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External Affairs Minister’s interview at India Global Week 2020

July 12, 2020

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: Welcome to the India Global Week, session on "Partners in Revival - India's role in shaping a better New World". My name is Edie Lush. I am really pleased now to be joined by Dr Jaishankar, India's Foreign Minister. He's made the transition from a career diplomat to politics. Let me mention just a few highlights from his career. Moscow in the early 80s, the United States as a Political Attache during President Reagan's second term, Hungary and the Czech Republic after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tokyo in the late 90s, he was India's Ambassador to China in 2009, and Ambassador to the United States during the Obama Administration. So, Dr Jaishankar, before we look into your portfolio, External Affairs, let's spend a moment on the pandemic. I'm currently in the UK where we're in the process of opening back up, but in India cases are still rising, but if I look at the comparative data, either on a case per million or deaths per million, bases, India is on a much better trajectory. Can you give me a view on how India has handled the pandemic?

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: Actually, I must tell you other than as a Minister and as a Citizen, I happened to be in a group of ministers which was tasked with coming up with the policy response to the coronavirus. So look, when the pandemic started assuming global proportions, I think the choice which every country had was, how do you respond and respond in a sense playing to your own strengths. Now some countries had better testing capabilities like the South Koreans, some perhaps like Germany had a very strong ICU system. In our case, you know, sort of recognizing our capabilities and our limitations, I think we opted really to rely very substantially on social distancing. So, we went for a very early lockdown, we went for a very early travel restriction, and the result of that 3 months down the road, yes, the actual case load today is large, it's not large as you say proportional to the population. But, what's interesting is while we may be number 3 in terms of the case load, if you look even at the absolute number of fatalities, we are number 8. We have a recovery rate of 61% and the time gained has in a sense not just slowed the spread. It has allowed really preparations in a way. We were making no personal protection equipment when the coronavirus hit us. Today, we are reasonably self-sufficient there. We've ramped up our pharmaceutical response to that. The hospital systems have responded to that. So, we still have our challenges ahead. We are very conscious of it. I think the next few weeks and months are going to be tough. But, in the given situation, we feel you know, we made the right choices and are as realistically well placed as anybody could be under the circumstances.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: So, if I could give you a crystal ball and you could look forward into the future when there's either a vaccine or some level of herd immunity, how do you think India is positioned in a post-coronavirus world?

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: Well, I think we could you know, when it comes to the vaccine itself, as you know, that is an area again where India has strengths. We are the world's largest producer of vaccines. And, I think once people discover a vaccine or multiple vaccines for this, clearly, we will have a role in making that accessible and affordable and available to the rest of the world. In fact, even before the vaccine, I should add, in this period actually when there was a search in demand for corona related drugs, we've actually responded to that to the world. We've supplied medicines to more than a 120 countries, including a lot of small countries, who would not have normally had access to it because the demands on those medicines were very high, so we set some apart for them and we made that extra effort, you know countries in the CARICOM, or countries in the Pacific Islands, for example, a lot of our African partners, we went the extra mile to make sure that they had medicines. So, I think in the post-Corona world, I don't need a crystal ball, I can actually see that pretty clearly that we are going to be able, you know will have to step up, much more in health policy and medically responding to it. But, let me sort of give you a, where I need the crystal ball, probably is more in the politics of a post-Corona world. And, my sense there is, a lot of the trends that we saw before the coronavirus, they could well accelerate. I mean what we have seen even in response in the last six months, for example, we have seen a lot of countries behaving more nationalistically. You know, people frankly looking out for themselves. I mean, I understand it up to a point, but I do see a world where many, shall I say arguments will sharpen. I think there will be issues of trust which have been raised, there will be questions on resilient supply chains. So, it's going to be a more difficult world.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: So, let's look at your relationship with the United Kingdom. Last year, you said at this event that the UK is a major partner for India. How do you describe those emerging contours of the relationship? And, what are your priorities as we transition to a post-Brexit era?

