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'National security evolves to encompass both traditional and non-traditional threats in India'

B360
B360 June 9, 2024, 2:29 pm
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Pankaj Saran is a former diplomat with 40 years of experience in foreign, strategic and national security affairs. He has served in key positions within the Government of India in the Prime Minister’s Office, National Security Council Secretariat, Ministry of External Affairs and in several Indian missions abroad. He has also served as India’s Ambassador to Russia and India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh, and as Head of the Northern Division in the Ministry of External Affairs dealing with Nepal and Bhutan. 

Saran has worked in different capacities with successive Indian Prime Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Office contributing to decision making at the highest levels in a diverse range of sectors, including foreign affairs and national security. From 2018 to 2021, he served as the Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Affairs under Prime Minister Narendra Modi dealing with regional and global strategy formulation, including maritime security and Arctic affairs, neighbourhood policy and technology and economic security.

Saran is presently Convenor of NatStrat, a Delhi-based independent centre for research on strategic and security issues. He is a Member of the National Security Advisory Board and a Distinguished Fellow of the National Maritime Foundation. He is a regular commentator and writer on foreign affairs, security and strategic issues. 

Saran was in Kathmandu recently to attend the NIICE Dialogue Series XIII where he spoke on ‘Promoting Regional Connectivity through BBIN’. Business 360 spoke with him to get an insight into the importance of regional connectivity. Excerpts:  

What is your opinion about BBIN?

The first agreement that was signed as part of BBIN was the Motor Vehicles Agreement 2015. Then Bhutan had some reservations about this agreement, so it could not be implemented but I would treat BBIN as a much larger idea of how Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal can cooperate in different sectors, not just motor vehicles but also transportation, energy, other forms of connectivity, waterways, facilitation, making customs procedures easier. The idea is that these four countries, because they are part of a dynamic subregion of the subcontinent, need to think of ways on how they can cooperate in practical terms.

Do you think that the private sector can contribute to this development?

I think the private sector is already doing so. When you talk to the truck operators, the cargo, the traders, they are already participating in trade activities; for example, between Nepal and Bangladesh or Nepal and Bhutan. So, when Nepal wants to export some products, let us say, to Bangladesh, then it has to ensure that the goods actually travel safely and in a short period of time from Nepal to Bangladesh or when Bangladesh wants to export to Nepal or to Bhutan, it should be allowed to export. And the export procedures should be simple, should be easy. So, the private sector can cooperate a lot. In so far as energy is concerned, most of the cooperation has been in the government sector and in the public sector. Similarly in the waterways, although there are some instances of private operators in the waterways area, but there are not very many. But I think the private sector can definitely be a good catalyst and driver of cooperation.

How would you suggest the private sector to get more involved in this process?

I think they should all put pressure on their governments to, for example, make trade procedures easier, customs facilitation easier, transshipment easier, and also come up with new opportunities because, you know, we are talking only about trade, but tomorrow you would even be talking about investments. Bangladesh is a big consumer and market for energy. India has a big market for energy. Nepal and Bhutan are both huge hydropower sources. So, the private sector can influence their own government policies and also can influence other governments. I feel that maybe if the private sector representatives were to arrange some roundtable discussions or to talk about how to increase trade, that could be very useful.

If you critically look at the current status of regional connectivity, how would you describe it?

I think regional connectivity has improved a lot in the last few years. Particularly when you look at transportation, energy, people to people contacts, trade and also when you look at investments. In all these different sectors, there has been a big improvement in regional connectivity. And this is something which is of direct benefit to all the countries of the region. I would say if you look at transportation, for example, at the air links or the civil flights between countries of the region or the railways there have been improvements. You now have connectivity between India and Nepal, India and Bangladesh. You are developing connectivity with Bhutan. If you look at the number of flights per day between India and Nepal, India and Bangladesh, India and Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka, India and Maldives, or if you look at bus services or rail services regional connectivity has been growing. The transportation sector has really grown.

