Decoding S Jaishankar’s recent remarks on future Indian foreign policy

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A few days ago EAM of India S Jaishankar, delivering the Sardar Patel Memorial Lecture on the theme “India and the post-Covid world”, said some very interesting things for all the world that should be noted by all who take an interest in geo-politics.

Reported by Hindustan Times here

Jaishankar has been a long time and widely respected diplomat, before being elevated to the political post. And hence, it should be assumed that he knows that words, and more importantly what they signal, matter a lot when it comes to addressing a nation’s space among others in an increasingly tense world.


The first thing the news article mentions is how he emphasized the 3 decades of India-China co-operation, and how peace and tranquillity on the border are the ‘cause’ of it, not the ‘effect.’
He also says to restore the normalcy; bilateral agreements have to be respected in their entirety and any unilateral change in LAC is unacceptable – which is all usual rhetoric. What’s interesting is when he talks about 3 decades of Indo-China co-operation, he mentions that “as the pandemic unfolded, the relationship has come under serious stress.”
Here he’s acknowledging that there exists a co-relation.
That is as close to signalling the world, that India is seeing through Chinese rhetoric with a widely accepted world-view lens, as anyone from the Indian Government has come till now. He’s saying 2 things here:

  • On its own, the Pandemic – which almost all rational beings believe originated in Wuhan, China, and which became a pandemic in the first place because of Chinese cover-ups, mishandling and disinformation, not to mention corruption and appeasement of multi-lateral bodies like WHO toward Chinese – has caused enough damage in India that resentment and stress in the bilateral relationship are just and warranted – even without border standoff.
  • Second, the Pandemic has fueled Chinese belligerence as Xi Jinping, used the pandemic criticism as a cover to “show everyone their place”, just like the 1962 war with India. And hopefully, gain a piece of territory as everyone is distracted toward damage control, of a crisis caused by the Chinese themselves. Jinping is saying “No criticism of China is tolerated.” Sure, the Chinese economy came out of it relatively unscathed but the drop was still significant. Jinping used the asymmetric military aggression cutting across geographical theatres to unify Chinese nationalism in his support – diverting the attention away from the Chinese economy and even boasting of recovery. So not only LAC stand-off a part of Chinese global expansionist and aggressive equation, but a cause for concern that if Chinese face any internal strife in the future, the same scenario could be repeated.


Then comes the quiet but firm assertion that India will not be bullied, “or shown its place”. Jaishankar says: “The relationship cannot be immune to changes in the assumptions that underpinned it” That assumption is widely believed to be that China cannot claim to be the only power in Asia. Ruling with complete hegemony or non-competition. Chinese and Indian Civilizational History goes way back, as well as their interaction. After WW-2, it had been based on assumption that both are powerful, emerging nations, reclaiming their place in the world. At least till Chinese joined the WTO and misused it to their own advantage ruthlessly. Now the Chinese economy is 5 times that of India, its military budget nearly 4 times. But just because of that, the assumption of mutual respect cannot be abandoned. The competition will be naturally there; uncomfortable situations will arise from time to time because we’re both not just Asian neighbours but literally a border sharing neighbours as well. But differences have to be resolved through dialogue. Not “showing the other its place.”’

And that is exactly what Jaishankar hints when he says, “Large civilisational states re-emerging in close proximity will not have naturally easy ties. Their interests are best served by a sustained engagement based on mutual respect and mutual sensitivity”

Its also a signal why India isn’t prepared to directly interfere in what Chinese call their “internal affairs” – like Taiwan, Hong-Kong and Uyghur ‘Re-Education camps.’ Because it expects china to not meddle in Kashmir, Ladakh and north-eastern states of India. But if China doesn’t toe that line, India is also prepared to carefully escalate these “internal affairs” issues of the other side – as it did with speaking for the first time on Hong-Kong and increasing its co-operation with Taiwan.
With that – and the LAC stand-off in mind, Jaishankar hints that things will not go back to the way they were before, as India’s vigil to guard its borders will be strengthened. “The periphery will reflect the capabilities of the heartland. Leaving parts of the border underdeveloped has its risks and safeguarding borders is a 24×7 exercise [and] not only appropriate response to an emerging situation”
That means we can be rest assured that neither border infra-structure development will stop on the Indian side, nor can we afford to have only a minuscule troop presence and rush the firepower only when a threat looms large. Expect to see more round-the-clock mountain deployments of man and machine. Tank divisions, Anti-Aircraft systems, Artillery, and routine patrolling by Indian fighter jets could become a norm. Even after the current crisis resolves. Dis-engagement and De-escalation would not mean the Indian side’s firepower will go as far back as they were before. I wouldn’t be surprised if more mountain-warfare divisions are raised. And more than usual attention is given to integrating northern/north-eastern states through trade, culture, jobs and economic projects with the rest of India.
Then we see a not-so-subtle jibe at previous governments when he says ‘sharpened focus and better implementation’; and how “the ‘shift’ from ‘declarations’ to ‘delivery’ is in keeping with the outlook of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.”
It’s no secret that the previous Congress-led UPA governments did only talking and took no action, on any foreign threat. Be it internal security, cross border terrorism or Chinese bullying.
But then he becomes serious yet again, and in fact, it’s one of the most serious takeaways here: “Underlying it is, of course, a basic willingness to fully recognize the challenges that the nation faces. By playing down issues like cross-border terrorism or competitive geopolitics, there has been a tendency to look away from the hard choices. In a more difficult world, that is going to be less possible,” Jaishankar noted.
That is acknowledging the scope of the threat. And how massive it is. As opposed to opposition’s charges of chest-thumping nationalism, the NDA government is not taking it lightly. They’re not looking away. Or burying their head in the sand. Or just issuing statements of condemnation. Again, he hints that successive Congress-led governments largely ignored the threat because – even at the slight expense of nation – they could. But in the world of post-Balakot-Airstrike, article-370 abrogation, a global pandemic and LAC stand-off with Chinese; not to mention a possibility of US-China Cold-War 2.0, the choice to look away may simply not be there – even in a future where UPA assumes power.


