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The Geo Interview with Miss Suhasini Haider

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

Ms Suhasini Haidar, acclaimed journalist and the Diplomatic Editor of the esteemed national daily, The Hindu, speaks with The Geostrata’s Nikhitha Nelson and Harsh Suri, about a wide range of topics, ranging from the roles, responsibilities and challenges faced by media today, the Taiwan crisis, China and the United Front, the Chinese and US models of democracy and Women in IR.

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

Nikhitha -Welcome viewers. In today’s session of the Geo Interview, we are honoured to have with us Miss Suhasini Haidar, the Diplomatic Affairs Editor of the esteemed national daily, The Hindu. In today’s interview, we will be delving deep into her rich experience as a journalist in the field of foreign affairs as well as discuss recent happenings in the world. On behalf of Geostrata, we welcome you, ma’am!

Ms Suhasini Haidar- Thank you so much Nikhitha!

Nikhitha -Ma'am, you had extensive experience covering the most challenging stories and conflicts from all around the world including from conflict-prone regions such as Kashmir, Pakistan, Syria, etc. Today as we all know we are living through times of massive geopolitical issues be it the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US-China tensions, the Taiwan crisis, etc. Media plays an indispensable role as the primary source of information for the common man during such conflicts. In this context, what do you think are the specific roles and ethical responsibilities that media should uphold while reporting international conflicts?

Ms Suhasini Haidar -Well, thank you for that question, Nikhitha. It certainly plays an important role, as you put out, because maybe 30-40 years ago, a journalist had a very deep responsibility. After all, they were the eyes and ears of the average person around the world. They not only had to ensure that they got the story right, but they also had to ensure that they were covering the right stories because you didn’t have in the same way the kind of live television we have now.

The responsibilities of media today are much more about context and about a sort of a balanced point of view because today it is possible to get a video from any end of the world. If you don’t have a television station there or you don’t have regular reporters based in a place, you will find this journalist, you will find someone uploading a video of what they have seen, you find someone going Facebook live for something that they are showing.

Now for an international journalist whether they are on the ground or whether they are at a desk and trying to interpret those issues, obviously it is better if they are on the ground because they can get a better perspective, but that’s not always possible particularly given the bottom lines. Therefore these days we see the responsibilities are much more about giving the reader, the viewer, and the listener a kind of context to the importance of the story and also give as much as possible - get data, get inputs, speak to the journalist from the ground and from both sides of any conflict that is going on.

Now, this has become the biggest challenge. One of the things we are seeing is that governments worldwide have stopped regarding journalists and allowing journalists the freedom to go and cover a story as they like. They either see the media as a kind of propaganda platform or they see the media as something that should be cut out from access. I’ll give you two examples; in the Russia – Ukraine war, you can see clearly how journalists are allowed by the Ukrainian government to show their side of the story, by the Russian government to show their side of the story but they’re not crossing those lines.

Very few journalists have made the attempt- India Today’s Geeta Mohan was one of those who made an attempt to go to both sides of the story in a sense. The second example is what we have seen at the Line of Actual Control between India and China, there has been a military standoff since April 2020. Galwan saw killings of Indian soldiers, the first set of casualties in 45 years and yet we have not seen journalists being given access to those areas even close to the conflict as we have in the past.

They’re not able to get the best picture, journalists have to depend on secondary sources to cover what is a really important military and diplomatic issue for India at present. I think that is where the challenges now are. It's not so much about getting people to see what’s happening, getting these videos out, and making people see one part of what’s happening, it’s about putting all the pieces together giving the story context and as far as possible being able to cover the story from both sides.

Nikhitha - Thank you, ma’am, that was very insightful. Ma’am, the Taiwan crisis is in headlines all over the world as you know, and talking about Taiwan, recent reports show that Chinese military drills around Taiwan are scaling down. However, the Taiwanese president was quick to remark that China’s threat of force is undiminished. Considering these circumstances, where do you believe this particular crisis is headed towards, and are we likely to see an escalation of the tensions culminating in a Russia-Ukraine model of crisis or do you think this conflict is dying down and losing its relevance?

Ms Suhasini Haidar - To begin with, I would say that making comparisons is always a bad idea because no two stories are the same, no two geographies are the same, and no two histories are the same. So, when you compare Russia and Ukraine with China and Taiwan or any other conflict, one has to think, really there isn’t much in common. Where I think we do have to draw one message, is not to take any outcome for granted. In the Russia – Ukraine situation, most countries didn't anticipate this outcome, even though we did hear from the United States that Russia is going to invade.