Then there is the energy sector too. Today, you have an oil pipeline between India and Nepal and also between India and Bangladesh. You have energy grids coming up between India and Bangladesh, and India and Nepal. We already had such between India and Bhutan. Nepal and Bhutan are both now able to export electricity to Bangladesh through India. We are now talking in terms of developing pipelines and energy grids between India and Sri Lanka. So, I would say regional connectivity has grown a lot in the last few years. People to people, in terms of tourism, in terms of cultural connectivity, we have now also begun to use waterways for transportation between India and Bangladesh. We can even think of how India and Nepal can use the waterways. There is also much more trade going on. Of course, India has a surplus trade with these countries, but that is natural because India is a bigger economy. But the exports of the smaller economies to India are also growing fast. And I would say that the exports of the smaller countries to India is more than their exports to China. They are able to export more goods to India than they are able to export to China.

SAARC has become somewhat a dysfunctional concept in recent times. Could India play a role to enhance the BBIN structure?

The benefit of any organisation, whether it is SAARC or any other organisation, is whether it contributes and helps the member states. If an organisation is not able to help the member states, then it loses its value. What we found in the case of SAARC was that because of one member, the progress in SAARC which was envisaged, which was visualised, has not happened. The alternative is to develop our cooperation with each of the individual member states one by one. So, we have moved very fast with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and even with Maldives. So that is a better way to promote mutual interest and mutual benefit. Of course, we are also looking at smaller organisations, subregional organisations, where everyone has a like-minded view. We have been talking about BIMSTEC and also BBIN. I would say that wherever we can find any group of countries which have the political will and the capability and they have mutual complementarity and they are working for mutual benefit, we should move forward with that.

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You have been involved with security, with foreign affairs, and so many decades of leadership positions? What is your description of a leader?

A leader has to be a good listener. Well, I must say that I am not in politics, so I don’t know. If I look at the Indian case, we have had different Prime Ministers over the last 75 years, and every Prime Minister has contributed to the growth of the country. Every Prime Minister has their own vision, their own priorities, and their own analysis of what the country needs, what the people need. So, the most important thing is that the leader should have accountability to the people. He or she should be able to understand the pulse of the people, to understand what is the demand of the time of that society. And he should be able to lead the whole nation, the whole society, not lead only one part of it. But once a leader assumes, let’s say, the leadership role of a whole nation, then they represent the whole nation. They do not represent any single section or a political party. This is what our Prime Minister has been talking about, that he represents every Indian. And the leader must have a vision for the country that you want the country to move and progress in a 10-year or 20-year time span. Vision is very important and they should lead by example and people should have trust and faith and confidence in the leader. And the leader should be able to get the best out of the people. They should be able to encourage and to inspire people.

When it comes to national security, does security only mean the borders, the army? What are the other factors and aspects?

There are three ways in which you can look at national security. One is the traditional way, which is defence, military and hard power. So those are normally defined as a traditional concept and areas of national security. What is your defence? What is the size of your army? What is your defence budget? What are your defence capabilities? But what we are learning today is that national security has become much more complex and a much wider concept. It has gone beyond traditional threats to non-traditional threats. And non-traditional can be anything. It can be a hybrid warfare, it can be climate change, it can be environmental, it can be migration, it can be social tensions inside a society. It also can be economic imbalances within a society or it can be information warfare. It can assume many different roles. So, when we look at national security in India, what we are doing is we are looking at it as an organic and holistic subject, where you look at both traditional and non-traditional sources of challenges. And then the response also has to be accordingly tailored so that you do not look at it in a narrow way and everything is connected with everything else. There is a lot of interconnections and you should have that ability. So, when you talk of technological security, do you have the requisite technology to protect your country and to make it grow at a fast pace. Are the people being taken care of? Have you been able to address economic problems? And then there is social security. Are people able to live with each other peacefully in a multicultural, multi-pluralistic environment, environment and security? These are different elements which all contribute to making a nation more secure.

