Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania
The Nand and Jeet Khemka Distinguished Lecture Series

Overlapping Peripheries: How Will India and China Navigate the Asian Century?

Ambassador Shyam Saran
26th Foreign Secretary of India
Thursday, February 24, 2022 - 10:00
A Virtual Lecture via Zoom — 10:00am EST | 8:30pm IST
A CASI Nand & Jeet Khemka Distinguished Lecture in partnership with the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, and Perry World House

Ashley J. Tellis
Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs & Senior Fellow
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

(English captions & Hindi subtitles available)

Media Coverage:

Former Indian Foreign Secretary Discusses India, China, and the "Asian Century"
Brandon Baker, Penn Today, March 1, 2022

About the Lecture:
For the first time in their long histories, India and China are facing a challenge of managing their direct encounters across both their continental and maritime frontiers unmediated by intervening realms. As their economic and security profiles expand, their peripheries beyond their borders can become zones of positive engagement or, conversely, as zones of conflict and confrontation. Will the Asian century be a China-dominated space or could India and a cluster of other established and emerging Asian powers help create a multipolar space with a more loosely structured architecture? How can India manage its relations with China to orient Asia in that direction?”

About the Speaker:
Ambassador Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary of India and has served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy For Nuclear Affairs and Climate Change. After leaving government service in 2010, he has headed the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a prestigious think tank focusing on economic issues (2011-17) and was Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board under the National Security Council (2013-15). He is currently Life Trustee of India International Centre, Member of the Governing Board of the Centre for Policy Research and of the Institute of Chinese Studies, a Trustee at the World Wildlife Fund (India) and Member of the Executive Council of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). He has recently published a book, How India Sees the World.

Ambassador Saran was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award, in 2011 for his contributions to civil service. In May 2019, he was conferred the Spring Order Gold and Silver Star by the Emperor of Japan for promoting India-Japan relations.


Tariq Thachil:

Hello everyone. Thank you for joining us at CASI, the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. I'm Tariq Thachil and I'm the director of CASI and faculty in the Department of Political Science here at Penn. I'm delighted to welcome you to a Nand & Jeet Khemka Distinguished Lecture featuring Ambassador Shyam Saran.

Before introducing our distinguished speaker, I just want to quickly thank the Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation whose generous support makes these series of public lectures possible. The Khemka lectures aim to advance broader understanding of contemporary India, both here in the United States and elsewhere through informed commentary by distinguished experts on topics ranging from India's economy to its politics, from public health and education to society and culture. I would also like to thank our campus partners, who've helped us in sponsoring this event, the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, the Center for the Study of Contemporary China and Perry World House. Last but far from least, I would like to thank the hardworking CASI team for helping organize today's event, Juliana, Georgette, Alan, Laura, and Juni.

As the world of geopolitics consumes all of us and with all of our eyes on the unfolding and tragic crisis in Ukraine, the topic of today's Khemka lecture, Sino-Indian relations could not be more opportune. In what our speaker terms, the Asian century, the dynamic between the two countries will shape not only regional, but global international relations. India and China, after all collectively account for 2.8 of the world's 7.9 billion people, roughly 35% of our planet's population. These Asian behemoths also share a contentious and undemarcated border whose length, according to Indian government estimates is just under 3,500 kilometers. That's roughly 2,100 miles slightly longer than the border between the US and Mexico.

As most of you know, this long border has served as the source of tension between the two countries, including of course, a war in 1962 and most recently an ongoing dispute beginning in 2020 that resulted in the reported deaths of 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers, the first of troop casualties in decades. India and China's respective sizes and shared dense border, both amplify the importance of understanding their relations with one another. Underscoring this importance even further is their growing economic heft driven by transformative developments within each country. Both have undergone considerable transformation into two of the top half dozen economies in the world over the past several decades.

Consider the following. According to the IMF, at the turn of the century, India and China's GDPs combined total just under 2 trillion US dollars, which at the time was about a fifth of that of the US. By 2021, this figure was nearly 20 trillion, nearly matching that of the US. However, this tenfold growth has been unevenly distributed across the two countries. Indeed, a growing economic asymmetry between them has been a feature that Ambassador Saran has repeatedly highlighted as crucial for understanding evolving relations between the two. In 2001, China's GDP was 2.5 times that of India's. In 2021, It was more than five times as large, yet this economic divide is taking place alongside growing trade relations, which have taken place despite the headwinds of rising political tensions and economic saber-rattling.

According to China's general administration of customs, total trade between India and China in 2021 stood at over 125 billion US dollars, up 40% from 2020 and driven by growth of exports in both directions. Provisional data from India's Ministry of Commerce shows similarly, total trade crossing over 114 billion US dollars, still a record high. The size, complex and dense border history, growing economic importance and intertwining of India and China provoke many questions about their present and future relations. And we are indeed fortunate to have as distinguished and long time and observer of their relationship as ambassador Shyam Saran deliver this Khemka distinguished lecture on this topic.