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: Well look, I think to a certain extent what how any country relates to the UK, would depend on how UK itself evolves. And, in a post-Brexit moment, which has got sort of extended because of the coronavirus becoming a central issue, that's not yet clear. So, you know, but having said that, I would say, I'm not giving you a kind of an Indian perspective, you know, there are many UK's. Okay. There is a historical UK, which is a sort of a global UK, you know, which still has influence and interests all over the world. There is the city of London UK. There is a European UK, despite Brexit, I mean, you're still very very closely tied to Europe. There is a very unique transatlantic UK, because there's still a relationship with the Americans which nobody else has that degree of closeness. There is a dice for our UK, a much more multicultural, pluralistic UK, which has evolved in the last 50-60 years. And, I would say, probably in many ways, there's a much more innovative UK today. I mean people often, when you sometimes think of the city of London, you also forget this is also a country with enormous scientific technological capabilities, there are lot of things going on there in your university's research institution. So, for me as an Indian, a sort of Foreign Minister, when I look at it, I need to cover that that entire spectrum of those multiple UKs. There internal balance will kind of emerge as your post-Brexit, you know, positions become clear. But, obviously all these will be aspects in my calculation.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: So, you mentioned there, a couple of different UK's and a new India, and I wonder if you could spend a moment speaking about multilateralism and the UK-India relationship within multilateral institutions? Many have said that as a result of or as part of this coronavirus moment, we're seeing multilateralism in crisis. And I wonder if you could say more about the UK's level of cooperation and understanding with India in some of these multilateral institutions?

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: Well, I will not differ with what you said, which is that multilateralism, I'm not sure it’s under crisis certainly under stress. But along with that, you know, along with weakening multilateralism you also have greater multipolarity. You have many more players, not just at the sort of top level of world politics, but I would say I mean in a sense, middle powers, much more regions. If you look at what's happening in many regions, it's much more autonomous, what's happening in the world. So there is there is a lot of, sort of, lot of moving parts. Many more moving parts and a less centralized system to sort of guide them along. Now, I think it's important for countries like India and UK, who at the end of the day, have a, you know, certain shared, I would say world view, shared belief, there is a way we look at the world, there are, you know, we have a sense of what is right and what is wrong. So it's important for countries who share sort of basic principles in their approach to international relations to work closely together. And, I think this is a year where we've just been elected to the UN Security Council. We will be there for the next two years. Two years from now will also be the G20 chair. So, we will be, you know, very visible in the multilateral arena and certainly, I would see the UK as one of our natural partners.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: So, let's step away from the UK-India relationship. Can you tell me about the border crisis with China? And, where does it stand now?

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: What's just happened is that we've agreed on the need to disengage because the troops on both sides are very close to it, deployed very close to each other. So there is a disengagement and a de-escalation sort of process, which has been agreed upon. It has just commenced. Its very much work in progress, so I think at this point I would really won't like to say more than that.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: Okay, let's stay within that side of your part of the world and look at your relationship with Australia. The India-Australia equation has really strengthened enormously in recent years. We've even seen a virtual summit between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Morrison. Two years ago, Australia said, it wanted India as one of its top three export markets. So there's a trade aspect to it. But, there's also an aspect around increasing regional security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. So, I wonder if you could say more about the relationship?

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: Well, I was privileged to be part of that virtual summit between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Morisson. And, you know, of course at a personal level, the two Prime Ministers got along really very, visibly well. They have a strong chemistry. I was there when they met just last year in Osaka and then in Bangkok. So, and you know in some ways there is a, I would say that both people who are very direct, I mean, I would say what you see is what you get. So, they relate very well to each other. But, this is really more than personality. I think there are strong structural and policy reasons why India and Australia are doing very much more with each other. I referred in, you know, one of the earlier points to the role that middle powers play, and if you look today, you know, Australia is a country with considerable weight, considerable influence, with a lot of interests in the region and again, you know, when you look at this world today where the regional architecture is much more loose and sort of open-ended than it used to be before, it's important for countries who may be located in somewhat different parts of the world, but who have overlaps and who have convergences, to look for common points and see where they can work together. And, in the case of Australia, I mean part of it is the English, part of it is the cricket, we have a very very large, almost a hundred thousand students in Australia, and we have you know, growing economic relationship. But, beyond all of that, I think there is today a sense in India and a sense in Australia that look it's very important, if we are, the larger region is to be more secure, more stable, more predictable, sort of, to work on the lines with which we would be comfortable, then countries like India and Australia need to come together. And that's really what you are seeing happening. So, what happened at this virtual summit, I mean it actually produced some very important agreements. Agreements on maritime security, agreements on the defence forces having an understanding on providing mutual logistic support, on cyber security, on mining, on agriculture, on science and technology, so it was a very substantive event. But, as I said, it's not the event, it's a trend, I would say that, you should be looking for a much stronger relationship to unfold in the coming days.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: It's really pleasing actually to me personally that you're putting forward a case for globalization in a way, for relations, rather than quite a lot of what we've heard recently, is a real sort of as you mentioned before, real nationalization, a real kind of closing in. Thinking a little bit about Singapore, you were India's High Commissioner to Singapore from 2007 to 2009 and Singapore has long been a strategic and economic partner for India. Where do you see room for growth?