The fact is that most countries didn’t think this was going to be the outcome and the fact that six months later, there is still bombing going on, and there’s still no ceasefire; everyone thought if it happens it won’t last more than a week or 10 days. The first thing is, I don’t think we should take any outcome for granted because these are different times. Just take a look at what we have seen in the last couple of weeks. Although for the moment the situation in Taiwan seems peaceful and stable after Chinese military exercises scaling down, we also understand the United States is now planning maritime exercises in the region as well. So, we don’t know where the instability will come from and how quickly it will arise.

Secondly, I would say that these are new times, this isn’t something we have seen before, so we shouldn’t be at all complacent about the fact that they’ve worked out their problems for the moment and now they might make some noise, maybe some rhetoric but it’s not to be increased. The reason I say that is because of certain developments –for example, the Nancy Pelosi visit which China is using very freely as almost an excuse for behaving badly, but the Nancy Pelosi visit is also something new. The US has not sent such a high-ranking official to Taiwan since 1997, although they say she had gone on her own.

At that time, it was a former speaker, Newt Gingrich, who went to Taiwan and caused quite a lot of furore there. But he belonged to the opposition party, to the Republican party; here it’s a democratic party speaker. We’re also seeing that China’s response has been like nothing we have seen in 25 years. Remember as soon as Pelosi landed there were military aircrafts going through the air defense zone; we saw that China conducted military drills at six locations that dotted around Taiwan, conducting exercises to constrain Taiwan or for putting a blockade.

This is what China will do if it decides on some kind of invasion of Taiwan -they’ll first surround Taiwan. So, if that’s the case then these military drills must be taken much more seriously; they also saw the largest missile drill since 1997. Five reached in Japanese area as well, and then we saw the series of statements going out. There have been three Taiwan strait crises already and the question always is there going to be a fourth and was this the fourth. No, because we have not seen a China – Taiwan outbreak in violence at all, in this case yet. But it is possible.

The last part I would say is that there is a Chinese party congress coming up in November this year. It’s where Xi Jinping hopes to get the power for a kind of no-limits presidency of China. He’s expected to try and look very strong and provide strong responses on all issues. So, there’s that if you like a wild card in the mix. There's also the possibility of a meeting that they are working on between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden and maybe that works out some cessation of the tensions of the present. We must also remember that these are different times in terms of what China has been doing not just in the South China sea, we saw it in Doklam and the LAC.

It really would be a very shortsighted idea to think that this is somehow not going to affect us and be not going to reach the place that perhaps as you said Russia – Ukraine crisis has reached. My final point would be that these days we are seeing takeovers of different kinds; one is the kind of all-out invasion, perhaps Russia and bombardment of Kyiv. But we are also seeing insidious forms of creeping authoritarianism of China’s push with Hong - Kong, for example where you actually affect political change through force. China would be looking at places like Afghanistan where the Taliban was able to take control of Kabul and take control of the country a year ago.

Despite the West saying,’ No we will not allow this to happen by force , the West has put up with them, now fifteen countries including India restarted their mission over there or kept them open. So, China would be looking there and saying, clearly there’s no appetite for a pushback if this kind of force is used which is not necessarily an all-out invasion, it’s just done insidiously. The second place they would be looking at is Myanmar. In February last year, there was a coup by the military. What the military did was not only to just dismiss the government and take the military control of the country, they put the entire government including a world-renowned Nobel Peace prize laureate, Aung Sang Suu Kyi into jail.

They are threatened by life terms of 30-40 years or even death sentences. And really what the world has been able to do to stop is actually nothing: a few sanctions may be, there the world is not united in response. So I think if China is able to do what Russia did in Ukraine without the world uniting against Russia, what the Taliban has been able to do in Afghanistan without bringing in any external intervention and what the Myanmar junta has been able to do in Naypyidaw; I think, you know, China may be taking, wrong lessons from others.

Nikhitha: Yes, definitely ma’am. These are changing times and we should not take any outcome for granted and with that, I would like to hand over to Harsh to add to the conversation.

