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The Geo Interview with Professor Harsh V Pant - New India, New World

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Harsh V Pant

Prof Harsh V Pant, Vice President of Studies and Foreign Poicy at the Observer Research Foundation and Professor of International Relations at Kings India Institute under Kings College London traces the evolution of Indian foreign policy since his 2016 book 'Indian Foreign Policy: An Overview" with The Geostrata's Asish Singh. They conclude with a sense of confidence in Indian foreign policy in a withering international order.

Asish: Welcome viewers! Welcome Professor Pant. Professor Pant is the Vice President of the Observer Research Foundation and also the Professor of International Relations at King’s College, London. This session will delve into a review of Professor Pant’s 2016 book ‘Indian Foreign Policy: An Overview. We will try to understand how has Indian Foreign Policy evolved in this phase between 2016 and 2022. So, Professor Pant, I am Asish and I would like to welcome you to the Geostrata.

Professor Pant: Thank you Asish! Thank you for having me and thank you for doing this excellent job that you and your entire team are doing. I look forward to having this conversation.

Asish: Thank you, Professor, looking forward to it as well. Professor Pant, what do you think about the contours along which Indian foreign policy has evolved since the time you wrote that book? If you were to write that book today, what amends would you make to that book?

Professor Pant: I think that book was primarily written, as the title says, as a broad overview of Indian foreign policy as it was evolving till then. The idea was to capture broad trends both in terms of different geographies and different partnerships. It was kind of a broader narrative around India’s changing expectations from the world and the world’s changing expectations from India. If you look at the world today, in 2022, the world looks so very different compared to the world in 2016 when the book came out. So I think, significant amendments might be needed. But I think the broad theme remains perhaps the same as I had articulated in the introduction, that we are looking at an India that is much more confident, an India that is much more able to articulate its view of the world and engage with its external interlocutors as an equal, less and less of defensiveness in India’s posture and more confidence in the way India has been engaging with the world for the last decade or more. The trendline of growing confidence on India’s side continues. But what I would focus on are two aspects; one, the International environment has changed dramatically. So I will have to accommodate that change if I am to write that book now because the world has changed and that will have to be somewhere in the mix. Of course, India itself is changing within its own boundaries; this is visible in the kind of negotiations, and the kind of engagement that India is having in domestic foreign policy discourse within the community as Indians. For example, if you are a first-year undergrad with a lot of interest in IR,

there is an entire generation now coming up that is quite interested in International Relations.

I don't remember any other time, even when I was a student of International Relations, which compares to the scale at which India’s youth today engages with the ideas of international affairs on international platforms. I think today there is a lot of interest in day to day conversations among sections of Indians and they respond to small things like when the Prime Minister visits abroad or there is some event that pertains to India. Therefore, in the time period between then and now, the international environment and domestic discourses have changed considerably.

Asish: That covers a lot of things Professor! Also, that brings me to recent developments in the international order. It has been said that international order has not been responding recently as compared to say, the times of the global financial crisis of 2008 when we saw the G20 met, a lot of discussions happened and we could arrive at a framework so as to minimise the spillovers from the crisis. In 2022, with the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the food inflation, things are not moving the way they should. So, in this context, if we consider the role of international institutions such as the IMF, whose head allegedly begged India to lift the wheat export ban or do something about it, but then has not responded when recently US president Biden squandered away a golden opportunity to ease global spike in grain prices by lifting sanctions on Russia in exchange that Putin allows export of grain from the captured ports, which could have eased global inflation and more. So we are looking at inequality in how international institutions respond to one set which is different from how they respond to others. What are your thoughts on this dichotomy and how should India go about influencing this compass in a way that favours its national interest?

Professor Pant: See, one thing which is very important to underline is that International Relations by their very definition are unequal. You have major powers, you have middle powers, small powers, you have small countries, developing countries, poor countries, big countries etc. International order generally takes a lot of time to respond to its aspirations. The international system is dominated by major powers and their power projections. Those countries that have the ability to project power often get the most from the international system.

Therefore, a singular determinant of global politics is how states try to accumulate as much power as possible because it is a means to serve their interests better. Now, I think what has happened in the international context today, something very fundamental, is that we are at an inflection point in the evolution of the post Second world war international order. The assumptions, the institutions, the frameworks, the norms, and the values that laid the foundations of the entire institutional architecture post-second world war are being challenged from outside. So it is not unnatural that we are witnessing the withering away of international institutions. You have talked about the IMF; the IMF has always been very contested. Think of a platform like WHO; now for a lot of scholars and observers health is one area which was seemingly easy, how countries can work with each other and get win-win outcomes. Everyone wants stability in the global health scenario. Why would you want to hamper any country from achieving health standards or information about health practices across the world? This was considered one of the low hanging fruits of global cooperation. But what happened when Covid 19 hit us? I think the world recognizes that even an institution like the WHO can be so corrupted and manipulated to an extent that China did not allow the WHO to release relevant information for months. And here you had the head of WHO trying to protect China for a very long while. So I think, the argument that the institutional fabric of the world is withering away is a very valid one and the reason the institutional fabric is getting weaker by the day is because of the changing structural situation in the world.

