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Salman Khurshid, the minister of external affairs, talks to Nayanima Basu on Pakistan, China, trade and various other challenges on his plate. Edited excerpts:
India has formally rejected an offer for talks with Pakistan. How do you plan to solve the crisis and ensure no more ceasefire violation?
We have not said no to anything. We just think there is a proper time and place for everything. It is important that in any contact which goes beyond the established procedures, such as the contacts between the DGMOs (Directors General of Military Operations) and between the flag commanders on both sides, we should have the right atmospherics and right situation for further contacts. So, nobody is saying no but I think it is important that this be done carefully, sensibly and in an appropriate manner.
When you talk of right atmospherics, does the Indian government apprehend that they might raise the Kashmir issue?
We do not have any apprehension. We want indications, signals of sensitivity to something we have felt is an extremely serious and a hurtful event. We want something that indicates sensitivity to our concerns. This is important.
Our revived comprehensive dialogue does not have any conditionality but you have a sensible way of prioritising how you will proceed with a dialogue. And, that’s what we were doing. That’s the major thing. Now, the minor thing is something that can hurt the dialogue and also needs to be settled by a dialogue but a dialogue to settle a larger dialogue issue should happen in an atmosphere that makes it possible, viable and feasible. I think that’s basically what we are emphasing.
Pakistan once again missed the deadline for granting MFN (most favoured nation) trade status to us. Do you think trade normalisation with Pakistan is possible?
I think trade normalisation will take place. It is important. It is not just trade that were discussed; there are many far-reaching and important matters we have talked about in the past.
I think it is not very productive to be speculative on trade being derailed. But we work within a framework of atmospherics. Those are important. The substance and perception have to go hand in hand.
Of course, the deadline for MFN has been missed but it is a work in progress. It is not the end of the world that a particular deadline is missed.
Or that an opportunity to further consult or discuss that has been lost due to preoccupations at home. I can understand the latter, considering a rapidly changing political situation in Pakistan. The commerce minister (Anand Sharma) is fully briefed and is keeping track of it. We (Sharma and Khurshid) do confer from time to time and are sure whatever nudging and pushing needs to be done will be done.
What is India doing to avert another debacle like GMR in Maldives? How do you plan to encourage Indian industry to increase their footprint globally?
I do not treat it as a debacle or a setback. It is a disappointment because we like to see our flag flourish in terms of commercial initiative that our companies take, particularly in friendly countries where we have had strong traditional links. And, if we are unsuccessful in a commercial venture for one reason or another, obviously that is disappointing.
There were, obviously, issues of a legal nature as perceived by the government in Maldives and GMR has accepted the consequences of the issues that emerged. It is now only a matter of ensuring the cancellation is followed by other legal remedies that come with termination of the contract. I think it is another event that we take in our stride and we move forward. Our effort was that this should not be given a political colour and used by people not friendly to India as a reason and occasion for driving a wedge between friends. I think that seems to be pretty much on track.
How do you plan to address the challenges posed by China, while we also see them as one of our strategic partners? The trade deficit with China is increasing year-on-year. On the other hand, some Chinese firms are threatening to pull out investments; there were problems with Huawei. How is the government viewing the state of Chinese investments in India?
We do believe we have a constructive partnership with China. We are also conscious that China offers in the marketplace a very stiff competition because they have expertise and they have advantages in terms of costs, sometimes. But we have our own advantages and I think there can be two competing models, of India and of China, and that gives greater opportunity to all the spaces in which we both offer our services. I think we should not be necessarily self-conscious of any disadvantage. We should factor in disadvantages and also emphasise the advantages we have.
In terms of trade balance, yes, this is something we continue to address in different ways, including in our negotiations with China. This remains a priority and we will continue to address it. But this requires a collaborative effort between government and industry and I hope industry redoubles its efforts to ensure we not only have an acceptable trade balance but also a good flow of investments on both sides.
What are some of the major challenges to India's foreign policy today? Are you planning to bring about any major changes in policy with such difficult neighbours?
I think we have a policy rooted in a broad consensus in the country. It also has a historical pedigree which I think is very significant. But in the broad contours of that consensus and policy, we need to fine-tune tactically because this is a time of consolidating relationships with economic interaction. For that, we have to be vigilant and willing to change our tactical approach because in many cases, it is the market forces that will ultimately decide how things move.
But we have also, I think, an advantage in terms of soft diplomacy; our cultural diplomacy is important. We have a steady expansion programme of our cultural centres, sponsored by the ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations). We are continuing our engagement of people to people contacts and I think a combination of sustained cultural diplomacy, described often as soft diplomacy, with sensible and competent economic planning of relationships will give us an effective presence in the world.
With the re-election of President Barack Obama in the US, India's concerns over a rise in professional visa fees and outsourcing will persist. How do you plan to tackle this issue in the year ahead?
In the months ahead, we will have an opportunity to take up these issues. We have an ongoing dialogue with the US. We are waiting for their cabinet to be in place. I think over the next month or so, we will have other ideas of schedules. Our agenda is clearly there. We will take it up with all the energy at our command, as soon as people are in place to begin the dialogue.
What benefits will our (economic) integration with Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) yield in the long run?
I personally think that for the whole country it is of immense value. But particularly for the northeastern part of our country, which has always been a special target for our development schemes, as there are very special kinds of problems there and also a very special potential. And, to engage with the northeast in an effective manner, connectivity with Asean and trade with Asean will be enormously important. Economic integration of that entire region will play a major role. It will have not only direct benefits to the northeast but also give us a much higher profile in countries like Myanmar, where, because of years of isolation, we have not been able to contribute and receive as much as our potential clearly indicates there is for us to do.
What will be India's stance if there be a rise in tension in the South China Sea, with growing Chinese ambitions there?
There are two issues. One is freedom of navigation and other is sovereignty between neighbouring states. On sovereignty, we have repeatedly said that must be settled through bilateral negotiations between the countries concerned and we are not involved in those. On freedom of navigation, we have repeatedly said, bilaterally and multilaterally, that this is a matter on which India takes a clear position, that the law of the sea and freedom of navigation on the open seas is something we stand by and are committed to. This is being recoginsed by Asean in the stated code of conduct.
I do not think we should be speculating on the possibility of tensions rising to a level that it requires any more than what we have said and done. They are all mature parties and realise that beyond their stated positions, there are certain overall compulsions of the comity of nations that will keep us within levels allowing for a reasonable amount of dialogue to resolve these issues.
What will be India's strategy towards Afghanistan after 2014, when the US troops pull out completely?
Our position is very clear. Our position is that Afghanistan must make up its mind on how it wants to proceed. India is willing to help in every way possible within the wishes of the people of Afghanistan and the elected government. We are in touch with stakeholders in that region, neighbours of Afghanistan, including in central Asia. And, when we have the opportunity to discuss this with the US, for instance, that what we like is to be able to be a part of the solution and not in any way be seen or be dragged into becoming a part of the problem.
As far as we are concerned, we are very good friends, we have an extremely good and meaningful relationship. We have extended to them such help as they have expected and desired in the field of development, in important institution capacity building, providing them with such training and assistance they require for their Afghan National Army to take over the responsibilities beyond 2014 and, of course, on which they already have taken responsibility in many districts. We will continue to respond to the wishes of the people of Afghanistan and the elected government.