Exclusive: India Ink in conversation with Indian Ambassador Yogendra Kumar

Published on: 11/09/2018

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India Ink: What drew you to a career in the Indian Foreign Service? Can you tell us a little bit more about your early career?

 I joined in 1977. I’d say there’s a certain glamour about the foreign service which I guess is true about the foreign services of all countries. There was also a little bit of interest in seeing the world in a somewhat broader perspective. So that really was my interest in joining! My first posting as a trainee was at the Indian embassy in Moscow. I got there in 1979 and that was quite a remarkable exposure for me because we had very friendly relations with the Soviet Union just as we have them with Russia today. But in those days our relationship had a very wide spectrum. It was also the height of the Cold War, so one could get a feel of global diplomacy and geopolitics and as to how it was impacting different countries and different regions, including, of course, India. From that time, I began to take interest in trends in geopolitics. Since then various kinds of dramatic changes have taken place. So, my interest was very much in a way aroused in following the changes and dynamics of international relations. I arrived in July 1979 and the same year the Soviet army marched into Afghanistan. And then many other things happened, having so much impact on India-Soviet relations and on the developments affecting South Asia and so on.

 Later on, I was the political desk officer for Soviet affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And then after that I went to the UK and I spent about two and a half years there. After that, I was Consul General for Central Asia with residence in Tashkent. These experiences at the time were quite remarkable because of the fast pace of the developments in that region and in those countries. After Tashkent, I was posted in Islamabad. Thereafter, I was posted back at the foreign office in Delhi, following which I spent four years in Brussels observing developments concerning the European Union, NATO, Belgium and Luxembourg. And then I was posted in Tajikistan handling India’s relations with both Tajikistan and closely observing developments in Afghanistan. This was the Taliban period and during this time I had contacts with the Northern Alliance with whom we had fairly good relations. It was there that I saw the unfolding tragedy of 9/11 in the US and so I was monitoring the American actions in Afghanistan as well. From there, I went to Namibia as ambassador, whose freedom struggle against apartheid India was closely involved with. And finally, I was the Ambassador to the Philippines with concurrent accreditation to Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. Yes, indeed, I’ve had very diverse experience during my diplomatic career.

 India Ink: That’s such an exciting career! You talked about serving in the Soviet Union and then returning to some of these former Soviet Union countries. Could you talk a little bit more about India’s relationship with these countries after the break-up of the Soviet Union? How did your early experiences in Moscow inform the work you later did?

 India’s relationship with the former Soviet countries actually remains very good! In fact, even when I was posted in Moscow in 1979, I had the opportunity to visit with a delegation to Tashkent and we got a sense of what Uzbekistan was like during the Soviet period. And when I was the Consul General in Tashkent, I visited the other Central Asian Republics, namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. These countries have very close links with India in culture and history. In fact, you could say there was a disruption in the relationship between these countries and India when India came under British rule. And then when Stalin was at the helm in the Soviet Union, he put up the iron curtain and the large Indian community living in Central Asia was given a one-time option of either staying or leaving; most chose to leave, without any compensation for their loss of property, because staying on would have meant no easy contacts with their people outside the Soviet Union which was going through truly turbulent period, the process known as Stalinisation. So, from the early 20th century until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relations with these countries were not developing to their full potential commensurate with our historical linkages. But in a lot of these countries there was a historical legacy that continued and therefore when these countries were becoming independent it was not hard to build diplomatic, business, and cultural relations with them. It was easy for them to reach out to India and for India to reach out to them.

In fact, around this time, when they became independent, there was also another dimension and that was the dimension of Islamic radicalism, particularly in Afghanistan after the collapse of Najibullah’s government. There was a period of devastating violence and, then, we have the Taliban bursting upon the scene. We became worried, of course, about the expansion of Islamic radicalism into the Central Asian region because there was a little bit of turbulence there during the unfolding process of these countries’ independence.  Making the transition to a post-independence period was actually sometimes mired in violence and conflict. This is why they were keen to work with India in the interest of a stable, peaceful political transition.

In one way it was interesting for me because I observed these countries during the Brezhnev period and then during the period of Gorbachev’s perestroika (meaning "restructuring") and glasnost (meaning "transparency"). I could definitely see the changes in their ways and behaviour during this transformative time. These transformations in both Central Asia and South-West Asia gave me some valuable insights and perspective.

 

India Ink: Sushma Swaraj talks a lot about one of our approaches to diplomacy and the idea of “acting East.” What do you hope the policy of Look East, Act East accomplishes after all?

So, India started the Look East policy during the tenure of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. Introducing him to the audience for a major policy speech in Singapore on 8 September, 1994, the Singapore leader, Lee Kuan Yew observed that Prime Minister Rao "has got India to look East". Indeed, India's 'Look East' is one of our success stories on how Indian diplomacy enabled a major transformation in the country’s own policy but also in the regional geopolitics.

In 1990-91 the ASEAN was reinventing itself and it was also the end of the Cold War. There was a diminution of American interest in Southeast Asia with the American bases being shut down in the Philippines and elsewhere. There was a power vacuum in South East Asia during this period. And ASEAN, because it was still a growing organization, felt that it could fill the vacuum and create a security framework in the region. Because ASEAN comprises smaller countries, they reached out to different countries to create a certain equilibrium in the region.  And that, in a way, affected China and also India. 

