Interview with Ambassador Meera Shankar

June 2019

Amb. Meera Shankar












Interview with Ambassador Meera Shankar

with Souravie Ghimiray and Vipul Jain, transcribed by Binita Verma
(conducted on May 10, 2019)


Interviewer: How should India confront the challenge posed by the US withdrawal from COP21? Does it provide a ground for others, particularly the EU and China to coordinate with India to preserve COP21?

Amb Meera Shankar: India had already signed the Paris Agreement before the US walked out of its commitment towards climate change and to the international agreements of climate change. India is also following an aggressive policy regarding the development of renewable energy, and the targets India has set are quite ambitious. Solar tariffs have come down from thirteen rupees per unit to almost above a kilo of 2.50 rupees per unit. The commercial viability of renewable energy is getting established in India. In my opinion, India should have its own ambitions towards climate change as India in the near future will be badly impacted by climate change and to work with other countries as well as civil society and other groups within the US. Even though there is unanimity on the decision of President Trump in the US, California is way ahead in setting its own targets on climate change such as replacing vehicles to all-electrical vehicles on the road.

Mr. Bloomeberg, the former Mayor of New York, has set up a group of mayors and Governors within the US on climate change and they meet periodically to discuss on the way forward on climate change. In my opinion, India should

(a) domestically follow policies which will improve our climate change performance particularly in regard to issues of air quality, which impacts the health of everyone especially children who are the future of our country,

(b) the quality of water, garbage and sanitations. These issues should be tackled for our own well-being and then work with other countries such as China, countries in Europe, other developing countries, and civil society groups within the US.

Interviewer: What do you think of Trump Administration’s policy towards India?

Amb Meera Shankar: The Trump administration has been good on strategic issues with India. Both countries have pushed forward the policy in the Indo Pacific region with regard to terrorism and Pakistan. The policies of both countries have been harder than that of previous administrations. Hence, on the one hand, there has been increasing convergence of interests, particularly how India handles China and create a stable Asian balance. But on the other hand, both India and the US diverge on the areas such as trade policies. Even though both countries diverge on trade policies, the strategic relationship is going well between the two countries. For example, our ships have recently participated in an exercise along with the ships of US, Japan, and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

On the economic front, the trade protectionism of the Trump administration has also targeted India along with China. A recent example is the H1B visa program, which delivers IT service in the US, has been under constant pressure by the Trump administration right from the very beginning of his term as President. He has taken administrative actions throughout his term towards tightening of the visa process, which continues to date. The visa process has become more expensive, more unpredictable, and the processing time has increased. So, it’s making it difficult for our companies who now have to hire more within the US and they don’t get the requisite tariff and also because this cut has been at the edge of their competitiveness because wages in the US would be so much higher.

The Trump administration has also spoken about the protection of Intellectual Property, data protection, raised objections to our new e-commerce policy, capping of prices of medical devices, market access for the agricultural products. Hence, the US has expressed concerns on the range of issues and also that the Indian market is not open enough. India has equally raised concerns towards increasing protectionism by the US with regard to service delivery, which is the quo-component of our trade with the US.

I do not see much substantive basis in this because if you look at the US’s trade with China, the Chinese exports to the US are about $535 billion and India’s two-way trade with the US in 2018 in both goods and services was $142 billion. The trades surplus that India enjoyed was barely $20 billion, which is nothing compared to the trade deficit that the US had with China. Substantively the numbers are not concrete from the perspective of US, but the US is an important trading partner for India as the US provides the largest market to our good. The US also has many other big trading partners who are on a different magnitude than India. Still, we must deal with the situation with the US as the US is not only targeting India but is also targeting its other trading partners such as China, Europe, NATO allies, Mexico. The need is to have a pragmatic discussion with the US and proceed.

The US’s policy in Afghanistan to withdraw from the country and to also restrain from any talks with the Taliban unless the country becomes relatively orderly may leave a vacuum there. This is another area of concern for India as we would like the US to take part in the regional concerns as India has told Afghanistan that it will be willing to accept whatever solution will come from Afghan government’s side. But India and International communities have also laid down red lines that the Taliban has to give up arms, violence, and terrorism before any concrete solution. Afghanistan should also accept multiparty democracy, where minorities also have recognition and ensure the safety of women and ethnic minorities. How far Afghanistan will fulfill, these concerns are the apprehensions India has.

India also has a long-standing relationship with Iran and is also our strategic gateway to Central Asia as well as to Afghanistan. The US, while imposing fresh sanctions on Iran, has exempted the Chabahar project from the sanction and has granted a waiver for the development of Chabahar port by India. The US granted this waiver because the project will not only benefit Iran but also benefit Afghanistan and India. At the same time, the US has expressed concerns that India will bring down its import of oil from Iran to zero. It is easier said than done because we have already withdrawn oil imports from Venezuela, which was a major supplier as they provided oil at lower prices.

