Kanwal Sibal, with 41 years of diplomatic experience, was India’s Foreign Secretary. He was Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France, and Russia and DCM in Washington (with the rank of ambassador).He has written more than 600 Op-Eds and other articles for major Indian and foreign publications. He received the Padma Shri in 2017 for public service. In an interview with Ashok Tuteja, Sibal talked about the India-China military stand-off in eastern Ladakh, India’s ties with Pakistan, the Russia- Ukraine conflict, and other global issues. He has written more than 600 Op-Eds and other articles for major Indian and foreign publications. He received the Padma Shri in 2017 for public service.
In an interview with Ashok Tuteja, Sibal talked about the India-China military stand-off in eastern Ladakh, India’s ties with Pakistan, the Russia- Ukraine conflict, and other global issues.
Q. How do you look at India’s stand on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict?
A: We have taken a balanced stand keeping in view the origin of this conflict, the responsibility of various parties in creating the grounds that led to it, the failure to promote a political situation when it was still possible, and our longstanding ties with Russia that we cannot ignore, and the questionable legitimacy of US and European demands that as a democracy we needed to take a moral stand on Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and condemn it. We have chosen not to take sides and have abstained on various resolutions in the UNSC, the UNGA, and UNHRC, barring one in the UNSC on providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine. We have taken the initiative to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine on our own. We have called for an immediate ceasefire and a diplomat- ic route out of the crisis, believing that no side will emerge victorious from it. Prime Minister Modi has spoken more than once to Presidents Putin and Zhelensky, advocating a ceasefire and dialogue. We have expressed our readiness to assist in finding a way out should all concerned parties want to use our services. Our position of neutrality allows us to play that role prospectively. Our stand on the Ukraine conflict is guided by our national interest.
Q. Don’t you think India needs to speak more candidly about the Russian aggression against innocent civilians in Ukraine?
A: This is simplifying the issue. The Russian invasion has been prompted by Russia’s security interests, as they see them. Russia is against the present ruling anti-Russian establishment in power in Kiev, the support it gets from the West, and
the increasing de facto presence of Nato on the ground in Ukraine. It is not directed against innocent civilians in Ukraine, though in all such cases innocent civilians suffer. The logic of this question will lead to ask- ing whether the US/Nato invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yugoslavia, etc were against the innocent civilians in these countries. The reasons in reality were geopolitical, with inevitable collateral damage to the civilian population.
Q. Do you see the possibility of the India-China military stand-off at Eastern Ladakh ending any time soon?
A: India and China have sought to address the issue of Chinese aggression politically at the foreign ministers’ level primarily. The two foreign ministers gave their guidance on negotiating a solution. Several rounds of talks have been held at the military and military-diplomatic levels. Some progress has been achieved in the Galwan valley, Pan- gong Tso, the Kailash range etc, but some friction points, such as Gogra/ Hot Springs and Demchok remain, besides Depsang. The 16th round of talks has ended with the usual opaque, platitudinous joint statement. Meanwhile, China is visibly upgrading its infrastructure, in the Pangong Tso area for instance, and its massed troops haven’t moved to their pre-April 2020 positions, contrary to the 1993 and 1996 agreements. Our foreign minister acknowledges that we are passing through a very difficult phase in our ties with China.
Q. Will China remain a threat to India even if this prolonged stand- off at Eastern Ladakh is resolved peacefully?
A: Yes. The peaceful resolution of the stand-off at Ladakh doesn’t mean a resolution of the border differences that extend to the eastern sector, to some extent to the central sector as well, not to mention Sikkim and Doklam in Bhutan. China is in competition with the US for global primacy. It has developed impressive military capabilities to sustain that geopolitical tussle with the US. Its worldview is based on specific Chinese beliefs about hierarchy in international relations and notions about its heavenly mandate. It believes two tigers cannot inhabit one mountain – the tiger they have in mind in Asia is India, which is the only power that can in due course challenge China’s supremacy. China will do whatever is possible to limit India’s power capabilities.
