“China and Pakistan are India’s two major competitors with which it has major disputes over territory and other issues,” Dhruva Jaishankar, Executive Director of the Observer Research Foundation America (ORF America) told in an exclusive interview with Sri Lanka Guardian. Mr. Jaishankar is a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia and is a regular contributor to the media.
Jaishankar holds a bachelor’s degree in history and classics from Macalester College, and a master’s degree in security studies from Georgetown University. He has been an IISS-SAIS Merrill Center Young Strategist (2013), a participant in the ORF-Zeit Stiftung Asian Forum on Global Governance (2016), and a David Rockefeller Fellow with the Trilateral Commission (2017-2020).
Excerpts of the interview;
Sri Lanka Guardian: You are heading ORF America; what is your mission and what are the challenges you are facing in achieving your objectives?
Dhruva Jaishankar: I joined the Observer Research Foundation in 2019 and moved to Washington DC with the intention of building up a think tank focused on policy for the United States, India, and their partner countries. I had worked previously in the U.S. at the Brookings Institution and German Marshall Fund, and in India at Brookings India (now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress), and had had affiliations with think tanks in Singapore and Australia, and hoped to build upon these experiences. I’m proud to say that in two plus years my colleagues and I have set up a small but dynamic U.S.-based institution, working on research and convening in four areas: international security, technology policy, energy and climate, and economic development. Our work is global in scope, including development in Africa, cyber security in Latin America, entrepreneurship in the Middle East, U.S.-India climate cooperation, and strategic cooperation involving the Quad and Europe, and we have a small but growing team of 10 staff. In some ways, ORF America occupies a useful niche, not just on U.S.-India relations but as the only developing world-affiliated public policy think tank in Washington.
SLG: Who is India’s main enemy in the context of foreign policy?
DJ: I don’t think we’re in a world defined by easy ‘enemies’ and India is not in a state of war with any country at the moment. However, India does have two major competitors with which it has major disputes over territory and other issues: China and Pakistan. In the past, the rivalry with Pakistan was predominant, involving Pakistani revisionism and its support for terrorism against India. However, in recent years, differences with China have become more acute, not just over the disputed border, but on trade and technology, regional politics, and a wide range of multilateral issues. Given that China’s economy and capabilities are significantly greater than India’s, it is fair to say that India’s biggest strategic challenge today is China, not Pakistan. Pakistan remains politically sensitive, but is more an irritant than an existential challenge to New Delhi.
SLG: India, not only, is supporting Quad but an active member. Simultaneously, India is keeping a strong relationship with Russia. However, many small countries in the same region argue that India continues to maintain its hegemony and does not allow those countries to take their own decisions; for example, Chinese investments. May I have your take, please?
DJ: Every country is sovereign and can make its own decisions, but the reality is that decisions made by neighbours do have political, economic, and security implications for each other. India has lots of natural alignments with the Quad on security and non-security issues, including over 20 active working groups. At the same time, India has important relations, particularly on defense trade and technology, with Russia. So it is natural for India to try to improve relations with the Quad partners, while preserving aspects of its relations with Moscow that are vital for national security and for its economy, such as energy costs and food security. Regarding the region, India has interests in a peaceful, stable, and prosperous South Asia, and has been taking steps to improve those relationships. These include greater diplomatic attention, improved connectivity, economic and technical assistance, and regionalism. At the same time, just as India has been sensitive to its neighbors concerns, it expects an understanding of issues that might implicate Indian politics, its economy, and its natural security. As a friend, it is important and healthy for India to voice concerns when decisions made by its neighbors might have negative spillover effects. Overall, India can always do more to treat its neighbors with respect and sensitivity, but that respect and sensitivity must be mutual.
SLG: Compare to other regions in Asia, South Asian countries in particular is having lower socio-economic unity. Many argue that it is because of the rivalry between India and Pakistan. Because of that, organizations like SAARC have become paralyzed. Why can’t these two nations come together for a serious development plan?
DJ: I think there were some integral design flaws in SAARC. In the 1980s because both India and Pakistan had concerns about the body being used to isolate them, it was agreed that it should operate by consensus. Yet on many issues – think for example about the proposed SAARC satellite – Pakistan blocked consensus. Pakistan also blocked connectivity between India and Afghanistan, including during the recent food crisis, before relenting. As a consequence, in recent years, there have been steps by India to operate regionally without relying on consensus. One example involves greater road connectivity between Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Maritime coordination between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives has also improved. Barring Pakistan, there have been many positive developments on regional integration and connectivity: India and Nepal enjoy an open border and special relationship, India is among the largest investors and trade partners of Bangladesh, and India has led emergency lending to Sri Lanka. The questions of Pakistan must really be answered by Pakistanis: why has there been so much resistance to normal relations with India? The expectation that normal relations can coexist with state support for terrorists against Indian targets is unrealistic.
SLG: Most Indian media houses have absolute anti-China stances. Isn’t it toxic to the bilateral relationship between the two countries?
DJ: I’m not sure that’s the case. The India-China relationship is mixed. Until quite recently there was cooperation on economic and trade issues, students, and on multilateral issues such as global governance reform and climate change. But under Xi Jinping, China has adopted a very different attitude to international affairs – and not just with India. As Chinese power has grown, its decision-making structures have become more opaque, it has engaged in non-market economic practices such as predatory lending, corporate espionage, and distortive subsidies, it has attempted territorial revisionism in the South China Sea and the disputed boundary with India, and it has made efforts to undermine many global norms and institutions, including on non-proliferation, outer space, and the law of the sea. These concerns are shared by many countries. With respect to India, we have seen China violate almost three decades of written agreements on border management, its dumping of exports while denying Indian companies market access, its undermining of India’s regional security environment, and its blocking India at multilateral forums. Obviously, China deserves greater study and understanding, but some of the frustration reflected in Indian and international commentary reflects the recent actions and behavior of the Chinese government.
SLG: Do you believe the Asian Century is an achievable reality?
DJ: It depends on what is meant by the Asian Century. It is quite clear that the future of global economic growth and international security will be decided in large part in Asia, simply because it is home to more than half the world’s population and because of regional economic dynamism. But questions of whether Asia will be more cooperative or divisive will depend in large part on China’s ability to respect other countries in its periphery. Unfortunately, that has been found wanting, and with slowing Chinese growth, other countries in the Indo-Pacific are naturally attempting to promote alternative values – freedom, openness, inclusivity – that should define an Asian Century.
SLG: Do you think there will soon be a time when China, India and Russia will work together? If so, how do you formulate India’s strategy?
DJ: China, India, and Russia do have some areas of commonality, and these have been explored in forums such as the RIC, BRICS, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Initially, this involved issues such as greater representation on forums of global governance and managing security in Central Asia. But the past few years have also shown limitations to such cooperation. Differences between China and India have been more acute, with China emerging as India’s most significant strategic challenge. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have presented some dilemmas to China and India. Barring security and some areas of strategic cooperation, the India-Russia agenda remains thin, largely on account of the limitations to the Russian economy. While we are likely to continue to see India engage with these forums, decisions made in Moscow and Beijing will ultimately determine how useful they will be.