By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Last week saw a flurry of visits to India by Russian, U.S., and British diplomats, each vying to influence India’s policy on Russian sanctions. Britain sent foreign secretary Liz Truss, the U.S. deputy national security advisor Daleep Singh, and Russia, foreign secretary Sergey Lavrov.
The U.S. demonstrated that it seems to have long since forgotten how to practice diplomacy. Or perhaps Singh never really learned in the first instance According to Firstpost, US deputy NSA Daleep Singh’s threats of ‘consequences’ point to a fissure within Joe Biden administration on India.
Singh may be a whiz kid, but he is clearly a bad diplomat. His brief may have been to apprise India of the risks involved in carrying on energy trade with Russia and the moral opprobrium involved in such a move but his derogatory punchlines will define this trip.
More from Firstpost:
It has been interesting to watch the trip undertaken by US deputy national security advisor Daleep Singh to India. Singh, the great grand-nephew of Dalip Singh Saund, the first Asian-American elected to the US Congress, came bearing a fearsome reputation as Joe Biden’s marksman who apparently single-handedly pierced Russia’s ‘sanctions-proof’ economy.
Prior to his role as the deputy NSA for international economics and deputy director for the National Economic Council in the Biden administration, a job that gives him command over the vast policymaking spheres of supply chain resilience to economic statecraft and makes him one of the most powerful Indian-Americans in the US, Singh had a meaty position in the treasury department of the Barack Obama administration.
We were told that nobody messes with Singh and that he’s got the smarts and the intellect to waltz through the complexities of the international financial system. That Singh was being sent to India triggered a bit of cheerleading from American commentators bent on teaching impertinent India a lesson for its stance on Ukraine.
Singh landed in India with a lot of swagger and went straight for the jugular. In the course of his two-day visit and meeting with Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal and foreign secretary Harsh Shringla, Singh reportedly “cautioned India against enhancing ties with Moscow” and made it clear that India runs the risk of being caught up in a web of secondary sanctions if it tries to do business with Russia.
On Thursday, hours before Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s arrival, Singh told reporters in India that the US won’t like to see a “rapid acceleration of India’s imports from Russia as it relates to energy or any other any other exports that are currently being prohibited by the US or by other aspects of the international sanctions regime”. He warned that there will be “consequences” for countries, including India, “that actively attempt to circumvent or backfill the sanctions”, and also said that “we are very keen for all countries, especially our allies and partners, not to create mechanisms that prop up the ruble, and those that attempt to undermine the dollar-based financial system.”
These naked, public threats raised quite a few eyebrows. Syed Akbaruddin, former Indian envoy to the UN, wrote on Twitter that “This is not the language of diplomacy… This is the language of coercion… Somebody tell this young man that punitive unilateral economic measures are a breach of customary international law…”
So this is our friend…?
This is not the language of diplomacy…
This is the language of coercion…
Somebody tell this young man that punitive unilateral economic measures are a breach of customary international law… pic.twitter.com/9Kdd6VDYOh
— Syed Akbaruddin (@AkbaruddinIndia) April 1, 2022
India’s minister for external affairs Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was having none of this Western bullying and said so, publicly n the presence of Truss at the India-UK Strategic Futures Forum, as reported in The Guardian, India defends buying discounted Russian oil despite appeal by Truss:
Jaishankar complained there seemed to be a campaign to distort India’s attitude to discounted Russian oil. “I was just reading a report today, that in the month of March, Europe has bought, I think, 15% more oil and gas from Russia, than the month before. If you look at the major buyers of oil and gas from Russia, I think you’ll find most of them are in Europe,” he said. “When oil prices go up. I think it’s natural for countries to go out and look for what are good deals for that thing.”<
Refiners in India, the world’s third biggest oil importer and consumer, have been buying Russian oil through spot tenders since Moscow’s invasion on 24 February, taking advantage of heavy discounts as other buyers back away. India has bought at least 13m barrels of Russian oil since 24 February, compared with nearly 16m barrels in all of 2021. There have been reports of private warnings by the US to India not to take advantage of a visit to India by the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to strike new deals that in effect endorsed or enabled Russia’s invasion.
According to Firstpost:
“When the oil prices go up, I think it is natural for countries to go out into the market and look for what are the good deals for their people,” said Jaishankar, adding: “But I am pretty sure if we wait for two or three months and actually look at who are the big buyers of Russian oil and gas, I suspect the list would not be too different from what it used to be and I suspect we won’t be in the top 10 on that list.”
India intends to continue buying Russian oil – a policy which will almost certainly be followed by similar arrangements to purchase other key commodities, including fertilizer, once payment arrangements can be worked out. Per Firstpost, Friday, the day after U.S. official Singh made his remarks:
…Union finance minister N Sitharaman was categorical in her statement that India won’t stop buying Russian oil. At a CNBC TV18 event, Sitharaman said: “We have started buying, we have received quite a number of barrels — I would think three-four days’ supply and this will continue,” she said, adding: “India’s overall interest is what is kept in mind.”