With that Jaishankar comes at Indo-US relations and acknowledges that in the past, India has pursued a “Non-partisan endeavour”; focusing on gradual but strong economic and technological co-operation that was less political in nature. But in the face of “emerging multi-polarity, both nations have developed an interest in serious engagement.”
What is that multi-polarity?
For one thing, the Russian front is no longer the only threat US-led rules-based order faces. Now Chinese are part of the geopolitical groupings.
Another is that different theatres would naturally have different leaders and the US would be wise to provide only an umbrella cover, provide assistance as needed, be an ally, but not assume leadership in any conflict.
QUAD is an excellent example of that.
By not formalizing it as Anti-China containment effort led by the USA, the participant nations are free to engage Chinese aggression on as many, and as harsh-or soft, levels as possible. That has an added benefit of not providing a single point for Chinese to counter-attack, politically and diplomatically, in international or bilateral forums.
Indian blessings to a permanent US presence in the Maldives is another example. Historically seen as a threat to the Indian position of being sole ‘Net security provider’ in the region.

Also read: Calling India “Filthy” is not acceptable in this day and age at US Presidential Debate


With that comes Russia.
And here things become really interesting.
It’s not only defined by what Jaishankar says – but what he doesn’t as well.
“India’s relations with Russia have held remarkably steady and the ‘strategic logic’ that has sustained this relationship since its early days still remains largely relevant”
Now, this is usual rhetoric, but it’s not so full of enthusiasm. It’s still being respectful. That Russia, despite all the changes in the fluctuating world and itself, has managed to keep its relations with India mostly intact. It’s skilled diplomacy by both Russian and Indian sides. Its friendship, based on the strategic logic of non-interference, and give-and-take. India has been providing Russia with some massively needed money, by being the largest importer of quite expensive arms in the world. Be it about fighter jets, like SU-30 MKI, Mig-21, Mig-29; Naval vassals like Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya) and a multitude of submarines; or ground fighting vehicles like T-72, T-90 tanks and BMP series APCs, not to mention lots of missiles and troop level weapons like AK-47s and its variants.
India never criticizes Russian roles in EU, or middle-east or Africa, and always chooses its words carefully anywhere Russian misadventures are concerned. Russia supports India against Pakistan and remains neutral toward Indo-China issues.
Here’s what’s missing in the above statement and also in reality – “Growth in relations.”
Russia today has been a mere shadow of its former Soviet self. Economically, it has taken a beating and it also faces sanctions after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and before that bad image from Georgia-South Ossetia/Russia war in 2008. For these reasons of sustenance and countering the US, it needs Chinese investment, money and political support.
Here’s the gist: Russians may well have the knowledge to theorize new technologies and weapons, but they don’t have the necessary money to invest in the required R&D to make it all a reality.
And that’s where India has started tilting to the US.
Take the widely publicized SU-57 stealth fighter fiasco. It’s a very capable jet, no doubt. But it’s the “stealth” part that left people unimpressed (among others) – and unfortunately, those people included Indian Defense Establishment.
India had been a key investor in SU-57 program, hoping to get a customized version of its own, called “FGFA” at the time. But dismal timelines (Su-57/PAK-FA program started way back in 2002), and even after a long time, poor performance in stealth, avionics, sensor, radar and engines mandated that India cut its losses and abandon the Su-57/FGFA development altogether.
And that was after the very costly and difficult acquisition of Admiral Gorshkov. The controversies surrounding it are well documented. Staying with the Air-Force, IAFs pride and joy, Su-30 MKIs have long been plagued by heavy maintenance costs. And very recently, at the dogfight over LOC after Balakot air-strike, IAF has been proved to be vulnerable to superior American BVR missiles like AMRAAM and expressed concern over the effectiveness of Russian equivalent it employs, the R-77.
With all these issues, India has realized the technological disparity it faces.
Sure, successful co-operation examples like Brahmos Aerospace will go-on as planned, as they move to a hypersonic missile in future. But that kind of success stories is few and far between.
Russia today cannot provide the level of protection and guarantees to India it did way back in 1971. Neither in terms of weapons nor in relation to the economy. (Russia doesn’t even feature in top-20 trade partners of India.) Moreover, even if the USA itself doesn’t take part in any conflict against India, if the aggressor has access to advanced western technologies (like Pakistan), that could risk tilting the scale of casualties against India.
Also, this alignment discomfort isn’t the sole property of Russia either.
It has done nothing against the Chinese strategy of “String of Pearls” to encircle India. And it supplied military equipment like Mi-35 Helicopter Gunships to Pakistan; also it conducted a joint exercise with the Pakistani army.
Last month in October, during a video conference with international foreign policy experts, when he was asked whether a military union of Moscow with Beijing is possible, he replied, “We don’t need it, but, theoretically, it’s quite possible to imagine it.” and “The time will show how it’ll develop, we won’t exclude it.”
That is as alarming for India as it comes.
And it’s this logic that has India finding itself increasingly aligned to the US. But whatever happens, it won’t explicitly go against Russia and Russians too, know it – as they, too, are committed to never explicitly going against India. Both countries won’t undermine each other’s national interests ‘actively.’
So the “strategic logic” of Indo-Russian relations remain “largely relevant” but India is free to increase friendship with other countries if that serves its own national interest which Russians can’t help.

