Foreign policy dilemma: Looking West, India puts best foot forward

India’s foreign policy has kept pace with the times but bigger challenges lie ahead under changing global order


Srinath Raghavan | February 21, 2014

Over the past two decades, India’s foreign policy has coped quite successfully with the transition from the Cold War international system to one under the American hegemony. During this period, Indian economy has also plugged into and enormously benefited from globalisation. If India is billed as a major power in the making, it largely due to its ability to handle these two transitions with some finesse.
Yet, the international order with which we have grown comfortable is undergoing subtle but significant change. The ongoing change is taking place at several levels and will play out to different timelines. But it will pose challenges for Indian foreign policy that are arguably as pressing as the ones we faced in the beginning of the 1990s.

Consider, for a start, the changes that are underway at the global level. It is commonplace to assert that the central problem of international politics is the management of change. It is usually assumed that the drivers of change are the ‘rising powers’ that want to alter the existing system, while the reigning great powers want to preserve the status quo. China, for instance, is routinely described as a rising power that wants to change the global status quo. Yet the trends that we are now witnessing confound this conventional expectation. In many ways, the challenge to the existing system stems from the fact that the status quo powers – the US and its allies – are dissatisfied with the status quo.

Take the global trading system, for instance. Emerging powers like China and India have benefited tremendously from globalisation. At the same time, their growing economic profile has also given them substantial stakes in the management of this system. Given the differences in their interests from those of the US and its allies, it is not surprising that the latter have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the existing system. The WTO is a case in point. The inability to compel countries like India and China to toe its line in trade talks has led the US to consider other ways of changing the system.

So, the US is promoting a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Signed in 2005 by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, the TPP has drawn the interest of five other countries: Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Japan and Vietnam. The TPP has an ambitious tripartite agenda. It aims at a regular FTA with provisions for protecting intellectual property; at the creation of investor-friendly regulatory frameworks and policies; and at emerging issues, including measures to ensure that state-owned companies “compete fairly” with private companies and do not put the latter at a disadvantage.

The TPP as an economic grouping aimed principally at China, though its provisions will hurt India’s interests as well. The US evidently hopes that a successful TPP will eventually compel China to come to terms with it – just as China did with APEC and WTO. India, too, will be forced to follow suit. Negotiations are also underway between the US and the EU for a trans-Atlantic trade and investment pact. The prevailing global economic order is set to undergo far-reaching changes with equally important consequences for India.

New world order
New norms and principles are also being introduced in the global political order. The structure of the UN system, particularly the Security Council, is increasingly seen by the US and its allies as uncongenial to them. While countries like India and Brazil point to the need to expand the Security Council, the US rightly believes that this would further complicate the management of its global interests.

To facilitate the pursuit of these interests, the US and its allies have spearheaded the introduction of norms like Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Designed to protect gross abuses of human rights by sovereign states – an agenda shared and championed by human rights organisations – R2P provides the perfect fig-leaf behind which to preserve and advance US interests with the Security Council’s acquiescence if possible and without if necessary.

It is hardly surprising that the US and its allies invoked R2P for their ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Libya, secured the Security Council’s reluctant authorisation and used it to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Tyrants like Gaddafi may deserve to go, but this should not mask either the ruthless pursuit of great power interests or the ensuing instability that continues to rock countries that were at the receiving of such ‘humanitarian’ beneficence. In turn, the expected resistance of Russia and China to the application of R2P to Syria has led to a bloody impasse.

All this poses serious challenges to India. After all, West Asia accounts for nearly 65 percent of our crude imports, $93 billion of trade, and has 6 million Indian expatriate workers who remit over $35 billion every year. The changes being introduced in the global political order will have direct implications for India’s interests.

At the regional level, too, important changes are in the making. The spectacular rise of China is part of the larger economic transformation of East Asia, yet it has wider political and security implications. Put simply, East Asia today is at once the most dynamic economic region of the world and the theatre of major strategic rivalries. East Asia is also a region that does not – despite the alphabet soup of organisations and groupings – have any settled institutional architecture for dealing with political and security problems. The US proclaimed a ‘pivot’ Asia a couple of years back, though it remains unclear if this has a definite security component to it. Meantime, the Obama administration is looking to reinforce ties with its other formal allies in the region – Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Thailand – while crafting new relationships with erstwhile foes like Vietnam.

The US has also shown its willingness to intervene in regional disputes such as the South China Sea.

