Interview with Ambassador Lalit Mansingh

September 2019

Amb. Lalit Mansingh







Interview of Ambassador Lalit Mansingh

with Souravie Ghimiray & Merieleen Engtipi
(conducted on September 3, 2019)


Interviewer: There are views which suggest that India’s recent action in Jammu and Kashmir may be counterproductive for India’s image in the international community. Do you agree, if not, why?

Amb Mansingh: I don’t agree, I don’t think India’s image will be affected because first of all, it is in the area of our domestic jurisdiction and what the government does inside the country, within its own powers, is not the matter for international judgment. So, if an impression is created that this is an international issue, it is wrong. And if the government thinks this is the right solution to the problem that we are facing, I think we should go and do it irrespective of what international reaction is going to be.

But, let me add that the international reaction has been favorable to understanding of India’s actions. Our diplomacy has been successful in getting most of the major powers to agree that it is an internal matter for India. It covers the US, Russia, the UK, and France. I don’t think the government has much to worry about the fallout of this decision because the understanding in this regard is that India was within its rights to take this action and therefore there is no fear that international reaction would be adverse.

Interviewer: The US claims India as a natural partner in Indo-Pacific, but the deteriorating trade relations between the two countries reflect a difficult path ahead. In this context, how do you look into Indo-US strategic partnership?

Amb. Mansingh: Indo-US strategic partnership has taken some time to develop. Let me give you a bit of a background. For the first five decades after independence which coincided with the Cold War period, India and the US were not particularly friendly. Their relationship was prickly because India asserted Non-Alignment, and the US would have liked India to join their security grouping. So we did not get much understanding from the United States.

Secondly, the US had this attitude towards India that it was a pretty dysfunctional country with chronic problems of poverty and the government was incompetent, and people were divided, so the US didn’t see much hopes in India. And I want to give a contrast between the two periods when I was there for two decades in the US. My first posting was in the early 1990s, where I was the deputy chief of mission. During that time, the view prevailed there that India was not going anywhere, India was this black hole or a casket, these were terms used by the American leaders, and they were sympathetic towards India for poverty, but they never had faith in India being able to resolve its problem. We were objects of charity, as professor Cohen has said in his book but not a matter of strategic interests. This was the early 1990s.

I go back as the Ambassador after a gap of 10 years, already a dramatic change has taken place. India is now of strategic interest to the United States. The breakthrough had taken place when Bill Clinton came to India in 2000. A Presidential visit from the US after 22 years, post which that the build-up starts and so we have progressed towards a strategic partnership. Within a very short span of time, from around the time of nuclear test in 1999 which brought Indo-US relations to its lowest point in the strategic partnership, it just took about less than ten years for robust relations to build-up.

I think the strategic partnership is now solid. It is not dependent on passing problems that we face because the US understands that India is essential for its strategic stability. When they are looking at this vital region in the Indo-pacific and the looming threat of China, India is a very valuable partner. At the same time, we have refused to become an ally of the United States. We will always be partners and never be allies, and this depends on a very stable basis.

Yes, yes we have problems, and that is because we have relations, if we have no relations then we don’t have problems. We don’t have problems with Burkina Faso; we have no problems with Costa Rica or any of these countries because we don’t have an active relationship. It’s because we have an active relationship, differences are bound to take place, and because we have an understanding and a strategic relationship between the two countries, we are able to resolve these issue.

It is true we have differences over trade. For instance, some of these are coming up right at the Presidential level when trade concerns are raised, but this is not going to break the strategic partnership. We are going to address the problems and we are going to address it by sitting across the table and find solutions. Besides, we have mechanisms we didn’t have before. The highest level of relationship is represented by summit meetings between the President of the US and the head of the government, in this case, the Prime Minister. We have numerous visits and meetings between the two governments. Secondly, the structure of the meetings is very important. The highest structure recognized by the US is called 2 plus 2, in which the US Secretary of Defense and US Secretary of State meet their counterparts in India.

Besides, the Americans have declared that they will give us the highest technology status- the STA has been given to India. Therefore, there is no limit to the kind of technology we can obtain from the US, even the sensitive technologies which were not there before. So, when we look at these structures, we can say that the problems will arise, but the problems will always be resolved through these levels of dialogues.

Interviewer: How is the Hong Kong protest likely to impact China growing influence in the Indo-Pacific?

