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Why countries choose to remain neutral and what responsibilities come with it – The Conversation Weekly podcast transcript

Signpost with Great Powers pointing one way and Non-Aligned pointing the other.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made some countries reassess their neutrality. M-SUR/Shutterstock

This is a transcript of The Conversation Weekly podcast episode: Neutrality: why countries choose not to join a war and what responsibilities come with it, published on May 5, 2022.

NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Daniel: Hello and welcome to The Conversation Weekly.

Gemma Ware: This week, when war breaks out, what does it mean to remain neutral? We explore the advantages and disadvantages of neutrality and what responsibilities come with the choice to not take sides.

Dan Merino: We spoke with a historian about how an age of neutrality emerged in the 19th century and the lessons it has for the war in Ukraine.

Maartje Abbenuis: I would argue that British power was dependent on this policy of neutrality in Europe.

Gemma: And we ask a foreign policy expert about why one country in particular – India – is staying neutral over Ukraine.

Swaran Singh: India is not saying we have nothing to do with the conflict, but it’s very proactive.

Daniel: I’m Dan Merino in San Francisco.

Gemma: And I’m Gemma Ware in London. You’re listening to The Conversation Weekly, the world explained by experts.

Dan, I want to show you a list. I’m sending you this link. Can you click on it?

Dan: OK, clicking…

Gemma: And then scroll down. Can you see that big black box?

Dan: Yes, I can.

Gemma: OK. So describe what you’re seeing.

Dan: All right. So I’m looking at a big black box with a list of countries, mostly green pluses saying in favour, five against in red. This is Syria, Russia, North Korea, Eritrea and Belarus.

Gemma: So this is a list of how different countries voted on a vote on March 2 at the UN General Assembly on a resolution demanding that Russia stops its offensive in Ukraine, and immediately withdraw all its troops. As you said, there are five countries that voted against this resolution and 141 countries voted for it, but there were 35 countries that abstained. So tell us some of these countries.

Dan: It looks like a nice smattering of countries. There’s Algeria and Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, El Salvador, India, Iran, Iraq, China. Oh, China also was abstaining here. A lot of countries though, none of the “big western powers”, so to speak.

Gemma: Exactly. And all these countries abstained on this vote at the UN General Assembly and by doing so they’ve essentially chosen to remain neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Dan: I imagine China, which chose to stay neutral, has very different reasons for doing so, than say a country like Senegal. And, it seems like this is probably a very case by case basis.

Gemma: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And for this episode, I’ve actually been finding out that this is something that’s been happening throughout history. Countries that choose to remain neutral really have to weigh up the pros and cons of doing so very carefully. And, you really have to understand the dynamics in that country. So in this episode, we’re actually going to zoom right down into one country in particular to find out what’s going on and about its decision to remain neutral. And that country is India.

Swaran Singh: India’s position on Ukraine crisis as I view it, I call it proactive neutrality, which means India would not be comfortable taking any one of the sides in the conflict either to stand with Russia completely or to stand with US and its friends and allies.

Gemma: This is Swaran Singh. He’s a professor of diplomacy and disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, where he studies India’s foreign policy. And I called him up to find out why India has remained neutral on Ukraine.

Read more: Why India chose a path of 'proactive neutrality' on Ukraine

Swaran: India’s not saying we have nothing to do with the conflict, but it’s very proactive. A good example of it would be how, unlike most other countries, India was one unique country that decided to rescue about 22,500 Indian nationals in middle of the war in Ukraine. And not only Indians, India also decided and managed to rescue 147 other nationals out of the war zone.

News clip: India has launched a massive evacuation plan. It’s called Operation Ganga. Under which about 46 flights will fly out Indian nationals out of…

Swaran: And that reflected the very close intense engagement of India’s diplomacy – both in Moscow and Kyiv. So India’s focus was to bring relief, to begin with two Indian nationals on the ground. And of course, since then India has been constantly involved in sending whatever India can now of humanitarian assistance to people on the ground. So India has made a distinction of working at two levels. One being in constant conversation with all the parties, whether it is President Joe Biden or President Putin, or President Zelensky and several European leaders, and of course, China, Japan and others, basically ensuring if India can contribute to the early cessation of violence and early beginning of direct dialogue.

