The world is quite in awe of Indian democracy. They marvel at the manner in which this large country, of almost continental proportions, with a huge and diverse population has enjoyed political stability, relative social harmony and order, a fast rate of economic growth, peaceful civil-military relations and is steadily meeting its goals of development. The commonly held belief is that India is well on the trajectory to becoming one of the leading powers on the global stage. It has not been an easy journey. But the achievements are there and have earned global recognition and respect.
When we turn to foreign policy, as seen from the ground today, we are entering a complex arena, often blurred at the margins. This is particularly so in a democracy where public opinion reigns supreme and diplomacy is conducted in the amphitheatre. Public opinion often, as Tocqueville once said, induces “democracies to obey impulse rather than prudence and to abandon mature design for the gratification of a momentary passion”.
I think the current discourse in the public domain on our foreign policy is often removed from understanding of the requirements of what a sound policy should be. Worldwide, the era of the George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns who could repress the overflowing passions of their countrymen and prescribe sound policy solutions to important questions of foreign or domestic policy is long past. Democratic politics is a game of survival; as Walter Lippmann once said, and the public exercises a massive veto on any change of course. The adversary cannot be appeased, righteousness cannot be compromised, no peace with accomodation can be negotiated. To quote Lippmann, “The mass opinion has acquired mounting power..It has shown itself to be a dangerous master of decisions..” Foreign policy in such a situation, tends to become crowdsourced and the warning signs are everywhere. Ours is the age of nationalism. Patriotism is worn on the sleeve, and national sovereignty and autonomy are the guiding lights. The execution of foreign policy in India is no exception to this trend. Our Pakistan and China policies are examples of this. There is little scope for adjustment or accommodation.
The other aspect is that our foreign policy, like the Indian ethos itself, tends to evolve glacially. This is understandable. Interests predominate, they do not significantly alter just because the world has changed in terms of power equations. Tradition and habit are not jettisoned easily. We are as a nation, risk averse which can also be interpreted as being that India can never act imprudently or rashly.
The important question is how to realign or reset our policy approaches in the face of stiff strategic competition from China in various sectors of strategic and economic development, in terms of political influence in our neighbourhood, her muscular assertiveness on territorial issues, and her providing all the strategic props that our incubus, Pakistan needs. The Belt and Road Initiative, the Doklam standoff last year, the clear hostility to moves that provide for the entry of India into global policy-making institutions like the Nuclear Suppliers Group or for that matter, India’s claim for membership of the U.N. Security Council – these strategic fault lines confronting India are all issues that suggest that China is more inclined to restricting the space for India’s rise on the world stage than treating it as a co-equal partner representative of the aspirations of a large cross-section of humanity.
Traditionally, India has tried to hedge national weight and power by leveraging various relationships now called partnerships of varying grades of special importance. With the United States, she has what is a strong and indispensable partnership between the world’s two most important democracies (often called natural allies), built on shared values, strong defence and maritime security cooperation, and a multi-faceted people-centred trade, economic, business, innovation and energy partnership. With Russia, for what is a relationship considerably diluted from the Soviet heydays, it is a “special and privileged partnership” but still crucially important in the defence sphere, while with Japan, a strong economic and strategic partner and a clear favourite with all shades of Indian opinion, it is a “strategic and global partnership”. The term partnership therefore has many manifestations. Even with China, a long-term adversary, India has a “strategic partnership for peace and prosperity”.
And there are foreign relations triangles like India-China-Russia which are little more than a talk-shop when compared with the strategic connotation that imbues the India-Japan-U.S. triangle. One cannot discount the new conclaves of important economies like the G-20, the BRICS, the democratization of global economic and financial power with the inception of the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank – all of which speak the new grammar of distribution of global influence in a flatter world.