How can a country improve its international relations? What are the aspects that leaders of a country like India look at to improve international relations?
I think today the world is in a very unstable position. International relations today are under stress, largely because of old conflicts which are going on. And this is unfortunate because it is creating a lot of trouble for the poor countries of the world, and the global south of which India and Nepal are members. So, we have to work together to reduce these tensions, to find solutions to all the problems, to pay respect to each other’s core concerns or interests, to display mutual respect about each other’s concerns, to find ways of cooperation which benefit everyone, not just one side. We cannot have a zero-sum game or a zero-sum approach to international relations. We need to build confidence among even the smallest countries; their interests and voices need to be heard. And we have to be able to address the concerns of the majority of the nations of the world. We cannot let only a few nations dictate or dominate the global discourse.

How do you personally compare the rise of India and China?

Well, the rise of China is the biggest story of the 21st century. And Chinese scholars themselves say that the rise of China can be traced back, let us say, to 2008, at the end of the Western financial crisis. The rise of China is a reality. And obviously the rise of China is impacting not only the Indo-Pacific region where we live but also the whole world. It is impacting the relationship with the United States, how they conduct their relations with the United States.

India is far behind China. In terms of GDP, we are much smaller, but we have our own ambitions. We have our own vision for growth till 2047, for 100 years of independence. Today, India is the fastest growing economy in the world. In the last 10 years, we have made a lot of progress in many areas. There is a lot of hope and optimism in India. We have a very young population. India does not want to dominate any country. We do not want to impose our values on anyone and we are not expansionist. India is also not hegemonistic. It believes in the international rule of law. It believes that all countries that are small or big deserve an equal place and equal respect in the world. India is a democratic country and we have been democratic for the last 75 years. We are pluralistic, we value our democracy and we also value our way of life. And we believe that the Indian example is a very powerful example of how you can achieve very fast growth in a democratic atmosphere.

So, I would say the rise of China and the rise of India are both major international developments of global significance. And India wants to create a situation or a world order in the Indo-Pacific which is multipolar in which all countries have the same respect or the same status. And we do not want any domination by any power or any nation. And this is basically the way we look at the world, that we have to ensure that there is democracy in the global system, just as we have democracy inside India which means international peace and stability. We believe that all differences, disputes and conflicts should be settled through negotiation, peaceful means, and not through war. This is broadly how I would answer your question.

Do you feel technology has changed the way we conduct diplomacy?

Yes, technology has changed the way we conduct our diplomacy because it has done two things. Number one, it has changed the method of communication between countries, between decision makers, policy makers and leaders. That is a fundamental change. And secondly, technology has made information available to us on a real time basis. It has created more awareness about global developments. When you have better communications between nations and between leaders and you have instant access to information that changes the speed of communication, that changes how you can engage in diplomacy at a much faster and at a much more intense pace. But having said that, I think still, despite all these changes in technology, diplomacy is all about personal relationships. It is all about building trust and confidence. There is no substitute for the human touch and the human contact. That ability for any leader or any diplomat to pick up a phone and talk to your counterpart, whether it is a friend, whether it is an adversary, so that you are able to resolve issues or you are able to promote some new issues or some issue of importance to you is important. Technology has definitely played a role in making diplomacy a much more intense activity, but we should not belittle or underestimate the significance of personal contact.

In all these years of your professional career, which has been the most challenging time and how did you overcome that particular moment?

There were many challenging moments and times which I faced. I have been in the diplomatic career for almost four decades. So, there are different challenges I have faced. A lot of that actually is a function of what happens to your country. There are occasions when the country itself has been faced with a lot of challenges, either external aggression or huge transformations taking place in the country, or you find that some unforeseen or new opportunity has opened up in which you can play a part. You have events which are unexpected, but you have to deal with them immediately and very quickly. There are other kinds of events which are happening but you can help to shape the outcomes. You can contribute to better outcomes for your country. So, I have faced both adverse situations where the country is under threat or we face challenges either internally or externally. But I also remember and face situations where you feel you have the chance to contribute to the positive transformation of a country, to build new relationships, or to create mechanisms or institutions which advance India’s national security or foreign policy goals. So, there is a whole mix. 

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JUNE 2024

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