But without waiting for that to happen India has constantly been focused on ensuring the world draws attention on what is happening in terms of death and destruction on the ground every day in Ukraine and contribute to whatever humanitarian assistance India can do on the ground. So India has therefore been very proactive, but nevertheless, neutral on Ukrainian crisis.

Gemma: And why has India remained neutral on the Ukraine crisis?

Swaran: What I today call proactive neutrality actually is rooted very deeply in India’s tradition of non-alignment, which itself was a result of India’s kind of liberation, struggle, collapse of colonial empires, decolonisation.

And it grew from there with that sense of a new generation of national leaders across Asia, Africa and Latin America coming together with a new vision. And therefore to begin with, they had their first meeting of about 29 heads of state in Indonesia in Bandung conference in 1955, which is where they develop this new sense of Afro-Asian movement.

And later they also expanded and met again as a formal non-aligned movement in 1961 in Belgrade. In Belgrade, they actually created a criterion of what would qualify for any country to become a member of non-aligned movement. And that showcases that it was not completely avoiding participation in international affairs, but simply saying that they will steer clear from military alliances of east and west; nevertheless, continue with their struggle and then support national liberation movements, self-determination. Opposition to apartheid was one great issue for all of them.

Read more: As Ukraine war deepens great-power divisions, a revitalized non-aligned movement could emerge

So it was a very proactive approach in nonalignment only thing is it was anchored in the cold war context. And when the old war came to an end, there was a discussion as to what happens to non-alignment. It is still there of course, but India, meanwhile, also has emerged as one of the major countries. It’s no longer seen as a third world, least developed country now. And in that sense, India has since then moved from non-alignment to multi-alignments, which is where India is trying to build partnerships with as many countries as possible.

In that sense, multi-alignment now explains why India is perfectly at home being perhaps one of the maybe only country where all parties to conflict are finding themselves at comfort with India, but also at the same time, not most pleased because India is not siding with any of them. So, you know, all of them are trying to push and nudge India to take their side. But India has continued to be proactive and neutral because that is what India’s foreign policy – culturally civilisationally and politically has been all the time. And it also means India has done cost-benefit analysis, and it feels that that proactive neutrality ensures maximum benefits with minimum costs.

Dan: Maximum benefits with minimum costs. Well, that sure sounds like a good deal, but I got to imagine that’s a pretty tricky balancing act to pull off in the complicated world of international relations.

Gemma: It really is. And we’re going to hear more from Swaran Singh about what that actually means for India and its relationship with Russia and the west, in particular, the United States a bit later in this episode. First of all, what do you imagine when I say neutral in the context of a war?

Dan: Well, as an American, my brain immediately goes to world war I and world war II, where the United States really tried not to get involved in the wars until we didn’t have a choice, but today it seems more complicated … We don’t have troops in Ukraine right now, but we’re sending guns and money and all this stuff. So I don’t know, it’s kind of this tricky, blurry line, it feels like.

Gemma: That blurry definition of what neutrality means today in the context of Ukraine versus what it used to mean back in say the 19th century is a really interesting question and I called up a historian who is an expert on neutrality to find out more.

Maartje Abbenhuis: My name’s Maartje Abbenhuis. I’m a professor in modern history at Waipapa Taumata Rau, which is the University of Auckland. And I specialise in the history of really broadly war peace, neutrality, and international norms, mainly in the long 19th century and the first world war era.

