September 19, 2020
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'Syria Is Very Well Placed'

But it is not that India is going because Syria is neighbour to Iraq and Israel. per se, clarifies the Foreign Secretary, "We have always held our relationship with Syria to be important," in his briefing on the PM's visit to Russia, Tajikistan and S

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'Syria Is Very Well Placed'

Question:  The Defence Minister recently stated that there was an attempt to finalise the modalities for the purchase of Admiral Gorshkov. What is the outcome?

Kanwal Sibal:  I knew you were going to ask that question and I knew I was going to tell you that I really have nothing to say on this.

Question:   Which means what?

Kanwal Sibal:  Which means that, as you can see, I did not say anything about Gorshkov; I did speak about defence cooperation and several things that had happened in that area. On this I think I will leave it to the Defence Ministry when the occasion comes to say whatever needs to be said.

Question:  One of the issues with Russia is nuclear supplies. Are you likely to raise this issue because we are interested in …

Kanwal Sibal:   Not in the sense in which you are saying but you know, we have this ongoing cooperation in the civilian nuclear sector with Russia. It is clear that both sides are interested in stepping up this cooperation. Certainly India is interested in more Russian nuclear power reactors. However, there is this problem which not only relates to Russia but also to other prospective partners like France which is their international obligations, especially their membership of the NSG. Then how to square the circle where there is clear political and commercial interest in cooperating with us. Yet it needs to be done in a manner which is not seen as being violative of the international obligations. So, this is a problem to which we have not yet found a solution. But this is a subject which is constantly under our attention. Certainly there are continual exchanges with Russia on this subject.

Question:  You referred to Prime Minister’s visit to Syria in the context of its proximity to Israel and Iraq…

Kanwal Sibal:  Let me put it this way. The visit is bilateral. I am just saying that Syria is located in a geo-politically sensitive area and its relationship with Israel and Iraq and the fact that it is neighbour to both countries gives it a special geo-political importance. So, it is not that India is going because Syria is neighbour to Iraq and Israel. per se. We have always held our relationship with Syria to be important.

Question:  What I was asking was we had this high profile visit of Israeli Prime Minister which seems to have been understood in a certain way by some of our Arab friends. Is this an effort to balance our relationship with Israel?

Kanwal Sibal:  I think that would mean as if we are in any way on the defensive, that if we have a relationship with one country we need to consciously try and balance it with another country. It is not like that. I think it is a natural relationship that we have with the Arab world. Now we are developing what should have been a natural relationship with Israel but there is no effort on our part to do a balance. We have to pursue these two tracks in our diplomacy in this area, separate the two, not allow confusion to be created on this account, and to put ourselves in a position where, because of the fact that we have a multi-layered diplomacy in this area, our overall diplomatic position in this area is recognized to be more relevant and important.

Question:  You said that the thrust of Prime Minister’s visit to Russia is economic cooperation. What do you consider are the impediments in the bilateral trade?

Kanwal Sibal:  That is a disappointing area of our relationship because bilateral trade still remains on 1.4 billion dollars which is very little if you compare it with the kind of figures that we are able to register with China for instance. This year hopefully bilateral trade with China will be seven billion dollars. Given the importance of our political relations with Russia, it is absolutely necessary that this is underpinned by strong growth in our economic relationship, and that is not happening. 

Both sides are trying to see how this problem can be overcome. One issue that needs to be addressed is this Rupee-Rouble Debt Repayment business which is now recognized by both sides as being actually an impediment in developing more trade, that we must move on the hard currency trading arrangements. This is what the goal is. Then, of course, we have to develop better interbanking arrangements which is why we are focusing on this area and some agreements will be signed.

Then there is this larger question of attracting Russian business to look at India. Russia now is a pretty freewheeling market economy. The private sector is pretty active. In some sectors, of course, like oil they have a very large share of the world trade. But we have not as yet been able to send the right kind of message to the business community in Russia to look more closely at India.

Last time when President Putin had come, you would recall, for the first time an economic cooperation declaration was signed between the two countries. The idea was to focus on this weak element in our relationship at the highest Government level so that the necessary impetus is provided to players, especially in the private sector to be more active. Then there are other things which I mentioned. CII is re-opening its office. We have this exhibition in Russia and a very large business delegation is going from our side. So, we are putting in a lot of effort to expand our commercial ties and trade ties with Russia.

Question:  Gen. Musharraf had said that he had been assured by President Putin that during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit he would take up some of the Pakistan’s issues.

Kanwal Sibal:  This is what Gen. Musharraf said.

Question:  Do you expect this to come up?

Kanwal Sibal:  On the basis of what Gen. Musharraf has said?

Question:  President Putin has also said that.

Kanwal Sibal:  There were two versions of what he said. The version which seems to me to be the more plausible one is that he had met Gen. Musharraf, he may have heard something from Gen. Musharraf, and when President Putin is going to meet our Prime Minister it will be natural and normal for him to perhaps give him a briefing of what happened, but nothing beyond that. The earlier kind of slant that was given that he has some message to convey has not really come out in the correct translation that we asked for of what President Putin has said. So, I would not attach any importance to that.

Question:  Given that the Indian draft convention on terrorism at the UN is pretty much stuck on key definitional area on whether people in occupied territory have a right to take up arms, etc., and the Syrian delegation has particularly played a strong role in pushing for a certain view, will there by any attempt to politically resolve this?

Kanwal Sibal:  I do not think that this is something that can be resolved that easily because it is a genuine problem in terms of creating a consensus in the United Nations. For that matter even in the NAM we had a lot of difficulty on this. If you see, the NAM declaration on terrorism has contradictory paragraphs. It has this thought which you just expressed which is contrary to the thought that no cause justifies terrorism. So, there is in it everything for everybody. 