Similarly, with Iran, we get oil at competitive prices, even more than the capacity of our refineries to refine Iranian crude. India now has to invest to alter their technology to refine imports of another crude and now has to bear costs at a time when our Balance of Payments are already under pressure because of higher oil prices. We do not always agree with the US, but we have to work together where our interests converge and to discuss and navigate the areas where we may have to diverge interests.

Interviewer: What do you think are the implications of probable US withdrawal from Afghanistan for the region and India?

Amb Meera Shankar: I have touched upon this in my previous reply. If the US withdraws, without putting in place a relatively, orderly transitional mechanism, then there could be a vacuum in the region. Other implications can be the resurgence of governments or an era of Warlordism, where different warlords are fighting in Afghanistan or the resurgence of terrorism. In a situation of volatility, everybody takes advantage of the instability. Hence, in the region and India in particular, which has already suffered during the Taliban regime with the hijacking of our plane. The plane was taken to Afghanistan for negotiations which led to the release of some of the arrested terrorists in India. We have already suffered on a counter bat, and we hope that the US will be conscious not to leave a vacuum in the region. We have said that Afghanistan should have some kind of interim government in place. Additionally, the US is discussing some other issues related to the Taliban, including a ceasefire because they can’t keep fighting and at the same time negotiating.

There are issues and concerns that India has about any precipitate withdrawal of the US. The fact that the US and their policies have been in Afghanistan for too many years they feel have not succeeded and can’t resolve the issue. But the US in the process should be conscious that they don’t leave a vacuum in the region.

Interviewer: There is a growing rivalry between the US and China for influence in the Indo-Pacific region. How should India respond to such a scenario? Should India continue to harp on strategic autonomy or its policies should be guided by selective alignment?

Amb Meera Shankar: India should work with the great powers, where their interests and India’s interests converge. Presently, in the Asia Pacific, the US and India have widely and broadly convergent interests fueled by the rise of an increasingly assertive and Nationalist China, which sees Asia as its backyard. On the other hand, the US, as the preeminent global power, seeks to defend its preeminence in the region. India too would like to see the balance in the Asian region, which is not under the hegemony of any one power. Hence, to that extent, there is a convergence of interests between India and the US in the Asia Pacific region, and we should work together with the US as well as other regional countries, which have longer-term stakes such as Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea. There are other countries which have longer-term stakes in stable Asian balance, and we have to work with them as well because US interests could change in the future.

Additionally, we have to keep in mind that China shares a border with India, hence,

(a) Provocative behavior towards China would not be in India’s interests because we need to work with them and ensure that the border doesn’t become a live border to resolve. It because that distracts us from our abilities to focus on our development. Hence, it is important for India to build a relationship with the US in a manner which is not provocative to China but at the same time balances China in the Asia Pacific region.

(b) We also have to keep in mind that we have a long term special strategic relationship with Russia and almost 60-70% of our present military equipment with our forces are from Russia. We need to continue cooperating with them as a strategic partner.

There is a great deal of turbulence in the International situation because the old relationships and balances are getting unsettled, and new ones are not fully shaped. In such a scenario, India needs to follow a policy of working with the great powers wherever interest converges and pursue its own interests.

Similarly, with China, India needs to work towards shaping a relationship which may be competitive but non-conflictual in nature. The need is to draw a fine balance in India’s strategic the current situation where we need is to be nimble, flexible, and strategic in our choices.

Interviewer: How should India respond to a barrage of offensive economic targeting of India by the United States?

Amb Meera Shankar: I have touched upon it earlier. In my opinion, we would need to continue discussing with the US rather than peace mean on a single issue. We have to have a basket of train on economic issues which we discuss together and both the parties benefit from it. The discussion cannot be one-sided where the US demands and India fulfills but rather there should be bargaining and agreements where both the parties give and take and in trying to shape or to navigate our ways through these divergences. We also need to be able to dig our feet in, where we cannot give up our interests. Hence, it will be a policy for both the countries on trade issues and pragmatism as well as the ability to dig in or push back where necessary.

 About the Ambassador

Amb. Meera Shankar (9 October 1950) is an officer of the 1973 batch. She served in the US, Germany etc over her long and illustrious career as a diplomat.

She has served as Director in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1985 to 1991, and in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry from 1991 to 1995. She headed two important divisions dealing with the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and relations with Nepal and Bhutan.

In 2003, she achieved the rank of Additional Secretary, she held the responsibility for the United Nations and International Security. She was India’s second female ambassador to the United States of America where she served as India’s Ambassador from 26 April 2009 to 2011.  She was succeeded by Nirupama Rao on August 1, 2011.