Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra is currently Rector (Pro-Vice-Chancellor) of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Professor of American Studies at the School of International Studies of JNU.
He is also the Editor of the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal. He has held positions, such as Member, UGC Review Committee, Area Studies Programme, Member, Fellowship Expert Committee, ICSSR, Editor, Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, Member, Editorial Board, Strategic Analysis, IDSA, Member, Editorial Board, Diaspora Studies and Member, Committee on Studies, Academy of International Studies, Jamia Milia Islamia.
Recently, he was Tagore Chair Professor at the Yunnan University of China. He has conducted research in several US Presidential Libraries and US National Archives; British Public Record Office in London.
Prof. Mahapatra has authored four books, one edited volume, and has contributed chapters to more than 30 edited books.
He has published more than 70 research articles in reputed journals. He has been awarded a number of international fellowships, such as Fulbright Fellowship, Commonwealth Fellowship, and Visiting Fellowships to undertake research in the US, UK, Austria, Australia and many other countries.
He has been a visiting faculty in several UGC-run Academic Staff Colleges, the Foreign Service Institute of the Ministry of External Affairs, National Défense College, Army War College, Naval War College and the College of Air Warfare. He is also a regular commentator in newspapers and on audio-visual media on international affairs.
Dr. Pramod Jaiswal, Strategic Affairs Editor at Khabarhub, spoke to Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra on the issues related to US Foreign Policy.
Iran and Russia were traditionally the natural allies of India, however, against the backdrop of the increasing cooperation between India-US relations – Russia and Iran – now seem to have a closer alliance with China. How will this impact Indian interests in the South Asian region in general and Afghanistan in particular?
Let me underline the fact that the former Soviet Union was a strategic partner of India and after the disintegration of the USSR, Russia continued to be the strategic partner but the intensity of the relationship was going up and down from time to time for a variety of reasons.
The Indo-Russian strategic partnership is still very important and in the foreseeable future, this relationship will remain important both for Russia and India.
Because of the tremendous amount of transformations in world politics, the geopolitics of southern Asia and many economic factors.
There are areas where India and Russia did have different opinions. These different views on certain issues did not come in the way of a larger strategic partnership between India and Russia and that partnership was never ruptured.
Now that the situation has changed recently in a more robust way and has China emerged as a new superpower in the region at least if not in the whole world.
And of course, we are undergoing tremendous amounts of strains and pressure, health crisis, economic downturn because of this pandemic, and then most recently Taliban returned into power in Kabul.
All these factors have created new issues between Russia and India. Although Russia and China have become strategic partners, Russia and India are also strategic partners and the India-China relationship, except for the border incident, was going on very smoothly for a long time and we had enjoyed even a triangular relationship between Russia – China – India.
At the moment the magic challenge comes from Afghanistan because the Taliban has come to power again.
Now, the Americans who actually intervened in Afghanistan from 2001 to remove the Taliban from power, after leaving, the same Taliban have come to power is an irony.
The Soviet soldiers during the Soviet era were killed by a large number of Taliban members who were at that time in the Mujahideen forces.
But today, Russia sees the Taliban in a slightly different way, not as an enemy. China did not have much to do with the Taliban. Even China – Taliban relations are also going positively as of now. Despite all this underdevelopment, I am reasonably assured that India, Russia and even Iran would find some common cause to maintain peace and stability in Afghanistan.
To an extent, terrorism is not exported from Afghanistan anymore. So, I would argue that despite differences in certain issues Russia and India are strategic partners.
Russia sells very important State of art weapon systems to India even now to the billions of dollars. Russia also extends its support in the civil nuclear field. That’s why I would say that Russia and India will be together in South Asian affairs.
In 1999, you wrote an interesting paper titled “India, China and Russia: Strategic triangle is possible”, how would you analyze the triangle in contemporary times?
When the Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov came to India and for the first time proposed the idea of a triangular relationship consisting of India, China and Russia, there were hardly any leading strategic knowledge persons in India who supported the idea.
Most of them said China and India don’t get along, they have a huge border problem, the triangular relationship will not be of any help and it’s not going to take off.
At that time, I wrote a small article in strategic analysis of IDSA where I argued that the China- India- Russia triangle is possible, we do not have to think of everything in the military, defense, and strategic terms, then I articulated the areas of where the three countries could come together.
