the Indian subcontinent have been accompanied in the last few years by considerable economic vitality, growth and development in the same economies. How does one explain this? This shows that official figures only reveal a small part of the real story of economic exchanges in the subcontinent. To a great extent, the continuing growth of the Indian economy is what has enabled smaller South Asian economies to grow during such a deep global recession. And this represents an opportunity for us all.
(v) This is not to underestimate the dangers and factors of instability. How can we, situated as we are next to the epicenter of international terrorism?
(vi) After several centuries, once again the state is not the sole or necessarily the predominant factor in the international system. In some cases, like technology for instance, it is businesses and individuals who now determine the future, and it is these units that a successful foreign policy must now increasingly deal with.
(vii) India’s foreign policy today no longer deals only with existential threats to our security or with subsistence issues. Today our future will be determined by how effectively we adapt to change, and how we deal with cross-cutting global issues, with questions of energy security, water, low carbon growth, technology issues and so on. An open rule-based trading system is in our interest now that we have sizeable equities in international trade. We have moved from statements alone to working for and crafting desirable outcomes.
(viii) On global issues like non-proliferation and climate change, the crisis could theoretically provoke either a hardening of entrenched positions or a willingness to re-examine fundamentals to find new solutions that work better. In non-proliferation at least the latter may be the case. For the first time the world’s most powerful state has accepted a nuclear weapon free world as the goal of non-proliferation and disarmament efforts, precisely the same goal that then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi put to the UNGA special session on disarmament in 1988. On climate change it is too early to say which way the developed countries will go, though the crisis seems to have made them nervous and hardened their positions.
If India is to deal with these issues in this new world, it is essential that we further elaborate our own culture and tradition of strategic thought. So long as India’s situation and needs are unique, we must encourage our own ways of looking at developments, and develop our own strategic culture, vocabulary and doctrine. Fortunately for us, there is no isolationist streak in our strategic thought so far, and we have a rich tradition to draw on. Ironically, the greater our capabilities, the more we need the world and are integrated into it. So if anything, the joys and challenges of Indian foreign policy will grow with time.
I am confident that if we continue as we have, with a realist policy leavened by our ideals, India will continue to make steady progress towards our goal of transforming India. History teaches us that India has been most prosperous, successful and at peace when she was most connected to the rest of the world. My generation has seen a remarkable change in India’s place in the world. I hope the next generation can improve upon our happy experience.
[Thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts, and for the patient hearing.]