Full Text: Talmiz Ahmad on China-led Iran-Saudi Arabia Reconciliation, Implications for India

China has now pushed the envelope in terms of its engagement with West Asia, which had thus far been only economic in nature, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia tells Karan Thapar.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to restore diplomatic ties and reopen embassies, after years of tensions between the two nations. China, for the first time, has brokered a historic diplomatic arrangement in the region, significantly altering the diplomatic and political landscape in West Asia. The move has been described by international relations commentators as the end of the United States’s dominance and the rising stakes for China in the region.

Against this backdrop, Karan Thapar interviewed India’s foremost West Asia expert and former ambassador Talmiz Ahmad for The Wire. The 45-minute interview broadly covers four key questions: What does it mean to China and the world? What does it say about United States’ clout in the region? How does the rapprochement of big Islamic powers affect the wider West Asia region? And, finally, what explains India’s silence on the entire issue given that even India has stakes in the region?

Ambassador Ahmad’s responses cover a lot of ground, both from the point of view of history and the contemporary geo-political situation. His views on India and its influence in the region are telling. He does not mince his words in saying that India is no longer seen as a “credible partner” not just in the West Asia region, but also in the wider world. “For far too long, in New Delhi, we have lived with rhetoric and delusion as a substitute for foreign policy,” he says. 

When asked about what it means to India that China has pulled off a diplomatic coup at a time when the former is declaring itself as the “voice” of the Global South, Ambassador Ahmad’s answer was striking.

“Believe that this is again a wake-up call to India, that for far too long we wasted our resources cultivating domestic audiences, for domestic purposes, pursuing agendas that do not necessarily do much credit to us. As I have said to you before, I say it again, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ must be a reality at home before it can be accepted abroad. Do you think that people don’t know these things abroad? So, I would say be credible, be serious, have a long-term vision, and provide resources to support your vision. You are still respected and there will be things we can do.”

Below is the full transcript of the interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity and style. 


Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire. On March 10, 2023 China pulled off a diplomatic coup, where they brokered a historic arrangement between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the two countries to resume full diplomatic relations in two months’ time.

So, today we ask what are the international implications of this achievement, and more importantly, what are the implications for the India-China relationship, and for China’s role in South Asia. Joining me to answer these questions is one of India’s greatest and most highly-regarded experts on West Asia, former ambassador to Oman, United Arab Emirates, and twice to Saudi Arabia, and also the author of West Asia at War, Talmiz Ahmad.

Ambassador Ahmad, in a deal broken by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia who have not had diplomatic relations since 2016 has agreed to resume full ambassadorial-level relations in two months’ time. Given the ideological, strategic, and even religious differences between the two countries, how difficult would it have been for Beijing to pull this off?

I think there has already been a run-up to this agreement. It has been ongoing for some time. the countries have realised that they need to be engaged with each other. The absence of engagement means that complications do emerge in bilateral relations. There has been a lot of hostile rhetoric and a degree of non-settlement as far as Syria and Yemen are concerned.

So, I would say that there has been a certain desire to engage. They’ve also had five rounds of dialogue in Baghdad and in Muscat. I think they made progress, but they were at the middle level and they had to go somewhere further. But, in the case of Iraq, the prime minister changed, and a new prime minister who came appeared to be more pro-Iran. I think therefore the Baghdad option withered away. I think what China has achieved is very significant. 

China has been a major presence in the region for several years. It is a major buyer of their energy, a major trade partner, an investment partner, a logistical partner and what have you. So China has been building its presence there. However, where it had shied away from was with regard to political issues. That has now changed. I think it was signalled very clearly when Xi Jinping visited Riyadh and had three summits in Riyadh, the Bilateral Summit, the Gulf Summit, and the Arab League Summit. I think he conveyed this message. I think, in his dialogue with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, he made it clear that China would be willing to play a role.

Also Read: Iran, Saudi Arabia to Resume Diplomatic Ties; Deal Worked Out in Beijing With Chinese Mediation

They call it, quasi-mediation. Quasi-mediations mean they bring people together and are available in terms of their good offices. So they think they, and this is of one country that has extraordinary credibility both in Riyadh and in Tehran. The problems are many. They had a five-day dialogue in Beijing. There had been a visit of President Ebrahim Raisi from Iran as well just last month. So Xi Jinping’s engagement with the Arabs in December, and President Raisi now in Beijing just a month ago, I think that prepared the ground as well. So yes there were tough negotiations and they have moved well.