Subsequently, we found that many analysts also came on board and Russia, China and India enjoyed a strategic triangle mostly on economic matters.
Now when you are raising the question about the relevance of this triangle, I continue to argue that on several issues these three countries have a convergence of views and even interests.
On a number of issues, Russia, China and India continue to have a convergence of views and interests, for example on climate change, countering terrorism, fighting drugs trafficking, creating multiple world order and maintaining cyber security are the areas where this triangle is still very relevant.
Now, the Sino-Indian differences over the border, Indian reservations over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the issues related to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea are certainly very difficult areas that need to be resolved particularly between India and China.
But for that matter, I would say that even China and Russia do not agree on every issue, they have their differences both in terms of long-term strategic interests as well as medium-term issues.
They don’t see eye to eye on many issues. Despite the differences between China-India and Russia-China, the triangle is important.
It is significant to highlight that China, Russia and India walk together in many important relevant international forums, for example, the BRICS, recently we had a BRICS summit wherein India chaired the summit and Shanghai Cooperation (SCO), very shortly we are going to have an SCO summit, East Asia summit, ASEAN regional forums.
In these international forums Russia, China and India, play a very constructive role so I would say the strategic triangle in my view is still important and relevant and it should be shaped properly.
Traditionally, India saw the South Asian region as her sphere of influence, however, the rise of China has been challenging India’s role in the region. Do you think India has lagged behind China in her neighborhood? If so, why?
I would say that China has emerged as a superpower in recent years, and even the United States finds that it has lagged behind China in some areas, not just India but even the United States.
For instance, trade, foreign investment, foreign exchange reserves are the key areas where the Chinese economy is doing very well.
China is the number one importer, the number one exporter and the number one consumer of luxury materials of the world, and even the number one banker of the United States because it has bought several treasury bonds of the USA.
So, it is evident that China has more resources to invest even in South Asia or give grants in aid to South Asian countries.
However, geography binds all the South Asian countries, secondly all the South Asian countries share a broad civilizational and cultural affinity with each other for centuries.
Thirdly, India and South Asian countries are part of an important regional grouping called SAARC. It has its own drawbacks, no doubt about it but there are some certain strong areas of cooperation among all the SAARC nations which cannot be underestimated.
Fourth, the Belt and Road Initiative of China and some of the economic practices characterized by many analysts as threatening, threaten the advantages that China has earned in recent years in South Asia.
India’s neighborhood policy has survived many challenges and it will remain robust in the foreseeable future. And when I say that China threatens the economies of South Asia, I’m saying that keeping in mind the latest example, how the Hambantota port built by China, and Sri Lanka took a large loan and subsequently Sri Lanka could not even do the debt servicing.
In the process, China and Sri Lanka signed an agreement based on which the Hambantota port will be operated by China for 99 years.
More recently, Sri Lanka has declared a national economic emergency, their economy is going down because they have fallen into a death trap.
So, there is a growing realization in the region that Chinese economic practices are not very healthy because it is creating a huge amount of debt.
And that’s why while India is lagging in certain areas and China has made a tremendous amount of inroads in South Asia, there is a realization that a balance must be struck and India that’s why will continue to be an important player in all kinds of South Asian affairs
Among the numerous existing challenges between China and India, the border dispute between the two remains mostly imperative. How can China and India resolve this dispute together? What are the grounds for co-operation between Delhi and Beijing?
The China-India differences or even the minimal conflict between the two countries, would not be in the interest of the region.
When China and India cooperate, it will be good for both the countries and for the regional countries as well. So, let me underline this fact, that the only way to solve this issue that is the border issues is through dialogue and diplomacy, war is no longer an option because Southern Asia has become nuclearised, China is a nuclear weapon power and so is India, so war is not the solution to resolve any problem.
In the past, China and India fought a war and there were few other skirmishes but now it would be more harmful to both of them and for the region.
Recently the Chinese adventurism against Bhutan, Nepal, and India along the borders have reduced Chinese goodwill, although the governments may not make strong statements against China, the strategic analysts and communities in all these countries understand that whatever goodwill China was gaining is lost because of its adventurism along the border with Bhutan, Nepal and India.
The trade and commerce that was flourishing between India and China and even people-to-people contact that was rising by the day has come under new questions.