Gemma: Why is this history, this history of neutrality that you’ve spent your career studying, why is it important to understanding this moment we’re in now this reaction globally, that different parts of the world are having to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Maartje: For me, it’s this moment, there is a war between two distinct countries. We have Russia and we have Ukraine and everyone else is not taking part as a belligerent, is not fighting this war militarily, even if it’s supplying military materials or money or support in other ways. And that is by my definition, the definition of what it is to be neutral.

In order to be able to study neutrality over time, you need a very broad definition of what it is to be non-belligerent, not fighting when others are. And so if you say, let’s look at this war through the lens of what the countries, the states, the governments, the people who are not officially at war, what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, how they’re portraying this, what are their fears and worries, how are they moralising this, it opens up space for us to ask really important questions about what it is that we value, what it is that we want to see happen. How can we bring the conflict to a close faster? What responsibilities really do we, the neutral world, take for war?

Gemma: I want to understand a bit about the history of neutrality. So, when did the concept of neutrality first emerge and why?

Maartje: I think the choice to not go to war has probably existed since there were communities that used violence to try to exact something from each other or territories or space or rights or privileges, etc. And in all warfare, there have always been groups, states, governments that have tried to carve out a space for themselves for their own protection and safety to not take part, to remove themselves from conflict. So it’s pretty much a constant.

However, when we talk about neutrality today in international setting, it’s something that has a very formal history related to international laws of war, of course, very European inspired and influenced. By the time you get to the early modern period in Europe, you get a real discourse around this. There’s debates about the rights of states and governments not to take part in war. So, you know, Machiavelli says “no, no, nobody wants a neutral in a war because you can’t be trusted by the winners, the conquerors, because you didn’t stand with them and you won’t be trusted by the defeated because you didn’t help defend them.” So there’s no space for neutrality in that kind of world.

Read more: Neutrality: why countries choose not to join a war and what responsibilities come with it – podcast

But by the 17th century you have Hugo Grotius, who is a very famous international lawyer of the time and continues to be quite important in international law today, talking about the fact that, yes, you can be neutral when other kings or princes go to war with each other, but you have to stick to very strict rules. So you can’t trade unequally. So you have to be impartial in your conduct between the warring parties.

The notion of claiming neutrality becomes more standardised through the 18th century. So once the United States becomes a country in the late 18th century and at the outbreak of the French revolutionary wars, Thomas Jefferson stands up and says “the United States is not taking part in any war in Europe. We don’t care about your revolutions, we’re a new state, we’re weak. We declare ourselves neutral.”

And so, by the time we hit the 19th century we have an expansion of neutral governments claiming rights. So we have a right to the open seas. If I’m a neutral, no privateer, no pirate can seize my cargo at sea because I’m flying a flag from a country that’s not taking part in this war.

Gemma: In this period, in the 19th century when more and more countries were claiming neutrality what did it actually mean to be neutral?

Maartje: So after the Napoleonic wars, so from about 1815 on, there was three ways to be neutral. And this is where it gets complicated because neutrality is not just a choice not to go to war. It can also be an assigned status that international society gives a country or a territory or even a canal. So Switzerland was neutralised in 1815 by agreement of the great powers.

Belgium was neutralised in the 1830s after its cessation from the Netherlands by agreement of the great European powers. The Suez canal is neutralised in the 1860s in order to allow all states to use it for their ships as long as they pay a fee to the canal company. Neutralisation becomes more common as a way of removing certain pieces of land, territory, people, resources from competition.

Gemma: So, that’s the first one. So it’s a kind of treaty, basically.

Maartje: The easy one, the neutralised one, the treaty based one. And then there were two other ways to be neutral. One of which was voluntary neutrality. So these were states and countries, usually small ones, but not always small ones – United States was a rather large power and it pretty much adopted this foreign policy choice.

You assert to the world. “We don’t intend to go to war with anyone. We will have a military, but that military is only there to defend our borders and our trade interests when others go to war, it’s not there to wage war.” And so that was the second one.

