India's Foreign Policy Challenges
By: Amb. (Retd.) Rajiv Sikri
Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee
Date: January 30, 2017
The world is in flux. Uncertainties abound. It is no longer the world of 1945, when the Second World War ended, nor of 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. The US does remain the most powerful and influential global actor, but no longer a dominant one. Europe is divided, and the future of the European Union uncertain. An anti-globalization protectionist and nationalistic wave is sweeping over both the US and Europe. The WTO is stalled, and the climate change agreement in jeopardy. China is the new pretender that now unabashedly seeks to dominate Asia, and eventually the world. Russia has regained its self-confidence and wants to be once again a global player. Japan is no longer pacifist. The Islamic world is in turmoil. India too seeks its due place in the world.
One thing is reasonably clear: the geo-political tussles of the 21st century will be in Asia, because of geography, demographics, and economic strength. Asia also has serious problems like militant Islam, terrorism, drugs, piracy, and failing states. Asia is where hope springs. It is also where fears arise.
A new balance of power is emerging, though its contours keep shifting. Where does India fit in this changing balance of power? India is undoubtedly very strategically located at the crossroads of Asia where five ‘arcs’ intersect. These are:
- One, the ‘arc of growth and prosperity,’ extending from India through South East Asia to East Asia;
- Two, the ‘arc of instability and turbulence’ to India’s west extending from Pakistan to Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and the Arab world;
- Three, the ‘arc of energy’ extending from the Persian Gulf through the Caspian Sea to Russia’s Siberian and Arctic regions;
- Four, the ‘arc of communications’ comprising the trade and energy sea lines of communication in the northern Indian Ocean region;
- Five, the ‘arc of uncertainty,’ north of India, encompassing Nepal, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the Central Asian countries.
While this situation poses complex challenges for India, there could be opportunities too.
The world is looking expectantly at India. Fortunately, today India is seen as a benign rising power, though that may not be necessarily true in the future. Thus, India has a window of opportunity to secure its due place in the world. First, India itself must have a strategic vision. One could say that India has three security rings. The innermost ring is from the Hindu Kush through the Himalayas to the Irrawaddy, the natural geographic boundaries of the Indian sub-continent. What happens here is of direct and vital interest to India. The second ring extends from the Straits of Aden and Hormuz to the Malacca Straits, the choke points of the Indian Ocean in the west and east. The outermost ring covers the expanse from Suez to the Pacific Ocean rim, the extremities of the Asian continent. These three rings constitute India’s immediate, extended and strategic neighbourhood respectively.
How should India go about ensuring its interests? All Indian leaders have sought to preserve India’s independence of action and autonomy of decision-making. Various factors, including its sense of pride and self-worth based on a rich heritage of civilization and culture, its past achievements, and its multi-faceted successes as an independent nation, impel India towards strategic autonomy. India is too big, self-respecting, and steeped in the anti-colonial tradition to become anyone’s camp follower. While India has not harboured any territorial ambitions, independent India has not been a passive power. India fought against colonialism and apartheid, resisted pressures to join blocs, did not accept the iniquitous nuclear regime of the NPT, and seeks a greater voice in global governing structures like the UN.
However, there is a weakness in India’s strategic thinking. India’s traditionally defensive and non-aggressive mindset has not made it strong enough to be feared. India has to build up its own strength because it cannot afford to be seen as a weak country that can be manipulated and arm-twisted. Fortunately, we have in Prime Minister Narendra Modi a strong, bold and clear-headed leader who thinks strategically.
His imaginative and dynamic handling of foreign affairs has galvanized Indian foreign policy, which is now, more than ever before, an integral and critical element of an overall national strategy. The economic content of foreign policy has acquired greater importance. Foreign policy has to not only ensure a peaceful external environment for India’s economic growth; it should also bring in needed foreign technology and investment.
The strategic perspective of the Modi world-view is that, not hobbled by ideology or sentimentalism, a self-confident and ambitious India seeks friends and partners (though not as a supplicant), and wants to be a "leading power,” not just a balancer or a "swing state” in the international system. For this, India has to leverage its strengths such as its demographic dividend; its large and growing market; good GDP growth; the talent, financial and political clout of India’s large overseas Indian community; and India’s cultural attractiveness. It also entails taking risks and at times pursuing conflicting goals.