You have a power like China that is rising and that is determined to make its mark on global politics even if it means crushing the existing institutional frameworks, even if it means moving away from the centrist consensus etc. On the other hand, we have America which had long been the fulcrum of institutional arrangements in the world post-second world war finds itself in a unique situation; it is not only a relatively declining power but also a country that is polarised, a country where there is no consensus on what American foreign policy should be going forward, there is an inward orientation in foreign policy, there is an expectation that America should serve Americans first and then think about rest of the world. And I think that creates a lot of confusion. Mr. Trump’s victory in the American elections highlighted that, but Mr. Biden’s continuation has in no way told the world that America is going to change course from the Trumpism that we have seen in the past several years. So I think we are in a very unique situation where the changing power balance in the international environment is also making it difficult for our institutions to work and that is what is being reflected in all the institutions, whether it is WHO, WTO, IMF and others.

Asish: Makes sense. Exactly, the institutional fabric is withering away and that brings me to the Indo Pacific. Now, during India’s response to the Raisina dialogue l, we have all heard Dr Jaishankar’s speech. He continuously drew attention to how the world reacted to Afghanistan and other regional issues saying that if the Ukraine crisis is of primacy then these regional issues should also be considered equally important. So, in that spirit in the Indo Pacific, we saw the Quad meet recently. Biden proposed the Indo-pacific economic framework, and that was in the spirit of getting all these nations together and forming a coherent answer to the RCEP as a lot of economists have been arguing… Do you think that the Indo Pacific Economic Framework rather the wider spirit of the notion behind that could stand the test of time considering the way it has been presented in? The Geostrata has released the statement on it and we feel that it is a very watered-down version of what Biden had initially proposed. So, how do you see India navigating its leadership in the Indo-Pacific when they see the US which is not ready to take charge in this region.

Professor Pant: I don’t think that America is not willing to take charge. I think one of the things that Biden continued focusing on was the Indo Pacific. The fact that this Quad meeting happened. The fact that weeks before this meeting Secretary of State Blinken was visiting South East Asian countries is to underscore that while the crisis in Ukraine is continuing, America has no intention of moving away from the Indo- pacific. I think Americans know that the Indo-Pacific is the centre of gravity of politics. Americans know that China’s rise is going to be the most important challenge and they have to respond, so there is no question about not having a stake in what was happening. The question is whether the alternatives that they are proposing as you point out will be able to manage the transition or will they be able to give America the kind of space that America needs in the Indo-pacific. And there I think the question certainly can arise and do arise about the feasibility of some of these proposals about the direction in which they are going. But, again the fact that America has finally come out with an Indo-pacific economic framework underscores the reality that America has recognized the challenge that they face in the Indo Pacific.

It is not simply a strategic challenge that you have a Quad for it and then you start investing in your military might with POTUS and at other platforms, but what also you need in the Indo-Pacific is a stable economic arrangement which can challenge China; if not challenge then provide a credible alternative to what China is doing. China is clearly the dominant economic player in the Indo pacific at the moment and we cannot have a geopolitical framework in the Indo-pacific without the geoeconomic framework and that is I think a recognition that America has come to finally. It is late but nonetheless, they have come to recognize this and therefore, they are moving towards that with the Indo Pacific economic framework. The challenge that America faces is that in order for something as dramatic as a trading bloc for example like our say, they need domestic consensus but in America if you talk of trade tariff reduction and trade liberalisation you would have no political future. The left and the right in American domestic politics are completely against any kind of trade liberalisation that’ll allow foreign companies to come and Investicaly Chinese companies to come in and set shop once again. So, I think the mood in the US has changed and of course, the Biden administration can only do what their domestic politics will allow. So, therefore what they have come up with is not what I will call underwhelming, I think they have come up with it within the constraints that they face in the domestic politics and the challenges they face in the Indo Pacific.

They have come up with a medium response (IPEF) and that response is that we will work on providing the rules of the game on economic matters, defined very very broadly. This is about trade facilitation, it is not about tariff reduction, it is about climate change, energy decarbonisation, it is about supply chain resilience, it is about infrastructure and connectivity and it is about digital commerce. So, how do you set the rules, standards for many of these domains going forward and America is saying that if we’ll do it, with other like-minded countries in the region

and if they are able to get traction on this, I think this is going to be an important move, if, again it’s a big if but I think it allows them that leverage of engaging with other powers and to set norms and standards for the region. If they are able to do this, if they are quick off the ground and able to deliver then I think they have a good space to suggest to the region that they are still in charge, they are still leading and that they are still working with the like-minded countries to provide regional governance if they are not I am afraid China is clearly going to be the winner and is already far ahead on trade and commerce. So, I think that the challenge for America is that an America with its like-minded partners provide an alternative framework of regional power and that's what I think the ambition is, we will see how it pans out.