While the term non-alignment appears to be more archival than current, it has grand-fathered what operates as strategic autonomy today, and the strong adherence among policy-making elite hierarchies to shun dependence on any country, and to avoid any impression of subordination to a foreign power, a legacy held since the days of our founding fathers. India seeks recognition as a leading power, and such status has to be achieved on her own worth and merits, demonstrating that she has ingested a history that contains many hard lessons learnt from subordinating her interests in centuries past to foreign domination at great and often unredeemable cost.
It is this muscle memory that also from time to time raises questions regarding even a new, best friend like the United States. Will the latter be a dependable partner in times of critical need, for e.g in the eventuality of conflict with Pakistan, or confrontation with China? Last year’s standoff at Doklam was one such instance. Washington was quiet. And when it comes to India, even the seminal nuclear deal of 2008 was severely handicapped by the Nuclear Liability Bill passed by Parliament where the example of the Union Carbide Company and its shabby treatment of victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy became the touchstone for drafting regulations that rendered it virtually impossible to transact nuclear energy business involving foreign firms and their technology. The same embedded doubt of American intentions, as etched in recollections of 1971 and earlier, among sections of the bureaucracy made the going painfully slow for conclusion of the foundational agreements for defence cooperation.
Regardless of the party in power, there is, therefore, a broad continuum in Indian foreign policy. The last four years have not seen any deviation from the norm, except for much greater leadership-level visibility and the declared intention to make India a “vishwaguru” or leading power. The fundamental aims of strategic autonomy, independence of action, non-interventionism overseas except for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, being a democratic, responsible stakeholder, continue from the previous Congress-led government although the Hindu nationalist tradition is to reject Nehruvian thought. There is, as has been observed, no new normative agenda for Indian foreign policy, except that in April 2015, the BJP National Executive did enunciate panchamrit as the five pillars of foreign policy: samman (dignity, honour), samvad (engagement, dialogue), samriddhi (shared prosperity), suraksha (regional and global security) and sanskriti evam sabhuyata (cultural and civilizational linkages). This is nowhere near a muscular, assertive foreign policy framework.
Geography as has been said is relentless. That with historical memory shapes India’s foreign policy. The control of the rimland, to use Mackinder’s term, surrounding India is now dominated by China, both as a result of her presence in and occupation of Tibet, and in the 21st century her leveraging of the Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia, through Kashmir into Pakistan and the development of Gwadar port at the apex of the Arabian Sea. In many ways, Gwadar has the potential to be China’s Nicobar given its position near the Straits of Hormuz. Here the strategic space it seems is restricted for India; China has made similar inroads into Sri Lanka and the Maldives. There is a clear competition here between India and China for power, influence and dominance. That leaves Pacific Asia and the Indian Ocean. Nehru once called India the pivot of Asia. China is seeking to redefine that and thrust itself on the scene. The prevailing impression is that China would not like to see India emerge as her competitor both on the Asian landmass and on the ocean surrounding us. The unresolved boundary question between the two countries concerning their 3488 km. long border is only one part of the problem. The larger one is of two newly risen powers colliding with each other in their quest for wealth, power and influence.
If China is perceived as encircling India through the presence it is developing in our neighbourhood, building ports and other infrastructure, and staging facilities for its Navy in the Indian Ocean, the Indian concern is understandable. India’s traditional sphere of influence is being steadily eroded. As some have said, there is both a game of go – the ancient Chinese game – and a game of Chaturanga -the ancient Indian game of strategy involved in this scenario.
One Indian move has been not to buy into China’s Belt and Road Initiative which is purely self-interest-propelled Chinese grand strategy to seek vantage positions both on the Asian rimland and in the oceanic space that surrounds us. India’s reticence on the issue is paying off since the need for open consultation, financial transparency, following prescribed international procedures for funding such projects, respect for sovereignty are all being recognized by countries like Japan, the United States and Australia. The Chinese world view and methods of operation are definitely not tailored to meet global requirements and procedures in undertaking development and infrastructure projects.
