India external affairs minister: 'World in enormous transition'

Exclusive: Subrahmanyam Jaishankar tells 'The National' UAE and India 'can create a kind of axis of stability'

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India's Minister of External Affairs in Au Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
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Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India's External Affairs Minister, said on Thursday that an “enormous transition” was under way with the rise of a multipolar world after the dominance of the US, adding that with so much instability, co-ordination between countries such as the UAE and India could serve as an “axis of stability”.

Speaking exclusively to The National in Abu Dhabi, Dr Jaishankar stressed the importance of diplomacy, saying that since the Ukraine war began six moths ago, global challenges have only become more difficult. Asked how the Ukraine war could end, he said: “Eventually, everybody knows, that you have to talk, that the solution will be through dialogue and diplomacy. The question is when?”. However he warned that “the longer you put it off, the greater the cost”.

India has not taken a side in the Ukraine war. Dr Jaishankar said “the world is much more complex now. There's more than a single issue going on. There are clearly two camps and people in between ... it is an expression of a multipolar world”.

India continues to buy oil from Russia and when asked about this matter previously, Dr Jaishankar has made the point that India buys less Russian energy than Europe does. Responding to a question from The National about the issue of energy supplies from Russia, Dr Jaishankar said that his country’s oil purchase policy is based on its national interests.

How to stabilise and make your energy sources predictable … that's really what we are trying to do, nobody's playing geopolitics with this

“One has to try, obviously, and get the best terms you can from the energy markets. These national characterisations of oil purchases, are misleading. Because people have an oil purchase policy, they don't have a country purchase policy," he said.

He added, “everybody looks for stability, and stability has two connotations here. One is diversification, in a volatile market, the more the sources, the more secure and stable you are. And the timelines, if, you can get longer term agreements, that work”.

He stressed that the priorities are “how to stabilise and make your energy sources predictable … that's really what we are trying to do, nobody's playing geopolitics with this”.

Speaking to the wider issue of global polarisation, Dr Jaishankar said countries can maintain relations with different sides.

“My sense of it is that if you level with countries about what your relationships are, what your interests are, what your priorities are, what your views are, they will understand, they may not always agree, they may not always like it, but they will understand,” he said.

However, the views of the UAE and India are quite close, said Dr Jaishankar. He is visiting the country this week to meet with senior UAE officials and participate in the UAE-India Joint Committee.

While the UAE and India have had historically close relations, Dr Jaishankar told The National: “what we are seeing is really sort of huge upswing in the relationship”.

Having signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement earlier this year, economic ties are at their strongest, with trade rising to $73 billion last year. The two countries also co-ordinate on climate action and education initiatives.

However, Dr Jaishankar stressed that the relationship was deeper than economic ties.

“You have very modernistic progressive governments and leaderships in both countries who see the value of the partnership, at a time when the world is exceptionally difficult,” he said.

He added, “you have uncertainties, volatility, old thinking, in some ways, new problems and so on. So actually, the world situation is more difficult. And you'll have these two countries and their leaders who figured out that both would be better off and the world would be better off, if they could really create a kind of axis of stability”.

At the UN Security Council - where both are serving terms as elected members of the international body - there is co-ordination, which is driven towards “how do we actually move to stabilise the world because it badly needs that right now”.

This comes at a time that the senior Indian official described as “difficult”, with the emergence of the world from Covid-19, the Ukraine war and climate challenges. He added that an “enormous transition” to a multipolar world needed to be "as stable and smooth as possible”.

He added that close ties between the UAE and India are not a new phenomenon.

“As His Highness (President) Sheikh Mohamed often says, in many ways, we're drawing on history and tradition. It's something which existed for centuries, and then somewhere in modernity, it got diluted. And now, we're bringing it back”.

While trade, energy and politics play important roles in this relationship, “underlying that is this belief that we connect, our interests are very aligned, that by working together, we actually are the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts”.

That was articulated in a “vision statement” released last February and signed by President Sheikh Mohamed and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said.

“Both the Prime Minister and His Highness felt that we need to put out some kind of bigger aspirational goal for the relationship,” said Dr Jaishankar .

Having served as an ambassador to the United States and China in the past, he has a unique understanding of the dynamic between the two countries. Asked about where India finds itself in the US-China dynamic, Dr Jaishankar responded that the world is in “in the middle of an enormous transition ... after the Second World War, the US-Soviet binary was the main factor, then you had about a decade of very strong American dominance”.

“I would argue that the last maybe a decade and a half, we are now seeing a transition where, we have the rise of China and to some degree the rise of India," he said. "Today, we are talking of a G20, which includes a lot of non-western countries, as opposed to a G7, which was a Western grouping. So this evolution is taking place”.

And while Dr Jaishankar, who assumed his position in 2019, said that while there will be difficulties during this evolution, “it is in the collective interests of the international community that we make this transition as stable and as smooth as possible, which means that all the players have to find some ways of reconciling that”.

