The challenges ahead


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THE first quarter century of the post-Cold War era is drifting away into the chronicles of history and India once again faces the challenge of having to adjust its foreign policy to the new realities in the world order. Comparisons can be drawn with the early 1990s when the Soviet Union was disbanded unilaterally and wholesale adjustment became necessary for its allies and friends, including India.

The main similarity is that India did not precipitate the emergent international situation 25 years ago or hardly played a role in negotiating an end to the Cold War – and was overtaken by the torrential flow of events – whilst today, once again, it seems lost in thought as a new world order struggles to be born. Truly, India’s political economy is at a crossroads today as it was twenty-five years ago, entering another transformative period. Of course, in a globalized world, such tectonic shifts in international politics are bound to impact the country’s interests.

But equally, there are differences too. The critical difference between then and now is that unlike in the Cold War era, the region of South Asia threatens to become a major theatre of big power rivalry. Books have been written prophesying that the Indian Ocean could be the epicentre of big power rivalry in the coming decades. Indeed, Britain has returned to the ‘East of Suez’ after a gap of some six decades and recently established a military base in Bahrain.

If the region becomes a hotbed of big power rivalry, it could put added pressure on India’s regional policies. The Achilles heel of India’s foreign policy has always been the country’s troubled relationship with its neighbours – ranging from an adversarial relationship with its two biggest neighbours, China and Pakistan, to non-adversarial but complicated ties with Sri Lanka (and increasingly the Maldives) or to the nuanced relationships with Bangladesh or Nepal and the delicate equation with Bhutan. To be sure, big power rivalry in the South Asian and Indian region would have a ‘multiplier effect’ on the diplomatic challenges facing India in its relations with the neighbours.

Meanwhile, China’s phenomenal rise introduces an altogether new dimension to regional politics. China is being challenged by the United States’ containment strategy, which goes under the rubric of its ‘pivot’ to Asia. Again, the current transition in Afghanistan is fraught with huge uncertainties for regional security and stability and India’s external environment. It could possibly lead to an open-ended American (and NATO) military presence in the region, which some regional states are watching warily, and change the power dynamic. Quite obviously, Pakistan’s success in battling the forces of terrorism and extremism vitally affects India’s interests. At the same time, in the western flank of the Asian continent, another development of immense consequence to global politics is also unfolding, namely, the United States’ engagement with Iran and the latter’s impending integration with the international community.

To varying degrees, the various templates of regional politics are overlapping and their interplay becomes at once transformative even as the outcome remains far from predictable. Suffice it to say, it is going to be in its region that India’s foreign policy is expected to meet formidable challenges in the period ahead.


The cross-currents in regional politics are to be viewed against the backdrop of a new world order. To be sure, the expected ‘peace dividend’ of the end of the Cold War era has failed to materialize. The triumphalism on the part of the US following the disbandment of the former Soviet Union in 1991 – and the ‘death’ of socialism – proved to be short-sighted and counterproductive, especially with the global financial crisis in 2008. At any rate, it alienated Russia and incrementally compelled it to devise counter-strategies. Looking back, the West was never genuinely interested in exploring a historic opportunity to accept Russia as an equal partner, and Russia harbours a deep sense of humiliation, which has spawned dark suspicions and atavistic fears in the Russian mind regarding the West’s long-term intentions.

‘Post-Soviet’ Russia, on the other hand, does not carry any ideological baggage and has taken avidly to ‘globalization’. Euro-Atlanticism, on which the western alliance was anchored, is no more the same. Russia’s bilateral ties with major European powers – Germany in particular – steadily deepened and expanded, which implicitly eroded Washington’s Trans-Atlantic leadership.

Today, the great Dnieper river in Ukraine as well as the Black Sea form the ‘frontline’ in the looming contestation between the US and Russia. How the Ukraine situation evolves will impact the international system. So far, the chill in US-Russia relations over Ukraine has not found its reflection on other global issues – stabilization of Afghanistan, the situation around Iran, North Korea, Islamic State and so on – but this could change if a confrontation between NATO and Russia ensues, which cannot be ruled out. The incipient signs of Europe reasserting and refusing to follow the US lead to isolate Russia offer a ray of hope, though, and perhaps, a new Berlin Wall is not about to be built.