The future that lies ahead will also see a militarily strong and economically powerful China increasingly supporting authoritarian regimes, corrupt leaders known for their violation of human rights, and bad governance. The only human right that China has long recognised is the right to development. The rest is ignored or glossed over. Also, China has long sought to restrict India’s strategic space in Asia, it would like to see India confined to a sub-regional area of operation in South Asia and not see it achieve its aspirations to be a leading power.
The relationship with China is therefore at the heart of Indian foreign policy. For India’s tryst with destiny is also India’s race against China. This also makes the canvas of India’s foreign policy operation so much more complex and challenging. The key strategic challenge is how the clash of Chinese and Indian ambitions in the Indo-Pacific will play out.
To deal with this emerging scenario would require that India wear much larger shoes than it does at present. The defence partnership with the United States, and the cooperation and coordination with Japan, the strengthening of the Quad with Australia, will all need to be tackled with much more assertiveness and less hesitation than before. The Act East policy needs to be implemented through moves that ensure much more visibility for India in Southeast Asia, leveraging strengths in democratic governance, historical and cultural ties, the Indian diaspora, technology, military and naval expertise and outreach, sales of defence equipment, trade and economic ties and speedily executed development assistance to the CLMV countries. Countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam need special focus in this policy framework. The proper leveraging of these relationships will enable the acceptance of India as more than just a South Asian nation, and acknowledgement of its Southeast Asian identity as its Northeast so clearly expresses, and the fact that the orientation of its Andaman and Nicobar island chain is both South and Southeast Asian. This focus and energetic overtures on the Act East policy are vitally important for Indian diplomacy today for otherwise there is the risk that the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative by China will steadily erode the relevance of the former.
The Asian context is a fluctuating and fluid one. All conditions and no rules seem to apply. In our own neighbourhood the collapse of SAARC has only exposed the static nature of regional politics and intergovernmental relations. Terrorism of the cross-border variety has paralysed the prospects of dialogue between India and Pakistan, and relations with our other neighbours, barring Bhutan, are beset with their own contradictions. India is a natural partner for all her South Asian neighbours, barring Pakistan, by the logic of geography, economy, mutual security, culture, ethnicity, traditions and soft power. China cannot take her place. Our profile in the region needs to be leveraged on these natural strengths. The merits of the Gujral and Manmohan Singh doctrine should not be dismissed because of an obsession about India’s manifest destiny as a power born to dominate a South Asian Commons. We must understand well the Kautilyan advice that a great power loses stature if it is bogged down in neighbourhood entanglements. In the same breath, I would add that there is little way out of our problems with Pakistan but to ceaselessly advocate an open channel of diplomatic communication and dialogue with simultaneous effort to ensure the international isolation of the supporters of terror within its state system.
Our foreign policy must possess the inherent flexibility to juggle various interests, goals, and relationships. Dialogue with a country like China is as important as working on other fronts to create a balance of interests with other like-minded partners to build the muscle, the interdependence, the strength and the smart diplomacy that Asia is our shared space. Dialogue need not mean supplicating to China. Weakness is always exploited by the Chinese. The decision that the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Dalai Lama’s entering into exile in India should not be attended by Indian officials coming after permitting the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang in 2017 sounded a rather flat note. It suggested diplomatic penitence after a boisterous night on the town. Our policy on Tibet must be more carefully calibrated. There is nothing to hide about the Dalai Lama – we can be proud of our support for keeping the flame of Tibetan culture, religion and tradition alive in India even as it has been decimated in its homeland. If China sees Tibet as an issue in relations with India, we need not be the assuager of her doubts. We gave away the store on Tibet in the nineteen fifties but what international relations teaches us today is that no agreements are completely sacrosanct. Only interests prevail. Strategic ambiguity in such situations will not spell disaster.
One of the declared aims of our foreign policy is that with leading power status our right to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council must be recognized and granted. This quest is an ongoing one. While the international system has yet to yield on this front, particularly the present Permanent Members, we must continue the fight. While these countries have time and again shown scant respect for the provisions of the Charter, as their actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have shown, the work of the U.N in the fields of development, gender rights, human rights, poverty alleviation, human health vindicate its continued relevance. It is countries like India that can sustain that relevance and meaning.