India, which imports 85 per cent of its crude needs, is battling massive inflationary pressure on its economy and a widening current account deficit due to surging oil prices. Political parties are targeting the Narendra Modi government at home. Against this backdrop, the Russian offer of deep discounts to the tune of almost $35 a barrel is irresistible for India’s price-sensitive economy.
Sitharaman said “I would put my national interest first and I would put my energy security first. And if there is fuel available at discount. Why shouldn’t I buy it?”, adding that mechanisms are being worked out to source more oil — directly challenging Singh’s position. [Jerri-Lynn here: My emphasis].
It’s hard to overstate how badly the U.S. handled last week’s meetings. Contrast that fumbling to the performance of Lavrov, who arrived in Delhi when Singh and Truss were still in town. According to Firstpost:
Contradictory messaging has now become a feature, not a bug of the Biden administration. The US president called India ‘shaky’ on Russia, and US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo accused India of “funding and fueling and aiding President Putin’s war,” while Ned Price, the US State Department spokesperson, said: “We are a partner of choice for India.”
Apart from adding to the confusion, Singh also made the mistake of publicly telling off India, something which may not go down well in New Delhi. Contrast his high-handedness with the Russian approach. Despite the West’s claim, India has been quite critical of Russia. Its tone and tenor have become sharper and more censorious with the progress of the war. New Delhi hasn’t voted against Russia at the UN, but abstention has been India’s favourite move during voting at the UN with notable exceptions.
Talks are characterised by relations which we developed with India for many decades. Relations are strategic partnerships…This was basis on which we’ve been promoting our cooperation in all areas: Russian Foreign Min on how they can support India in terms of security challenges pic.twitter.com/bmwiWzrcXj
— ANI (@ANI) April 1, 2022
Bullying a country that suffered through a centuries-long colonial occupation extending from the 18th through the 20th centuries is, needless to say, not a good look. Note that Firstpost was not naive as to Lavrov’s motivations and was well aware he was also pursuing Russias’ self-interest – and deploying subtle threats of his own:
The wily Lavrov was evidently playing on the gap created by Singh. One can bet in the fact that he will cite American pressure tactics to drive a wedge in India-US ties. Whether or not he succeeds is moot, but the difference in approach is notable. Americans enjoy a convergence of interests with India, but they are yet to figure out something Russians did long back. Public threats and warnings are counterproductive. Russians do it more subtly.
There’s also a cultural difference to be looked at. A post-colonial society doesn’t respond well to bullying, threats, warnings and coercive behavior. Americans may believe friends can and should talk about difficult topics openly — a stance the Biden administration has been clear about when it comes to India — but Indians feel that those discussions are best kept private.
Pushing India to choose and doing so publicly while dangling an open threat is the definition of bad diplomacy. Singh’s visit to India was a slow-moving train wreck. [Jerrri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]
The India Way: Primer for India’s Multipolar Approach to Foreign Policy
At this point I want to to pull back from further rubbernecking around that train wreck to introduce readers to a remarkable book The India Way, Written by Jaishankar, India’s sitting minister for external afairs, his book provides a primer for understanding India’s current approach to managing its international affairs. I won’t undertake a through review here – and in fact, have been asked to write a review for an Indian audience; once I do that, I’ll provide a Link.
Memo to U.S. State Department/National Security Council: staff. Read Jaishankar’s book. It’s as good a starting point as any to understand why last week’s U.S. threats were so poorly received. Jaishankar serves as Modi’s foreign policy guru and previously enjoyed a remarkable 38-year career as a career diplomat. Prior to his selection as minister for external affairs, Jaishankar served as India’s foreign secretary (2015-2018), high commissioner to Singapore (2007–09) and as ambassador to the Czech Republic (2001–04), China (2009–2013) and the United States (2014–2015), according to Wikipedia.
Jaishankar earned a chemistry degree from Delhi’s St. Stephens College, and an MA and PhD in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he specialized in nuclear diplomacy. He later put this expertise to good use in negotiating the U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement. He’s married to a woman of Japanese origin and speaks Russian, English, Tamil, Hindi, conversational Japanese, Chinese, and some Hungarian.
“The Union government’s choice of Jaishankar as its foreign policy guru is just one example of Modi’s ability to choose the correct technocrats to implement his policy objectives,” said Dr. Sunandan Roy Chowdhury, editor-in-ihief of the Kolkata journal, Eastern Review.
The book, which clocks in at 250 pages is beautifully written and Jaishankar’s lightly-worn erudition is apparent on nearly every page. Equally comfortable with Eastern and Western political thought, Jaishankar deftly makes glancing references to Eastern sources, such as Kautilya’s Arthashastra, (Jaishankar, p.16), thefourth century (BCE) tome that was one of the first works to discuss realist foreign policy concepts. Max Weber once wrote that compared to the Arthashastra, “Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless.” Neither does Jaishankar stint on allusions to Western sources, such as Gramsci, “‘The old order is changing but the new one is not yet in sight” ( Jaishankar, p. 37).