Q. Why is the ‘Quad’ an anathema to China?
A: China did not initially take the Quad seriously, but as it has moved from official to political level and then to the summit level, with now a well-defined agenda, China has begun to attack the Quad as a product of bloc politics, of dividing Asia and pitting regional countries against China. It has characterised Quad as an Asian Nato. While the Quad does not target China openly, it is quite clear that the grouping would not have emerged but for China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, concerns about freedom of navigation and overflight, China’s territorial claims against Japan, the massive expansion of its navy and its maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean. The US has spoken openly about creating a defensive ring around China, and China sees Quad as part of this startegy.
Q. How do you look at the I2U2 grouping comprising India, Israel, the UAE, and the US?
A: This western Quad, as it were, will assist India in consolidating its position in the Gulf area where our energy, financial, trade, and manpower interests are of paramount importance. India has improved its ties with Israel over the years and the conservative Gulf monarchies as well, without the two being in conflict. It has kept its lines of communication open with Iran, despite Israel’s hostility towards it and rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE with that country. India anticipated the trends of normalisation of Israel-Gulf ties, and now is in a position to capitalise on Israel’s technological and other capabilities and the US influence in the Gulf region to advance its interests, as is shown by the food and energy security projects agreed to at the I2U2 virtual summit. This is without alienating Iran, whose foreign minister was in India recently. The I2U2 agenda for us is economic, besides our concerns about the stability of the region. Our good relationship with all the competing countries is an asset for them also.
Q. Do you think the perceived anti- minority stand of the Modi government has affected India’s relations with Islamic nations?
A: This is a tendentious question in the first place. Far worse contro- versies over Islam have arisen in Europe and in Trump’s America, even at the head of state/ government level, without it affecting the ties of the Islamic world with these countries. Why do we blow up incidents in our country out of all pro- portion and give them a dimension they don’t have? This is our weakness as a society. Why talk of “Islamic nations”- there are 50 of them that have a Muslim majority? A minor wave against India was initiated by Qatar, whose maverick conduct is known, but it has subsided. PM Modi has successfully visited the UAE a few days ago. The I2U2 summit testifies to the fact that our relations with the Islamic world are unaffected.
Q. The relationship with Pakistan remains in limbo for almost a decade now. The abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir by India has further vitiated the atmosphere. Do you see any possibility of India and Pakistan taking steps to return to the negotiating table and restore at least a semblance of normality in their ties?
How has the abrogation of Article 370 “vitiated” the atmosphere, and where… in Pakistan? Why are we concerned about Pakistan? In fact, we have struck off the Kashmir issue from any future agenda of discussions with Pakistan. Keeping the door open to Pakistan on Kashmir kept the door open to foreign interference. The abrogation has cleaned up the atmosphere in India, and externally also, in practical terms. Pakistan has to decide on how and when it will want to return to the “negotiating” table, knowing that there will be no “negotiations” on Kashmir, except on the issue of terrorism. India can wait for that. Talking of “normality”, even a semblance, is an obsession in some restricted Indian circles. Relations with Pakistan will become normal when that country becomes normal.
Q. How do you look at the current economic and political turmoil in Sri Lanka? Any lessons to be learnt by India from the situation in the island nation?
A: It is a devastating situation for Sri Lanka, a country which in some areas of human development was in advance of others in the sub-continent. Dynastic politics, terrorism, the Covid crisis, and economic mismanagement have all con- tributed to the political and economic meltdown in Sri Lanka. Debt diplomacy has also contributed to this. Pakistan, Nepal, and the Mal- dives may draw lessons from the Sri Lanka situation. India has given $3.5 billion of credit/humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka. The only lesson India has to learn from this is to have a considered policy of shoring up our friendly neighbours through economic linkages and scope of assistance that we can afford. Bringing them into the Indian fold should be our strategy.
Q. Why is India getting closer to the US, ignoring its time-tested relationship with Russia?
A: India is not ignoring its ties with Russia. On the contrary, our position on the Ukraine conflict, and our economic engagement with Russia, despite western sanctions, show we are determined to foster our ties with that country. But no two relations are equal. Our ties with the US in trade, investment, technology, best practices, academic, people to people are of a different scale than with Russia. Each relationship fulfils India’s for- foreign policy, geopolitical and development needs. Why get into the game of “either-or”?