When our foreign service was created in the late forties of the last century, the world was a vastly different place. A newly independent India, led by a cosmopolitan cohort of men and women who were equally comfortable in east and west, exerted an influence far beyond the weight of a poor and nascent democracy. Prime Minister Nehru was an example of this. Until the debacle of 1962, India was an active mediator and bridge builder between the two blocs in the Cold War, on issues like the Korean Peninsula conflict and Indo-China. Today, our aspirations to be a leading power do not encompass the ambition to articulate voice and agency in mitigating the causes of conflict in the world. More national introspection is required in this regard. Is it because we have become prisoners of a public opinion that is more concerned about only our neck of the woods – i.e., Pakistan, and to a lesser extent, China, or that there is a fear of failure, or an unwillingness to contemplate this dimension in our foreign policy. I think we need to define what a leading power or vishwaguru means. It cannot just mean leading by the power of example, the example of one’s culture and civilization, and attachment to peace and responsible international behaviour. Our goodness is taken for granted, but not our ability to make a difference for the good of the world. The power of soft power is one thing, but there is much more to the definition of a comprehensively imagined and structured nation that is a force to reckon on the world stage. That is the challenge for India.
There is of course, need for much more hands on deck. Our foreign service is an extremely small one, in terms of numbers. If we are transact all our growing responsibilities on the world stage we need a far larger cohort of diplomats who are drawn from the best institutions, with a solid training in international law and international relations, skills in articulation and presentation, and who are specialists in various fields of foreign policy. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who said in one of his celebrated Constituent Assembly speeches, “What does independence consist of? It consists fundamentally and basically of foreign relations. That is the test of independence. All else is local autonomy.” The logic and import of those words should provide enough reason for us to reflect on why a country’s foreign policy and its drivers and executors should its best and brightest because the stakes involved are so high and so much depends on their ability to ensure India’s rightful place among the leading powers of the world.
I would like to conclude by saying that foreign policy in a world where a single tweet storm replaces years of carefully conceived policy or covenants of peace, as the signals from Washington indicate today, the challenge for India is to execute a foreign policy that is aligned towards ensuring that we do not abandon old friends, while at the same time exhibiting strategic boldness and vision in expanding relations with new partners, particularly the United States, balancing relations with adversaries like China in South and Southeast Asia, energizing our Act East policy much more, concentrating on facilitating a South Asian Commons through better inter-regional cooperation in development and security, with the exception of Pakistan. With the latter we need recognition of the fact that we must move away from public histrionics to sober dialogue and measured communication and consolidating the support of all our partners and collaborators for this policy. Our path to leading power status cannot avoid the responsibilities of dealing with Pakistan without the protracted contest and conflict that has marked the last seventy years.
Ultimately, the test of India’s greatness will be won on the basis of how we solve the challenges of growth, human security, development, and the creation of equality and wealth within. The story of China’s rise proves this. Our policy of strategic autonomy and independence of action, must now be made more effective by smart diplomacy that consolidates partnerships that are critical to our future power and influence, that balances and checks our adversaries, that enables the flow of new ideas, innovation, investment and technology, and provides the strategic space in which to grow stronger and more resilient internally, and thus share our experience of constitutional democracy globally as an international public good. Beyond this, we should be able to leverage our position in the heart of Asia and the Indian Ocean to safeguard our trading and maritime interests in ensuring the safety of sea lanes of communication. Diplomacy and foreign policy are intrinsically linked to strong defence and security and accelerated economic growth. Strength in these last three areas reinforces diplomacy and raises the prestige and profile of the country. Changing global equations cannot alter the primal importance of these factors. Foreign policy obviously has to calibrate itself to deal with these changes, but its strength and efficacy comes from internal equilibrium and progress and wise leadership within the country.
Nirupama Rao is a former Foreign Secretary of India and Ambassador to the United States and to China. The above piece is taken from her speech at the National Defence College