Ambassador Saran brings a wealth of insight into Sino-Indian relations from a range of perspectives as a diplomat, as a researcher and a public intellectual. First and foremost, as a distinguished diplomat, he joined India's Foreign Service in 1970 and served in several capitals of the world, including Beijing, Tokyo, and Geneva. He's been India's ambassador to Myanmar, Indonesia and Nepal and high commissioner to Mauritius. In India's Ministry of External Affairs, he headed the economic division and multilateral economic division, as well as heading the East Asia division that handles relations with China and Japan. As a joint secretary in the prime minister's office, he advised the prime minister on foreign policy, nuclear and defense-related issues in '91, '92.

After the career spanning over three decades in the Indian Foreign Service, he was appointed India's Foreign Secretary in 2004 and held that position until his retirement in 2006, following which he served as chairman of the National Security Advisory Board from 2013 to '15, and in 2011, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan for his contribution to civil service, India's third, highest national award. After leaving government service, he's increasingly devoted himself to research and intellectual activities heading the research and information system for developing countries think tank from 2011 to 2017. He currently serves as senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, one of India's leading policy think tanks.

He's also the author of a book, How India Sees the World, published in 2017 that provides a wealth of insight on foreign policy and has a strong focus on China. Throughout his diplomatic and research life, Ambassador Saran has been committed to deepening and understanding of China in India and elsewhere dating back to his lessons in Mandarin in Hong Kong in the early 1970s. Over the next five decades, he has always maintained two points in his writing. One, as he writes in his book that China is and will remain for the foreseeable future the one country that has the most direct impact on India as far as international relations go. Second, that contemporary and future Sino-Indian relations must always be understood with an astute eye to the past, both in terms of China's own history and society, as well as that of Sino-Indian ties.

We are fortunate to have such an astute and erudite observer to help us understand this topic of his lecture, Overlapping Peripheries, How India and China will Navigate the Asian Century. But before handing it over to him, let me remind you to please enter any questions you have that come up in the Q and A box. And I will try to pose as many as I am able to Ambassador Saran following his remarks. Thank you for joining us once again for this Nand & Jeet Khemka Lecture. Ambassador Saran, the floor is yours. Thank you so much.

Amb. Shyam Saran:

Thank you, Tariq. Thank you for that very generous introduction. Let me thank CASI and also the Khemka Foundation for inviting me to deliver the lecture in the Khemka Distinguished Lecture series. My thanks also to Tariq himself, the director of CASI for hosting this event.

I had originally decided to focus attention much more directly on India-China relations, particularly in the light of what has been happening recently at the India-China border and what the trajectory of the India-China relations would be in the future. I have revised my remarks to take into account some of the very dramatic events which have been taking place in Europe, the tragic events which are unfolding, continuing to unfold in Ukraine. So while the Russian invasion of Ukraine has of course, shattered peace and security in Europe and perhaps could even escalate further, it is not perhaps surprising that the focus really at this point of time is what is going to be the future of Europe.

Are we on the threshold of a new cold war? Is there going to be perhaps an extended period of a kind of a military standoff in Europe? What does this mean for NATO and relations with the United States of America? So it is not surprising, as I said, that the focus is very much on what is happening in Europe. But I think in looking at what is happening in Europe, I think we have lost perhaps some focus on the role that China has played and will play in this unfolding of events. Number one, after this series of events erupted in Ukraine, I decided to go back to the very historic joint statement between China and Russia on February 4 this year during the Beijing Olympics, and to perhaps reread some of the provisions in that joint statement. It appears to me that number one, I do believe that the kind of statements which were made during that visit in fact, were a prelude to what Russia has been doing currently. I think we should look at that link carefully.

If we look at the joint statement, we see that with respect to what may be called in this case, the peripheries in Europe and Asia, there is this very interesting language, which I quote, "Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions," I think these three words are very important, "and intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of countries in that adjacent region." So there seems to have been some kind of a, shall I say, tacit agreement that the security perimeter that both countries are looking at goes in fact much beyond their national borders and that this is somehow legitimate.

The second aspect is, I mean, some people were saying that China may be a little uncomfortable with what has been happening, and the fact that Russia has invaded a sovereign state violated its territorial integrity cannot be of much comfort to China. But if I look at the reaction of China to what is happening in Ukraine, what strikes me is how in a sense supportive China has been. So I was looking at, for example, the statement made by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen yesterday, and she said that quote, "China is closely following the situation in Ukraine. We call on all parties to exercise restraint and prevent the situation from getting out of control. We have stated China's position multiple times on the Ukraine issue. The issue has complex historical background and merits. And the result we are seeing today is the interplay of multiple factors." I mean, if you perhaps cut through the jargon, it is that yes, Russia has a certain legitimate interest with respect to what is happening in Europe and the status of Ukraine.

I don't think we should miss on the very strong connection that there is with respect to Russian actions in Ukraine. I think the joint statement of February 4, to me, it appears looking at what has happened since then that Putin would have in a sense, perhaps taken China into confidence with regard to what he had in mind, and China has extended its tacit support to Russia. Now, of course, China will want to expect some price for what it has been doing, supporting Russia in this case. Of course, there will be I think with regard to Taiwan, you have seen that has been a re-affirmation of Russian support for China on the Taiwan issue. But I think what is perhaps very important to note is to me, this could be in some way a kind of a rehearsal for what China maybe planning to do or contemplating with regard to Asia itself.

