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Ambassador Kishan Rana: A globalising India must have a larger vision

Ambassador Kishan Rana, a former ambassador to Germany, Czechoslovakia, Kenya and various other countries, is a veteran diplomat and author of many books. Ambassador Rana was in Mumbai this week to talk to Indian business about the increasing confluence of business and foreign policy in India. Indian companies expanding overseas are leading India’s economic diplomacy, and there is much that can be done by both government and business to leverage their goodwill and global presence. In his recently published book, ‘The 21st Century Ambassador: Plenipotentiary to Chief Executive’ Ambassador Rana talks of the need for ambassadors to transform into Chief Executives. He speaks to Gateway House Research Intern Devasheesh Mathur about how business and diplomacy can meet to India’s benefit.

Q: Do you think that to initiate and facilitate the metamorphosis of our diplomats into executives, our Ministry of External Affairs has a system in place to select the right kinds of officers and an adequate in-service training programme?

This kind of a transformation is predicated by circumstances. The very nature of diplomacy today is heavy on economic diplomacy. This means that in almost all environments, except countries where the political relationship is overwhelmingly important, say in Islamabad, the political relationship is largely a given. The challenge is to flesh out the relationship into different dimensions but especially in economics. So the transition from a plenipotentiary to a manager of an enterprise, in this case, with India, whether located in Israel, Ghana or Brazil, is a fairly natural one.

Yes, some continuous training is needed. We are doing a reasonable job but we can do a great deal better. Most trainees learn on the job. The strength of the service is grossly inadequate but it has not yet inhibited us from developing new connections, particularly economic ones. So the strength of numbers is important but not a crucial determinant in the final analysis.

Q: India is on a Free Trade Agreements (FTA) and Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement signing spree with emerging economies along with its maturing ‘Look East Policy’. How has this impacted our foreign policy vis-à-vis ASEAN, EU, Japan, etc?

The FTAs are an option that India developed in 1999 when it signed its first FTA with Sri Lanka. Until then we were strong adherents of multilateral trading systems. But then we realized that the multi-lateral trading system negotiations are going nowhere and that there isn’t any option but to cut deals with individual nations or groups of countries.

Now how does this connect with security issues? Indirectly, strong economic links provide a degree of surety in relationships and indirectly it provides for security. Take India and China. The two countries are significant trading partners-the trade is imbalanced, but I think efforts are running to rectify it. India is a growing investor in China, and China is a growing investor in India, particularly in the infrastructure sector. All this is to the advantage of the relationship between the two countries and I would even venture to say that it acts as an indirect security platform.

Q: China is our largest trading partner but it is also an aggressor with frequent border incursions and territorial expansionist tendencies. How do we balance business with our political and security interests?

We have to manage our relationships. There are no hard evidences of border incursions. Let’s not forget that much of the border is undefined on the ground. The two countries have not had a significant border clash for several years. There are all kinds of safety mechanisms. There are protocols and methods for resolving small issues and I think that system works quite well. So I wouldn’t exaggerate security dimensions. But China is a major growing power. It is a competitor of India and in some ways, even a rival. In many other ways we’ll collaborate too. Hence, the task of managing relationships is to juggle all the different dimensions and to use the relationships in the most constructive way possible.

Q: India has traditionally been strong in space technology and exploration. Should we redraw our strategy on it, considering diminishing US investments and pursue it as a business proposition with our strong launching capabilities?

I think we have pursued it as a business proposition. We should develop and extend our launch capabilities further. Space exploration is a frontier and an opportunity in which India’s early investments-thanks to the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru and others have paid off. So it behoves us to use these investments and to get further value from it.

This will also help us with our bi-lateral relations with different countries and with different partners because India quite often offers a relatively low-cost option for satellite launches for space exploration or utilization of space opportunities.

Q: With such skewed opinions on nuclear energy, can we still manoeuvre it to our advantage- such as the buying of nuclear plants from Japan post Fukushima and linking it to the lifting of the Japanese ban on sale of reprocessed uranium to India?