Each chapter of The India Way opens with a pithy aphorism. Including: [Tamil poet] Thiruvalluvar: “Wisdom is to live in tune with the mode of a changing world” ( Jaishankar, p.5) , Plato: “The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior” (Jaishankar, p. 10); Donald Trump: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win a war” (Jaishankar, p. 28). In the interests of keeping this post of manageable length, I’ll stop with those.
I hesitate to highlight this erudition, lest it scare away readers who think The India Way is a ponderous tome. Far from it. There’s wisdom to savor on most every page.
Jaishankar outlined a foreign policy for India to pursue in a multipolar world:
…it is the underlying assumptions that can make a difference. We have been conditioned to think of the post-1945 world as the norm and departures from it as deviations. In fact, our own pluralistic and complex history underlines that the natural state of the world is multipolarity. It also brings out the constraints in the application of power. A behaviour and a thought process which reflects that can facilitate the creation of a more favourable equilibrium with others (Jaishankar, p. 20).
As I noted in March when I last addressed these issues in IIndia Is Mulling Rupee-Ruble Payments System for Trade with Russia, this multipolar orientation draws from the non-alignment tradition that India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, pioneered in the immediate post-colonial period. But as Chowdhury told me, “The new policy is one of multi-alignment, where India engages with all major countries – but kowtows to no one.” Note that this is a world no longer dominated by the G8; instead, half the world’s twenty largest economies are now non-Western (Jaishankar, p. 41).
According to Jaishankar:
Geopolitics and balance of power are the underpinning of international relations. India has a tradition of Kautilyan politics that puts a premium on them. If there are lessons from the near part, it is that these were not given the weightage that they deserved. The Bandung era of Afro-Asia n solidarity in the 1950s serves as a reminder of the costs of neglecting hard power. But more than lack of focus on capabilities, they reflect an underlying thinking. We have since reached a league where the ability to protect our interests is an assumption, not just an option. This is best done through a mix of national strengths and external relationships (Jaishankar, p. 16).
What does this mean in practice? Now bear in mind that Jaiashankar’s book was published in September 2020 – long before Russia invaded Ukraine. Nonetheless, for India, this policy reorientation translates as follows: “A longstanding trilateral with China and Russia coexists now with one involving the US and Japan” (Jaishankar p. 23.) As I outlined in my March post, India has long enjoyed cordial relations with Russia (and before that the Soviet Union). Russia can help india fulfil current economic needs – such as securing access to cheap fossil fuels and fertilizers. Per Jaishankar:
This is a time for us to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood, and expand traditional constituencies of support. The mix of opportunities and risks presented by a more uncertain and volatile world is not easy to evaluate (Jaishankar, p. 19).
Jaishankar well understands that this policy orientation will occasionally lead to severe strains in its network of foreign relationships:
In a world of more naked self-interest, nations will do what they have to do with less pretence. Hence, India must brace itself for what may be expected to come.It has to prepare itself for assertions of influence that will exploit power differentials, economic advantages, and dependency of connectivity (Jaishankar, p.34).
The bottom line: “India cannot give any other nation a veto on its policy options” (Jaishankar, p. 35, Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis).
I can’t overemphasize how much I was impressed by this thoughtful, well-argued, gracefully written.book. Alas, space considerations prevent engaging further with this text here.and we must now return to the topic du jour: what we can expect India’s foreign policy to look like in the near term?
India’s annoyance with U.S. diplomacy originated long before Singh’s disastrous Delhi trip. Two motivating factors set out in my March post bear repeating here:
First, the surprise announcement of a new Austalia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security arrangement in August shocked India, to say the least. India was excluded from this new accord, which unceremoniously superseded the previous Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. This transition was especially galling as Jaishankar had mentioned in his book that India had driven revival of the QUAD (Jaishankar, p. 23). Recall that under AUKUS, Australia will now be the recipient of new U.S. nuclear submarines – which India had long coveted and been told it couldn’t have.
Second, American policymakers don’t seem to comprehend fully the impact the shambles the U.S. made of its Afghanistan pullout had on the thinking of leading Indian foreign policy figures. Jaishankar raised these criticisms in real time as the withdrawal was occurring and reiterated these concerns last week, as reported by the Guardian:
He also contrasted the concern the west has shown about the invasion with what he described as the relative uninterest in the Taliban takever of Afghanistan, saying people seemed motivated by the proximity of a crisis, as much as anything.
In a chapter devoted to analyzing The Art of Disruption: The United States in a Flatter World (in a section dissecting the US-Sino relationship), Jaishankar made an observation particularly apt to the current crisis:
The rise of a new global power was never going to be easy, and an order waiting to happen will look like chaos until it does (Jaishankar, p. 33), Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis),
Yet willy nilly retreat to previous certainties is not the best choice either:
For the fact is that a return to the past only accentuates our limitations and undermines confidence. It encourages risk aversion and prevents exploitation of new opportunities. … Where intersections of interest are multiple, it is perhaps best to just distrust and verify (Jaishankar, p. 34).
And so here we are.