India has distance to cover
American leaders have also spoken about the importance of partnership with India in their engagement with the “Indo-Pacific” region. This emerging scenario presents both opportunities and challenges for India. So far, New Delhi has done well to leverage this opportunity to build strategic ties with countries like Japan and South Korea. But India has considerable distance to go before it becomes a serious player in East Asia. Its economic ties with the region are just beginning to grow. It is useful to remind ourselves that China’s trade with ASEAN is almost five times that of India. India is largely unplugged from the integrated supply and production chains that are central to East Asian economies.

Similarly, while India does have relative advantage in the maritime domain, it is far from being a maritime power to reckon with. At the same time, we must also bear in mind that India’s interests will not be served by a regional architecture that is explicitly aimed at containing China. India’s own relationship with China is a complex mix of competition and cooperation. Adding a volatile regional dimension to it will only make our ties with China more difficult to manage.
India’s extended neighbourhood in the West is also in throes of transformation.

West Asia has been a zone of great power intervention for much of the 20th century, but these trends have accelerated since the late 1970s. The conjunction in 1979 of the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel set the stage for deep American involvement in the region – one that continues till date. The ongoing ferment stems from two factors. First, the US invasion of Iraq unintendedly set the stage for extending Iran’s influence in the region by knocking out Saddam Hussein. Second, the series of democratic movements that are collectively called the ‘Arab spring’ have unhinged older dictatorial regimes and have unnerved the monarchies. The transformative capacity of democratic upheaval is undeniable.

But it is naïve to assume that the ensuing transformations will always be benign. Revolutions that begin as broad-based movements are prone to being captured by the most organised elements. These are usually the most ruthless ones as well. The combination of these trends is evident when we consider the most serious crisis currently playing out in West Asia: in Syria. The support extended to the Syrian opposition groups by Saudi Arabia and Qatar has introduced a sectarian, Shia-Sunni, dynamic not just in Syria but the region as a whole.

India has interests on both sides of this divide: with Iran as well as with the Arab Gulf monarchies. Besides, it has an important strategic relationship with Israel as well. As regional rivalries get accentuated and the fault-lines widen, India may well face unpalatable choices in West Asia. Furthering our interests in this rapidly changing political terrain will remain a key challenge for Indian foreign policy.

Changes in the neighbourhood
Lastly, India’s immediate neighbourhood too is witnessing important changes. 2014 will be an important year for Afghanistan. The only thing that seems certain is that the drawdown of Western troops will be completed in the coming months. It is unclear what, if any, will be the number of residual US troops in Afghanistan. It is equally unclear whether the presidential elections will play out to plan. Nor it is clear whether the attempts to bring elements of the Taliban into the political fold will at all succeed. Much will, of course, depend on the tack taken by Pakistan, where a fresh constellation of security and political elites is currently crystallising.

The uncertain portents for democracy in Afghanistan seem to be part of larger trend in South Asia. Compare the state of the region with that of four years ago. The constituent assembly of Nepal failed in its appointed task and had to be elected afresh. In this round of polls the Maoists have taken a beating. But this outcome may not be most conducive to the prospects of a stable democracy in the long run.

In Sri Lanka, the defeat of the LTTE presented an opportunity to move towards a political arrangement that addressed the Tamils’ legitimate aspirations within the framework of a united country. Four years on, it seems clear that the Rajapakshe government has no such intention. Worse still, the president and his siblings have taken the country as a whole in a distinctly autocratic direction – one that will make solving the Tamils’ problem even more difficult.
Maldives has had more than one election following the political coup that ousted President Nasheed. At this writing it is unclear if the new government will provide much-needed stability to the country.

Above all, it is Bangladesh that underscores the changing regional dynamic. Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League was voted into office in 2009 with a strong mandate. In office, she made important moves to marginalise the Islamists while simultaneously repairing relations with India. Yet the latest elections held in Bangladesh have dealt a blow to democracy in Bangladesh owing to the opposition’s boycott, widespread violence and low voter turnouts.
In each of these cases, Indian foreign policy has been unable, for a variety of reasons, to craft a clear and consistent approach. In consequence, India’s larger project of regional economic integration seems more elusive than at any point in the last decade.

The international landscape confronting India, then, is undergoing multiple changes at several levels. In coping with these, India’s own policies and approaches will have change. The wish-list for change can be very long, but two issues are of singular importance. First, it is imperative that India rebounds to the higher growth rates of the past decade. It was India’s economic growth that underpinned its own ability to craft a new foreign policy as well as the willingness of other states to recognise India as an important emerging power.

Second, the capacity of the Indian state to cope with these changes and challenges needs to be considerably enhanced. This is not merely a matter of increasing the size of the Indian Foreign Service, but also of creating structures that will enable to achieve better coordination within various arms of the government as well as with entities outside. If we fail to address these fundamental issues, our ability to play a consequential role on the changing global stage will remain open to question.



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