I’m not an expert on nuclear issues but I would say that in the energy options available today to India, nuclear energy is an important one. Of course, renewable energy is important. We all say wonderful things about it, although India has done rather less on the ground in renewable energy than it has talked about. But that’s another story. India has to pursue a multi-track approach here. We have to use hydro power as much as we can in a renewable way. We have to use the river flow without building up huge bodies of water and without grabbing land which is scarce and which leads to all kinds of re-settlement issues which you have seen at Narmada.  At the same time, coal will remain an important option. We have to pursue clean coal energy technologies.

So these are two major tracks that we have to pursue. The third major track for us has to be nuclear energy. The questions that need to be answered are-who are we going to partner? Where are we going to get the nuclear energy from? Will it be France, US, Japan or other countries? Fukushima is a warning.  But let’s not get so overwhelmed by this very unique incident that has occurred in an old nuclear power plant where the safeguards for natural disasters like the earthquake and the tsunami were not provided. We cannot afford to walk away from nuclear energy. We also have the Thorium cycle on which we did some work but which we later suspended work on. So we have to look at all the options available to us.

Q: There is a concern that India has not opened up its domestic markets even after signing FTAs along with a long negative list of items. Is this especially the problem in SAARC?

I agree with you that we have tended to be very rigid and perhaps we have over-negotiated some of these FTAs. In the very first FTA with Sri Lanka, we were concerned over imports of tea and garments from Sri Lanka. So we hedged this with so many conditions and non-tariff barriers of one kind or another that virtually no tea or no garments from Sri Lanka came into India. There is a fear that we have been doing something very similar vis-a-vis Bangladesh.

This doesn’t make sense. I think we should have a larger, more liberal view about opening up our market. We have finally done that under the unilateral concessions that we gave to the Lesser Developed Countries in SAARC. We frequently blame Pakistan for n
ot agreeing to give the Most Favoured Nation treatment to India, but we ourselves impose a series of barriers and obstacles to imports from Pakistan at the same time. So it is not as if we are saints in these kinds of transactions. And I agree with your basic thrust that our negative lists should be realistic and progressive and not predicated on the old notion that we protect everything and only give few minor concessions to our partners. This is not the way, either to have successful FTAs or to build deeper partnerships with our neighbours who are going to be our friends. A globalizing India must have a larger vision.

Q: For this, we would want the Doha round to be concluded quite soon, wouldn’t we?

But the Doha round depends on so many elements today, I’m not an expert on WTO issues, and I don’t know where the blame lies. But there was a time, may be three years ago or so, when India is known to have played not very constructive role and there was a feeling that if India made concessions before elections it would hurt the government politically. I think this was a false argument. I don’t think these kinds of issues figure very much in national elections. Yes, opposition parties will always try and make an issue out of it. But the business of government is to govern and not be too scared or too worried on the account of these kinds of narrow political calculations.

Q: If arms trade is considered business, how difficult will it be for India to take a balanced stance on human rights violations like the ones in the Israel-Palestine rift?

This is not an easy issue to tackle. If it is supply of lethal arms, that is guns, ammunitions or rockets, there are problems. At the same time we have to be pragmatic and partner with countries that have a capacity to work with us, that have a willingness to work with us, and of course have the wherewithal to work with us. So we have to steer a careful course between the political imperatives and our requirements- of defence technology, of our own defence equipments production and manufacturing but not so much about the export market. I don’t think India will ever be a significant exporter of arms, but we can be a significant exporter of platforms like sea-going vessels, ruggedized vehicles of the kind that are now being manufactured in India. I think India has a huge potential in that area. I think it’s better to focus on that rather than on lethal arms.

Q: But since Israel is that largest supplier of arms to India, we haven’t taken a strong stance on Palestinian Issue.

Look, the Palestinian issue at the end of the day is a huge issue in which our capacity to influence the events is finite. For years and years, we were hostile to Israel, being totally aligned to Arab perspective; I don’t think it falls anywhere in particular. I think we have to steer a middle course and, perhaps, use a little bit of our growing capacity to dialogue with Israel, with western countries and others to also urge a more reasonable, more realistic view over there. That’s not a bad thing to do.

Ambassador Kishan S. Rana has served as India’s ambassador to several countries, including Germany; he is professor emeritus with DiploFoundation (Geneva & Malta), and author of six books on diplomacy and inter-cultural issues.

Devasheesh Mathur is a Research Intern at Gateway House.

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