Looking at what the reaction of, for example, the United States would be, looking at the reaction, for example, of what Europe would be, the fact that the United States of America, the European Union would impose sanctions that I think was already factored in by Russia in undertaking this, as long as there was a clear understanding that there's not going to be any kind of a military response, it seemed as if this was in that sense, not such a high risk operation. Would China come to a similar kind of conclusion with regard to say Taiwan? That is something we should think about, whether China has been looking at this as a possible in a sense, a kind of an example that could perhaps be taken as a reference point for what it has in mind with respect to the events in Asia.

So I would hope that in the reaction that we see from the United States and from Europe, this China dimension is not lost sight of, that the support of China has been an enabling element in what we are seeing unfolding in Ukraine. That is one important point I would like to make. If that is the correct reading of the situation, then of course from the Indian point of view, it has very serious implications because I think one of the things that we need to understand is that China has not hidden the fact that it would like to see United States and its military deployments in the Western Pacific being removed.

It looks at the entire region of East Asia, of the Taiwan Strait as being essentially a sphere of influence for China. If you look at the relationships that have developed with the Southeast Asian countries, it is difficult to see any of the Southeast Asian countries, in fact, pushing back against China, given the overwhelming difference in their power capacity. Now, my understanding and my reading of Chinese view of power, interstate relations, China has a very hierarchical view of power. So if you see the Confucian orthodoxy, it is that harmony can only be maintained if there is a respect for hierarchy. That is, every entity should know where it belongs in the pecking order in a sense, and whoever is at the top of the pecking order, which is in the family, it would be the patriarch, in a country, it would be the sovereign. If somebody falls out of line, then he has to be brought back into line through punitive measures.

So while at the time, when its power was limited, China was certainly pushing the idea of multipolarity. Even today, it has the rhetoric of multipolarity, but as its power has increased, in fact, the sense of multipolarity has faded into the background. Today, China talks about different kinds of relationships. One, the most important is a new type of great power relationship, which it means essentially its relationship with another great power the United States of America. Then below that is relations with neighboring countries and other developing countries. Then you have multilateral organizations. That is how they have slaughtered various relationships that they have externally.

In that sense, when they are looking at Asia, what they would like to see and what they think is necessary in terms of maintaining of peace and harmony in this part of the world is an Asian order, which also observes hierarchy. Of course, as far as China is concerned, it should be at the top of the hierarchy. This has been according to China's reading of history, this has always been the natural place of China. And therefore, all that China is doing today is really going back to where it was for centuries. This is something which needs to be understood. I think what China is looking at is to see whether or not this particular frame that they have in mind for Asia, the time has come to actually put it in place.

If you look at Chinese writings, there is increasingly a kind of a view that this is a moment of opportunity for China. Of course, I think this is the same as far as Russia is concerned that there is a certain opening in the international system as a result of the relative weakness of the United States, perhaps a polarization, domestic political polarization in the United States, which makes it difficult to have a decisive kind of a leadership. There is also a sense that even though power may be there, but the willingness to use that power, the will to power perhaps has diminished. Therefore, for an expanding power like China and for a revanchist power like Russia, this creates an opening that should be exploited. Perhaps this opportunity may not come again.

We should not underestimate the power of this kind of a perception. So when Xi Jinping is talking about the China dream, is talking about what China would be in 2049 in hundred years of the PRC, I think we should take that seriously. Now in that scheme of things, where does India stand? I think that's the question that we have to ask. And what do events in Europe really mean for India and China relations?

Let me straightaway make the point that this has complicated India's security situation. It has worsened it in a sense. One, what does this mean for India-Russia relations? Now our assumption had been that even though China-Russia relations have become increasingly close and that partnership has been become stronger, but Russia has a certain sense of itself as a great power, and that it would not want to play second fiddle except tactically to another great power. Also, our assumption was that if we are talking about the near neighborhood, which seems to be so important to Mr. Putin, whether it is Central Asia or Eastern Europe, which is the part which is expanding the most in these so-called near neighborhood areas? It is actually China.

So longer term, our sense was that perhaps their interests are not as aligned as we think they are, but obviously from what we see happening today, and as I mentioned to you the joint statement of February 4, to me, certainly the joint statement of February 4 is a landmark document. It does represent a geopolitical shift. Is it in the same character as the 1972 Shanghai Communique? Perhaps not exactly the same, but it is of a similar character in terms of its consequences. So I think we have to take into account the significance of that.

In terms of India-Russia relations, we will have to begin to question whether those assumptions that lay behind our continuing to attach great importance to India-Russian relations, are those assumptions still valid? Perhaps not as much as they were before. In more practical terms, what does it mean for the military relationship between Russia and India? Because even if other things have been diluted, that part of the relationship, the military dimension of the relationship has actually been quite sound and has been enduring. If Russia is beholden to China in terms of its support for what it is doing in Europe, would China, for example, not pressurize Russia to maybe dilute that military relationship, particularly since most of those arms are actually for use against China? That is the reality. So is that going to become an issue in China-Russia relation? That is something that we have to watch out for.