The highest priority rightly goes to India’s South Asian neighbours. A secure neighbourhood is critical for India. From some of its neighbours, India faces military threats and state-sponsored cross-border terrorism. With others, there are problems like illegal migration, drug and human trafficking, safe havens for militant groups, and activities of religious fundamentalists. Some of our neighbours are in the category of Least Developed Countries and/or Land-locked Countries, and are sometimes regarded as "failed” or "failing” states. Thus, India’s neighbours demand sustained Indian attention and considerable resources.
A fundamental problem is that South Asia’s political borders are artificial. To assert and preserve their modern identities as sovereign countries, India’s neighbours don’t want to get too close to India and deliberately downplay the interdependence, complementarities and commonalities of the region. At the same time, they cannot ignore the reality and tugs of a shared history and culture, as well as intertwined economic and social ties. India’s neighbours cannot insulate themselves from India. The reverse is equally true. All of India’s neighbours implicitly recognize that India is South Asia’s natural leader. However, India cannot take leadership for granted; it has to earn it.
For the moment, India’s immediate neighbours are not critically important economic partners, India’s main interests vis-à-vis its neighbours are security-related. India needs stable neighbouring states and a relationship of mutual trust and economic interdependence. As India develops, so must its neighbours, otherwise the development gap will lead to a flow of economic migrants from neighbouring countries seeking job opportunities in India through porous, ill-policed borders. Cooperation with India’s neighbours is also essential to combat fundamentalism and terrorism in South Asia. India must have a dominant role in a peaceful South Asia, so that it doesn’t remain bogged down in managing relations with its neighbours but can engage strategically with the rest of the world. To prevent its neighbours from straying away, India will need to deploy considerable attention, imagination and resources.
India’s bargain with its neighbours (other than Pakistan) has to be that if they do not pose a threat to India’s security, India will give them economic benefits and a stake in India’s growth and prosperity. Within its limitations, over the years India has indeed given its neighbours considerable technical and economic assistance to set up projects and provide educational facilities and technical assistance. This policy needs to be broadened. India has to open its purse strings for its neighbours. It goes without saying that India’s neighbours will never love India. The trouble is that neither do they fear India – at least not enough. At times, they tweak India’s nose, just to make a point, and appear confident that India would do nothing. Such an attitude should not be acceptable to India. India’s goal should be to get the respect of its neighbours, perhaps some admiration too, and definitely some sensitivity to our red lines.
India cannot follow a 'one-size-fits-all' approach with its neighbours. In the first category are small, vulnerable countries like Bhutan and the Maldives with a high degree of dependence on India. India should not take them for granted, and has to be extra careful to respect their sensitivities. Although they are friendly to us, they understandably wish to reduce their dependence on India. Hence they are constantly seeking to expand their geopolitical space, including by courting countries like China, which in turn creates anxiety and nervousness in India. Fortunately, the new government in Bhutan is more favourably inclined towards India and is more cautious about wooing China. Prime Minister Modi made it a point to make Bhutan his first foreign destination. As for the Maldives, Prime Minister Modi had to cancel his visit because of internal political developments there, leading to some tension in India-Maldives relations. However, India is now engaging with the government of President Yameen, and relations appear to have stabilized.
In a second category are the middle-sized neighbours like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan and Myanmar, comparable in size and population to Indian States. India has to deal with them in a more subtle and sophisticated way. While giving them full respect as sovereign nations, India has to adopt a non-reciprocal approach and treat them like Indian States from an economic perspective. India could give them incentives and subsidies as we do to our backward states and regions, involve their businessmen in India’s economic growth, and try to co-opt their elites to be India’s friends and partners. Then they might begin to see us as a generous, rather than a bullying, big brother. If India’s image in the neighbourhood has to change, Indians must be mindful of our neighbours’ concerns and sensitivities. Whether it is political leaders, officials or ordinary people, Indians have to take care not to be seen as boorish, condescending or overbearing. Prime Minister Modi has had mixed success in finding the right balance in dealing with this category of neighbours.