The point is that the whole issue of international terrorism has been seen and continues to be seen through the optic of the Middle-East situation. Israel-Palestine, Israel-Syria, the occupation of territories, what is seen as liberation struggle, this has coloured the perception and there has been a high degree of terrorist activity in this area. Our point is that while this may be true, this is a sui generis situation in the Middle-East, and the particular situation in the Middle-East should not colour the dialogue on the whole issue of terrorism elsewhere. For that matter, countries which are involved in sponsoring terrorism should not use the Middle-East paradigm to justify what they are doing.

Question:  My question is somewhat related to this. How high a priority is it on Prime Minister’s agenda to take up Pakistan exported terrorism to India and India’s peace initiative with Pakistan? Is he going to take it up with these particular Heads of Government, and particularly, will he take it up with President Putin in order to exert some pressure on Pakistan?

Kanwal Sibal:  I do not think he needs to take it up. As you know, the international community as a whole has very warmly welcomed Prime Minister’s initiative which he announced earlier on and the latest steps we have announced. So, what I expect would be is a spontaneous expression of appreciation and support for India’s efforts and Prime Minister’s wisdom and statesmanship. I think we can take it virtually for granted that this will be so.

Question:  I have two related questions. How do you view the political stand off in Sri Lanka …

Kanwal Sibal:  This has become a freewheeling press conference now. I tell you what. The whole purpose was to focus on Prime Minister’s visit. If you go into these subjects, I think the attention of the press conference will be deflected and you may only end up writing on this and nothing on the visit.

Question:  Will the convergence of views on situation in Iraq be a serious point of debate between Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Assad of Syria?

Kanwal Sibal:  No, I would not call it as a serious point of debate. Why should we debate this issue? Iraq is an issue which interests the international community. The current situation on the ground is becoming more and more difficult. Syria is very well placed, being the neighbouring country, to give us a perspective on how they see the evolution of the situation in Iraq, what the prospects of peace are, what the prospects of stability are, and what could be the effective role of the Governing Council. 

They can give their appreciation of the latest UN Security Council Resolution and what contribution it can make to enhancing peace and stability there, and very importantly, the whole issue of economic reconstruction, and I think some perspective on what is now seen as a mounting tide of terrorism in Iraq, and what the dimensions of that problem are. Over and beyond that, of course, as a neighbouring country with vital interest in Iraq in terms of the ethnic, religious balance between Iraq - which is key to Iraq’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, what the perspectives are. So, this would be more in terms of exchange of thinking and views, but no debate.

Question:  If you could deviate from the subject, Mr. Kadirgamar has said that India is the only country which could mediate between the two warring factions.

Kanwal Sibal:  Which two warring factions?

Question:  LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka. He says that public in Sri Lanka thinks that. How does the Indian Government view this? 

Question: Do you think there are more than two warring factions?

Kanwal Sibal:   No. One is the question of political differences and frequently in loose vocabulary you talk of that also as warring factions. So, I was just wondering what warring factions he was referring to.

All one can say is that we have already made a couple of statements on how we are viewing the situation in Sri Lanka. It is a fluid situation. Everyday we are seeing some statements being made which have very important political implications. At the end of it, what does everybody want? What everybody wants is peace and stability in Sri Lanka and the preservation of the peace process, the promotion of the peace process in the best manner possible. 

The best manner possible is if there is unity on the Sinhala side and the Sinhala groups work together, which means the Government and the Opposition. There are the proposals made by LTTE. They do present certain challenges to the Sri Lankan Government. Those have to be addressed. So, all in all, the situation is not an easy one and we are looking at it closely. We are following the developments but with the ardent wish that the crisis should be contained and there should be dialogue between the respective parties and some kind of a Constitutional solution should be found which should then enable the peace process to resume.

Question:  Now that you have touched upon the subject, my question was that the political stand-off situation in Sri Lanka is getting more and more serious with each passing day. More recently, Wickremesinghe has made a statement that he is going to tell the Norwegians and the Americans that he can no longer handle the situation.

Kanwal Sibal:  When I said that some statements are coming out with important political implications, I had such statements in mind. This is what precisely I meant.

Question:  How do you react to that?

Kanwal Sibal:  We do not have to react to everything that is being said and done. It is a fluid situation. There is a political tussle going on. If we get into a situation wherein we have to react to everything that is said, then we will unnecessarily complicate the whole debate in Sri Lanka. It is best to stay out and limit ourselves to general expression of views, which I have just outlined. That is the best insofar as the needs of the situation are concerned.

Later the official spokesperson, Navtej Sarna, briefed the press:

We have received phone calls enquiring about the situation after the bomb explosions in Riyadh. I just wanted to give whatever information we had.

Contrary to media reports that an Indian security guard had died in the attacks in Riyadh, according to the information available with the Embassy, no Indian appears to have lost his life in these attacks. However, two Indians were treated for injuries. Mohammad Rafia was discharged after first-aid; and Habibur Rahman Rafeek, 24, a driver, has been admitted at the Shamesi Hospital with shrapnel wounds. His injuries are reported to be not life threatening.

Indian Embassy in Riyadh has been continuously in touch with the Saudi authorities and various hospitals. In case of any query, the Embassy has set up a help line wherein Mr. Ravichandran, Community Welfare Officer can be contacted at the following phone numbers. We have three phone numbers. They will be put up on our website. For the purpose of television I can read them out.

They are:


This is some of the information on this, which I wanted to share with you.

On the Swiss visit which is going on, we are distributing summary of the two agreements which were signed today i.e., an agreement on science and technological cooperation and an agreement on cooperation in disaster management.

These are the two additional bits I had besides what the Foreign Secretary has already briefed you.

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