Now, if I understand your answer correctly with this deal, China has moved its relationship with both countries from the economic to the political level. And I suspect that that was initially from the Beijing point of view a gamble. If it had failed, China would have felt very embarrassed, but now that it succeeded pretty spectacularly, does China not only get the credit but does it also get the benefit of its boldness and of the self-confidence it has shown?

You are absolutely right in your remarks. China had over the last decade conveyed that as it had substantial stakes in the region, it did not have the confidence for any political role in the region. It used to be that their academics and their diplomats would say, ‘country is too complicated. We have only arrived here very recently, we are not familiar with the religion, and culture and with language’. But, I must assure you over the last 10 years I have seen firsthand, the Chinese building up their knowledge and their expertise and therefore their self-confidence.

Every major university in the world has Chinese scholars. Every major Chinese university has a centre for West Asian studies. They have more than 1,000 West Asian scholars in China. They learn Arabic. Therefore, I would say to you that in 10 years they have built up a lot of expertise. Now, they needed a political step forward and that has come. People used to criticise China by saying that, ‘look you have such high stakes in the region, but you shy away from doing anything about it’. Obama had called them a free-rider, perhaps, even freeloader and that had not been well well-received, because in those days the Americans never allowed anyone to enter the region. 

Iran’s top security official, Ali Shamkhani, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, and Saudi Arabian national security adviser Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban. In the background is a map of the I2U2 countries. Photo: Twitter.

China now has very high stakes in the region’s stability. They have, for example, the Belt and Road Initiative, they have their own energy stake, and they have their own economic stakes as well, and they are concerned about differences. They recognise, and this is something I should emphasise, they recognise they can’t solve problems. Problems can only be solved by the countries concerned, but what China can do? It can provide what I called quasi-mediation. It brings people together, talks to them nicely, sees that they can talk to each other in a congenial atmosphere, and they can move forward in taking their relationship forward. 

Against that background that China can provide what you call quasi-mediation services, what others call its own good offices, and it can facilitate agreements between people who have differences. Against that background, I want to quote to you what the Financial Times has said, “The Iran-Saudi deal is a  victory for Chinese diplomacy and underscores Beijing’s growing clout in the Middle East.” Would you agree with that judgment?

I think that I would agree this is a very significant development. It has changed the diplomatic landscape and political landscape. The background to this is that the Americans were losing credibility by the day. They looked very confused, they looked remarkably unsuccessful, and they also seem to be very non-committal in terms of their interests in the region. Therefore, their allies did not believe that the Americans can be security providers or security guarantors. So, they were already on the lookout for other partners.

At the same time, I would say the region was coming of age. The onerous burden of accommodating American interest had completed its use by date, and they were looking at other players. Russia came in as an energy partner and expanded OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) into OPEC plus. This gave the regional producers the capacity to cock a snook at Biden when he arrived in July and pleaded for increased production.

The Chinese have far greater and deeper and more diverse commitments in the region, in terms of their energy, etc. Now, as I pointed out they have the confidence to get into political engagement as well. So yes, I would say the diplomatic landscape has changed quite significantly now. 

The reverse side of China’s gain is that this looks like something America has lost or an area where American influence is diminishing. Once again I want to quote the Financial Times. It says, “This is a challenge to the United States, whose traditionally strong relations with Riyadh have cooled.”

So, will this both affect the United States-Middle East relations, as well as the United States’ relationship with China, which is anyway troubled and uncertain? Does America now have, in a sense, a troubled situation both vis-a-vis the Middle East and China because of China’s gain and China’s history?

I agree with you. This is entirely of the US’s making. The US has floundered in terms of projecting a coherent strategic vision. What does the American, what do the Americans want in West Asia? They’ve got this huge muscle power, lethal military force, but what is what are their interests? What do they want to do? They never had a coherent approach from the Americans. They floundered. After 9/11 they declared a global war on terror and started bombing the Afghans. Then they attacked Iraq, which had nothing to do with the global war on terror, and then they got bogged down for 20 years in the region.

