By Bhaskar Roy*
From the very first day Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi jumped into foreign policy. By inviting leaders of all SAARC nations, Mr, Modi underscored his desire to promote a “neighbourhood first” foreign policy. This was a notable departure from the past.
It was well known that economic development was high on his agenda and a friendly and cooperative neighbourhood with a shared and mutually supportive action plan would make a win-win situation for all. This strategy is well on the way. The only impediment remains Pakistan – not a surprising fact. With infusion of monetary aid from the US, and large scale investment and defence assistance from China, Pakistan’s military-politico establishment views the situation in its favour and is quite happy disturbing the development infrastructure of SAARC, if only to hurt India. The manner in which events are shaping, Pakistan may eventually be left behind like a non-performing partner of this regional group.
In two recent speeches (July 17 in New Delhi and July 20 in Singapore) Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar gave an overview of Mr. Modi’s initiative and success till date and his future ambitions. This is new approach, as foreign secretaries have generally been reticent on publicly airing the government’s policies and thought process. The Indian public has greatly benefitted with the knowledge. Mr. Jaishankar is a highly experienced diplomat, having been ambassador to China, closely associated with the process of the India-US nuclear deal from the time of the UPA-led Congress government, and also served as ambassador to the US, before being brought back by Mr. Modi as the foreign secretary. He is the prime minister’s trusted man and carrier of his policies.
There are two old but important strategic visions that need to be mentioned here. One is “he who rules Central Asia rules the world”. The other is “he who rules the Indian Ocean rules the world”. Both sayings were apt not only for their times but continue to be relevant today, though total rule over either by any one country today is out of the question. But the quantum of influence matters.
Mr. Modi, who has already visited 25 countries, toured four Central Asian countries which were generally neglected by New Delhi. He also visited the Indian Ocean countries including Sri Lanka with goodwill and support. The Maldives was the only exception because of politically irregular developments in that country. Impending summits of the Pacific Islands and African states will take India’s friendly profile wider in a concrete manner.
Mr. Jaishankar spoke about them as signals of different times, of “greater confidence, more initiative, certainly stronger determination,” as expressions of growth in India’s capabilities,
Apart from the neighbourhood policy, the main opportunities and challenges to India’s foreign policy relates to the US and China with Pakistan in between. Other relationships attach themselves to this ballpark variously, as per circumstances.
Mr. Jaishankar talked about a China policy that triangulates security, economic cooperation and international politics. He referred to the Xian (China) meeting between Mr. Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping as a high point from India’s perspective in bilateral relations, which would have been difficult to envisage a year ago. But what about real issues? The Chinese are masters in propaganda and show up with statements from which they withdraw whenever they wish. If the interlocutor is seen as someone who gets impressed by huge shows, the task of the Chinese is made even easier.
It is difficult to accept that India-China relations have undergone an “orbital jump” or a quantum jump in the last one year. If Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi agreed to describe India and China as, “two major powers in the region and the world”, it should have translated into some action on Beijing’s part.
How is the triangulation policy with China working? The latest is on terrorism, one of India’s key security interests. China vetoed India’s move in the UN Security Council to designate Mumbai carnage mastermind, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, as an international terrorist. Mr. Modi took up this issue with Xi Jinping at Ufa, Russia, but was rebuffed. The Chinese made this public immediately in a press conference in Beijing.
In international politics, China has declined to support India’s candidature as a permanent member of an expanded UN Security Council. It is not in China’s interest to push through reform of the United Nations and certainly not an expansion of permanent members with veto powers. An expansion could mean membership of Japan and Germany certainly, and perhaps that of South Africa and Brazil. It could also mean a change in veto power. India was supported by the other four members of the P-5, who also supported India’s move on Lakhvi.
China says it supports a greater role for India in the UN but this means absolutely nothing – only a tactic of deception. There can be no reform or restructure of the UN without expansion of the P-5 and a redefining of their powers.
Beijing continues to block India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) where the membership issue requires a consensus. It opposed the India-US nuclear deal and NSG clearance till the US intervened at the highest level – US President George W. Bush had to call Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
The India-China border issue will continue to remain unresolved till China finds it strategically convenient to resolve it, as it did with Russia and the former Soviet states.
On Chinese investments in India, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) should pay greater heed to the advice of the intelligence agencies. Strategic areas must remain out of bounds, and the Indian private sector may also be appraised accordingly. Unfortunately, the private sector does not seem to be well versed on security issues.
China has demonstrated repeatedly that Pakistan is their mainstay in the region and the animosity of Islamabad and Rawalpindi toward India will continue to be exploited, short of a full-scale war with India.
The improvement of India-China relations began very slowly with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988. The movements were cautious on both sides. The first break through was marked by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to China in 1993, when the Peace and Tranquillity Treaty on the border was signed. Further improvements followed thereafter.