And both of these statuses could only exist because of the third kind of neutrality, which was what I call occasional neutrality, which is the choice that had to be made when any state went to war with any other state, all the other neighbours and other states in the world actually formally either declared their neutrality or were neutral de facto, they didn’t go to war as well. And it’s that reality that there was so many countries repeatedly through the 19th century that did not go to war when others did that kept war contained to usually no more than two great powers that you get this age of neutrality and with it, the framing of more and more rights and obligations.

Gemma: What were these laws of neutrality and these agreements that started emerging in the 19th century and how did they work?

Maartje: The laws of neutrality were increasingly written down and agreed upon between states. So the declaration of Paris in 1856 after the Crimean war declared that privateering is illegal. And so that has become a law of war. At the Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907 you get these rules about territorial integrity.

A belligerent cannot move their troops into neutral territory. If they do, then the neutral must intern those troops and take away their armaments. Neutral countries cannot be spaces for espionage and a neutral government must do everything in its power to prevent espionage being conducted on its territory.

Aeroplanes. When aeroplanes become a thing, a belligerent aeroplanes can’t fly over neutral airspace. If they do the neutral can shoot them down.

Gemma: So these laws all stand today, these, these laws in some form.

Maartje: Yep. And so they’re still contested because you law always flexes with the changing times and the needs of the governments and the international space at the time, but they’re there and they’re written down and they can’t be changed.

The other law that’s really significant in all of this is international humanitarian law, which was enabled in the 19th century by neutral agreements to provide aid in time of war. So you, when you get the establishment of the Geneva conventions in 1864, which effectively say all wounded have a right to care on a battlefield. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s an enemy or a neutral. You must give care to a wounded person. That effectively is embodied as a law of neutrality because the medical personnel who provide that care were neutralised. And so in that sense, the law is also about protecting neutral institutions, neutral functions and war that are so important to reducing its suffering, which is really, really perhaps the most important duty of neutral communities. And one that we’re also seeing, coming out in play right now and Ukraine as well.

Gemma: So what advantages, if any, did neutrality give states who declared themselves neutral in a conflict? Can you give us some examples?

Maartje: I guess what I really should just say is that neutrality is very much a tool of power. So if you are a small state, if you declare your neutrality, your primary aim is to defend yourself, protect yourself, protect your sovereignty. Make sure you continue to exist when very powerful states go to war with each other or at your borders and so forth. So in many ways it’s a defence mechanism.

But in terms of pragmatics, if you’re the British empire – super power of the 19th century – and the French and the Italians and the Austrians are squabbling over bits of southern Europe in the late 1850s, early 1860s, and you have no interest in going to war in Europe. And you don’t. So there’s a war in 1859, and it’s part of the Italian wars of unification. You can, if you defend and protect and adhere to your neutrality laws, and you proudly proclaim your neutrality as a humanitarian act, and you send help and aid to suffering and you report on the war and people are amazed and disgusted at the violence of the war, then your interests are served.

The French is rival economic empire. The Italians are problematic. The Austrians are an empire. While they are preoccupied, spending their money, making war with each other, you can keep your trade going. You can fund them. You can invest, you can send the military materials. You can’t send them ships, but you can send them pretty much anything else. And you can keep your empire going. You can keep sending settlers to New Zealand, Australia – gold rushes are on at about the same time. Your access to the world continues as long as you accept a basic set of rules and the belligerents, the warring powers, accept a basic set of rules, which is they won’t interfere with you unless you are breaking those rules.

So there’s everything to gain. Likewise, if you go to war, you have everything to lose because powerful rivals who are neutral can take over trading opportunities.

Gemma: Is there an example of that?

Maartje: Yeah. So in the Crimean war, the United States stayed neutral, for example. It takes the British and the French several months to join the war war that was fought between the Russians and the Ottoman empire to begin with, but they joined for all sorts of reasons. Despite the fact that both the British and the French are really concerned about the costs of this war for their economic and imperial interests, despite the fact that they put all these safeguards in place, they were still at war, which carried risks, including the risk of the Russian navy intercepting their ships.

