Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

"Priorities for Engagement": An Interview with Ambassador Meera Shankar

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)


Full Text

Meera Shankar is India's ambassador to the United States. She is the first serving Indian Foreign Service Officer to be ambassador to Washington in more than two decades. Prior to assuming her post in April 2009, she was India's ambassador to Germany.

Amb. Shankar was promoted to Additional Secretary in 2002 with responsibility for the United Nations and International Security, a position she held until she departed New Delhi for Berlin. This is her second stint in Washington, having held the commerce portfolio at the embassy from 1991 to 1995.

On August 20th, Amb. Shankar graciously responded to The Journal's interest in the future of Indo-U.S. relations, the fight against terrorists and their state supporters, and relations with Pakistan and China.

The past decade has seen a remarkable turnaround in relations between India and the United States. India is now seen as a key strategic partner for the United States in Asia, and an ally on a number of vital international initiatives. What do you see as the brightest spots in the current Indo-American relationship? What are the biggest challenges?

Yes, India-U.S. relations have been transformed over the past decade. Both countries are committed to deepening our strategic partnership, drawing strength from shared values; there is broad political support in both countries and mutual confidence and respect in our engagement. While the civil nuclear agreement signed in October 2008 is a powerful symbol of the new relationship, I attach great value to the fact that we have seen progress across the board in our engagement, not only on strategic and security issues, but also in science and technology, and social and economic sectors. There has been strong growth in trade and investment ties in both directions. There are increasingly vibrant private partnerships and warm ties between our peoples, in part due to the 2.7-million-person Indian community in the U.S.

Secretary Clinton's visit to India in July 2009 was very successful and productive. President Obama will host Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as his first state guest on November 24, 2009. Closer relations between our two countries are important for meeting India's development goals, and for dealing with shared global challenges. Beyond strengthening our bilateral cooperation, supporting global economic recovery and stability, promoting stability in our neighborhood, countering extremist violence and terrorism, preventing proliferation and working for the interlinked concepts of energy, environmental and food security will be the priorities for our engagement.

The November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai were a sobering reminder that India is among those countries most directly affected by the scourge of international terrorism. What is the nature of the terrorist threat to India today, and how is the Indian government addressing it?

India has been facing terrorism, mostly emanating across the border from Pa- kistan. The terrorist attack on Mumbai on November 26th of last year, which took terrorism directed against India to a new level, was also masterminded and executed by a Pakistani terrorist group. We are reforming our laws, institutions, systems and capabilities for dealing with terrorism. We are strengthening international cooperation, including intelligence sharing. It is imperative that Pakistan prosecutes those responsible for the Mumbai attack and irreversibly dismantles the entire infrastructure of violent extremism and terrorism on its territory. We are directly engaged with Pakistan on this issue. It is not merely India's problem, but an international challenge and should be part of the international community's goal of eliminating extremist sanctuaries in Pakistan, since groups that operate from there, whether they target India or the West, are now strongly interlinked.

Back in May 2009, U.S. Central Command commander General David Petraeus famously warned that, unless the Pakistani government formulated a serious counter-terrorism strategy in short order, the stability of the entire country could be forfeit. How does your government see the current situation in Pakistan? What are the implications for regional stability? And what, exactly, should be done?

India would like to see a strong, stable, moderate, democratic and prosperous Pakistan as its neighbor. We desire cooperative and friendly relations with Pa- kistan. We share the international community's concerns about the deterioration in the situation there. We have a stake in the success of the international community's efforts to stabilize Pakistan, strengthen forces of democracy and moderation in that country and eliminate extremist sanctuaries there.

But the challenges faced by Pakistan have to be ultimately addressed by the polity and the people of Pakistan. It is important that democracy is strengthened, there is rapid and inclusive social and economic development, and that Pakistan ceases to be a base for extremism and regional instability.

Relations between Pakistan and India can rightly be described as a rollercoaster. What is the state of relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, and how do you see ties between the two countries evolving?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in Parliament this past July that it is in India's vital interest to make efforts to live in peace with Pakistan. Indeed, recent history bears out the efforts we have made. For five years, from 2004 to 2008, the two countries had their most comprehensive and sustained dialogue ever, which led to deeper people-to-people engagement; more links between the two countries, including across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir; and, progress across a range of issues. The terrorist attack on our embassy in Kabul followed by the Mumbai attack, however, cast a deep shadow on the relationship.

Prime Minister Singh has underlined that it would be impossible for any government in India to work towards full normalization of relations with Pakistan unless the Government of Pakistan fulfills, in letter and spirit, its commitment not to allow its territory to be used in any manner for terrorist activities against India. That really holds the key to the evolution of our relationship on a more durable basis.

Beyond Pakistan, India also has an uneasy relationship with the People's Republic of China. Recent months have seen an upsurge of destabilizing activity along the shared border between the two countries, and stepped-up Chinese claims over Arunachal Pradesh. How does New Delhi intend to counter this increasingly assertive behavior on the part of the PRC?

Relations with China are an important priority for our foreign policy. We have had sustained engagement with China over the past thirty years. During Prime Minister Singh's visit to China in January 2008, he and Premier Wen Jiabao of China outlined a "Shared Vision for the 21st Century." We have agreed to build a relationship of friendship and trust based on equality and sensitivity to each other's concerns. Our bilateral trade has grown rapidly and is now U.S. $50 billion, and we are committed to increasing it to $60 billion by 2010. People-to-people exchanges have increased. The two countries have also established a defense dialogue and our armed forces have conducted joint exercises by way of confidence building.

We continue to make efforts to resolve the outstanding border issue. It is our belief that there is sufficient space for two larger countries such as India and China to grow, co-exist peacefully and build a cooperative relationship.