Harsh: Ma’am, you also took up the point of how Xi Jinping’s power is going to expand after this communist party meeting and we have also seen that the Chinese have been more involved in United Front work rather than their own work of military exercises, they have also been successful in garnering consensus more through the United Front’s work and also putting political pressures through diaspora in various nations. How do you think that this United Front work is going to be expanded in the coming years and how is it going to be used in various areas to build up the influence of a new world order actually led by China?

Ms Suhasini Haidar: Thank you Harsh and that is a question that requires a really long study but I saw you referred to what’s known as UFWD- United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party which has become extra active in the last few years; we have seen delegation of UFWD going to nations. When we talk about India’s challenges we talk mostly about India’s challenges at its continental frontiers. With China we have a 3500 km boundary, with Pakistan we have a 2000 plus kilometre boundary and we have major challenges, they are not to mention Afghanistan and the terror threat that could emanate from there.

Then we talk about the challenges from China when it comes to our maritime front. How India has become mindful of its role in the Indian Ocean region, in the Indo-pacific as well, it has committed to carry out joint patrolling exercises with countries in Indo-pacific as well as part of the QUAD- the US, Australia and Japan. The place that you are referring to, and where we have seen a difference and it's of course not just in south-Asia, we have seen in south-east Asia, Africa, South America is the kind of influence that China is building on challenges that India faces from China’s activities in the neighborhood in south-Asia.

Talking of Belt and Road Initiative, every country in the neighborhood, except for India and Bhutan, is a member of this Belt and Road Initiative regardless of how far the projects have gone or not but they didn’t have the same issue that India did. They didn’t unite with India in its boycott of the Belt and Road Initiative. The second part is where they are working on things like soft power. Covid has actually put a real stop on a lot of this because China shut all the borders in such a draconian way, they just closed everything down and there’s no question of going back to China, students couldn’t go back, and people working there couldn’t go back.

In that sense, covid has put a stop to it, but pre-covid ,I tell you if you were to look at figures and there are studies done by the Brookings India Foundation as well as by Observer Research Foundation that showed that in 2005 or 2010, India was ahead of China in terms of relation with each of them, by that I am not talking about Pakistan because India’s relation with Pakistan is another story and China’s relation with Pakistan is yet another story. But if you would look at India’s relationship with the Maldives and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, I don’t count Bhutan as Bhutan has no relationship with China as such.

So if you were to look at just these four, you would feel India was actually ahead when it came to things like bilateral trade, when it came to things like students of these countries travelling, when it came to investment, and when it came to exchange of tourists. So tourists, students, investment, trade, India was actually ahead in all of these countries. But if you look at closer figures of 2019, you would find that the opposite has happened. There are more Chinese tourists going to Sri Lanka for example in 2019 when there were Indian tourists, there were more students from the Maldives going to China, and from Bangladesh to China than they were coming to India. So there has been a reversal in this.

A lot of this is because China offered these huge opportunities at that time, India is much more strict about border controls, about allying the neighborhood into India, but a lot of it was because of this work done by UFWD that was going from country to country and how they could fit the needs of the country in the short term needs in order to help them out. One last place I would say where in Covid times as well, despite the fact that China lost a lot of goodwill by closing its border, not allowing students to come in and all the rest, the Chinese actually went quite consistently in the neighborhood to deal with Covid supplies and vaccines and all the rest.

We might say Indian vaccines are proven to be better than Chinese vaccines but at the end of the day the Chinese even gave the vaccine to Bhutan and Bhutan accepted them, something that hasn’t happened in the past. They set up a sort of, south-Asia poverty alleviation center in China which brought into the conference literally every Indian neighbor except Bhutan and it has worked on the south- Asian Covid aid in these times as well. So yes, that is a challenge, a challenge that India has to face up to, but it is also according to me an important distinction that India should not look at competing with China in areas where India’s strengths are not, India’s strengths in the areas that you have referred to are really the close bonds, the common language, the good way one feels about the democracy, the fact that we have so many cultures and pluralism in India.

These are all India’s strengths. If we try to match China dollar for dollar, we may not succeed. But instead, if we try and work with countries as we have now with the Maldives, if you ask me about the Maldives, it has been a, ‘you tell us, what you need, we will help you build that and then we hand it over to you’-as opposed to Chinese model which is to come and offer a lot of money and projects completed in a very short period of time, but projects that will overtime impoverish the nation as it pays the debt back. Not all these projects are bad, I am just trying to say there is a difference in the approach towards it. So in a sense, India has to be un-China, it shouldn’t try to be China when confronted with these challenges.