There was a certain West Asia fatigue in Washington DC, because of the absence of any coherent plan, or any understanding of what the region is doing, which you’ll recall. Isn’t it shocking that you have had troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for 20 years and your people don’t have a single piece of knowledge about these two countries, their culture, their heritage, their dynamics, their interests, etc.? If they were depending on the Pakistanis with regard to Afghanistan till the last minute, knowing full well that the Pakistanis are supporting the Taliban, but this is where we are, as the US lost credibility. 

I would say that the Trump administration accelerated the process. You had an administration that was unbelievable. They were constantly saying and doing things, and you know floundering, they were constantly tweeting policy matters, etc. Now in the region, Russians and Chinese are the “voice of sanity”. They are the voice of consistency. They are a voice for getting things done. They don’t promise extra and make extravagant promises and do not use major military force in the region. They are projecting themselves as benign players, genuinely concerned with the promotion of stability and peace.  

But the truth is that China has stepped into an area where American influence was both retreating and reducing. Now since America has identified China as the great threat and rival upon whom it will be concentrating its entire diplomatic strategy, do you see the Biden administration’s policy to counter, to check, and to restrain Chinese influence furthering and growing hereafter, because suddenly China looks a much bigger challenge to America than it did before Friday? 

You have, in geopolitical terms, you have the rise of a major power in the global landscape. The kind of scenario that prevailed – broad Western domination of the world order and the US hegemony leading from the front – that era has now gone. We have not only the rise of Russia and China, but they have become leading powers asserting a role in world affairs. You have a large number of several other countries Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, all of whom are now asserting a degree of independence vis-a-vis the global landscape that has prevailed till today.

It is not something that you can wish away. China is going to be with us as an influential role player what the world. What the American answer has been? A new Cold War, a new binary. This is absurd. 

Can I stop you there, because that is still the American answer, whether you like it or not, whether you disagree with it? My question is this: Given that America is determined to check, contain, and restrain China, and given that China has now in a very important sense scored a victory where America used to exercise influence, do you see that policy of checking and containing China growing? Do you see it getting a harder tougher edge in Washington? 

I agree with you. How do you counter China? China has not threatened you. China has in fact said they want to work with you. China has said that they don’t like hegemony, but they like cooperation. They have built up their capacities at home, they have built up economic clout, they built up engagements, they’ve not threatened anybody, nor have they threatened the Americans. All the rush, all the emotive responses coming from Washington, not from Beijing. Beijing has come up, it is quiet, and it wants to deal with people. 

But my point is this Ambassador Ahmad, do you see the rhetoric, as well as the increased number of strategies from Washington countering China growing, and being implemented and enforced with a greater determination? That’s my question. 

China’s leaders knew that America will hate their rise. For at least 20 years, they kept their rise low-key so that they would not be threatened by the Americans. They came out publicly in 2013 when Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative. There is no way the United States can hold them back. They may say what they wish in Washington, but the Chinese are here to stay.

What the American should be discussing on various platforms, how do you engage with the China that has emerged? You cannot go to war that would be absurd, it would be destructive, and it would not lead anywhere. What do we need to do, and that’s a diplomatic challenge for the United States, for Europe, and for Asia. How do you deal with the rise in China, so that it can be accommodated in world order rather than become a spoiler?

Absolutely! And that question has gained not just greater importance, but greater poignancy, as a result of China’s achievement on Friday. Before I come to what China’s diplomatic coup means for India, I want to ask you about two other areas where this is likely to have a fairly important, if not serious, impact.

Do you begin to see the conflict in Yemen, where the Saudis and the Iranians, are supporting different sides ending? And along with that do you also see a significant impact in Syria and Lebanon, where the two countries also were frequently at odds with each other? 

As far as Syria is concerned, the basis for war is over. Bashar al-Assad is not going to be toppled. There’s not going to be any regime change. Most Arab countries today are busy accommodating Bashar Assad. Most of them have opened embassies. The Saudis could also do that at some point. There is talk of calling Bashar Assad back into the Arab Spring as well. So I think Syria doesn’t seem as grim as it was a few years ago.