Amb. Mansingh: We don’t know what shape this protest will take, but we know from the experience that the Chinese have a policy of nipping these protest in the bud before they become lasting problems. The Chinese usually have very high-handed security response to problems like this, for example, in the Tiananmen Square case. However, Hong Kong is a special case. Hong Kong of today exists through the agreement between the UK and China, and China recognizes that Hong Kong is a different system and has a certain degree of autonomy. So, the Chinese are not resorting to the heavy-handedness, at least till now, but what will happen in the future, we do not know. But will it impede China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific? I think the clear answer is no!

Chinese strength is pretty solid, it has got the second-largest economy in the world in nominal terms, and it’s likely that if one were to take PPP criteria, it might have overtaken the size of the US. China’s military strength and spending is only second to the Unites States. It has gone through a period of military reforms and modernization which makes it a very formidable military power, especially under Xi Jinping, who is a very assertive and strong leader. So when you take all this under account, it doesn’t seem likely that Hong Kong will be the reason for Chinese losing influence. At least so far, Hong Kong has not affected China’s external relationships.

Interviewer: Amidst growing relations between India and African countries, what should India be wary of regarding growing Chinese presence in the region?

Amb. Mansingh: When it comes to Africa, we must remember that we had a very close relationship with Africa; right from the time we became Independent. Because, under PM Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the cardinal principles of India’s foreign policy was that even though we are an independent nation, we still have an obligation to free nations still under the colonial rule. Most of the countries in Africa were under colonial rule when we became independent. And so, we began with a lot of sympathy and cooperation with Africa, and African countries acknowledged that they received moral and even material support from India for their struggle for Independence.

A second factor, when we proposed a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), there was a considerable focus on Africa. There was colonial rule in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but the focus was on Africa. And so Africa became a partner in the Non-Aligned Movement. One of the original signatories of NAM was Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. The Bandung Conference, which sort of gave shape to Non-Alignment, was an Asian-African conference. Leaders of Asia and Africa brought together Bandung, which then, later on, was visible again in 1961 Belgrade conference, where Non-alignment evolved as a global influence.

India has close relations with Africa, and we have a particular program called ITEC (Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation), which is an extensive program with Africa. When the African countries became independent one by one, we still had good relations with them and even economic cooperation with certain countries. But over time, the interest for Africa slowed down in India. Then came the Prime Ministership of Rajiv Gandhi, who had a special feeling for Africa, and we set up the African Fund, and we actively worked for the independence of Namibia.

However, after Rajiv Gandhi there was a little slump. Meanwhile, China was rising. China was growing at such a fast pace that it needed a lot of raw material. Its cultivable land has been converted for industrial use. China needed food products because its agricultural production was not adequate, it needed energy, and also it needed a lot of raw material, and these were available in abundance in Africa. So, China began to be aggressively involved with economic development in Africa in contrast to India, which maintain the ethics of the Gandhian principle, and the moral principles involved in Non-alignment, we didn’t want to do anything under NAM. We supported popular leaders who were democratic. China did not have any such criteria. If China finds any country of interest, it is all out to buy its friendships. You can buy the leadership of a small country by paying under the table.

India finds itself far behind in terms of China which is aggressively involved in the economic development of some countries in Africa. To some extent, there has been a wake-up call for India, particular under Modi’s leadership, where a constant effort has been made to reach out to the African countries, but our resources are limited, and we can’t afford to pay as much as the Chinese do. We have a partnership with Japan to build an Economic Corridor to Africa that is going to produce results, and, sooner or later, the African countries will realize that China has a string attached and sometimes it can be very problematic – like we have seen in the case of the Belt and Road Initiative. There are many problems that Sri Lanka has faced, the problems the Maldives has faced, even Pakistan, and likewise many of the African countries, due to conditionality in receiving a large amount of assistance from the Chinese.

I think, with the credibility of India and Japan, we will make up for a lot of the lost ground, and we will recover our inroads in Africa because Africa is now an area of strategic interest for us, not just friendships.

Interviewer: How do you view India’s emerging role in the Indo-Pacific?

Amb. Mansingh: It is good that you mentioned “emerging role” because Indo-Pacific itself is an emerging concept. Even today, nobody is quite clear about what is the Indo-Pacific. When the Americans define the Indo-Pacific, they say it is a stretch of territory from Bollywood to Hollywood, which means starting from India till we reach the United States. That’s their concept of Indo-Pacific. When we talk about the Indo-Pacific (we can look at any number of speeches made by the PM), our concept of Indo-Pacific is from the eastern shores of Africa to the western shores of the US, and that is a big difference of a huge territory.