Over the Chinese intention, the status quo needs to be restored and the confidence-building measures between these two countries should be placed as soon as possible before any delay and economic cooperation should be enhanced and side by side serious and sincere dialogues should be held to resolve the border issues.
If the border issue is postponed all the time, then other kinds of cooperation will no longer be possible. So, in my view, these are the ways Delhi and Beijing can sort out their issues and move ahead for the betterment of the Indo-Pacific region.
The exit of the US and subsequent Taliban control on Afghanistan has broken the old Status quo of the region, and a new regional order is going to emerge. How are you observing the transition of the new regional order from an Indian perspective? What sort of approaches should India adopt to adjust to new phenomena?
The current strategic environment in Southern Asia is full of challenges. The United States has now turned its back on Afghanistan in South Asia and many other global engagements as well.
Probably the United States is going to be more inward-looking in the foreseeable future. It will be more inward-looking, but China’s activity, on the other hand, is rising very fast.
However, even China’s BRI is apparently under challenge, number one, from the pandemic, number two, its terms and conditions of collaborations with other countries and three, the theory of the peaceful rise of China has lost its relevance due to the flexing of Chinese military muscle in the South China Sea, East China Sea and along the Sino Indian border.
The return of the Taliban spells disaster for that country. It is in for a humanitarian crisis, a huge economic crisis, and at the same time, the instability in Afghanistan threatens the intensification of terrorist activities in the region.
So, what should India do and what can India do? in my view India needs to beef up its security, it needs to redesign its methods and approaches to tackle terrorism and further activate the diplomacy to generate consensus in the international community so that there can be a multilateral goal-oriented approach to stop the terrorist financing, stem the small arms proliferation and improve intelligence sharing. It’s only when the international community together will do these three things; no more money to the terrorist groups; no more supplying weapons to them and then timely sharing of intelligence.
A stronger political push for an economic decoupling from China has been a hot topic of political discourse in all the QUAD countries including the EU and G7. How do you see the potential role of initiatives like Blue Dot Network and B3W in this process? Will the initiatives provide a viable alternative to China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI)?
In my view, decoupling from China is a knee-jerk reaction to the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic in China and China’s unwillingness to share the information in time with the international community.
China’s trade and investment practices are also being questioned by the United States and its allies. China’s ambitious BRI projects are also not seen to be transparent and environment friendly.
It rather generates a lot of debt burden in the recipient countries. However, I would not think that decoupling is the right way of doing things.
China is an economic superpower. There is no question about it. And its economy is now interdependent with the rest of the world, with Africa, Latin America, Europe with even the United States and the Indo Pacific countries.
So in my view, what is important is not decoupling, not cutting off ties with China. We should not isolate China. We should not neglect China.
What is important is to develop alternative ways for uneven supply chains and many other things so that the dependence of the global economy on China can be reduced.
Decoupling could be more harmful but reducing dependence on China and developing alternative networks, including the Blue Dot network and B3W initiatives, are actually steps in the right direction.
What are your expectations from the forthcoming first in-person QUAD summit that is to be held later this month in Washington DC? What areas will India be looking forward to discussing during the meet?
This first in-person Quad meeting is going to take place on the 24th of September. It is already announced.
And the first in-person meeting in Washington is a very clear indication that Quad is on its way to becoming slowly institutionalized as a security dialogue forum.
President Donald Trump activated a QUAD which was lying dormant for almost a decade or so, and President Joe Biden, the successor, became the first American president to elevate the dialogue process among the four countries, India, Australia, USA, and Japan to the summit level and that was seen in the virtual summit that took place among the leaders of all these four countries.
Now, what are the issues that they are likely to talk about? I do not think that they are going to discuss how to contain or constrain China.
I think QUAD will think much bigger than only China-focused debate and discussion. What they are likely to discuss are different kinds of challenges posed by the pandemic as the whole world is gripped with a health crisis. No single country can come to terms with it. International collaboration is a must even during the virtual summit this vaccine discussion was a very important theme. So this is going to be discussed.
The return of the Taliban in Kabul is a major security development because terrorism is likely to come back, there are Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan even now.
There are ISIS-K forces in Afghanistan even now. Although the Taliban are making statements that they’re not going to support them.
The fact remains that there was a huge bomb blast, a huge one in the Kabul airport when the evacuation was ongoing.