With regard to Yemen, we’ve had a year-long truce. Saudi Arabia has legitimate and very substantial strategic concerns relating to Yemen. It shares a 400-kilometre, very porous border with Yemen, but it would not like to have a hostile power in Yemen. The problem from the Saudi side, and I blame them for that, is to view all politics in the region from a sectarian point of view. Just because the Zaidis are a Shia group, it was assumed in Riyadh that they are surrogates of the Iranians. They are not. 

Can I interrupt? One of the flash points between Saudi Arabia and Iran was in fact the conflict in Yemen. the Iranians were supporting the Houthis. The Houthis were often firing missiles into Saudi Arabian territory. Do you see that lessening, because if it doesn’t, then this brokering of a new deal between the two countries doesn’t mean very much?  

The Saudi assessment was wrong that the Zaidis and the Houthis are surrogates of Iran. They are not. They are independent role players. They have a legitimate stake in the region. Their ancestors ruled Yemen for more than a thousand years, and till recently the Zaidis were and had reasonably good relations.  

But what will be the impact on Yemen of this arrangement to resume full ambassador relations?

I believe that the result will be, the impact will be very positive. I think that, and as you know, the agreement has been welcomed by the Houthis. I think the result will be very positive. The Iranians have much less of a stake in Yemen compared to the Saudis. Saudis have a legitimate stake. Their miscalculation was to see the Houthis as puppets of Iran. They are not puppets of Iran, they are legitimate. They are a legitimate presence in Yemen.

I have a feeling that this is what will be conveyed by the Iranians who will promise their good offices, but the requirement will be that the Houthis will have to be accepted as an integral part of the Yemeni political and economic order. How the Saudis achieve this is a challenge for them. Iranians are much less active role players there. 

What about Lebanon? Will there be an impact on Lebanon?

You see, the Lebanon issue is not a direct area of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia backs Hezbollah, but Hezbollah has not threatened anybody, but again the Saudis had seen them as a surrogate of the Iranians, and therefore a source of threat for Saudi interest. It’s not true.

Lebanon has very serious problems of its own. Its political order is in shambles, it needs to get its act together. What Lebanon needs is the support of all countries of the region to promote its economic and political order now. I think all going well. Hezbollah by the way is a constructive role player in Lebanon, they are part of the government. They have a non-communal approach in Lebanon. So I think what you may find is the absence of discord between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The prospects of improvement within Lebanon are very high.

The other country in the region that will be both affected and also in this instance deeply concerned about what China has pulled off is Israel. At the moment, it has its most extreme right-wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu. How will Israel view what’s been pulled off by China? 

Israel today is a deeply polarised country. It has no consensus on any issue. Even with regard to the nuclear agreement with Iran, there are deep divisions within its security establishment, less in the political establishment. I think that Israel needs to get its own house in order. You have seen that half a million Israelis demonstrated in different parts of Israel against Netanyahu’s initiative to protect himself from judicial wrath. Now, this is grossly selfish and undermines the democratic and judicial framework. 

Tell me, how will Israel view this resumption of full diplomatic relations? 

They are concerned. 

Between Iran, who it does not like, and Saudi Arabia, who they had wanted to get close to. 

On the basis of highlighting the threat from Iran, Israel had hoped that it would be seen as a valid and credible security partner by the Saudis and that the Saudis would reach out to Israel even if they did nothing positive with regard to the Palestinians, and continued to kill them. But that is now not a major prospect.

If relations between these two Gulf neighbours improve, Israel doesn’t become a role player. Israel will then be under pressure to do things with regard to the Palestinians. The Palestinian cause is not withering away, it is not going away, regardless of what the right wing in Israel and the US may say. Israel will ultimately have to deal with the Palestinians.

Absolutely! But this is not about the Palestinians. This is about how Israel will respond to the brokering of a really diplomatic coup. And what you are saying is that Israel’s hopes of getting closer to Saudi Arabia, because of the Saudi and Israeli shared distrust of Iran, those hopes have diminished, if they haven’t been dashed.