Pakistan and China fall in the third category of India’s neighbours. Both are hostile to India and are actively engaged, both independently and collectively, in creating difficulties for India, the more so as the intensity and scope of their strategic collaboration has sharply increased.
Pakistan is India’s most troublesome neighbour because of various reasons: its state-sponsored terrorism against India; its military and nuclear capabilities; its alliance with China; and because the wounds of Partition have not healed. For India, Pakistan is not just any other foreign country – it is an ideological state created by a section of Muslims who felt that they could not live in peace and harmony with Hindus in India. The circumstances that led to the creation of Pakistan continue to haunt India-Pakistan relations seven decades later. Many in Pakistan still have the mentality of invaders and nurture dreams of ruling India. It’s telling that Pakistani missiles have names like Ghaznavi, Ghauri, Babur and Abdali – all invaders who ravaged what is now Pakistan, but have now become heroes of the Pakistani state! Pakistanis have been indoctrinated to regard India as an enemy. Although there are many voices in Pakistan advocating a change in the traditional Pakistani policy towards India, the antagonistic and hostile mindset unfortunately remains quite widespread among the Pakistani ruling class, particularly the military and the ISI.
Nearly every Indian Prime Minister has tried to be a peacemaker with Pakistan, but in vain. Nehru signed the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty in the hope that this would reassure Pakistan about India’s intention not to cut off river waters flowing into Pakistan from Kashmir. Lal Bahadur Shastri gave back the strategic Haji Pir Pass after the 1965 war. Indira Gandhi was taken in by Bhutto’s sweet talk and lost a great opportunity to settle the Kashmir issue at Shimla in 1972. Inder Kumar Gujral was a firm believer in ‘jhappi’ (hug-and-embrace) diplomacy. Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook a bus journey to Lahore and legitimized Musharraf’s transformation from the CEO to the President of Pakistan. Manmohan Singh held out numerous olive branches to Pakistan and whitewashed Pakistan’s role in fomenting terror against India. Regrettably, all these overtures and olive branches have not changed Pakistan’s attitude, but only served to reinforce among the Pakistani ruling elite the image of India as a toothless tiger.
Prime Minister Modi too reached out to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif immediately on becoming Prime Minister, but the hopes for any breakthrough quickly faded out. India’s benchmark for talks with Pakistan has been Pakistan’s attitude on terrorism. Prime Minister Modi made a last attempt to break the logjam in relations through his dramatic stopover in Lahore in December 2015 on his way back to India from Kabul. But Pakistan’s attack on the Pathankot air base days later, its continuing fomenting of troubles in Kashmir valley in the second half of 2016 following the killing of Burhan Wani, and finally the attack on the Uri brigade headquarters resulted in a distinct hardening of India’s position and a shift to a more aggressive strategy. Thus, one has seen the surgical strike against Pakistani terror camps, the references to Baluchistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan in the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech, and a hard relook at the working of the Indus Waters Treaty. The clear message to Pakistan is that there could be serious costs for Pakistan if it continues to follow its current policies towards India.
China is India’s biggest challenge not only because it is a major Asian and global power but, most importantly, it is India’s neighbour. Handling China has, not unexpectedly, turned out to be a difficult challenge. At the global level, China is using its economic clout, and its status as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council and a NPT-recognized nuclear power to thwart India’s rise in every possible way, be it to block India’s bid for Permanent Membership of the UNSC, designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist, or India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It is certainly not prepared to treat India as its co-equal in any way.
At the regional level, so far China has successfully followed a low-cost strategy to use Pakistan as a pawn to keep India tied down in South Asia and to prevent India from becoming a serious challenger to China’s ambitions to dominate Asia. China is also using its deep pockets and newfound strategic confidence to get a firm foothold in India’s traditional sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. It is uncomfortably active in Afghanistan, and is enticing India’s other South Asian neighbours into its economic and military orbit. The weaker the links and the greater the problems and suspicions between India and its South Asian neighbours, the more difficult it would be for India to look beyond its immediate neighbourhood and be a credible competitor to China in Asia. Already, by dividing ASEAN, China has steadily expanded its influence in Southeast Asia and established a firm presence in the South China Sea, contemptuously ignoring the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s judgment. With US President Trump trashing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which had a strong political objective), China may be expecting that its strategic space in Asia will grow. China has also expanded its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, with a base in Djibouti, a permanent presence in the Arabian Sea under the pretext of tackling piracy, and the quest for bases/port facilities all across the Indian Ocean region. It is using its formidable economic and military strength to relentlessly envelop large parts of Asia in its orbit through its initiatives like the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) project and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. OBOR, of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a key component, goes against India’s security and strategic interests. India has made its objections very clear, both privately and publicly, and signaled that it should not assume an obstacle-free path for the CPEC.
