How to win the world over

Strategic affairs analysts ponder whether India can become a “great power”. It has the prerequisites of size, location, demography, economic potential and political standing. The question is about its capacity to forge these attributes into demonstrable national strength. The Modi government’s ambition in that direction is evident in India’s foreign policy initiatives in our near and extended neighbourhood, with major powers and in campaigns for > UN Security Council and Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) membership.

Securing desired outcomes in multilateral forums tests a country’s international influence. > India’s application for NSG membership at the recent Seoul meeting of the group encountered an unwillingness or inability of the United States to decisively influence the result, > unlike in 2008 when it effectively got the group to approve civil nuclear cooperation with India. Besides raising questions about U.S. motives, this turned the spotlight on the diplomatic tools India could use to obtain success.

P. S. Raghavan

In 2008, India had addressed NSG members’ non-proliferation concerns. Its application, therefore, should not have been controversial, since its record had not changed. What was different was the geopolitical landscape and the absence of a strong U.S. push. This gave countries the space to advance their perspectives or to pursue strategic advantage by taking one or the other side.

The geopolitical games

The outcome in such international negotiations is really determined by geopolitical games, bilateral equations and domestic politics, more than the “merits” of a case.

The strength of bilateral relationships underpins such negotiations. Every country, big or small, matters. Mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation enhances the stake of both countries in the relationship. This influences their attitude in multilateral forums on subjects of interest to each other. As in interpersonal relations, so in diplomacy: make a friend before you need him.

Another diplomatic tool is projecting to countries the advantages of a positive stance and the “costs” of a negative position. A current example is the Saudi Arabian threat to sell $750 billion of U.S. assets if the latter enacts a law enabling victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi government for its alleged involvement in the terrorist act. The U.S. Congress may pass the bill, but the President will probably veto it.

Awarding or withholding major contracts and facilitating or impeding investments are recognised negotiating tactics. Countries leverage strategic import decisions — civilian and defence — to extract benefits from the exporting country. In the 1990s, when Boeing dominated its market, China placed a large order with Airbus — apparently reacting to U.S. criticism of its human rights record. Airbus thereafter consolidated its position in China. Today, China is exploiting the Airbus-Boeing competition to extract technological know-how for designing and manufacturing its own civilian aircraft.

India does not have the internal flexibility to use such tactics. Central audit and vigilance guidelines are invoked to block them. These guidelines are meant to check profligacy and venality of officialdom; not to obstruct strategies pursued in the national interest, provided they are coherently defined and implemented. In 2003, the Vajpayee government initiated an internal dialogue on evolving a methodology, conforming to international practices, for extracting strategic value from our major import orders. Predictably, bureaucratic headwinds grounded the initiative.

India’s Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) membership was vetoed by Italy in 2015. When this veto was lifted this year, some attributed it to a deal on the Italian marines awaiting trial in India for the killing of two fishermen off the Kerala coast in 2012. Even if true, the national interest justifies such deals. Similarly, every time our government signs a multilateral agreement, it faces charges of a “sell-out”. The truth that you must concede somewhere to get something elsewhere is as valid in international negotiations as in daily life.

The China lessons

Influence in multilateral forums is enhanced by bilateral and plurilateral alliances promoting shared strategic, security or economic interests. India’s initiatives in East, Southeast and West Asia and in Africa are relevant in this context. These elements feed into specific negotiations: strategic alliances, tactical alignments, bilateral trade-offs and pressure at sensitive points combine to achieve the objective.

All these factors are relevant in our approach to China. Notwithstanding its inflexibility at Seoul, India’s NSG membership is not its most important concern. This was demonstrated by China’s strident response to the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration judgment on its actions in the South China Sea. China dismisses the court’s authority, but is assiduously canvassing international support for its position. No country, however powerful, likes isolation in an international forum.

China has a number of other interests which need international support. Expanding the footprint of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, developing its ambitious One Belt One Road project and a range of trade and investment issues are just some of them. It would therefore weigh the political capital expended on continuing to block India’s NSG membership in the broader context of its strategic objectives.

India’s options vis-à-vis China derive from these factors. Our interests intersect or run parallel with those of China in regions where we have strong connections — West Asia and Africa are obvious examples. Bluntly put, almost every Chinese interest is an opportunity for India — for cooperation or compromise. The third ‘C’ — confrontation — is not a practical option, except in extreme provocation. We expect Chinese pragmatism to weigh a ‘give’ in one area against a ‘take’ in another. India has to find the right trade-offs, ensuring that what we gain is commensurate with what we concede. This is the thrust of the debate on the rationale of India’s NSG campaign.

These stratagems for achieving external objectives are not original — they are simply Chanakya’s approaches of Sama, Dana, Bheda, Danda (alliances, compensation, divide and rule, and armaments). However, they need an enabling domestic environment.

We need effective nationwide public diplomacy to explain our foreign policy perspectives to government, legislative, corporate, media and civil society circles, so that major initiatives do not become hostage to party politics or narrow local interests.

Intra-governmental coordination has to ensure that domestic measures are synchronised with foreign policy objectives (and vice versa). A mechanism to oversee implementation of inter-governmental agreements should include resolving inter-ministerial turf battles and conflicts of perspectives.

In the ultimate analysis, external ambitions can be achieved only if they fit into a coherent national strategy. Bharat Karnad identifies ingredients of such a strategy in his book, Why India is not a Great Power (Yet). It requires a major restructuring of mindsets and overhaul of practices. The political spirit seems willing, but the bureaucratic flesh remains uncertain.

P.S. Raghavan is a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs.

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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 10:02:18 AM |

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