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: You know, mostly when people ask me a question about Singapore, they get at least a half an hour reply. And, it's all, it's largely positive and in praise of Singapore, because, I will say, of the many postings I've done, if there's one place I actually regard as a sort of pulse of the world, you know where you're there, but you kind of pick up about what's happening all over the world. I mean there is nothing like Singapore for that. But, in terms of where we are with Singapore, look Singapore had an extraordinarily important interesting role in the changes which have taken place in India, and it goes back to the early 90s, when we were coming out of a closed economy. And, when we looked at the world and sort of in a sense looked for different reference points, which would allow us to change our policies, Singapore happened to be one of the important ones. And, it's interesting, if I just give you one number, there are today 9000 Indian companies in Singapore. So, it will tell you how important it is in terms of our global economic activities. It is also, trade with Singapore is about 18 billion dollars, which it will be among our top trade partners. It's the channel through which a lot of the investments go in and out of India. We have very close defence and security relations with Singapore. There are probably more flights to Singapore from India than to any other foreign destination. So, there you know, just physically the number of Indians who travel to Singapore is very high. So, why I stress that is, for us it's a very unique relationship and it's a relationship which is very central to our larger relationship with the world. So, it's not just a country to country relationship, for me, as I said, it's a pulse of the world. Since I expect, you know, India to actually increase its engagement with the world, I can imagine naturally that will happen so with Singapore.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: So, in addition to Singapore, you also have extensive experience with the United States, both under Democratic and Republican administrations. I was really interested to see after President Modi tweeted to wish the United States a happy Fourth of July recently, Trump said in a tweet, thank you my friend, America loves India. India is really a rare country that has handled transitions quite well in the United States and it has a genuine bipartisan goodwill in DC. So what's your secret? How do you do it?

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: You know, I have thought about it, and let me in a sense put your own question back at you. Think back at the last four American Presidents. Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton. I'm sure you'd agree with me, you can't find four people in the world less similar to each other, right, and yet the one thing on which actually, all four of them have agreed on is the importance of India and the need to strengthen that relationship. Maybe some of it is our charm, but I think a lot of it is also their thinking. And, what we have actually in the US, today is we have a very strong, you know, political relationship, strategic relationship, very strong security defence cooperation, and increasing economic relationship, a very unique technology relationship. I mean if you look at really how the two countries are interlinked in terms of, I'm not just talking about Indian-Americans, I am really talking about how work goes up and down and ideas go up and down and the role that we have played actually in the growth of American technology as well. And, in a way and of course people to people, I mean if you look at the number of Indian Americans, they have grown from 30,000 at the time of our independence. Today, probably close to about 4 million. And, very large number of them are still Indians, we are also Indians who are there on non-immigrant visas of various kinds. So, it's been a relationship, I would say, which took about six decades to discover itself, but, having done so it's making up for lost time. And, I think when we speak about all the other commonalities which are a lot of what I said, I'm either describing what's happening or it's a kind of a connect, I would say somewhere values do matter. You know, Indians and Americans today have a better understanding of each other's society and therefore a much closer appreciation. They sort of feel for each other in a way in which many countries perhaps don't do so closely. And, it's not just for the administration of the day, though, obviously that is critical, I think we have very strong, very diverse relationship across the American polity, especially in the American congress. You know, there would be the congressional leadership of both parties, again our people who were multiple, you know decades really we have had good relation, but certainly, the last two decades that's become stronger. So, I see this as certainly as one of our key relationship, but I expect it's a relationship which will become more important even in the American calculus of the world.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: So, final question for you. On a personal level not everyone can make the leap from being a career diplomat to corporate executive to politics. So, how are you finding the challenge?

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: Well, I am surviving, and I think you know, I don't know if you remember the Yes Minister Series.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: Yeah

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: It's interesting to be both the Sir Humphrey and the Jim Hacker. Just for the record, earlier in my life, I was the Bernard as well. But, I think, you know, perhaps one reason for that ability to make the transition is, if you are not just a regular civil servant, but a diplomat. I think by being a diplomat, you tend to be more nimble, you tend to adapt to your surroundings, and you are very curious, you're willing to learn all the time. That's what diplomacy is about. And, certainly I find the political world to be very fascinating. And, it's been a year now. It's almost just a year and two months since, I became an MP, and I can tell you I'm still learning but it's enormously fascinating and extremely rewarding.

Ms Edie Lush, Moderator: Dr Jaishankar, thank you so much for joining us here during India Global Week. It's been a fascinating conversation.

Dr S Jaishankar, EAM: Thank you. Pleasure!

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