The second aspect of course, is with regard to the situation in Asia itself, what does this mean with regard to, for example, the future of the Quad, which is the United States, Japan, Australia and India, because there is no doubt that we have attached considerable importance to the Quad as a countervailing coalition to the expansion of Chinese influence in this region. Now, is the reading of China looking at what has been happening in Europe that a further expansion of Chinese influence in this region and a much more assertive posture by China in this region is perhaps not going to invite a very significant report from the United States [inaudible 00:25:47].

Yes, the United States maintains a position of strategic ambiguity as far as Taiwan is concerned. If China actually attacks Taiwan, then it will not know whether the United States will react or not. But to my mind, strategic ambiguity is a double-edged sword. I mean, it also means that US may not in fact respond. If I see some Chinese writings, they seem to point out that in terms of the stake, which the US has, it probably has more stake in Europe than it has with regard to East Asia, and certainly with respect to Taiwan. We do not expect, this is the way the argument goes that the United States of America will spend treasure and weapons in order to defend what is probably not going to be defensible in any case.

Now, this may be a misperception. This may be a miscalculation, but we should not underestimate the power of this kind of thinking particularly the kind of arrogance which we see in China with regard to its external relations. Now, in terms of that greater assertiveness, greater aggressiveness, that's again, not very good news for India. We are not very certain how the Quad will now look at the developing situation. This is the other aspect that... Are we going to see India being put in a more difficult security situation? Are the pressures on its security going to increase? Are we going to see, for example, greater activity again, on the India-China borders? This is something which certainly would be worrying us.

What we have seen is that of course, this happens with every major power that as its economic and military capabilities increase, its security perimeter also starts expanding outwards beyond its water. That's the same thing, which is happening with China as well. It is looking at security perimeter in a much broader fashion than in the past. For example, with regard to the South China Sea, if I go back to before 2010, the South China Sea was not in fact presented as a core interest of China, it is afterwards that it became a core interest. In the old days, core interest used to be Taiwan, Tibet, and sometimes Xinjiang.

With respect to the India-China border, there was an acknowledgement of differences between the two sides with the assumption that these differences could be bridged through negotiations. Now, in respect to the clash, which took place in June 2020, where Tariq referred to the fact that Indian lives were lost and some Chinese as well. This was the first clash which took place in which lives were lost after 1976. That was the last time that we had a similar kind of a situation. Now, the difference this time has been that in responding to or in projecting the clash at this place called Galwan, the Chinese did not say that there was a difference in terms of where we thought the line of actual control was. But to say, this is sovereign in Chinese territory.

Now, as soon as you say it is sovereign Chinese territory, then where is the room for compromise? So it's essentially saying that this is where our territory is. So we see that change taking place in terms of how even some of these border issues, the differences on the border are being presented, more and more being presented, not as points of differences between the two sides, which should be settled through negotiations, but to say, no, this territory belongs to us. These attitudes are getting strengthened, and this makes it much more difficult therefore to think in terms of a negotiated settlement of the border and therefore, the continuance of pressures on India's borders.

The other aspect is, of course, that when we are looking at how China is looking at the Asian landscape, it sees India as standing in the way of a hierarchical kind of an order. Here is India, which is not prepared to accept a Chinese dominated order. This was very much apparent when India decided to not sign on to the Belt and Road Initiative of China, where most of the Asian countries had actually agreed. And we raised strong objections to that, and that was really considered an impertinence on the part of India. We also see that earlier, if there was a general sensitivity that China had with regard to Indian interest in the subcontinent itself. That has also started changing.

So it was very interesting that when I was in Nepal, one of the new slogans on the Chinese side was if China has GDP, which is at that time, it was three times that of India, why should it not have influence, which is three times that of India in the neighborhood? So it was as if it was very natural for China to have that kind of influence in the neighbor. What we see over the last several years is a very deliberate, calculated, attempt to increase a Chinese presence, increase Chinese economic investment in our neighborhood, whether it is Nepal, whether it is Bangladesh, pressures on Bhutan, where they have expanded the area of water dispute between Bhutan and China. You have seen what they have been doing in Sri Lanka and Maldives, and so India has had to constantly react to these kind of incursions in a sense in our neighborhood. The relationship with Pakistan has become much closer than it has ever been before. They describe themselves as iron brothers.

So if we are looking at our periphery, not just the border issue, but with regard to the neighborhood itself, we find that this periphery is becoming more and more difficult to manage. I have always maintained that if India cannot get its periphery right, if India cannot manage its neighborhood right, then its efforts to play a larger regional role, its efforts to play a larger global role that it wishes to, that would be that much limited. So the Chinese attempt is to tether India as much as possible within the subcontinent itself, by expanding its presence in the region. Now because of the fact that there is such a huge asymmetry in power between the two countries, the kind of economic resources which are available to China are simply not available to India, so we have to find other ways of trying to enhance our influence and presence in our region.

Now that's of course a different subject. How do we go about it? But I have no doubt in my mind that this has to be, in the response to China, this has to be the first order of business. That in dealing with a new situation which is developing, much more important than before has become this idea of a neighborhood first policy that we talk about. We need to really translate this into action very urgently on the ground itself. This is something we have to look at. I think it is also going to be very important for us to really engage in very serious conversations with the United States of America, with our other partners who may think that the focus is really Europe. We perhaps should be really looking at what's happening there.

