SINGAPORE: The ongoing trade war between the United States and China “may not be such a bad thing” if it results in fairer market access all over the world, India’s top diplomat, Dr S Jaishankar said.
In an interview on CNA’s In Conversation, India’s minister of external affairs, noted that his country has had friction with China as well, concerning market access.
“I run a massive trade deficit with China. It accounts for more than 50 per cent of my trade deficit,” he added. Specifically, the Indian foreign minister said he was not arguing that trade deficits are by definition bad or wrong.
Total India-China bilateral trade in 2017 was around US$84 billion, but with the bulk of the trade being Chinese exports to India.
“It is whether the trade deficits are outcome of market forces, whether they reflect your competitiveness or whether the trade deficits are the outcome of lack of fair market access. Now, in the case of India for example, again we have a very big pharma industry, we have a big IT business. They are globally successfully …. (but) we have very little business in China,” he noted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appointment of Jaishankar as minister of external affairs in May this year came as surprise to some, since career diplomats do not often shift gear to becoming political appointees.
However, Jaishankar was already known as a shrewd and extremely seasoned negotiator having occupied two key top posts - as India’s ambassador to China and later Indian ambassador to the United States.
Although Jaishankar acknowledged that India has been having trade difficulties with the US as well – with President Trump previously slamming India as a “tariff king” – India-US relations have warmed significantly in other areas recently, particularly in security.
In April, the US State Department approved the sale of 24 Sikorsky MH-60R multi-mission helicopters to India for an estimated cost of US$2.6 billion, calling India “a major defensive partner”.
When asked if the US was trying to use India as part of a containment policy for China, Jaishankar sharply refuted this.
“A lot of people who say that, are people who have a Cold War mindset, who have lived through containment, who have practiced containment … so they are transposing their terms, their visions, their fears, their past on all of this.”
He also challenged the suggestion that the Indo-Pacific strategy - which has been propagated by the Trump administration – was another aspect of Washington’s attempt to keep a rising China in check.
Last year, the United States renamed its oldest and largest military command - the Pacific Command – to calling it the US Indo-Pacific Command. Some military observers say the Indo-Pacific strategy is supposed to act as a counter-weight to China’s claims in the South China Sea.
But the Indian foreign minister said that the Indo-Pacific idea had already existed before World War II, and that it was in fact Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who had used it explicitly in a speech to the Indian parliament 15 years ago.
“Look, Indo-Pacific, the Americans may have kind of climbed on that particular ship now but that doesn’t make it American,” Jaishankar observed.
The 64-year-old foreign minister was also sanguine about the prospect of China’s rise as a superpower.
Jaishankar, who spent five years in Beijing as India’s ambassador to China said: ”I think in many ways we would have an intuitive feel which others would not. Mainly because there is history, there is civilisation, there are traditions on which you are building.”
“China is better off if there’s a rise of Asia rather than the rise of China. And the same logic to India as well,” he added.
Watch the full interview with India’s Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar on In Conversation on Friday (Sep 13) at 9pm (SIN/HK) on CNA.