When I was a child, we had a family friend who worked at a think tank. Unsure whether the tank might contain soldiers or water, I asked my father what a think tank was. “A lot of clever people sit down and think as hard as they can until someone has a good idea.” I am not sure if this is an accurate description. In my experience, think tanks or policy institutes spend much of their time figuring out what other people in the field are thinking, guessing the future and planning strategy around it. If they are lucky, a politician or a ministry will follow their advice.
I spent last week at the India Trilateral Forum in Bengaluru, a twice-yearly dialogue between analysts, politicians, bureaucrats and business people from India, Europe and the United States. It struck me while I was there how rare it is for those with radically different experiences and worldviews to sit down and listen to each other. Most of the time―even when we think we are being open-minded―we are debating with others from a similar sphere of interest. The Bengaluru gathering was unusual. Where else would American securocrats, a left-wing Indian editorial writer, European diplomats, a technological wizard, voices from rival Indian political parties and a China specialist come together and speak?
To encourage everyone to talk freely, no one at the India Trilateral Forum can be quoted outside the room by name. So here, anonymously, are what seemed to me some of the conference’s important strands.
First, India receives substantial goodwill, and foreigners are inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. This does not mean they are blind to the country’s problems and challenges, but rather that they think India is a cause for optimism at a time of global flux. Some of this is connected to the new BJP government, but it is also linked to territorial stability, democracy and the prospect of inclusive economic development. When it comes to reforms, both Indians and non-Indians were adamant they could not be piecemeal if investment is to continue. “Make In India cannot only be about improving India’s exports. India has to make imports easier if this policy is going to work.”
Second, Europe is in a bind. Apart from its own representatives, almost nobody had a good word for the European Union, which faces an economic slowdown. “What the EU lacks and has no prospect of getting is an army―will you ever be able to play in the strategic arena without one?” asked an Indian voice. The EU has spent seven years negotiating a free trade agreement with India that has gone nowhere. I felt sympathy for the EU voice that answered: “We have no army, but we have the capability to bring 28 countries together and ask, ‘Can we do something?’” The European Union’s greater problem may be that its tolerant, social democratic, post-World War II ambitions do not seem to speak to the 21st century.
Third, international relations are more volatile than they used to be, and this could work to India’s benefit. It can remain friends, for example, with the US and Russia. Doors may remain open, but instability is not going away. Pakistan remains China’s close ally in foreign policy, and China’s next moves may not favour India. As for the arrival of Chinese soldiers on India’s border during President Xi’s visit in September, the expert view was that it was far from accidental. “Was it a rogue operation? That is not a likely scenario. It’s likely it was planned and thought out.”
There was no consensus at the India Trilateral Forum―that was not the purpose of the meeting. But we did all leave with a clearer idea of how other countries regard their own interests, and those of their allies and opponents.
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