As I said, my own reading is that the implication of what is happening in Europe will be felt in Asia sooner rather than later. And before we are faced with a kind of situation that we have seen in Europe, we need to be prepared to address what could be a similar kind of challenge, which we may face in Asia. A sense that China may have that there is not going to be beyond a set of economic sanctions, et cetera, there will not really be a serious response from the countries in the region. This would be, I think, handing in a sense, the region on a platter. That is something which is greatly worrying. The reason why this is worrying, and this is what I would like to end with, is that we are faced since the 2007, 2008 global financial and economic crisis, we are faced with a situation where the asymmetry of power between the US and China. This asymmetry of power has been diminished.

United States of America no doubt remains the most formidable military power in the world. No other power has the global reach which the United States has. So this is not an issue. The question is the perception, which has developed particularly after what has happened in Afghanistan, the very chaotic withdrawal, which has taken place that the capability may be there, but is there a willingness to really assert that power and take some of the risk that may be involved in asserting that power, in deploying that power. If that perception, wrong as it may be, takes hold in China's mind, that would be very dangerous.

So I think this is something which we really need to seriously talk about because with that asymmetry, particularly on the economic side, as you have seen the relative power, even though United States of America is the most formidable power on earth, the relative power of China has in fact increased. There is no doubt about that. The coming together of China and Russia, and this is what I pointed out in my recent article, that this is something like the 1972 event of Nixon's visit to China. I said that it was the US doing a China on Russia on the then Soviet Union. Today, it may be a China doing Russia on the United States of America.

That may not be entirely true, but I think we have to look at what the implications are going to be because India is faced with a situation where there is a diminishing asymmetry between China and the United States, but there is expanding asymmetry between China and India. So it's a kind of a double challenge for India. I think in terms of the strategics picture that is emerging, it is extremely important that we have to rethink some of the assumptions that we have been making about how events will unfold. This will be very important for the future of Asia.

If there is a perception in Asia that because the US is going to be far more preoccupied now in Europe, and therefore it will neglect the developing situation in Asia, that itself will be a very damaging perception. So whatever can be done by the United States but also the other Quad partners to convince both countries in the region, as well as globally, that this remains a area of great importance to the United States and other Quad partners, I think it is very important to put that across as strongly as possible. So bottom line, as I said, is that we do not unfortunately see the future trajectory of India-China relations in the light of what has been happening recently as taking us in a very positive direction.

That trajectory from our point of view is going to be far more challenging, far more complex than we had perhaps imagined. I'm sure that we will need to rethink many of the assumptions that we have been making in trying to formulate our policies. So let me leave it at that. I will be happy to take some of the questions that you may have on these issues. Thank you very much.

Tariq Thachil:

Thank you so much, Ambassador Saran, for that rich set of remarks. We already have a number of questions coming in from the audience. Let me remind everyone in the audience to please enter any questions you have in the Q and A, but I'd like to invite Ashley Tellis to ask the first few questions. Ashley is the data chair for strategic affairs and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and has been a member of CASI's International Advisory Board for over a dozen years. So we've benefited a lot from his wisdom at many of our gatherings and invite him to please kick off our Q and A session with Ambassador Saran before I move over to the audience. Ashley, thanks for joining us. The floor is yours.

Ashley J. Tellis:

Thank you.

Amb. Shyam Saran:

Hi Ashley.

Ashley J. Tellis:

Hi. Hi, Shyam. It was such a pleasure listening to you today, and I must disappoint you by telling you that I could find no room for difference between your analysis and mine. I say that it's disappointing because it makes life for a commentator really hard when there is no fundamental difference between the speaker and the commenter.

There are two large questions that jumped out of your analysis for me. One is the US will have to do a much better job with respect to reassurance, particularly about the priority of the Indo-Pacific in its own strategy. I [inaudible 00:42:29] think about that because the perception in the US is that for all of Russia's abrasiveness, it is still a relatively weak power, and the prospects for Russian national power don't look greatly appealing over the next couple of decades, whereas China is an entirely different story.

China is a major power. It will continue to grow even at a slow rate. And so the Chinese challenge to the US will be very pronounced for the next couple of decades. But because that is the reality, the issue that we are going to face is how do we manage Chinese power, especially in the Indo-Pacific, which as you point out is weak, but it's not weak simply as a matter of perceptions. I mean, people see the asymmetry and they think that the US is obviously considerably weak, and that is true. But I would make the argument that it is actually objectively weak, because even though we have global capabilities, our ability to bring power to bear in the Indo-Pacific is actually much less than is desirable given China's advances. So two questions leap out to my mind.

The first is we are going to be looking to friends and allies to help play a role in compensating for that deficit. Given your own analysis of India, what do you think are the prospects for India joining in playing that role in terms of either bringing capabilities to bear or beginning to think more expansively about defense cooperation in ways that India has not done in the past? That's question number one. Question number two, and I think this is the fundamental point that I took away from your analysis, that a lot of the frustrations and the tensions in Sino-Indian relations at the end of the day, not disputes about specifics, but about the asymmetry in Chinese and Indian power and the Chinese basically believe that they can get away with anything because they're simply powerful.