Harsh: Exactly ma’am, very well put up that we have to fight where we have evens at our hands but not the odds. Taking up from that, ma’am we have seen that there is a clash of these two ideologies or systems that happened during the cold war but now it is coming up again that there is this talk of Chinese democracy and the US model of democracy, these two ideas and especially after the covid, that the engineering that the covid did and how the two systems are better or which particular system is better than the other and the talk of it and how to spread it.

How do you think, ma’am that this system that China has shown to the world, a model, a rapid model which is directly from top down is going to change, is it going to affect the world or not or in the end, we will see west prevailing again through softer power. Also within this how India is going to play, how much do we have to move in accordance with the west to counter China or take their help in these particular areas?

Ms Suhasini Haidar: So when it comes to democracy, you are quite right, what the Chinese spokesperson said was that democracy is not coca cola that has a secret ingredient that the only the United States can provide and said essentially, look at us we have Chinese style of democracy, there’s people’s participation and party rule and we have been able to provide equally good if not better services and more or less, you know the statement was made in the context of the US pulling out of Afghanistan, projecting the US as a power in decline. And firstly I would challenge the idea that there are only two kinds of democracy: there’s western form and the Chinese form because there are several others.

I think democracy is something that comes from the grassroots, the demand for democracy very seldom comes from elites or power elites- people at the top. The demand for democracy actually comes from the bottom up because those are the people who are missing representation, missing the benefits of the state and those are the people who really should be encouraged to come up in a democracy. I also think that the US makes a mistake when it claims to pit democracies against authoritarian regimes; democracies versus illiberal democracies as they are called. If it tries to put the debate around the world around this, then it has to remain consistent with that message.

The question is if the United States is saying that we are democracies versus the others, and let ideologies decide our relationships then how will it explain partnerships with other countries in the Gulf, for example, Saudi Arabia. We see the United States dealing with other countries that have authoritarian regimes, the so-called illiberal democracies and the idea that they make it a fight between the US and China about democracies versus these regimes essentially has to be backed up then with the complete commitment to the idea; here you can’t say that I will express it here but when it comes to Afghanistan I will have a different role, in Myanmar something else, in Russia and China I will do something else.

The second part of that is really to take a look at democracy as a whole system. It is not a system that just means you hold elections, because elections by themselves are not equal to democracies, otherwise, they won’t use different words for that; democracy means much more; it means that the elected representatives rule the country but then those representatives are responsible for the representation of the people, and representation of all the people, not just the people who voted for them.

So, In a sense you can say that someone is being elected by the majority; and yes of course majority wins in this sense but they have not been elected by the majority so the minority doesn’t count and I think that’s where the greater questions are ; when we say democracy and when China uses the term democracy it is just a loose term that can mean anything like -oh, you have held elections, therefore, you must be a democracy .It must mean much more, it must mean representation of all the people, it must mean equality, it must mean transparency of your actions and accountability.

After all it's not that you win an election and therefore you can do whatever you want; It's that you have won the elections because you have proven or you have the potential to prove that you will do what the people want when you go back for elections again, the question must be, has this been delivered to you or should you be held accountable for that. we got it upside down right now and I don't blame any one country, I certainly see problems in Indian democracy as well, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Independence. I think it is necessary to make these distinctions when we look at how democracy plays out as a term around the world .

Finally, I would like to say that when we see these systems of governments, the fact is there are so many countries that are moving in different ways; some are moving from a democracy to an autocracy, some are moving from autocracies to democracies, some have entirely remained democracies. You are quite right, the west has shown consistently, if you look just at the US or Europe, they are showing consistently that they are committed to democratic standards, democratic values and the rest of that. India has also committed itself to that.

I think you know what Mr Biden had said at one point is that one has to lead by the power of their example, not the example of their power, is very true. We were talking about soft power and the rest earlier and the fact is your soft power comes from you being seen as a democratic power. There was one point in India, now people cannot remember when each of our neighbours was in some trouble or the other in terms of their democracies; there was the military rule in Pakistan, in Bangladesh there was a monarchy, and Sri Lanka was going through civil war and there were very very tough laws and martial laws over there. and truth was even when they were not following democratic principles they looked to India as a kind of vehicle of hope, as a kind of aspirational story: we can't afford to lose that.

