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The Rediff Interview/Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal

October 21, 2003

Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal is known as a no-nonsense man.

Accompanying Prime Minister A B Vajpayee during his trip to the UN General Assembly last month, he sneered at Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf's position on Kashmir by saying Islamabad must get over it's 'Kashmir itch.' In an exclusive interview with's Washington, DC-based Senior Editor Aziz Haniffa, Sibal discussed Indo-US ties and why Pakistan never fails to figure in discussions between Delhi and Washington.

Are US-India relations on track, notwithstanding Prime Minister Vajpayee's message to President Bush that India cannot contribute peacekeeping forces to Iraq? Will that adversely impact on relations?

In September 2002, in the National Security Strategic Review, the United States for the first time talked about a strategic relationship with India. This is something to which we attach equal importance. How to build up this strategic relationship, that's the point.

One key element in building this strategic relationship is progress on what are called the trinity issues. And now from the American side, they have expanded that into the quartet by also including missile defence.

The US also has a global strategy with regard to these issues. Even if they see the virtue and value of moving forward with India on these issues, they have to, as a global power, weigh carefully the impact of that in relations to policies they pursue vis-a-vis x, y, or z country with which they do not have any intention to establish a long-term strategic relationship. How to balance the two.

External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha told us you are on the final lap on trinity issues...

Well, final lap in terms of agreeing on a certain road map. But not final lap in terms of removing the obstacles in the way of moving forward on these issues. One has to make this distinction because the impression should not be that we say the last lap meaning after that the doors will be open. No. After that, the process will begin, which will progressively result in the opening of doors.

Doesn't progress on all these issues involve the US Congress? The administration can be all for it, but doesn't it need Congress approval?

That I don't know, because there are two things. There are certain things the US does not do purely because of policy decisions. There are other things the US does not do because there are legislative bars. The removal of the legislative bars is a more difficult exercise. But opening the doors where there are restrictions on account of policy decisions, that's easier.

So there are stages of making progress in what we are doing. So it's not as if nothing can be done without removal of legislative barriers. A lot can be done even without that.

But isn't this sort of a case of waiting for Godot? This has been going on for so long.

No, no. Given the complexity of the issues, I would say that in less than a year this progress has been made. The first time these trinity issues were raised was when the prime minister came [to the US] last year. In one year to be able to move to this point I think is remarkably rapid pace of trying to overcome the serious non-proliferation related issues, and you know how strong the non-proliferation lobby is in the United States.

After all, that has now emerged by way of mounting concerns with regard to WMD [weapons of mass destruction], North Korea, Iran, linkage between WMD and terrorism, the desire in fact to tighten the international regimes, etc.

It's against that backdrop this progress is taking place. So, in a sense, it is remarkable that notwithstanding other reasons why the general atmosphere in regard to substantive progress on these issues may not have been conducive, yet Indo-US discussions are on track.

On missile defence cooperation, was there something the US sought with India of its own volition?

Yes. By converting it from trinity to quartet, though the discussions in the missile defence area have been going on for some time. Now they want to discuss this concept, and include whatever progress can be achieved eventually as part of this package. So instead of three, it's four issues.

The US keeps saying its relations with India and Pakistan is no more a zero-sum game. India keeps saying its relations with the US is strictly on the merits of the India-US bilateral relationship and Pakistan is not a factor at all. But the fact is Pakistan figures in all India-US discussions. Isn't this like the sword of Damocles hanging over India's head?

Not at all, not at all. First of all, look at the US trade with Pakistan and look at the US trade with India. Look at the sectors in which the US and India are engaged. High technology sectors, beginning with information technology.

Look at the kinds of issues we are now discussing with the US in terms of opening the doors to a more fruitful, productive strategic relationship in the long run. The US doesn't talk about a strategic relationship with Pakistan. And these trinity issues and everything else.

Look at the issues that are on the table between India and the United States and the scope for working together, including in the defence area.

Okay, they [US and Pakistan] have a strong defence relationship. They have always had that. But you don't see this kind of naval cooperation, and the other kinds of exercises that are taking place. So the trajectory of US-India relationship is very different from the trajectory of US-Pakistan relationship and those trajectories neither meet nor criss-cross each other.

How come Pakistan never fails to figure in US-India bilateral discussions?

The point is, the issue of terrorism is a factor of great instability in India-Pakistan relations and in our region. And because both countries are nuclear countries, and Pakistan plays upon this to stroke fears of the international community, if the issue between India and Pakistan is not resolved with their intervention, then the situation can deteriorate to the point of even a nuclear conflict.

This worries the countries, which want to build a strategic relationship with us. So they are the ones who raise this issue with us of dialogue. It's not as if we go to the United States and keep talking about terrorism.

It's more in response to the concerns the US and other countries express about instability in South Asia, and essentially their fears on the nuclear side that compels us to remind them the problems are entirely of Pakistan's making. If they cease this terrorism, if they behave more responsibly, the doors to dialogue are open.

You are known as a hawk and hardliner in some US administration circles and there is a perception that you are one of those who say, no way should there be a dialogue with Pakistan unless there is a permanent halt of cross-border terrorism and everything else.

That's not true, because basically the policy is made by the prime minister and the government. Whatever I do or say, it has to be within the four corners of our policy. There is no way the foreign secretary, or for that matter any bureaucrat in the ministry of external affairs, can act independently even in the slightest sense from the policy that the Government of India decides.

If the policy changes for any reason, the implementation of the policy, which is the duty of the foreign office, will change. So the hawks of today can become doves of tomorrow depending on the change in direction of policy.

Image: Dominic Xavier

The Rediff Interviews

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Number of User Comments: 5

Sub: What is wrong if he is hawk

Why sibbal should be applogistic if some one call him HAWK. Uptill now our foreign policy failed to protect national interests because doves were in ...

Posted by vinay gupta

Sub: 'Today's hawks can become doves'

PART 1 International relationships though they have had necessarily to be clothed in the diplomatic speak of the National Security Strategic Review in this case; ...

Posted by Khandu Patel

Sub: 'Today's hawks can become doves'

PART 2 Septegenerian leaders are more akin to the communist past, and yet in Bharat we have in Prime Minister Vajpayee a man who is ...

Posted by Khandu Patel

Sub: 'Today's hawks can become doves'

PART 3 Many continue to decry Indira Gandhi allegedly because of the emergency that she imposed. I have sneaking suspician that the grudge is in ...

Posted by Khandu Patel

Sub: One Question on behalf of the common educated man.

Dear Sir, Can I ask for how long is India going to plan its future on Foreign relationship. No doubt political relationships with other countries ...

Posted by Ismail


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