Chinese leader, late Deng Xiaoping saw stability in the country’s periphery as a prerequisite for its drive for reform, opening up and economic development. That policy continues to some extent but not entirely. Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “hide your strength, bide your time” began to be questioned around 2004, but most definitely from 2008. It assumed a new surge from 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power. China is now both confident and assertive, having become the world’s biggest economy with more than $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, and the third most powerful armed force, still growing at a fast pace.
India, of course, has to work with China and deal with China with confidence. It must be remembered that the Chinese respect strength. And India has to act to demand its space in Asia and the world.
The post-cold war India-US relations have changed positively with the shift of global balance of power and interests. Both the US and China pursue bilateral relations of mutual benefit, but also with serious strategic differences. Both are pursuing a “great power relationship” which has elements of a new cold war. The US seeks a relationship with India which can indirectly counter China, and Beijing is ever suspicious of and alert to it. India has handled this complicated challenge astutely.
It must be recognised, however, that a strong contingent of cold warriors still remain in the US foreign policy establishment. They argue for China because Beijing joined the USA in a strategic anti-Soviet axis, which included Pakistan. The same influencers, fathered by Henry Kissinger hold a pro-Pakistan and anti-India position. They were visible during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, the Indian nuclear test in 1998, and during the India-US nuclear deal negotiations. Things are changing but not enough.
Although communism is dead in Russia, these forces have helped push Russia into the arms of China. Russia is joining China in countering the US pivot in the Asia-Pacific region, pushing back initial indications of a possible Russia-Japan rapprochement. These are difficult waters to navigate. Mr. Modi’s Russia visit for the BRICs and SCO conference needs to be followed up by more robust engagement.
Pakistan, however, is going nowhere. No doubt India has to engage with Pakistan, but the off again, on again approach is self-defeating and only gives Pakistan an upper hand. Being helpful and co-operative to neighbours is certainly positive but being soft to a semi-rogue neighbour which takes every opportunity to harm India is weak policy.
Serious mistakes have been made in the past regarding Pakistan and terrorism. It is very difficult but not impossible to retrieve the situation. Pakistan is preparing to take India to the UN General Assembly, accusing India of terrorism in Pakistan. This requires a well-researched, calculated and effective response at appropriate fora.
An improvement of relations with Pakistan should not be seen in absolute terms. This is a long term path and should be walked on accordingly, affirmative action being taken when required. With its strategic geographical location, Pakistan has big powers quietly appeasing it. Hence, much wider diplomacy is required to hold Pakistan accountable for terrorism.
Under Mr. Modi, there has been a broadening of diplomacy, with the Indian Ocean countries and the Indo-Pacific receiving greater attention. But the underpinning, that is, the defence sector continues to lag. With a 7,500 km long coastline, strengthening of the navy, backed by long rage air force is paramount.
Unfortunately, the navy’s budget was reduced. In contrast, Pakistan will acquire eight more submarines from China, whose navy is growing rapidly, with nuclear submarines, a modern 40,000 ton landing craft under construction, five aircraft carriers planned, and one nearing completion.
Development must be supported by strong defence, otherwise it will be in jeopardy. India has traditionally paid little importance to military diplomacy, which in today’s global world is unavoidable. China followed the US in indigenous military production, supplying military weapons, aircraft, naval craft and other equipment to smaller countries, it has even reached Peru, supplying missiles! Such supplies buy a lot of influence,
Yoga has been claimed a soft-power success. But a one-off publicity is not enough. There is an urgent requirement of emphatic statements through publicity and propaganda. India’s external publicity is weak, yet publicity is an essential part of foreign policy. A dedicated structure is required, not necessarily under the foreign ministry.
The Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) exists, but mainly serves as a parking place for Foreign Service officers waiting for their next assignment. Here, out of the box thinking is required and the country has no dearth of talented human resources.
But publicity needs to go beyond culture, and policy and position on issues must be highlighted.
All achievements cannot be rested in the last one year. Most have clear lines of continuity while in some cases dormant policies have been given new life. The image of a divided polity is dangerous and will not serve the country at all.
It is time Mr. Modi enlisted other members of his cabinet to promote foreign policy. It cannot be a one-man army. Time is limited and the prime minister must spend much more time on domestic issues. Follow up and action on promises made and assurances given is a must. Otherwise credibility will be lost.
Optics is very important. Domestic developments impact foreign policy for foreign interlocutors view a country as a whole.
Finally, ministers must learn to speak in one voice. Misplaced bravado and intemperate statements could seriously impact sensitive foreign policy and diplomacy negatively. Some people, therefore, need to be quarantined.
*The writer is New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]