Yet, East-West tensions have stimulated the Russia-China partnership, which has touched an unprecedented level today. The two great powers find it pragmatic to cooperate and coordinate with each other bilaterally, and in the UN Security Council, as if they were de facto allies – although neither seeks a military alliance. They work together and support each other to shore up their shared concerns over a polycentric world order and to push back at the US.


India needs to take cognizance of these fault lines in world politics and study their implications because, unlike in the Cold War era, India is today an important ‘swing state’ given its status as an emerging power with a fast-growing economy. But little thought has been given to this matter in our foreign policy discourse. Indeed, a situation is presenting itself where India is advantageously placed to preserve its ‘strategic autonomy’. All big powers – US, Russia and China – offer partnerships to India as none of them can afford to ignore India. The strategic choices that India makes will be of consequence.

But then, Russia is a time-tested friend and China is a neighbouring country. As for the US, it brings to bear immense pressure on India to jettison its doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’ as an archaic idea of past history and to instead align with it in a global partnership. The United Progressive Alliance government walked a fine line by strengthening and expanding the strategic partnership with the US, but also maintaining a careful distance from the US’ containment strategy against China – preferring to develop an independent line toward normalization of ties with China. The big question remains whether that is about to change under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prima facie, it appears a contradiction that a government rooted in the ideology of Hindu nationalism could think of jettisoning India’s strategic autonomy.


In a nutshell, Indian foreign policy is entering uncharted waters. Much depends on how the country’s relations with the big powers – US, Russia and China – are restructured by the Modi government. The imperatives of Modi’s so-called development agenda – with an emphasis on infrastructure development and the manufacturing sector (‘Make in India’) that would have the maximum potential for job creation – demands that India open up to Chinese investment. But on the contrary, India’s adversarial mindset will not allow that. On its part, Beijing continues to keep close watch on how far India ‘swings’ under Modi’s watch and whether it might cross the ‘red line’ to co-opt the US’ so-called re-balance strategy in Asia.

Indeed, Moscow too will watch closely, considering that the chill in Russian-American relations is here to stay for the foreseeable future and every move that India makes suggestive of closer bonding with the US at the strategic level could hurt Russia’s vital interests. On the other hand, Delhi is being called upon to come to terms with the Russia-China strategic partnership, which is historically at its highest level today. The three-way Russia-India-China format is assuming new characteristics, with Moscow and Beijing coordinating and cooperating more actively and frequently with each other on international developments and regional issues than either does with Delhi.

On the face of it, this realignment within the Russia-India-China format could put India at a disadvantage and thereby becomes a compelling argument for Delhi to give far greater priority than it has so far accorded to the forums that bring Russia, India and China together – especially, to the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The heart of the matter is that India has shared concerns with these two partners who also happen to be emerging powers as regards the issues of regional security and stability as well as the working of the international system.


As mentioned above, South Asia and the Indian Ocean region could be a theatre where the big power rivalries might accelerate in the coming years. One main impetus will be the establishment of American military bases in Afghanistan. A long-term US (and NATO) military presence can be expected. Clearly, Chinese policies toward Afghanistan have shifted to a ‘proactive’ mode. Russia suspects that the US has a hidden agenda to foment ‘colour revolutions’ and instigate regime change in the Central Asian region with a view to roll back Moscow’s influence – as happened in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004 and 2014) – apart from projecting the NATO as a provider of security for the region.

The stubborn refusal of the US to involve Russia or the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in the stabilization of Afghanistan strengthens Moscow’s suspicions. Both Russia and China are sensitive to the US’ past record of using militant Islamist groups as a geopolitical tool. Indeed, they have cause to worry insofar as the US justified its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 in terms of an imperative to oust and scatter the Taliban regime; today Washington labours to explain the reconciliation with the Taliban in the interests of a durable Afghan settlement. The US record of acquiescing with the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq too is fresh in Russian and Chinese (and Iranian) memory.