So they actually lost a lot of economic access to say the Americans who at that stage were expanding through the Pacific. And one of the things that always strikes me as really significant about the Crimean war is that comes at the same time as what is called the opening up of Japan to the United States. Captain Perry sails into the closed borders of the Japanese empire at this time. So it’s not the British or a European empire that opens up this relationship with the Japanese, but the Americans, and this is in part because the British and the French are distracted with war in Europe.

So there is these costs to war, which makes you, you become more insular you focus on security interests. You have to prioritise the fighting of the conflict. And so that opens up opportunities for other states to take over interests.

Gemma: Just to sum up that really what you’re saying is that these moments in the 19th century where these great powers were declaring themselves, neutral actually gave them, more ability to kind of colonise other parts of the world to kind of make their empires bigger and more forceful and more violent.

Maartje: Absolutely. The Crimea war is the only war in which Britain ends up going to war was other great powers. After the Crimean war, there is a shift to neutrality in its relationships to Europe. So it tries to absolutely keep out of warfare with any of its imperial rivals all within Europe itself, other than that it’s doing a huge amount of diplomatic pressuring in situations of crisis. Meanwhile, that really does mean that it can focus on expanding its other interests and using its military force to quell resistance, uprisings, acquire territories, and colonise the world.

And in many ways I would argue that British power was dependent on this policy of neutrality in Europe. What looks like a century of peace, the Pax Britannica. Peaceful Britain was Pax Britannica because of a foreign policy of choices to not go to war with certain kinds of rivals and to therefore enable it to go to war with smaller, easily conquered territories and peoples and expand its empire.

But also it had a huge impact on its informal empire. So it’s ability to open up markets and invest in infrastructure around the world and create agreements with suppliers of materials and give loans to dependent groups and governments and communities. So the wealth of the British empire grew on this kind of “no war in Europe” or as little war in Europe as possible and expansion overseas.

Gemma: So obviously that changed. And then in the early 20th century, there was this huge world war. So how did world war one change what it meant to be neutral and the parameters of that?

Maartje: So you have a century where whenever there is a crisis, great power neutral governments interfere, try to resolve it by having a conference or behind the scenes diplomacy and so forth. In July 1914, that changed. And there are all sorts of reasons for that. And that meant that by the August 5, 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, ostensibly because Germany invaded the neutralised state of Belgium that you have a complete shift in the way things have done there. There is an understanding, and it’s registered across the world that the invasion of Belgium was such a shock because it breached this idea that had become kind of norm established, an expectation, that neutralised states and neutral small powers didn’t have to fear being invaded by a military power. And that moment when the Germans decide to move their troops through a neutral country, that is what changed the way in which international society worked.

Gemma: How did that shift change things after the war? What happened?

Maartje: So what happened during the war is that it made it almost impossible for other neutrals to stay neutral long-term and as the war became more invasive, economically and so forth. You get this tumbling effect where all sorts of countries have to go to war either they’re invaded or they’re forced to join, or they’re become part of a world at war because they’re part of a empire that’s at war with another empire. And the one great power that managed to stay neutral for much of this is the United States.

And the United States did what all neutrals do, which is make the most of that neutrality. And so the Americans funded, invested, sold goods, made huge profits on the suffering, on the war that was being fought between the great empires with their metropoles in Europe. And so what ends up happening is that by the time we had 1917, when the United States goes to war with Germany, the expectation that neutrality is something that states do and will be protected and is a useful part of functioning of international society, stabilises things keeps the peace sort of thing, has gone.

And so after world war one, you get the league of nations and after world war two, you get United Nations, you get the principle of collective security. Different way of trying to keep the peace, trying to avoid going towards each other. It has to be done through this formal institution. And that’s the system that we’ve had pretty much since 1918 in some way, shape or form. And kind of today with the invasion of Ukraine, we’re kind of at the cusp of, I think at change, a shift in the way, people see things being done. I see the invasion of Ukraine very much like contemporaries in 1914 saw the invasion of Belgium as “wow, that shouldn’t have happened.”