And the American troops, which had already withdrawn, almost 6000 of them returned to maintain peace and order in the Kabul area.
That’s an indication that the return of the Taliban is also going to be a return of different kinds of terrorist activities.
It may not be by the Taliban directly, but other outfits are there, including Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Another issue that should certainly be discussed in the Quad summit, in my view, is how to tackle the economic challenges in the post-pandemic world. The economy of almost every country in the world is facing a tremendous amount of downturn.
There is an unemployment crisis and industries are going bankrupt, so how to handle that is a very big issue. The Chinese economy apparently is doing well but the opportunity cost for even China is so huge.
The kind of economic benefit that China would get without the pandemic would have been massive. So that is why this is an issue, thus, how to restore stability in the international political economy is a key issue that they’re going to talk about.
Then of course. Cyberspace is invaded by all kinds of hackers and that is creating a new kind of security challenge both internally and externally to many countries.
So, it is likely they will discuss how to secure cyberspace. And of course, without underestimating the big picture, maintaining peace and stability in the Indo Pacific is going to be one of the key items on the agenda in the forthcoming Quad Summit.
How can the US and India together work on neutralizing China’s growing presence in the region?
In my view, the goal of India’s strategic partnership is not to neutralize the Chinese presence in the region. China is very much part of this region in terms of its geographical location, deep economic engagements in the areas of trade, commerce and investment and so many other areas.
What is a real concern in my view is some of the Chinese policies, for example, sovereignty claims over disputed land and maritime regions, use of force by China to pressurize smaller countries, backing unsavory regimes in the industry, North Korea for example, not coming clean on opposing known terrorists in the UN Security Council and unfair foreign economic practices that China has been doing and Americans and other European countries are putting pressure on China not to do so.
And finally, I would say unacceptable terms and conditions of the BRI projects, which is leading to one after the other smaller economies falling into the debt trap.
These are the keys. The goal is not to neutralize. What is the goal then? The goal of India, US strategic partnership and probably many other countries in the region should be and is to make China a sincere stakeholder in international politics, trade and economic practices.
The Indo-Pacific strategic partnership is also aimed at upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in the face of Chinese efforts to disrespect international law and in asserting illegal Chinese sovereignty over a vast expansion of waters in the South China Sea.
The Chinese claim an area that is as large as India in the waters of the South China Sea these are the issues where Quad strategic partnership would like to be addressed by talking with the Chinese and dialoguing with them through diplomacy.
And if necessary, by developing coordination with other countries so that China becomes a stakeholder along with others and there is peace, stability, and a win-win situation for every country in the world.
This year PM Modi personally wished the Dalai Lama on his birthday and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met a representative of the Dalai Lama in New Delhi, a move likely to anger Beijing. Does this mean that India is on its way to play the Tibet card in its dealings with China?
China, unfortunately, looks at the Dalai Lama in terms of its narrow political prism. After annexing Tibet by use of massive force in 1959 and exercising total control over Tibetan affairs and ensuring the settlement of a large number of Han Chinese people in the Tibet region.
Beijing has little to fear about the Dalai Lama who came to India as a refugee and who stays on and who is becoming old.
China, unfortunately, wants to paint the spiritual leader as an unacceptable and secessionist politician who intends to liberate Tibet from Chinese control.
The whole world respects the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader and not as a political leader and China should not object to world leaders meeting and greeting even offering salutations to the Dalai Lama.
After escaping the wrath of the international community over what China has done to freedom-loving people in Hong Kong and the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang province, China’s fear and apprehension over Dalai Lama has no credibility at all.
After taking over the political reigns of power in Hong Kong and then what China has been doing in Xinjiang, do they worry that the Dalai Lama and India are going to create problems in Tibet? not credible at all.
What China needs to do is uphold the human rights of the Tibetans. stop suppressing people in that state and allow cultural and social autonomy to the people of Tibet.
Had China done all that, its fear and apprehension about world leaders meeting and greeting Dalai Lama would have disappeared. India does not have to play a Tibet card.
China needs to stop playing the POK card, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir card and start respecting the social and cultural autonomy of the Tibetan people and not try to crush that with its policies and practices.
So, in my view, China has to alter its attitude and approach towards Tibet and the world will not do anything about that. The Dalai Lama should not be the target of China anymore.