Absolutely correct, and I think that is the way the whole politics will pan out. You are likely to see that the Saudis are deeply committed to the Palestinians. They have no choice. They are a large country, they have a very sensitive population, and they themselves have an Arab peace plan on the table. Regardless of whether King Salman is with us or not, there is no way Prince Muhammad bin Salman can pursue normalisation in public, so long as the Palestinian issue remains on the front burner. So, I think that the Israelis are losing out here. 

Okay, so the Israelis are in fact the biggest losers in a sense, alongside the United States which has seen its rival score a victory and a coup in an area where American influence used to be dominant, but is now receding.

Against that background let’s ask the question, how do you believe this Chinese diplomatic coup will be viewed by New Delhi? At the moment as far as I know, there is no comment or statement made by the Ministry of External Affairs about how they view this achievement. other countries have welcomed it, but as far as I know, there’s only been silence from the MEA in Delhi.

Now let me put this to you: on the one hand, India has traditionally good and close relations with both Tehran and Riyadh, and this is despite the fact that the Saudi Crown Prince and the Iranian foreign minister both cancelled visits to Delhi in the last few months, but nonetheless, our relationship with those countries is close.

Therefore I presume, we will welcome them coming closer to each other as well. But on the other, we have a very fraught relationship with Beijing, and I don’t think we would like or be comfortable with the fact that China gets the credit for bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran closer together. So what do you believe will be the view from the MEA? 

For far too long, in New Delhi, we have lived with rhetoric and delusion as a substitute for foreign policy. The kind of seriousness of approach supported by a long-term vision of India’s interest has been totally absent, and it doesn’t need an Einstein to tell us that you cannot make, you cannot create a make-believe world of rhetoric and keep on pounding the pulpit saying, ‘What a great nation we are! Everybody loves us, everyone respects us.’ That is absolute nonsense. We are so focused on the domestic scenario, so focused on the next election that we have taken all eyes off serious things that matter to us.

Also read: Always Advocated Diplomacy for Resolving Differences: India’s Cautious Response to Iran-Saudi Pact

Now let’s go back and let me illustrate. With regard to the Gulf, we have been best placed for several years to be the provider of stability and peace in the region. We’ve had the highest credibility in the region. We have a relationship that goes back 5,000 years. There is a very high degree of cultural comfort on both sides. Every joint statement the prime minister entered into in different Arab capitals in the Gulf spoke of the strategic partnership, spoke of the role India could play in promoting stability, and also welcomed the very strong centuries-long relationship.  

I had argued and I have done so for several years, and it is attested by the academic papers and articles I’ve written, that India should now give up this approach of having transactional and bilateral relations. That era has gone. What is now there is a churn in the region. They are looking for new players and India is number one in this regard.  

What you are saying, Ambassador Ahmad, can I interrupt, what you are saying is India had an opportunity to play a greater, bigger, deeper role, but they did not.

Absolutely, absolutely.

Now, that is an option that may have passed. Let me bring you back to the question I had asked you. How will Delhi view this diplomatic coup that China has pulled off? After all, the two countries are close friends of us, but the credit is going to Beijing, with whom we have a very troubled relationship. 

It is an embarrassment. What I would say to you is that this is where we should have been. This is what we said. There were several offers, who wrote articles, and we wrote joint articles saying that, ‘Look India must come in.’ The region expects India to come in I also pointed out that India-

That’s the past. That’s the past. Those articles were not heeded. They weren’t acted upon, so answer my question. How, today, will New Delhi view this? You said it’s an embarrassment. Then how concerned would New Delhi be? 

India has abdicated all responsibility, in terms of promoting stability in the region. We are going back to the ties, which are sustaining ties based on trade, investment, joint ventures, and also protecting our communities’ interests. We are not going to be the sources of stability and peace that we could have been. We never expected that China would emerge, but there have been people writing on this, that China is building up assets in the region. I myself have written on that and there are many other more distinguished people saying that China’s approach to the region is slowly changing.

As long ago as 2020, one of my friends in the Gulf wrote an article saying that China’s academics are already talking about quasi-mediation policy and they are saying that China is now going to become a political player in the region. Not a security provider, not a security guarantor, but an active political and diplomatic player to support its economic engagement. 