Something’s happening here that is unexpected and it is changing the way we think about how things are done, why things are done in those ways. So that’s why, aside from the violence of it, the suffering, it’s such a confronting conflict.

Gemma: What lessons are there from your work and your historical understanding of the concept of neutrality for the war that’s happening now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and what the world is doing?

Maartje: My greatest concern about the moment Ukraine is that it is important to stop and pause and just reflect on the responsibilities that we all have to what’s happening because this is not just a war that is happening somewhere else in which everyone else is standing by. Neutrality, non-belligerancy is never about standing by doing nothing head in the sand. And when we classify the rest of the world is not taking part, we’re actually misidentifying much of what’s going on because we collectively, our governments collectively, are responsible for trying to bring this to a close. And so behaving responsibly is really significant because there are millions of people’s lives at risk. Not least the risk of expanding a conflict unnecessarily to include more countries.

Gemma: OK well, thank you so much Maartje for your insights, they’ve been really valuable to helping us understand this concept of neutrality. We really appreciate it.

Maartje: Thank you so much for having me.

Gemma: We’re taking a quick pause here to ask you a little favour. We want to know what you think about our podcast. The Conversation Weekly launched in February, 2021 and this is our 64th episode. We hope if you’re a regular listener, you’ve learned something along the way.

Daniel: Whether you listen every week or if this is your first ever episode, we’d love to hear what you have to say about the show. Think it’s good. Think it’s bad. Any comments, critiques, anything. We’re doing a short listener survey and we’ve got a link to it in the show notes. It shouldn’t take you more than about five minutes.

Gemma: Thank you. And now back to the episode.

Dan: After hearing about the history of neutrality and the reasons why countries choose to be neutral, I want to know more about India’s case today.

Gemma: Yeah. India really is an interesting example of this balancing act. And it’s a balancing act between Russia and the west, both of which India has a close relationship with. So let’s pick up with Swaran Singh again.

Swaran: India’s relationship, with the Russia and the United States are both very critical for India. And also very thick and very wide relationships. The Relationship with former Soviet Union was longstanding and the Soviet Union has stood by side of India on several very critical issues.

And over years and over decades, Russia now the successor state has come to be not just the supplier of defence technologies and equipment for India, it used to at some stage supply, 70% of India’s defence equipment, but it has also moved since then from licensed production to joint research and development. But at the same time, last two decades have seen India diversifying its procurements and partnerships in defence cooperation, which means India’s procurement from Russia or on defence equipment has come down from 70% to almost 49%.

And that diversification is part of India’s engagement in last 20 years with the United States and its friends and allies. So if you look at last 20 years, we will notice that large number of defence contracts have been signed with countries like Israel, France, the United States. And in that sense that that could be seen as a new defence cooperation.

The relationship, which is particularly people to people has always been much stronger with United States and its friends and allies over decades. And in that sense, even today’s figures for the trade, for example, put India’s trade with the United States, usually between US$130-150 billion compared to US$8 to $10 billion trade with Russia.

So both have their own niche areas, which makes India engage them very, very clearly. Except that the United States has an expectation of India kind of towing the American line, which I think it expects, likewise from its European allies very often. But just like European allies have stood up and have followed their own national interests, so does India follow its national interests. And therefore I think there is a little bit of pull and push that happens between India’s relationship with the United States. So it’s a different kind of relationship, but both relationships are equally critical for India. That’s how India has continued to maintain a certain amount of balance in these two relationships.

Gemma: So this balance, as you say, is really important. And you talked about kind of weighing up the costs. Are there costs to India of being neutral in this conflict?