Asish: Thank You Professor, You have raised a very excellent insight in terms of how the foreign policy or the foreign policy orientation of the USA and India towards each other. These have evolved structurally and why even the influence of domestic politics can only influence it so much not more than that so I think that explains a lot in terms of continuities and adjustments and I will bring you to Taiwan in a moment so we saw the Ukraine war like it happened in a succession rate like from 2014 then there were a lot of pronouncements etc. from board science recently we noticed an audio got leaked from some military general meeting of the PLA and they said they were planning to attack Taiwan, if that happens should India tow the same line that it did to Ukrainian crisis(war) or should it be different especially when we consider how assertive Indian policy has become under Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar , and I think that is a good thing, we think that’s a good thing: so how could India react in case of the tentative invasion of Taiwan?

Prof. Pant: So I think an important question perhaps in the context of what is happening in the world and my own sense would be and I believe that India should be doing much more when it comes to Taiwan it should be much more vocal and we should be engaging Taiwan at a much higher level than we are doing today. I think there is no reason why we should not been upping the idea of Taiwan a bit of course you know China is a difficult management because it is a neighbour which has a lot of grievances against you, have lots of capabilities that you have to manage carefully but I think that graduated acceleration in India’s engagement with Taiwan is needed and recent changes have opened a prosperities where it is on trade or whether it is on semiconductor industry for example with Taiwan. There are new opportunities that are there and we should be tapping them into as the supply chain is shifting from China , India and Taiwan should be working more closely on an arrangement of issues.

Now when it comes to the invasion of Taiwan, there are two things, one I think what is happening in Ukraine and Ukraine and Taiwan are two different kind of theatres so firstly let me talk briefly about China , I think the debate about China is more of a cautionary tale of what Russians have done in Ukraine if we imagine the same fate would fall on China , China would be even a bigger loser than what Russia is today because unlike Russia, China has fully integrated into the global economy. China is a trading country whose fate is tied into the larger global economic order. It really cannot afford isolation the way Russia can. Russia was never integrated, barring McDonalds and barring coffee shops from the West, Russia was largely a country where the elite viewed engagement with the West beneficial but largely people were still uninterested looking at Russia engagement with the West as Russia’s economy primarily relying on oil and gas but there is no comparison with China as China is a fully integrated economy so that China’s loss could be quite substantial and perhaps the lessons are coming to the fore that perhaps for Russia it was big mistake to underestimate the West because perhaps Mr. Putin had thought that Europe in particular is going to be the weaker entity they would be divided so that there would be no action against us but look at the economic consequences of what Mr. Putin has done to Russia. Now if you map those consequences to China, I don’t think the Chinese government would have any incentive to do what Russians are doing.

Now certainly the problem with China is that Xi Jinping has raised the ante on Taiwan that people are even speculating that perhaps 2027 would be the year they would try to take Taiwan back. And certainly in the case of Xi Jinping perhaps the case of most of the autocratic leaders is that there is always a danger that if the domestic situation is not going well which it is not going for China at the moment there rate of growths are down, there is democratic discontentment, there is political confusion at times we see news reports of contest between Li Ke Kang and Xi Jinping, so there are things that are not going right for China including the Covid management that can be a big reason for domestic pressure on Xi Jinping and the Communist party to target Taiwan because that is one issue on which communist party would be able to mobilise the Chinese. But I still think that results from Ukraine for China are multifaceted and they perhaps lead to greater caution than they lead to greater adventurism. But if that happens if Chinese do attack Taiwan I would hope that India would stand up for Taiwan and would take a robust stand for Taiwan because simply it is not a question of Taiwan but a question of consequences for the indo pacific, consequences for India’s own border disputes with China and consequences for a larger normative shift and you would see these statements from India on Ukraine how they have evolved from a position where when the conflict started India was reluctant to say anything and as the conflict has escalated India has said that certain norms like territorial integrity, sovereignty and UN Charter international law should be at the heart of this conversation which is clearly meant that Russia is not doing that and then of course i.e. if you take the argument with its logical conclusion in the context of Taiwan, you know where India should be standing.