 During this time India was domestically in a period of some internal instability. In 1991 India nearly become bankrupt because of its economic policy. The prime minister Narasimha Rao was conscious that he had to carry out reforms in the country to open up the economy. And that was not an easy task because he essentially had to rework the economic logic of India’s development. His finance minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was instrumental in rolling out truly radical reforms. Here, again there was an incentive for India to reach out to Singapore as well as other members of the ASEAN. It was an opening of that kind that gave India the opportunity to build economic relations with south-east Asia. Economic cooperation was developed in that direction because the possibilities for this were, then, practically non-existent in the country's west and the north. The South East Asian side or the eastern Asian side, became, for us, a natural way of looking out. So, this was a period where there was an immediate transformation of these economic relations with South-East Asian countries and with ASEAN.

Later on, in the early years of the current century, in Myanmar, with the military losing its hold on political power, there was a change. The opening up of Myanmar was a major opportunity for India to build relations with Southeast Asia. Because you have not only a new market there but also you actually have a land bridge to the rest of Southeast Asia. Of course, we must remember that Look East also includes China, Japan, and South Korea. The economic relations with these countries have developed well.

When Prime Minister Modi came to power, he raised the Look East policy to a higher strategic level, which is how he coined the expression ‘Act-East’ policy. This signifies a much deeper engagement with the region. This relationship had acquired a greater salience due to a strategic dimension, a security dimension, in addition to further deepening of the existing political and economic aspects. Even the people to people contacts have developed extremely well.

So, in a way, India’s worldview was shaped by embarking on the Look East and the Act East policy. That’s why India’s global role has undergone a transformation in the last quarter century or so.

 

India Ink: That’s awesome thank you so much for answering that question for us! Along those lines, there’s a lot of talk, recently, about China’s geopolitical ambitions being channeled through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, in your area of expertise, the maritime silk road or the sea based component of BRI. And I was wondering if you could speak to the risks you see in the near future for China continuing to develop ports in the Indian ocean and then more relevantly what India can do and what they should already be doing to combat or manage China’s growth in that area?

Well, I think the challenge in my view would be perhaps to moderate China’s initiatives, to put it bluntly. It is true that China actually has become enormously powerful both militarily and economically. Now, we have a relationship with China which is somewhat difficult, I would say, but still a relationship in which we are very much invested. Our economic relationship with them is very strong and is developing well. They are one of our major economic partners. But the only thing of course with China, like it is for the US, is that we have a huge trade imbalance with them, and like the US, this is one of the major sticking points in our relationship where we want to correct this imbalance. 

So, coming to the Chinese role, the concern that India has is that Chinese policy in the Pacific or in South-East Asia should not be destabilizing to the region because we – like so many other extra-regional countries – have vital stakes in this region. As India’s economy grows and as it keeps on growing, the economic relations and the strategic investments in this region are also getting quite important and therefore we have quite a lot of concerns about that. In fact, the Prime Minister actually expressed that we must make sure that such behavior does not destabilize the region. So, we do actually have a position about Chinese activity in the South-China Sea. Of course, we do not take a position, like the US, as to whose territorial claims are to be supported in the South China Sea. But we are heavily invested in seeing that the security architecture in the region remains ASEAN-centric. The ASEAN should be the fulcrum on which the security architecture of East Asia is created. China as a growing, global economy, would certainly have interests in different places but when these interests are being pursued, they should be pursued in such a way that the regional balance of power is not disturbed.

With the Belt-and-Road Initiative, our concern is that it is driven rather by overly strategic concerns. And the reason we say that is because the projects that are actually under the initiative are largely economically unviable. Secondly, they are located in those countries which are unstable - so why is China interested in these projects and in those countries that are unstable? That is something that India and other countries are beginning to look at. So there are concerns about this and we express them openly and we talk about them with the Chinese leadership. 

At the same time, India is a member of the BRICS Development Bank and a stakeholder in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, both located in Beijing, where the control is shared by China and India. These banks fund infrastructure projects that are vetted by experts and for which funds are raised in the money market. This is the kind of infrastructure development that we support. We want to continue to work with China on a broad spectrum of economic and infrastructure projects as we have been doing.

 

India Ink: Thank you for that detailed answer! We were wondering what prompted your interest in maritime diplomacy and led you to write two books on the subject?

Haha, that is a really interesting personal question I should say! Having started my career in Moscow, where not only was I fortunate enough to see the growth of bilateral relations with one of the superpowers at the time but also to develop a perspective on how global diplomacy plays out. And to put it that way, this is what most diplomatic thinking is all about.

After my retirement, one of my former commandants at the National Defence College of India, who is a retired Navy Admiral, asked me if I would like to write a book on maritime diplomacy: to which I said, why not. After the publication of my book, 'Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century', it was discussed in a few places overseas, such as The Carnegie Endowment, in Washington DC, New York, London and Brussels.

Following a discussion on my book in India, at one of the Think Tanks in New Delhi, its director asked me if I could write something more on the topic; I said I would do nothing more on this but I could do something on the Indian Ocean. And, this was the topic in the current strategic discourse at the time because Prime Minister Modi had spoken in Mauritius about his SAGAR policy where he had articulated his perspective on the Indian Ocean. I organised a seminar on that and then edited a volume, 'Wither Indian Ocean maritime Order?', for which I also wrote the Introduction and the Epilogue; this book really came out of those seminar papers. So, as I pursue my maritime security and diplomacy interests, I certainly have much wider interests in India's foreign and security concerns and in geopolitics and in globalisation. And, that’s actually something I’m working in for my next book!

Ambassador Yogendra Kumar is a distinguished former member of the Indian Foreign Service. He was previously ambassador to the Philippines, ambassador to Tajikistan, and served in various roles across Asia. He is also the author of Diplomatic Dimensions of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century. If you are interested in speaking with Ambassador Kumar about his work please email him at mr_yogendra_kumar@hotmail.com.