The long-standing and vexed boundary dispute with China is unlikely to be resolved soon, as China has made it clear that it is not keen on any early settlement. In any case, the public positions of the two sides are so divergent that it will be difficult to get public and political support in either country for an agreement that will inevitably entail some compromises. China has gone back on the 2005 Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for settling the border dispute. The Indian suggestion that the two sides should resume work to clarify the Line of Actual Control has been turned down by China. China is constantly probing and testing India, as it did in the Depsang sector in Ladakh in 2013, and the standoff at Demchok in 2014 while President Xi Jinping was visiting India. India has to be prepared for more such tactics. Meanwhile, work must be speeded up on raising the proposed mountain strike corps, building infrastructure on our borders with China, and settling more people in the border areas.
Tibet is a core issue in India-China relations. China is suspicious of India’s policy of hosting the Dalai Lama and the unofficial Tibetan government-in-exile. With no dialogue under way between China and the Dalai Lama, and a hard line policy being followed internally within Tibet, the stage is set for more India-China complications, even a possible confrontation, in the post-Dalai Lama scenario. Another aspect of the Tibet problem is the dams being built on the Brahmaputra that India fears will reduce water flows downstream in India. Things could turn really ugly if the waters of the Brahmaputra were to be diverted north, as some in China appear to be contemplating.
India has no illusions about China. While both countries do see mutual benefit in Chinese investments in infrastructure projects in India, the scope is limited because mutual trust is missing. While Prime Minister Modi pragmatically recognizes that India’s domestic priorities require a peaceful border with China and a non-hostile China, he is not prepared to cow down before China. Conveying any impression of weakness means that half the battle is lost. Instead of a starry-eyed view of China’s achievements, India should look for and exploit China’s weaknesses, while leveraging its own strengths.
Let me now turn to the other regions in India’s strategic neighbourhood. East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific region is an increasingly important dimension of India’s foreign policy, underlined by the renaming of the ‘Look East Policy’ as the ‘Act East Policy.’ There exist deep cultural and historical ties. Buddhism is an important link that is being strengthened. People-to-people ties are rapidly growing. There are no bilateral disputes. More than one-third of India’s trade is with this region. Two-way investments are extensive. India has the largest number of free trade or comprehensive economic cooperation agreements with the countries of this region. While India’s engagement with these countries till 2005 or so was primarily economic, now the defence and security dimension has acquired equal if not greater salience because of common concerns about China’s aggressive behaviour in the western Pacific region. Thus, India has developed an extensive and growing network of defence and security ties with key countries like Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia. The development of India’s isolated Northeast Region also impels India to seek closer relations with the Southeast Asian countries. Particular attention is being given to connectivity projects.
The Persian Gulf region is of critical importance to India. Centuries-old ties of blood, language, culture, religion and trade bind India and this part of the world. Two-thirds of India’s imported oil comes here and this heavy dependence will remain for the foreseeable future. More than seven million Indians live and work in Arab countries. Their remittances to India are very substantial and important for India. Two-way trade and investment ties are significant. For India’s Muslims, Mecca and Medina are the most important pilgrimage destinations. The late Saudi King Abdullah’s visit to India as Chief Guest on India’s Republic Day in 2006 was an important landmark that took India’s relations with the Arab world to a qualitatively new level. Just a few days ago the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi was similarly honoured. Outside the Arab countries, Iran is the most populous – and perhaps the most stable country too – in this turbulent region, cannot be ignored. It too is an important long-term partner for India’s energy security, particularly gas, and is India’s only access route to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Former President Khatami was honoured as Chief Guest on Republic Day in 2003. Regrettably, relations took a dip after India’s vote against Iran in the IAEA in 2005 and the subsequent sanctions regime against Iran. Fortunately, relations have stabilized over the last year or so, and Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Iran last year took ties forward. The third important player in this region is Israel. For many years now, it has been an important and reliable defence partner of India, despite India’s consistent support for the Palestinian cause. Unlike in the past, India’s relationship with Israel is now much more out in the open – President Pranab Mukherjee recently visited Israel, and Prime Minister Modi too is planning a visit to Israel. These are notable firsts. For all these reasons, India has huge stakes in peace and stability in the Gulf region. India will undoubtedly have to pay close attention to this region, carefully navigating its way through the thicket of mutual rivalries and antagonisms of the major regional powers.