So, what you’re saying is that not only did India have an opportunity to play the role that China has played and pulled off so successfully, but India was being advised by people writing articles to say this is your opportunity, but we didn’t.

Against that background, that we had our opportunity we didn’t take it, China has taken it and pulled it off miraculously. How then will India and China hereafter be viewed internationally? Would this deal put China on an altogether different and far higher level than India in terms of its diplomatic clout and in terms, and of how the Global South responds to both countries?

With the deepest anguish, I must say to you, Karan, hardly any country takes India seriously. We are so self-absorbed and we dine out on delusion and rhetoric, that’s very difficult to believe anything that emulates here. In any case, all the rhetoric that we hear in Delhi is not directed at foreign audiences, it’s only directed, it’s confined to domestic audiences because it has domestic compulsions.

Looking outside, it’s very clear to me and, it’s not again you don’t need to be Einstein, the G20 is today. The G7 has made it clear that they no longer need this platform to engage with developing countries. They are totally focused on pursuing their own interests and the issues that challenge them are not issues that need them to be talking with G20. In this background, India came up with the idea of being the voice of the South. I support that. I believe that is the way. it is part of our legacy. 

Representational image. Photo: Twitter/@g20org

Can I interrupt you there? Given that India is now portraying itself as the voice of the South, and China is the country that’s pulled off this incredible diplomatic coup in the Middle East, which is very much a part of the South. How will those Global South countries view the two, India and China? Have we lost out to China in their eyes? Is China now on a higher diplomatic level than us? That’s my question.

I don’t believe world affairs function on the basis of a zero-sum game. Yes, there are challenges, there are rivalries, there are competitions, but we should be able to be credible with regard to being the voice of the Global South. There is enough space for both China and India to play a constructive role in the South. We should be, where we lack, where the Chinese do better than us, they are very clear-headed, very committed, they have a vision, they garner the resources to support that vision, and they also locate the personnel who will see through their interests.

Also read: As New Power Equations Emerge in West Asia, India Can Only Stand and Watch

In our case, we tend to have a lot more rhetoric and very little substance in terms of follow-up. I don’t necessarily criticise only the political leadership. You need diplomacy. Diplomats have to be deployed for this purpose. Resources have been to be provided. We talk of Africa, it is one huge continent, but we have done a lot over there. You need to do a lot on a long-term basis. Come up with ideas there is enough space in the South for both China and India and I believe India has a legitimate role there.

Now as I said India has of course excellent relations with both Riyadh and Tehran, which is one reason we would welcome the two of them getting closer to each other. But our neighbour, Pakistan, has equally good relations with Riyadh and Tehran. The difference is Islamabad also has excellent relations with Beijing, which we don’t. Islamabad and Beijing are all-weather allies. Now clearly there will be, I imagine, in Islamabad not just the satisfaction that their ally has pulled off a diplomatic coup, but also a measure of satisfaction that India is discomforted by this.

Yes, I think that would indeed be the case. You see Pakistan is in such a situation that it rejoices at these small achievements and small victories. I tend not to see Pakistan as a serious challenge, nor am I agitated too much with regard to whether they are happy or not. I am more concerned with India’s interest. We have let Iran down very, very, very frequently. Right from 2003 when Chabahar was offered to us and we were allowed to construct all those roads to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Moscow, and we subordinated our relationship to our ties with the United States. Enter Donald Trump, we accepted in full the very onerous conditions of the sanctions, and again let down the Iranians and our relationship with them.

What did the Chinese do? The Chinese never stopped buying Iranian oil. Not only have they been buying a lot of oil from China from Iran, but they have also signed a 25-year Comprehensive Security Strategic Partnership Agreement, which is said to be about 400 billion dollars or what have you.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, what I have noticed, and I again say this with deep anguish, where is the political leadership leading from the front? Is our relationship now in the hands of corporations? Is that what we have done? That we have created the space and the companies rush in.

I believe the Gulf is far more important to us in terms of our long-term strategic interests. You would say to me, ‘Oh, this is now yesterday’s news.’ Yes, it is. But I have to emphasise this because very few people are doing that. That there are opportunities for us that we should have seized. Even now I am saying to you the kind of ties we should have with the Gulf. Don’t corporatise them. They must be intensely security-based, intensely political and strategic. We are not doing any of that, and that is what my regret is. 