Now, given that that seems to be the mood in China and even more so with Xi Jinping, right? What is the future for internal balancing in India strategy? Can India still continue to hold onto the notion that it can build enough internal capabilities to cope with the Chinese on their own? Or are you making the case that internal balancing has not delivered in a way that one would have expected, and that India must now begin to think of external balancing in partnership with the US and with the Quad much more vigorously than it has done in the past?

And let me add just an asterisk here before I give you a chance to answer this. The Quad has become even more important than before for all the reasons that you pointed out, but we have a particular internal problem within the Quad, which is that we have a security relationship with the Japanese and a security relationship with the Australians. The Japanese and the Australians have moved very quickly in the last year to essentially build up a bilateral military capability among themselves in terms of cooperative logistics, cooperative access and so on and so forth.

The odd man out there is India. So we have this triangular relationship between the United States, Japan and Australia, which is the nucleus of military balancing and military containment, but we have a strong diplomatic relationship in India that is not matched by a military relationship. So in your view, do you think India is now at a stage where it would be willing to think of accelerated military contributions to the Quad in order to make it a more even quadrilateral as opposed to this nucleus, the triangular nucleus between the US, Australia and Japan? So over to you.

Amb. Shyam Saran:

Yeah. Thank you. Thank you very much. Let me say that with respect to your first question, is India prepared to bring more capabilities to bear on whatever may be the countervailing coalition that we are looking at? The answer to that is it has to. Even if it had no core to work with, I think given the nature of the challenge that it faces from China, there is no alternative, but to in fact, beef up its capabilities and to work with those who are ready to work with it in terms of having some kind of a restraining power in the region. If you see our conversations, for example, at the time when we were trying to negotiate the Indo-US nuclear deal, the point we were making was that India for its own reasons will in fact, behave in the region in a manner that would be supportive of what the United States has as its objective.

So even if there was no Alliance between India and the US, in fact, India for its own reasons, not because the US is asking India to do this, but India for its own reason will have to do that. So in terms of the question that you are asking, of course, we have to, because that is in the nature of how we respond to this challenge. So no doubts about that. With regard to are we going in the direction of becoming as a stronger partner, allied partner as Japan or Australia, I would only say this, I can't predict, but I will say this, that if you had asked me in 2005, that this would be the nature of the military relationship between India and the US, I would have said you are crazy. It's not going to happen.

Just take those three foundational agreements. How long it took us to come to the point that, yes, this is essential. So I don't think you should look at India's posture as something which is frozen, and it's not changing. Just look at the evolution of the Quad itself, especially since 2017, when it was revived with a kind of reservations which we had. No, we can't even have a joint statement together. We will do our own independent statements, let us keep it to the joint secretary level and not really from that to ministerial level forum to then summit level. So I think you should look at how the trajectory has also evolved. I mean, countries don't take decisions, snap decisions on these issues in a hurry.

But I think if I look at the speed with which both the defense relationship between India and the US has evolved, and the distillization in a sense of the Quad, which has taken place, I think the direction is very clear. The other point which you are missing out is look at the very, very strong military relationship, which has developed between India and Japan on the one hand and with Australia on the other. I mean, I have served in Japan in the late '80s. You know, the Japanese would not even think in terms of having anything military to do with India, but look at the state of the defense relationship today. So what I'm trying to put across to you is that India is in fact, embracing that external balancing.

What is the extent to which it will go? I think it depends upon how situation evolve. To that extent, the reassurance that you are talking about from the United States, this is going to be very important. That is why I said those conversations are very important because let me tell you very clearly that the general perception in India is, oh, the US has, once again, got embroiled in... In the earlier, it was in West Asia. Now it is in Europe. They are not going to be able to really look at the threat here in Asia. I think it's very important to try and dispel that kind of maybe misperception that there is.

Internal balancing, obviously I would say that that is fundamental. I have always said that India needs to get back to a growth trajectory of eight to 9% per annum, and I believe that India can, it's not that it's something which is not doable. I always give the example of what happened during the time that you and I were also negotiating the nuclear deal. If I look at the period from say the turn of the century to say 2007, before the global financial and economic crisis, there was asymmetry between India and China. But what was the difference? The difference was that India was seen as shrinking that gap. India was growing at a faster rate.

Now that perception that here is probably the next China in terms of commercial opportunity, economic opportunity here is a country which has very substantial military capabilities. You saw the response of India to the tsunami in 2004, 2005 when suddenly the world became aware of the fact that India actually had tremendous power projection capabilities. So even though there was that asymmetry, we were seen as shrinking that gap, and that opened up a huge amount of diplomatic space for us. What is different today is that that gap is actually increasing. In fact, our diplomatic space has shrunk to some extent, and the one most important way of getting out of that is precisely what I said that you have to get back to that higher growth rate.

In terms of what I also keep pointing out that India needs to be in terms of its national unity, if there is going to be communal divide, if there is going to be polarization in India, naturally our ability to project ourselves as a coherent, powerful country, that also will diminish. So there are there these factors which we have to consider.