Outside the neighbourhood, the USA is arguably India’s most important relationship. Prime Minister Modi has adopted a pragmatic approach in trying to overcome what he calls "the hesitations of history”. Brushing aside any possible personal misgivings he may have had over the US denying him a visa for many years, Prime Minister Modi quickly reached out to the US and managed to get President Obama as the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day in 2015. His logic is simple: in order to grow, India needs a friendly and cooperative United States because the US has many strengths, such as: its unmatched comprehensive power; its military and space capabilities; the size of its economy; its domination of global finance (banking and stock markets); its technological prowess; its domination of cyber space; its influence over other countries including India’s neighbours, and so on. India’s economic rejuvenation and defence modernization require a friendly and cooperative US, involving not just the Administration, but equally the Congress, the business community, civil society, and the increasingly influential Indian community. India also needs US assistance and cooperation to tackle the challenge of China. That is the logic behind the bold Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, the designation of India as a "major defence partner,” India’s signing on the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), frequent bilateral and (with Japan) trilateral military exercises, and purchase of nearly $15 billion worth of defence equipment. It also helps that as open societies and democracies, the two countries share common values and have very extensive people-to-people ties that bring our two countries closer.
At the same time, there remain differences on many important issues such as intellectual property rights, trade, environment, human rights, visas for Indian professionals, and functioning of NGOs. Although differences have narrowed, the two countries have somewhat different perspectives on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and the Persian Gulf. But, unlike in the past, both sides are content to cooperate where they can, and not let disagreements on other issues cloud the overall relationship. One would have to watch how relations develop under President Trump who seems to favour a more transactional approach to foreign relations. However, broad trends are unlikely to change, and the early signals are positive.
Russia (and earlier the Soviet Union) has been a steadfast friend and a very special and privileged partner of India for many decades. Both the Soviet Union and its successor state Russia have provided India with immense help in diverse fields like industrial development, energy, education space, atomic energy, defence equipment and so on. India benefited from cheap Soviet credits and rupee trade. Politically, the Soviet Union supported India at critical times on Kashmir, Goa, Sikkim and Bangladesh. India continues to get military hardware from Russia, including an aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines, and many other weapon systems and platforms that other countries simply do not offer at all. There is now growing cooperation in the energy sector.
However, today mutual interest, not ideology or sentimentalism, drives the relationship that, unfortunately, occupies a somewhat lower priority in the foreign policy of both countries. While defence cooperation with Russia remains critical in many areas, Russia is no longer a clearly dominant but one – although a very important one – of India’s many defence partners. Nor does Russia have the resources to meet the Modi Government’s economic priorities and ambitions, with the significant exception of the energy sector, both nuclear and hydrocarbons. Russia has also come closer to China and Pakistan in the defence field. Despite some welcome course correction to stem the drift in bilateral relations, the structural weaknesses remain. Trade is low, people-to-people contacts limited. Language acts as a hindrance, and the lack of any influential lobby pushing for closer India-Russia ties is a handicap.
These are some of the foreign policy challenges facing India. In order to meet these challenges, India needs to not only leverage its strengths and build the required institutional structures, but also garner public support for government policies and initiatives from multiple stakeholders. In addition to the diverse branches of the Central Government, the Government has to take into account the interests and concerns of coalition partners, States, the business community, the media, non-resident Indians and others. All these interest groups have to be recognised, respected and taken on board in the formulation of a consensual and effective foreign policy. Finally, Indians must also change their attitude – it cannot be ‘chalta hai,’ if we are to realise our ambitious dreams.