Ties with EU and Japan

It’s frankly astounding seeing the level of engagement India is seeing with EU.
With ongoing Turkish-Greek tussle and various intelligence reports of Turkish F-16s violating Greek airspace flown by Pakistani pilots, Greece has reached out to India in hopes of building a better bilateral relationship. To counter Turkey-Pakistan nexus.
Another conflict Involving Tukey/Pakistan is the ongoing bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan for weeks. Armenia has openly supported Indian position in Kashmir, and Pakistan has once again been accused of meddling where it has no business, by sending armed terrorists to the troubled Nagorno-Karabakh region – according to highest levels of the Armenian government.
Germany has issued a new policy-paper, and in it, given much more importance to Indo-Pacific than it has before, which makes sense because Germany is an export-based economy and any instability in Indo-Pacific shipping lanes would directly impact it. Recently it had decided to station a warship in the Indian Ocean region too.
Finland has been looking for better co-operation in eco-friendly policies, helping India with its stubble burning problem which plagues Delhi’s air each year. Bio-technologies that would fuel better research with enormous bio-data India can provide. India’s Generic Medicines has also attracted massive interest and finally seeing the Chinese threat and Huawei’s role in it, Finland can provide better, secure and transparent 5G and 6G infrastructure (Finnish Nokia is a major player in networking equipment.)
Japan gets a special mention from Jaishankar, not just because it’s a member of QUAD but also because it faces constant military harassment from China over Senkaku islands – just like India’s northern borders. Japanese tech firms have expressed interest in moving some of their businesses away from China in light of Covid 19. India had also signed a vital cybersecurity pact with japan involving 5G, AI, IoT and other ‘Critical Information Structure’. There have also been joint infrastructure development efforts in 3rd countries. And while the MALABAR exercises are being held in the Bay of Bengal, Japan and India also did a bilateral naval exercise ‘JIMEX 20’ mere 2 months before in September in the Arabian sea. Jaishankar acknowledges the common challenges faced by both countries and also how Japanese cutting edge technological prowess can help India.

Criticism of Globalization

Jaishankar does criticize Globalization but it needs to be understood that when he says “it was apparent even before the pandemic that the existing international system was under great stress due to multiple and complex reasons, including the disenchantment with a globalised economic system that created unequal gains.” It was the ‘unequal gains’ part that should be highlighted. And could be directly translated to something that includes another reference to how China exploited WTO, western trust and market-based economy with its own authoritarian high-handedness domestically. The globalization as we understood till now firmly meant lots of supply chains (critical or otherwise) being shifted to China. Covid-19 and Chinese leveraging the trade as a political tool, have highlighted the problems with that approach and its evident when Jaishankar says exactly this next, “The Covid-19 pandemic could well be the last straw on the back of a fraying global consensus.”
At last, the article mentions him saying “India will approach the world in a more proactive way in the aftermath of the pandemic…The pressures of the pandemic will naturally impart a different urgency to such engagements…Indian diplomacy will be more integrated with our defence and security needs, more supportive of our economic and commercial interests, more aware of our technology capabilities and offerings, and more sensitive to the diaspora.”
The ‘proactive’ part is another hint that India will not be a passive entity anymore in geo-politics, carefully balancing scales or doing appeasement. It’ll aggressively push for its own national interests. We can also see an overhaul of healthcare in India and exhaustive preparedness plans for any pandemic like situation. Indian diplomacy will be directly connected to Defense of the country, the economic dimension of a relationship, give-and-take in technology and even taking into account interests of the vast Indian diaspora.
This certainly is a new India.

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