‘Rules-Based Order Has Been Under Stress Much Before Ukraine’: Jaishankar

The external affairs minister, pointing to Afghanistan, alluded that European concern about disruptions to rules-based order before Ukraine had been spotty.

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New Delhi: Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar said on Tuesday that Europe’s invocation for global unity in protecting the rules-based order in the wake of the Russian invasion in Ukraine is selective, with no such visible outrage when Afghanistan was “thrown under the bus” or in the face of other geopolitical challenges in Asia.

At the Raisina Dialogue, Jaishankar fielded questions from his counterparts from across the world, with queries from European colleagues centred on the war in Ukraine.

The veteran foreign minister of Luxembourg Jean Asselborn asked Jaishankar about the justification furnished by the Russian foreign minister during his visit to India last month. He noted that Russia had claimed that its actions were to prevent genocide and to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine. “How does he explain it to you… everything that Russia is doing in Ukraine is against international law and the charter of the United Nations?” Asselborn asked.

Jaishankar replied that he didn’t have anything new to contribute, as Lavrov would have “probably engaged more of you in Europe on the subject than he has engaged us”.

He noted that there “will be no winner in this conflict”, with the knock-on effect of the war impacting every corner of the planet in terms of higher energy prices and food inflation.

“Our position is that we all have to find some way of returning to diplomacy and dialogue, and for that, the fighting must stop. I think that is the focus of what we are trying to do,” he said.

He further pointed out that the Ukraine crisis would naturally pre-occupy Europe at this time “to the exclusion of almost everything else, but there is also a world out there”. “I am very glad that you are sitting in India because it would remind you that there are equally pressing issues in other parts of the world.”

Alluding that European concern about disruptions to rules-based order before Ukraine had been spotty, he said, “In terms of Afghanistan, please show me which part of the rules-based order justified what the world did there. So, let’s see this in the right context.”

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He also claimed that when there had been friction with other countries in the region that threatened the rules-based order in Asia, the Europeans had a different counsel. “If I were to put those very challenges in terms of principle when rules-based order was challenged in Asia, the advice we got from Europe was ‘do more trade’. At least we are not giving you that advice,” Jaishankar said, which was greeted with applause among the audience.

The Filipino foreign minister Teodoro L. Locsin intervened that the question of opposing genocide should be asked of India in this context. “…you are talking of the country that sent an army to prevent the extinction of a people who would later become Bangladesh… this is India, the country that answers the call when people face genocide”.

While India may disagree with Russian actions in Ukraine, it has remained conspicuously neutral in its public remarks by refraining from directly criticising Moscow since the start of the conflict. It has also abstained in successive west-sponsored resolutions in various bodies of the United Nations deploring the Russian invasion.

Earlier, the Norwegian foreign minister Anniken Huitfeldt had described Russia’s action as an example of a “totalitarian state attacking a democracy”. “Indeed, many would say that Russia attacked Ukraine precisely because it is a democracy. How does India, as the world’s largest democracy, see its role in defending free societies globally?” she asked Jaishankar.

After reiterating India’s position on Ukraine, he stated, “The fact is that different countries have evolved a combination of values, interests, history, experience and culture to approach conflicts and specific situations. So, you spoke about Ukraine. I remember less than a year ago what happened in Afghanistan, where an entire civil society was thrown under the bus by the world. Or we in Asia, face our own threats or challenges, which often impacts on the rules-based order.”

The former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt wondered if Jaishankar could fathom whether China would get emboldened in Asia, if Beijing saw that there was no unity among the international community after the borders of a sovereign country were violated.

Jaishankar said that while he “honestly” could not answer the question, international relations “do not necessarily function by precedence”. “People don’t need to see something and say, ‘Aha, that’s what I am going to do!’ That’s how mostly bureaucracies function. But world affairs has a sort of a much more self-driven, self-calculating way of working.”

Admitting a sense of frustration, the Indian minister added, “(Let me say) quite candidly, (that) we have been hearing for the last two months a lot of argument from Europe saying that things happening in Europe should worry (us) about it because these could happen in Asia.”

“Guess what, things have been happening in Asia for the last ten years. Europe may not have looked at it. So you know it could be a wake-up call for Europe, not just in Europe, but it could be a wake-up call for Europe to also look at Asia.”

He pointed out that in this region, “boundaries have not been settled, terrorism is practiced, often sponsored by states,” and the “the rules-based order has been under continuous stress for more than a decade”.

Europe’s invocation for global unity in protecting the rules-based order in the wake of the Russian invasion in Ukraine is selective, with no such visible outrage when Afghanistan was “thrown under the bus”, said EAM S. Jaishankar.