If India stands for something in the World it is not only because it has a massive population and you can market a lot of goods to. It is essentially because it is democratic, it is pluralistic, it is secular and it is inclusive. That means it ensures representation of everyone in its polity and we can see that in our President, as an example. I think those are important things to remember ,if your soft power is coming from being a democratic country it is because of all of these things. If we stop being all of these things then perhaps we won't be a democracy.

Harsh - That was great ma’am, evenly put up and through that, we will move on to Nikhitha and she will be asking her concluding question.

Nikhitha- Ma’am I have a last question for you. Ma’am as we all know foreign affairs and the discourses surrounding it even in the popular media, historically and largely have been male-dominated field even though recently we see an emergence of strong female voices in the field like yourself, there is a lot more way till this gender gap in the field is bridged. So, as a woman with long years of experience in the field can you share with us your experiences and what structural changes should take place so that more female perspectives are factored into the discussions on IR?

Ms Suhasini Haidar- So I think the problem with IR is very much what we see with journalism as well; in fact, there are as many women if you ask me as there are men in it but there tends to be a sense that authority comes only for men which is why you will see in international relations that panel after panel actually have only men and sometimes when you tell them, could you not find even one woman then they will add one woman to it and often the person who is the moderator will be a woman. I don’t think that is genuinely such a deep-seated kind of patriarchy that exists.

I do think at some level people do what they have always been doing that’s why things have not changed as much; I will say that actually when I look at the foreign policy sphere, and reporting sphere in India, I see a lot more women than perhaps another field and certainly, there are a lot of men and it is a field that blends itself. You will see so many women going and covering conflicts; I mention Geeta(Mohan), Smita Sharma, there is Nidhi Razdan, there is Barkha(Dutt), I mean there are so many who travel the world and show the story from these spaces. So, I think that we have been blessed in the international relations sphere.

The problem happens on the other ends,for example, editors of newspapers, and management of think tanks, in these places you don’t see as many women as you see men. In the boardrooms, in the decision-making structures you don’t see as many women and I think that is something that we have to work towards its change and figure out why that is happening. Somebody gave me these statistics, that 60% of journalism students at a certain point of time were women but less than 40% of practising journalists were women and when you go to the higher ends like at editor level and above it is only about 20%, so we have to understand why it is happening that when a lot of women are going to IR, a lot of women are going to journalism, why aren't they being seen at higher ends.

I do think that some amount of representational symbolism is necessary. I often get asked if you don’t think that there is a difference between men and women then why are you insisting for women on every panel. I think that there has to be some representational symbolism because that means you aren’t even trying to find a woman, you just decide that all the authorities on all these issues are men. But you know that there is another concept that I am not so well versed in but I have been reading a little about, it’s called Feminist Foreign Policy(FFP) and several countries around the world are now signing on to this idea that they will take the women’s aspects in.

After all, if in Afghanistan the west had made an absolute condition that unless you allow women in workspaces, unless you allow women back in colleges unless you allow girl students into the school, that is our basic minimum for allowing the Taliban to continue as a government, for giving them aid, for helping them in opening embassies etc. If they had made the feminine principle the most important perhaps you would have seen a very different output; instead, it was the other way around; it had to do with all the other issues, the political resolutions, the ceasefire and all that so there are a lot more people considering the idea that they must take into consideration the women’s aspect. Obviously one doesn’t strive for inequality by doing that, by making it all about women but we are striving for equality and eventually all foreign policies based on universal principles and not just prominent masculine principles.

Nikhitha- Definitely ma’am, there has been a saying that the higher you go the fewer women you will find so this is definitely a problem that we have to handle. Thank you ma'am for providing us with your valuable time. We got a very comprehensive view of an eclectic range of topics ranging from your experience as a female journalist, the roles and responsibilities of media and also you discussed with us the nuances of a wide variety of topics such as Taiwan, the US and China, their democracy models and the very definition of democracy itself. Thank you so much for speaking with us ma’am.

Ms Suhasini Haidar- Thank you and thank you for your very thoughtful questions.

Watch the entire interview on the Geostrata's YouTube page





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1 Comment

Pratyaksh Kumar
Pratyaksh Kumar
Sep 26, 2022

loved this interview

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