Tariq Thachil:

Thanks so much.

Ashley J. Tellis:

Let me just say that-

Tariq Thachil:

Go ahead.

Ashley J. Tellis:

That was a master class. So I will yield it back to Tariq.

Tariq Thachil:

No, I'm going to... Since there was so much agreement there that I actually found unfortunate, let me go to one of the audience questions that is from Dietrich Reetz, which provides an alternative reading. So I'm just going to read the question and have your reaction to it, Shyam. So Dietrich writes that there is also an alternative reading of the events in place. By that account, China has been comparatively critical of Russia violating Ukraine sovereignty more than India is arguing. Also, Chinese assertiveness is often attributed to the US geostrategic pivot to the Pacific and China going back to Hillary Clinton that seems to have provoked China to a significant degree.

Also, India is understood by some analysts of satellite images to have actively provoked the border skirmish as an act of the assertiveness. Should it not be worrisome that the consequences of this behavior of the US and India are far more negative than expected? Are these actually miscalculations? So there's a difference of opinion for you. Do you want to have maybe a reaction to that, Shyam?

Amb. Shyam Saran:

Yeah. Well, I don't know what satellite images you might have been looking at because all the satellite images show very, very clearly that the Indian Forces had actually withdrawn, even from some of the areas where they normally would have been deployed because of the COVID and because of the preoccupations, and their assumption that the Chinese were carrying out these military exercises on their side of the border, yes, and then decided not to go back and then came into some of the most important area. They have not hidden that fact. They have said, as I mentioned to you, they have said that "We are here because this is our territory. This is our sovereign territory," which was not what they were saying before. So how can we say that this was provoked by the Indians?

This is like 1962, that this was a counterattack in self-defense. I mean, contradiction in terms. So I think we should get the facts right. Did India respond? Yes, of course, India responded. I mean, we were able to at least, prevent further ingress. But for example, our ability to reverse some of the gains that may have been made by the Chinese side, yeah we do not have that capability. So I think as far as the border issue is concerned, I think there is enough evidence to show that it would be foolish of India given the asymmetry to try and provoke a clash. Let us not forget that since 1976, period of nearly 40 years, you had one of the most peaceful borders, despite the fact that we had a dispute. We always in fact presented this as an example, that even though we have these differences, these are two mature countries and we were able to manage these differences quite well. I think on that point, I would like to disagree. I mean this is not the case.

With regard to that China is worried about what the Russians have been doing. I, in fact, mentioned to you that one, if you go back to the joint statement and I read out what exactly they have said with regard to the adjacent regions, that it is very important that they should continue to have influence in those regions. But more importantly, after the event has taken place, and you have the statement of the Chinese foreign office spokesman, who does not condemn it as invasion, who just says that this is a serious situation and that there should be restraint and people should exercise control, but it doesn't say that Russia has carried out an invasion.

And then to talk about that the issue has complex historical background and merits, and the results we are seeing today is that the interplay of multiple factors, here it's not a interplay of multiple factors. It is a Russian invasion, which has taken place on a sovereign country. What is so complicated about that? What are multiple factors at work? I don't think we should obfuscate that. Yes, China would try to present a picture of being very neutral and being somewhat anxious and worried about this, but the fact is that they have enabled this. This is my point. I do think that what happened in Beijing on February 4th actually was an enabling event.

Tariq Thachil:

Two questions. I'm going to just read both of them out to you when you respond to them together. One is from Marshall Bouton, who thanks you for your remarks. His question is about the immediate ramifications of Russia's invasion in terms of what it means for India's acquisition of Russian s-400 missiles. He says, I suspect it would make it at least more difficult to avoid a US waiver. What are your thoughts? And then a question from Professor Sourav Ganguly asking if there's a missing economic element in India's improving relationship with the US, which is happening mainly along the security dimension. Professor Ganguly asked, "If India has to get back to a high growth trajectory, not just for its own sake but for also strategic reasons, shouldn't trade relations with the US and other powers also open up?" You can take both of those together, maybe.

Amb. Shyam Saran:

Yeah. Obviously, the s-400 issue is going to be a live issue. It depends upon how the United States of America reacts to what has been happening, and does it expect India to align yourself more closely with the US or is willing to cut India some slack. That is one specific issue. I made the point that if there is in fact, a greater alignment between Russia and China and that this alignment is going to endure for being in the interest of both sides, then what does it do to the India-Russia relationship, irrespective of what decision India takes or what stance the United States takes? Because as I said, if you'd look at the s-400, it is with respect to the Chinese theater. Many of the armaments that we have been obtaining from Russia, and also don't forget the legacy issue, because nearly 40 to 50% of India's assets depend upon maintenance in force and space from Russia.

So there is also the anxiety that is this relationship between Russia and China, is it also going to impact on that irrespective of what the Indian decision making is. That's an important aspect. With regard to the economic relationship, of course it is. I have always said that the weakest pillar in India-US relations is the economic pillar. Despite the fact that actually economic and commercial relations between the two countries are doing very well, it is expanding very, very rapidly, quite significantly, and yet it is not reflected in the manner in which we negotiate with one another on the economic and commercial issue.