Another impetus stems from China’s urge to establish its presence in the South Asian region, which straddles the sea lanes through which the bulk of its foreign trade is conducted. China strives to counter the US pivot to Asia, which it sees (rightly so) as a strategy of containment. China has admitted its ‘Malacca Dilemma’. Therefore, notwithstanding Beijing’s protestations, it is possible to see the recent initiative to build a Silk Route (‘Belt and Road’ initiatives) as a counter-strategy to building a wide network of countries friendly to China. China’s unmatched capacity to make financial investments that dovetail in the development agenda of the neighbouring countries – Sri Lanka or Myanmar are striking examples – works to its advantage. China’s market is a driver of growth for the countries of the region.

Put differently, it is futile to try to discourage China from pursuing the so-called ‘Belt and Road’ initiatives in the South Asian region. (It is even debatable if India’s smaller neighbours could be persuaded to spurn Chinese overtures that are projected in terms of ‘win-win’ cooperation.) However, India continues to harbour misgivings about the growing Chinese presence and influence in its backyard as a direct challenge to its own aspirations as the region’s preeminent power. Modi’s tour of three Indian Ocean islands – Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles – and a proposed second visit to Myanmar in May (soon after his last visit in November 2014) betrays the disquiet in the Indian mind over China’s lengthening shadows in the region.

Thus, the US holds appeal to the Indian calculus as a ‘balancer’, and the strengthening of maritime security cooperation with the US Pacific Command holds attraction. The US, of course, encourages India to work on these lines. A paradigm shift is unlikely so long as the Sino-Indian border dispute remains unresolved and a full normalization achieved.


But then, why should the US allow India to cherry pick? From the US perspective, the expectation is to forge a full-spectrum partnership in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ with no caveats. The US military exercises with India stress ‘inter-operability’ and the US openly describes India to be a ‘lynchpin’ in its re-balance strategy in Asia. The Vision Statement on the Asia-Pacific issued during President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015 indeed went far beyond anything that India stated to identify with the US’ re-balance strategy.

It is in India’s interest to pursue normalization of relations with China without mixing it up with the US’ containment strategy toward China. China does not resent India’s expanding partnership with the US. But for China it is a ‘red line’ that India keeps its strategic autonomy and does not become part of a US-led Asian alliance against it. Beijing’s repeated overtures to Modi’s government – the last being the statement in early March that the border dispute has been ‘contained’ – unmistakably suggests a desire to move forward with India.

If one were to make a historical analogy, the Sino-Russian relationship was far more complicated. Considering the historical legacy of annexation of vast Chinese territories by Czarist Russia, Russia’s role in China’s liberation struggle against Japanese occupation, the Sino-Soviet ideological rift exploding into bitter hostility, the bloody Ussuri conflict, Soviet Union’s collapse and China’s rise as a superpower in a curious reversal of historical roles – it is quite obvious that the normalization came about in an overall climate free of tensions and growing mutual trust and confidence between Moscow and Beijing.

China agreed to a border settlement with a much weaker ‘post-Soviet’ Russia on terms that satisfied Moscow once the matrix of a broad strategic understanding began to emerge following the path-breaking visit by Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing in 1989. What lesson should India draw out of this analogy? Is it at all necessary to develop a ‘hedge’ against China through an alliance with the US – as Indian pundits assume – or is there another approach, as the Sino-Russian analogy suggests?


Most certainly, Obama has nudged Modi to engage Pakistan. A predictable India-Pakistan relationship is critically important for the success of US regional strategies in South Asia. The visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary to Islamabad in early March showed that Modi understood Washington’s expectations from him to re-engage the Pakistani leadership. Similarly, the Modi government has come under compulsion from the US to limit India’s role in Afghanistan to one of rendering economic and development assistance.

It is Pakistan that the US regards as of pivotal importance for the success of its Afghan strategy and this, in turn, demands that Pakistani sensitivities of marginalizing the Indian role need to be heeded. The Modi government is unlikely to defy US expectations that the Indian security establishment trim its ‘great game’ instincts in the Hindu Kush. Looking back, it was a serious error of judgment on the part of the Modi government to have called off the foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan six months ago. Delhi overlooked that regional security was at a defining moment and diplomacy needed to be, if anything, hyperactive. Suffice it to say, when the Indian Foreign Secretary travelled to Islamabad last month, he was talking to a Pakistan which is in a triumphalist mood.