He stressed that in Asia the thinking is “that is best served by adherence to basic principles of international relations, adherence to international law, respecting territorial integrity, sovereignty, by ensuring that global commons are respected by contributing to the stability which is essential for prosperity”.

S Jaishankar said “it's not been an easy year for Afghanistan". Victor Besa / The National

However, that prosperity is being challenged at the moment, particularly with the impact of Covid-19 and climate change. One of India’s closest neighbours, Sri Lanka, is among the worst hit countries economically due to the impact of Covid-19. Dr Jaishankar welcomed the role of the IMF in helping stabilise its economy, saying “they need to find a way out ... the best way to do that is through the IMF, because the IMF is the only institution which can address the kind of crisis that they are in, but we have been very supportive of them”.

Dr Jaishankar spoke of India’s support to Sri Lanka, “whether it is rolling over the trade settlements that were due or giving soft credits for, for essential commodities, or for fuel purchases, we've given close to $3.8 billion dollars to Sri Lanka this year alone”. He added “for all that we may preach at international forums, it is what to do, when faced with actually these kinds of crisis situations ... countries should be judged by their actions”.

On climate change, the senior Indian official said: “We've had a very difficult time in India. And, of course, we are seeing this now these extraordinary floods in Pakistan. So, if people still haven't woken up to it, they should wake up to the enormity of what these climate changes project”.

Tackling climate change is one of the issues that the UAE and India are working on. “That's one area where the Emirati leadership and we are completely aligned, we see these dangers,” said Dr Jaishankar.

“When I spoke of a modern modernistic progressive leadership, in fact, one area, where that has found expression is how much the two governments have been investing and in the renewables area," he said. "And, it's something we would continue to seek to expand.”

He stressed that developing renewables, green hydrogen, in addition to the UAE being a partner in building India’s strategic reserves are part of the co-operation between the two countries.

It should not be that the politics of the day, leads us to completely disregard the welfare of the Afghan people. I think we owe them that

On Afghanistan, which India views as tied to its own security, Dr Jaishankar refrained from discussing the Taliban’s rule. Since the US withdrawal from Aghanistan, he said that “it's not been an easy year for Afghanistan, they are clearly struggling with a lot of issues. And we have to take a call, how do we respond to that?” The decision was to focus on the “strong relationship with the Afghan people”, he said.

India has supplied Afghanistan with almost 50,000 tonnes of wheat, while shipping medicine to the Indian-backed paediatric hospital in Kabul and sending Covid-19 vaccines.

“We have been responsive, because at the end of the day, we feel for the Afghan people. Now how the politics sorts itself we'll have to wait and see where that goes," he said. “It should not be that the politics of the day, leads us to completely disregard the welfare of the Afghan people. I think we owe them that”.

On whether the withdrawal changed India’s view of the US, Dr Jaishankar stressed the strength of relations between his country and Washington.

“Our relationship with the US has actually been on a steady upswing ... over five presidents now, (Bill) Clinton, (George W) Bush, (Barak) Obama, (Donald) Trump, (Joe) Biden, five very different presidents, but Indo-American relations are growing year by year," Dr Jaishankar said. "So, if we were to judge the Americans, we would judge them, first and foremost by how our own relationship is going. And we've seen exceptional commitment from them, and a very, strong shared effort to take it to higher levels and more and more domains.”

The other way of looking at it is, it's remarkable the US were in Afghanistan for 20 years ... and what [it] must have cost them to stay those 20 years

In terms of the American role in Afghanistan, he said “they've been fighting for 20 years. There are not many countries, which would be prepared to keep forces out of the country for that longer period".

"There are two sides to it. One way of looking at it is they left in the manner in which they did," he said. "The other way of looking at it is, it's remarkable they were there for 20 years ... and what [it] must have cost them to stay those 20 years ... I try to be kind of objective on it.”

On the prospect of a new Iran nuclear deal, he was reserved.

“In my business, you never pass judgment unless you have a full sense of what is what is happening and what was being negotiated is right now, clearly, among the parties involved, but I think the wider region would like to see the problem resolved in some fashion,” he said.

“At this time, I would look at it from this perspective that you have a very difficult global situation today, very heavily impacted by Covid-19, the [state of the] global economy, complicated by the global consequences of the Ukraine conflict, and issues like climate events, adding to it," he said. "So, anything which actually takes away from the unpredictability side, and moves to the predictable one, to my mind is for the good.”

On Iran as an energy provider, Dr Jaishankar spoke clearly of the priorities for his country.

“Iran was a very major energy supplier to India, so the fact that there were difficulties has clearly hurt our interests ... we have never been in denial of it," he said. "I mean, we've always said that we would like to see normalcy, we would like to see Iran back into the energy markets, because we have a very direct stake in that happening”.

Updated: September 02, 2022, 2:01 PM