Recalibrating India’s foreign policy

Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patroling near the Line of Control (LoC).   | Photo Credit: MUKESH GUPTA

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now interacted with the leaders of four of the five countries/regions — SAARC, China, Japan, Russia, and U.S. — on the list of foreign policy priorities mentioned in the President’s address to the opening session of Parliament. It is, therefore, an appropriate time to take stock of the underlying changes in the directions of India’s foreign policy. In other words, is Mr. Modi’s foreign policy likely to differ from that of Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh?

Every country’s foreign policy has elements of continuity and change following a change in government. India’s policy under Mr. Modi is no different. The changes have not necessarily been explicitly articulated, but are implicit in the government’s actions and view of the world.

There are five areas of the emerging change: the centrality given to economic and technological development; the orientation of domestic and foreign policies toward this objective; the emphasis on national power including military power; and stress on soft power; and a reduction in self-imposed constraints on actions that other countries may construe as inimical to their interests.

Changes in foreign policy

The first change in foreign policy relates to the greater attention provided to economic objectives. This is not a mere reiteration of the economic development objective that has been India’s mantra since independence but recognition of the role of technology (broadly defined) in all aspects of economic development. This involves an implicit benchmarking of the technological capabilities of the Indian economy with the global best practices; having a perception of the gaps; and setting the goal of bridging these gaps.

The government’s divergence from the policies of the previous regimes is reflected in two initiatives, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the Digital India campaign, both of which involve the use of appropriate technology.

Aggression along the border is being countered by bold moves like the decision to construct a ‘McMahon highway’ in Arunachal Pradesh

This is probably the first time that an Indian Prime Minister has explained India’s economic and technological objectives abroad — ‘India First’; has identified the specific role each country could play in achieving these objectives — for instance U.S. and Japan; and has made that the centrepiece of his discussion with the leaders of that country. ‘India First’ means that India’s requirements — when it comes to various areas like basic sanitation, defence and space technology — will be expressed with greater clarity and specificity to other countries.

The second change relates to a much greater orientation of domestic and foreign policies toward those objectives. The Indian Prime Minister has been very explicit about Indian objectives with respect to economic development and technological catch-up and in exploring how domestic and international policies will be used to close the gaps across the entire spectrum. Its decisions will then be based on a cost-benefit analysis on a defined set of parameters, not on ideological considerations like that of non-alignment.

The third change is with respect to a greater emphasis on overall national power — recognising that economic power is its foundation, but also giving a greater role to military power.

The Modi government appreciates that economic power cannot be a substitute for military power in deterring aggression from the ideologically driven foes. On the contrary, economic assistance can be viewed by military ideologues as an expression of superiority to be resented. Economic relations can complement international security relationships by influencing the behaviour of non-ideological, economically rational players in the global system but only military strength can deter militaristic ideologues and ensure peace.

Operationally, this has two important implications. One is a clearer appreciation of all the dimensions of external threat, particularly unconventional threats. This requires a build-up of world-class equipment and skills over a much wider spectrum of warfare and covert capabilities and a willingness to boldly attack the aggressor in his safe havens. This is already happening both in terms of enhancing capabilities in counter-terrorism and in defence against non-state actors; and, more importantly, in doctrines incorporating a willingness to take calculated risks in using asymmetric capabilities.

On deterrence

Deterrence is however only effective if the adversary is convinced that the new government will respond to asymmetric warfare with appropriate action spread across a much broader spectrum of conventional and unconventional options. When diplomatic moves sent to our Western neighbour, like the track-2 dialogue, did not have any impact on ‘deep state’, it became necessary to bring about a change in the overall strategy through a heightened conventional response to border firing/ceasefire violations.

Similarly, unconventional psychological warfare and ‘creeping annexation’ tactics along the northern border are being countered by bolder plans — like the decision to construct a ‘McMahon highway’ along LAC in Arunachal — that have both conventional and symbolic components.

The second implication is a much greater focus on national capability to produce a broad range of defence equipment in India. ‘Self-sufficiency’ has been a slogan from the days of Nehruvian socialism, but it played second fiddle to the ideological goal of preserving public sector’s monopoly over the means of (defence) production. This is being decisively broken.

The ability and willingness to transfer technology and help build skills and research capabilities at lower costs will consequently play a much more important role in our relations with Japan, Russia, U.S. and EU countries. This reinvigorated approach to national security is likely to manifest itself in a reversal of the trend of decline in ratio of defence expenditures to GDP.

The fourth change is a greater emphasis on ‘soft power’. Mr. Modi’s speech to the Indian diaspora in New York was a successful attempt to inspire them to contribute to the country’s economic and technological development.

The fifth change is a freeing up of self-imposed, historical and mental constraints on developing the relationship with any country to its full potential. Thus, India’s economic relationship with potential adversaries can be independent of its security relationship. This is reflected in developments like the economic agreements reached between Mr. Modi and Chinese President Xi Jingping, the formation of the BRICS Bank and AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). Further, the relationship with one country will not constrain that with others — cooperation with China will not affect that with Japan. Both will be evaluated in terms of India’s objectives of building national power.

Pragmatic reset of policy

Mr. Modi’s pragmatic reset of policy toward the U.S. reflects this change in overall approach. The U.S. is still the sole superpower and stands head and shoulders above others in the depth and breadth of its strategic and defence technology. It is also a major source of technology, capital and export markets for the Indian private sector.

There are, however, inherent differences in perspective between a rich global power and a poor regional one: U.S. is a net exporter of technology with high per-capita pollution while India is a net technology importer with high incremental pollution.

A pragmatic approach seems to be emerging to resolving these differences and to minimise the negative fallout of unresolved differences and focus on areas of convergence like counter-terrorism and maritime security in and around the Indian Ocean.

The Modi-led government is changing the emphasis of India’s foreign and national security policies. These involve a clearer definition of Indian interests (‘India First’) in terms of technological and economic development; a greater focus on these goals in foreign policy; and a consequent integration of domestic and foreign policies.

There is also a greater effort to enhance military power, including through asymmetric warfare. Self-imposed constraints of ideology and misplaced fears of offending other countries are being jettisoned. Overall a much more confident, credible and effective national security and foreign policy is predicted to emerge over the next five years.

( Dr. Arvind Virmani is a former Chief Economic Advisor, Finance Ministry and Executive Director, IMF.)

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 3:43:11 PM |

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