Swaran: I think the most visible cost, particularly in the context of Ukraine in crisis is a once in a while tempers betraying emotions, particularly from some of the American senior officials, including at some stage President Joe Biden.

News clip: US President Joe Biden has said that India was an exception among Washington’s allies with its “shaky respons” to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Swaran: Russia also has expectations from India. And then, you know, Russia sometimes says very openly that countries that are not supporting Russia will have a cost attached to their, not just opposing various UN resolutions, but even abstentions on those resolutions. But as I mentioned, India is constantly trying to maintain balance in these relationships and I think over time, these countries begin to appreciate also India’s balancing act.

To give you a simple example, India is an enormous importer 85% of crude oil India imports for consumption from outside. Russia is an old friend. Russia is offering up to 30% discount on oil for India because of sanctions being sort of raised from the US and its friends, but India is not procuring. India is not going whole hog to buy oil from Russia. India is procuring oil from Russia has moved up from 1% to now almost 3%. So India could easily go ahead and buy 10% from Russia. But perhaps we are trying to make sure that in India to keep it under the radar.

Gemma: So that could be, I guess, an advantage for India. It could economically take advantage of Russian gas and oil exports if it wanted to?

Swaran: Indeed, I would agree with you. Just, I mentioned that there are costs and sometimes tempers betraying from India’s interlocutors from these countries. There are also benefits of course. And other than the fact that India is beginning to increase its procurement of commodities like coal, oil and other things from Russia, it much more has advantage in India in terms of intangibles, where India is if you look at the last six to eight weeks, the kind of foreign leaders are travelling to new Delhi, it definitely makes India far more visible and engaged player in Ukrainian crisis.

News Clip: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be in India for a two day visit … Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is in New Delhi to strengthen ties with India … Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida is in New Delhi … coincide with the visit of Britain’s foreign secretary.

Swaran: We are currently having in Delhi something called Raisina Dialogue, which is like Davos forum at a relatively, maybe smaller stature. But we have about 17 foreign ministers including seven European foreign ministers in Delhi, three former prime ministers. So all I’m saying is, that this increasing expanding engagement of India in the context of Ukrainian crisis is a reflection of India’s greater visibility. And I would even dare say maybe credibility in its contributions that it can make to global trends and particularly on Ukraine crisis. That’s advantage India.

Gemma: One element you’ve mentioned there, you touched on is sanctions. Now, obviously in this kind of a conflict where there are kind of almost unprecedented sanctions being imposed on Russia by the west, how does India navigate that?

Swaran: Such a hyped up campaign of imposing severe and unwearable sanctions on Russia cannot be without impact on India’s foreign policy choices. Definitely, it has challenges for India.

But let me also say that from the very beginning, in principle, India has been against, any unilateral or outside the United Nations framework sanctions being imposed by any country on any other country. So that’s a principled position that India has had. Now as an academic, I have also studied sanctions regime over a period of time, and I believe that sanctions have almost never worked in any of the situations, even when it comes to really pariah, small, weak states, like North Korea or Myanmar in India’s neighbourhood. Indeed sometimes sanctions have been counter productive because there are always leeways and there are other counter new alignments that can be developed domestically, nations could find alternative resolutions or how to overcome sanctions impact.

In any case sanctions have long-term impact. They don’t impact, President Putin’s firepower on the ground, as we speak. So I think it’s symbolic and it has a certain restrain on India’s choices, no doubt, but India has also been at the same time, able to procure oil and coal and other things and even talk about ruppe-ruble swap.

News Clip: India is reportedly looking to open alternative payment channels with Russia.

Swaran: To overcome this difficulty of dollar being the currency of transactions running through certain institutions which are under those sanctions and likewise India’s neighbouring country, China, also is working on similar issues.

Gemma: How are the debates playing out within India on India’s neutral stance on the war? And where are the different political camps kind of falling out on this?