Let me come to something else. Let me come to another aspect of what I call the India-China rivalry. India believes that it is ought to be the preeminent power in the South Asian region. After all, we are by far the largest economy, the largest country, and as far as the world is concerned, the most important country. However, increasingly China is a rival of us in South Asia.

What will be the impact on China’s influence in South Asia of this diplomatic coup that China has pulled off? And I don’t just mean Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, I mean Afghanistan, and in particular, I mean Bhutan, that’s one area where the India-China rivalry is most pronounced. So what will be the impact of China’s influence in South Asia?

Very clearly the days of the Raj are over. The Raj in British India was the dominant presence in South Asia. It could also cower down China at that time and Tibet. That era is gone, and we should have been realistic enough. What happened is we inherited the mindset of the Raj as far as South Asia is concerned and forgot to look at the rest of the context in which that had flourished.

You cannot tell any country today that, ‘I have the monopoly of relations with you, and I will determine your foreign policy, and I will determine your security interests.’ That’s not going to happen, and the minute you do that you are opening the ground for these very same countries, who have been historically engaged with India, looking at other options as well. And the kind of tone that we use, the kind of demands, that we make, the kind of bargains we seek to impose upon them, none of that is acceptable in South Asia.

Therefore, on the flip side, will Chinese influence in South Asia now grow, because China has established this pretty incredible relationship, restarting full diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Will that enhance China’s standing, give it a louder voice, and increase its influence further?

It has already been very substantial well before this Iran-Saudi agreement. It is based on the dynamics of the region. It’s very very clear that India has lost a lot of credibility in South Asia and we need to do something quite different. My approach is that South Asia, a country in South Asia must be treated with respect. It must be told we are not hegemonic, we are here to look after your interest to the extent you are comfortable with it. Yes, we will support you wherever you need, but we are not going to be the big brother that you have sensed up to now. We have certain strengths and we have certain capacities, and they don’t want to be wedded to one power over another. They want to carry the option. India must be a credible option. 

My last question Ambassador Ahmad is could this Chinese diplomatic coup have an impact on the forthcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit, as well as the G20 Summit, both of which are going to be happening in New Delhi sometime in the next six months? After all, China and Iran are members of the SCO. China and Saudi Arabia are members of the G20. So could there be an impact on both those summits? 

While China has pulled off a significant diplomatic coup, it does not enjoy exclusive relations with any country. As I mentioned earlier all countries in the region want to have a multiplicity of engagement, and not a single country will ever turn it back on India.

The challenge, therefore, upon us is to be credible partners. Actually, partners that are truly engaged. What has been missing has been a lack of seriousness of long-term commitment and purpose. Because of the obsession with things domestic, all the rhetoric and all the illusions that have been projected are at the domestic audience. I don’t believe it will impact either the G20 Summit or the SCO. They are all very mature countries. All of them respect India, and all of them would be present in good numbers at these Summits. But let us look beyond the tamasha of the summit. Where are we going substantially?


Believe that this is again a wake-up call to India, that for far too long we wasted our resources cultivating domestic audiences, for domestic purposes, pursuing agendas that do not necessarily do much credit to us. As I have said to you before, I say it again, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” must be a reality at home before it can be accepted abroad. Do you think that people don’t know these things abroad? So I would say to you that be credible, be serious, have a long-term vision, and provide resources to support your vision. You are still respected and there will be things we can do. 

Ambassador thank you very much for making time for me, and in particular for explaining the multitude of implications of what I call China’s diplomatic coup. It’s matter which I should point out to the audience that up until now today, Monday, March 13, there is silence from the MEA and South Block. We do not know officially at any rate how the Indian government responds to this and that leads to the concern or perhaps I should say suspicion that fact that China gets the credit. The fact that this elevates China to a diplomatic level that is higher than India in the eyes of not just the Global South, but many other countries would be discomforting, understandably so. It, nonetheless, is how it has seen if the government continues to say nothing. Thank you for joining me. Take care, and stay safe.

Thank you very much.  

Transcribed by Prashanthi Subbaiah