Asish: We do know where India should be standing and thank you for this context professor and we would like to end it with one last question, we are talking a lot about how domestic policy is spelling over(projecting) on the foreign policies of the nations so in that spirit in our neighbourhood in the last one year or since first wave of Covid we have seen governments changing in a lot of countries like there is Myanmar, there is crisis in Sri Lanka there PM has resigned, in Pakistan there is a crisis there PM is changed so there is a lot of instability in this sense so how do these changes these transitions in path determine or change or affect India’s foreign policy calculus because we do sense there is a lot of disruption which comes along with the change in leadership especially in our neighbourhood which is like most of the nation are crisis ridden, some are going to debt crisis, some are facing political crisis, etc. Could you briefly touch upon any of these countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka or anything and explain to us how these are affecting India’s calculus and the way forward?

Prof. Pant: I think for any country neighbourhood is important and

I think for India in particular being in this very very volatile neighbourhood it's always important to ensure that your engagement with your neighbours is not only sustainable or sustained but it engages all stakeholders

and I think therefore for India there are two things, one is this question often raised by West that why doesn’t India stand up for democracy and that you have Myanmar which is not a democratic country and India has taken a muted stand but

India’s dilemmas are different with neighbourhood because you really have your national interest at stake, whoever is governing these countries you have to have workable relationship, the West can afford to isolate Myanmar but India can’t because India has to deal with Myanmar on its day-to-day basis for north eastern insurgency, for trafficking going along the borders, border management issues, and you have to ensure that the channels for communication remain open with your counterparts in your neighbourhood.

And also of course the larger point that China’s presence in your neighbourhood has also merit imperative to India to continue to engage with these countries as if India is not engaging, China will engage and it is already engaging and China will be the most important player in these countries and if this is in interest of India, no certainly not but if this is in interest of the Western countries, certainly not.

So I think for India the engagement with its neighbours is a priority, see irrespective of governments, neighbourhood has given the primary position and this government has also said that Neighbourhood First

and there is a lot of interactions with neighbourhood and I think if you map out Prime Minister’s and Foreign Minister’s trips you would find out that neighbourhood occupies a big place in that matrix. So in a sense that is something that should happen that is very natural and that is important for India but also reflection of how things are evolving in India’s neighbourhood because you have the presence of China in a big way in India’s neighbourhood and if India is not continuously engaged,

if India for a moment goes on a back foot or on the defensive the cost can be quite high for India. We saw for example what happened in the case of Sri Lanka where Hambantota was offered to India, we didn’t take that offer and it went to Chinese and look at the consequences: not only you have a situation where China got hold in Sri Lanka but we saw the consequences which are being reflected today the debt crisis has escalated today in Sri Lanka leading to a major economic and political crisis for Sri Lanka.

So I think at some level for our neighborhood an action is not an option, India has to be constantly engaged and has to be constantly at vigil, India has to constantly make a point that look India is going to do its best to ensure that the neighbors are converging with India or they have a convergent view point of course this is not going to be easy, India is a big country and our neighbors are small countries, they always have a paranoia of India as a big brother that is going to overshadow them that is going to dictate terms to them,

so India has to be very nimble and humble in ensuring that its interests are protected and at the same time its engagement with the stakeholders remain wide and both broad and deep

and I think you do see the recognition now in India that neighborhood is important but here I would end with one caveat which I think is a very important one since we started on it in the book I want to end at it, look one of the central features of the foreign policy you pickup any book any documentary it’s going to be Pakistan, India-Pakistan relations have always been the central narrative, I think what the last 6-7 years of Indian foreign policy have shown to the world is that India can marginalize Pakistan, India can isolate Pakistan and it won’t have any impact on India’s foreign policy trajectory and India can thrive. This is a counter to the argument that was often made in the past that look you have to engage with Pakistan, Pakistan is your neighbor, there is no option you can’t change your friends but I think what the government has shown to the world in the last few years is that you can marginalize and disengage with Pakistan, it will not have any consequences for your own global posture because India is structurally a far more important and much bigger country, our aspirations should be much higher than Pakistan so this constant fascination with Pakistan did great damage to Indian foreign policy over the last 60 years,

I would say. And the marginalisation of Pakistan in Indian foreign policy discourse is a good thing.

Asish: Thank you so much, Professor. To summarise the interview to our viewers I would just say this is a time of great international churning in the geopolitical atmosphere that we are living in and to find a place to navigate itself through the cloud and mist. I think we need to map out the contours of how we need to engage with the world, our priorities…Certainly, it is not investing too much in diplomatic capital into attempts to woo states that export terrorism and engage in illicit trafficking in money.

I think we need to stand for good and we need to be on the vigil for what comes next with regard to churning or changes in the Indo-Pacific or Taiwan etc.

On this note, we would like to thank Professor Pant for taking out time for this interview, so thank you so much, Professor Pant!

Watch the entire interview on the Geostrata's YouTube page






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