The American concept of Indo-Pacific can be explained from the division of the five military commands. They have the Indo-Pacific Command, which used to be the Pacific Command (PACOM), and the Indo-Pacific Command is limited to that stretch of territory between India and the United States, and west of this, i.e., which consist of the Indian Ocean up to the African shores is under the Central Command. For India, there is no such division; it is the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and, as the name suggests, it is a continuous stretch of water and territory which has the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as one single entity.

This has developed into a concept because it is growing to be the most strategic area in the 21st century (from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific). Prior to the Second World War and even after that, for the dominant powers of the world, i.e., the western states, the Euro-Atlantic was the center of gravity of the world. Now that has shifted to our region because this region has developed economically to such an extent that much of the trade takes place in this particular region. Secondly, the largest concentration of population of the world is in this region (more than 50 percent). Thirdly, energy resources are abundant here, particularly the energy resources (oil and natural gas concentration), whether in the Middle East, Eastern Russia, or Central Asia. The region has grown not only economically, but also militarily. The traditional powers in this region were the European powers, but now we have China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, in between the Southeast Asian states. The region is also developing a major center for political and military power, and therefore this region is strategically the most important, and it will remain so till the end of the century (at least).

This is important, what is India’s emerging role? Firstly, you must understand that India has a “Look East” policy that goes back to 1992, during the time of PM Narasimha Rao. But the difference is that it was not an Indo-Pacific concept then. When PM Narasimha Rao said, “Look East,” we were actually looking at the immediate eastern neighborhood. He was looking at the Southeast Asian area. Then the “Look East” developed in stages, and we looked a little beyond. When PM Vajpayee came, the “Look East” policy was extended a little further. We started to be friendlier with Japan, and so it went beyond Southeast Asia to Japan, and early contacts were established with Australia, which was not particularly a friendly state during the Cold War period. Then came PM Modi, who says that we will “Act East”, that goes beyond “Look East”. And it was under PM Modi that our policy has evolved in the Indo-Pacific. He has defined the region of Indo-Pacific from the Eastern shores of Africa to the western shores of United States. Therefore, India is a crucial player in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.

India also realized that we are facing a security problem, and our security threats are coming from within our region. It is coming from China, and so if we have to face threats of China from the security point of view, we need to have a security structure. The security structure can only come from within the region. And so, what do we have? We have an understanding with ASEAN, and we accept the centrality of ASEAN for the security of the region. We have reinforced this with the bilateral security arrangements with key countries in the region. And when we look at the whole region, to start with the eastern shores of Africa, we are interested in Djibouti, Mauritius, and Seychelles (where we are developing security assets). We are also interested in our own neighborhood: Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. And we are interested in other maritime countries of the region. So we are developing our own bilateral networks where security is of importance.

And finally, we are exploring the possibility of specialized regional groupings like the Quad. The Quad got together only recently in 2004, in the aftermath of the Tsunami which brought the navies of these four countries together. Then came the realization that if we can get together to meet at a humanitarian disaster, then can we not have regular cooperation and discuss other issues too? So, the Quad has emerged as a security idea, and it hasn’t evolved as a security structure because India is still not sure whether we need to insert a military element into it, but I think it is coming. The Quad has been discussed comprehensively (especially its scope), and I have the feeling (personally) that we will hear more about the Quad in the coming days. As the Chinese threat increases for us, we will have to think about a more effective method like the Quad.

Simultaneously, other things are going on in the region like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) of which India is an important participant. The Malabar Exercises are taking place, and right now, it is a trilateral mechanism between India, Japan, and the United States. However, it could become multilateral as we may be inviting other countries to join. Through the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), the Indian Navy gets to interact with the other navies of the region. We have a number of structures which are strengthening our security networks in the Indo-Pacific area, and so I think India is emerging as a very critical and crucial player in the Indo-Pacific.

About Ambassador Lalit Mansingh

Lalit Mansingh, born on 29 April 29, 1941, is an officer of the 1963 batch.

He served as the Indian Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1980–83), Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington, DC (1989–92) the Indian High Commissioner to Nigeria (1993–95), the Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (1998–99), the Foreign Secretary of India (1999–2000), and the Indian Ambassador to the United States (2001–2004).

Apart from that he also served in various diplomatic capacities in Nigeria, Benin, Chad, The Cameroons, Switzerland, Afghanistan and Belgium over the course of his distinguished career.

He was also the Dean of Foreign Service Institute, India (1995 to 1996)  as well as the Director-General of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs.

For a brief period in his early career, he was a Research scholar and Faculty for short period in American Studies Programme at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

He also serves as a member in a number of national and international groups like International Crisis Group, Brussels and Asia Pacific Leadership Network, Canberra.