Maybe that might change with regard to this new Indo-Pacific economic framework that the US has been talking about. Maybe it might create a different kind of platform in which we can approach this. But my own experience has been that actually this part of the relationship has been very toxic, particularly when it relates to the multilateral aspect. You know, the positions that India takes as a developing country, for example, in the WQ.

Now, the point I have made is that if India and the United States were able to negotiate through a really very, very complex legacy issue like the nuclear issue, to me, far more complicated, if we were able to, with the kind of political commitment which we had from the leadership of the two countries, we managed to overcome this, why is it that we cannot bring that same kind of political commitment to negotiating through this. That is missing. So I would hope that yes, in taking the relationship forward, it is self evident that if India does want to get back to a higher growth rate of say eight to 9% per annum, the kind of geopolitical advantages that it has today in its relationship with the United States, in its relationship with Japan, its relationship with Western Europe.

These are the things you need to leverage to bring that about. After all, the United States of America, whatever is relative decline maybe, it still is the knowledge capital of the world. I mean, there is a security dimension to India-US relations, but for India, even if you don't take the security relationship into account, I think in terms of India's developmental imperatives, this relationship with the United States of America is absolutely critical.

Tariq Thachil:

Thank you so much. Maybe in closing, Shyam, I could ask you, we've talked about the focus on the Quad, the Indo-US relationship, but a report I thought maybe we could also focus a little bit just in closing on India's immediate neighborhood. You recently co-authored a report on India's path to power, and I'm quoting from the report. It notes that the subcontinent is the most proximate and vital geopolitical space for India. But it also notes that India is part of a deeply fractured subcontinent, a region divided against itself, politically, economically, and strategically.

What do you see as the role and particularly in light of what we're witnessing today of regional initiatives, the report talks and underscores the importance of regional efforts, whether it's SAARC, the BBIN Initiative, BIMSTEC, but how do you see your evolving thoughts on that given the present realities, that kind of neighborhood level issues and perspectives on this?

Amb. Shyam Saran:

As far as the policy line is concerned, it is very, very sound to say India practices a neighborhood first policy. That is the way it should be. I think it is in translating that on the ground that perhaps issues arise. It is a fact that the assymetry between India and its smaller neighbors is part of the problem because it creates anxieties amongst our neighbors. Here is a very large dominating power. It's a economic strain. There's military power. If you put all the neighbors together, we still exceed that. So I'm not surprised that there is that level of anxiety within our neighborhood. Therefore, your diplomacy must be directed towards conveying some degree of assurance, reassurance to your neighborhood.

How can you be, for example, a source of public goods in a sense, both on the security side, as well as on the other side? In terms of the asymmetry itself, in being the engine of growth for the entire region, actually that asymmetry is to your advantage because I keep pointing out that even if you opened up your market to everything that is manufactured and sold by your neighbors in your market, it will still be a small fraction of your market. So what is standing in the way is really a political barrier.

Secondly, look at connectivity because without very efficient connectivity within the region, how can you talk in terms of economic integration? Or how can you talk in terms of there being a move towards India becoming, as I said, the nodal point for economy. Now, if you look at the situation the ground, India is the largest country in the region, and it is the most important transit country in the region. That is, other neighbors do not have direct connections. They have connections through India. Now, if there are people in India who think that this is some leverage that India has, actually, it is not so much of a leverage. What would be leverage is can you become the preferred partner for your neighbors as far as say, transit is concerned?

Give them access to your transport network. How does it matter if Nepal uses Calcutta as a port or wants to use Bombay as a port? They will probably continue to use Calcutta as a port because it is most convenient. But look at the political impact of saying you can use any highway you want, you can use any railway network. You can use any port of India you want to export or import. We will give you something like national treatment. We don't make a distinction. That serves both the economic integration objective, but also it has great political energy. So this is even though intellectually, we think about this, but when it comes to actually putting that on the ground, there are difficulties.

The other is with regard to how do we treat Pakistan. Now here, my view has always been, you cannot think in terms of South Asia integration, unless you have some kind of a workable relationship, a manageable relationship with Pakistan, and India will have to take the lead in that. So even though you have to hold your nose, perhaps, and try to engage with Pakistan, I think you need to be able to do that, but to say that I will dispense with SAR and I will go with BIMSTEC. To me, that's not the right answer. So I would say both to BIMSTEC as well as to SAARC, and the only country which can make SAARC work is India because it's the largest country. India should be taking the lead in that respect. So with regard to the neighborhood policy, as I said, policy orientation, fine. Translating into ground, not so good.

Tariq Thachil:

Well, thank you. With that, we're over time and there's still many questions I'm sure all of us have for you, but it was a delight to hear your wide-ranging and erudite comments, and for you to weave in literally unfolding events as they were happening in real time into your comments was I think really wonderful for all of us to be able to hear. Thank you so much for giving us so much of your time. I'm sorry that our hosting had to be virtual and I hope that next time it can be in person, but thank you so much for joining us and thank you everyone else for joining us from around the world. It was a pleasure to host you. Thank you so much, Shyam.

Amb. Shyam Saran:

Thank you.