Swaran: I think you’re familiar with India, having a whole spectrum of ideologies, political parties and views. Sometimes we joke that three Indians would have four views because by the time third spoke, the first would have changed my mind. So definitely there are very, very robust debates. But let me also give a kind of an overarching interpretation to say that foreign policy has largely remained an area of consensus. Of course Ukraine crisis and India’s policy posturing towards this issue has been in debate. So you can actually see there is a right, left and centre kind of views. Some of the commentators would like to see India aligning more closely with the United States, others would like to see India aligning much more closely with Russia. There are connections being made with China being sort of emboldened because Russia is being emboldened.

So those kinds of debates definitely exist in India. But I think the underlying factor here is how India sees itself as, not India, but International Monetary Fund reports are saying that India is going to be the fastest growing economy on the planet among big economies.

What I’m saying is that there is a debate in the country on Ukrainian crisis, but the focus being the positive, proactive on India as an emerging economy and therefore emerging power, I think overrides some of these domestic divisions to say that India must play a significant role. And some of the commentaries would even go to the extent of saying that India could utilise, India sees Ukrainian crisis, not only as a challenge, but opportunity and potentially Ukrainian crisis could become an inflection point of India being seen as a much serious player at global level.

Gemma: Is there anything that could shift India’s neutral stance one way or other, is there anything that would happen in the war that would change this proactive neutrality into taking a firmer side either way?

Swaran: I’m really happy you asked me this question because I would have missed this very important element of our discussion. I call it proactive neutrality because it has constantly been evolving. If you look at the statements and speeches coming out of India on Ukrainian crisis, even if you look at the speeches made in various United Nations, discussions India began by talking of India being concerned. Then it moved to say, India deplores. Then India started saying that we need to have respect for international law and United Nations charter. Then India said, India wants to ensure that the sovereignty of countries respected territorial integrity is ensured. So you can see India’s momentum, and finally, on Bucha India said India would like to see an independent investigation being made on the massacre in Buch

News Clip: Recent reports of civilian killings in Bucha are deeply disturbing. We unequivocally condemned these killings and support the call for an independent investigation.

Swaran: So there is constant proactive evolution of India stance on what India sees happening on the ground and how India wishes to respond to Ukrainian crisis. And that makes it very dynamic. It’s not neutrality which says we have nothing to do with Ukrainian crisis. It’s not neutrality that says, we have a fixed stance and we are stuck on it and we’re not going to change it. It’s been constantly evolving and it could evolve further. Only thing is we all hope that Ukrainian crisis come to an end as soon as possible because it impacted the immediate country of course, very, very badly, but of course it has global impact. And India is part of the world and India gets impacted too.

Gemma: Absolutely, we all hope it does draw to an end as soon as possible. So thank you so much for your time today. It’s been wonderful talking with you.

Swaran: Thank you so much.

Dan: I very much understand that point, that India’s position might change. War changes. Very much like what happened to the US said in both world war one and world war two.

Gemma: Yeah. And India is remaining neutral right now, but who knows how the cause of the war might change its decision. There are other countries which are traditionally neutral, which are now considering actually joining NATO, say Finland and Sweden.

Dan: You can read some articles by Maartje Abbenhuis and Swaran Singh on The Conversation.

Gemma: We’ll put links to those articles and to some further reading on the issue of neutrality in this episode’s show notes.

That’s it for this week. Thank you to all the academics who’ve spoken to us for this episode and to Namita Kohli in Delhi for her help too. Thanks to The Conversation’s Finlay Macdonald and Stephen Khan to Alice Mason for our social media and to Soraya Nandy for help with our transcripts.

Daniel: You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. Don’t forget to sign up for our free newsletter. It’s a good one.

Gemma: And also don’t forget to compete our listener survey. You can find a link to that in the show notes as well.

Daniel: The Conversation Weekly is co-produced by the wonderful Mend Mariwany and fantastic Gemma Ware with sound design by the excellent Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

Gemma: That was Dan Merino, I’m Gemma Ware and thank you for listening.

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