The Pakistani diplomacy did brilliantly well in the past six month period to optimally exploit the current developments – exit of President Hamid Karzai from the Afghan power structure and the ascendancy of Ashraf Ghani; Ghani and Obama’s hurry to work out an Afghan settlement by end-2016; Ghani and Obama’s readiness to accept Pakistan’s central role in the Afghan reconciliation and to recognize Pakistan’s interests; US need of Pakistani support for the consolidation of American military bases in Afghanistan and the long-term deployment of US troops; China’s proactive role in Afghanistan and the related Chinese initiatives to build an Economic Corridor to Pakistan as part of its Silk Road strategy and so on. In short, Pakistan finds itself today in an enviable position of being the key interlocutor for Kabul, Beijing and Washington.

For a variety of reasons India’s Afghan policies are in need of a complete overhaul. For a start, it was unrealistic on India’s part to overlook that Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan that are non-negotiable – just as India would have in Nepal or Bhutan. Two, Afghans are heavily dependent on Pakistan, and India cannot hope to substitute that role. Three, the absence of a direct access route to Afghanistan puts severe limits on India’s capacity to influence events. Four, the erstwhile Northern Alliance leaders, who worked with India in the late 1990s have acquired other foreign patrons, including Pakistan. India got badly marginalized with Karzai’s exit.


India’s one-dimensional ‘take’ on the Taliban has no takers in the region and Delhi is paying a high price for its failure to comprehend that apart from the international community, Afghans themselves have reached a consensus regarding the need to engage the Taliban. The establishment of contacts with the Taliban leadership should be a top priority for India. It is not going to be easy as it is also linked to India-Pakistan relations. Second, India should firmly turn its back on the ‘great game’ mindset of vying with Pakistan for influence in the Hindu Kush. India and Pakistan are not necessarily rivals, because India’s strength lies in people-to-people contacts and there is a vast reservoir of goodwill toward India among the Afghans.

India should return to its past policy of not taking sides in the civil war in Afghanistan. India’s interests are best served by being a benign power that keeps lines of communication open to all Afghan groups. The Taliban might have hit at Indian interests in Afghanistan in retaliation for India’s unfriendly acts, but they never carried the fight to Indian soil.


The Indian policies have continued to concentrate on management of tensions in its relations with Pakistan, but India is today an aspirational power and ought to have the ‘big picture’, namely, the vision to look beyond crisis management to resolving differences and disputes and to make Pakistan a ‘stakeholder’ in friendly relations with our country. It is simply not enough to say that Pakistan is not interested in friendly relations with India.

Through the UPA era India pursued a hardline policy toward Pakistan – partly, of course, due to the raucous opposition by the Bharatiya Janata Party. It even held back from addressing ‘doable’ issues such as Sir Creek. As regards the Siachen problem, India did a volte-face by heeding the wishes of the armed forces and expected Pakistan to accept the fait accompli and learn to live with ground realities.

Indeed, the unresolved Kashmir problem is a bleeding wound in the India-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan claims to be open to out of the box solutions and India should pick up the threads of discussion. In principle, India’s stance – boundaries cannot be redrawn but below that threshold there is scope for give and take – is eminently reasonable and enjoys international support. But the question is whether the Sangh Parivar would see the Kashmir problem as anything less than the ‘unfinished business of Partition’ and India’s ‘Hindu identity’.

There is an underlying conceptual issue involved here, challenging India’s diplomacy in its neighbour-hood which relates to the power dynamic in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region and our understanding of what constitutes India’s ‘regional influence’ in the coming decades. The Indian pundits see the paradigm rather simplistically as ‘India versus China’, whereas in reality it is far more complicated. The plain truth is that it is only in the Indian mind that South Asia and Indian Ocean figure as our ‘sphere of influence’. The regional states and big powers never saw things that way. In fact, even small countries of the region such as Sri Lanka or the Maldives – leave alone Pakistan or Bangladesh – never accepted the thesis of India being the pre-eminent power in the region.


Our neighbours have resented and tried to counter India’s perceived ‘hegemony’ despite Indian efforts to allay their misgivings. While they are willing to accept India’s legitimate security interests in the region and are enthusiastic about tapping into the Indian economy, especially its expanding market, none of them visualizes India as a provider of security for the region. On the other hand, they demand an equal relationship with India. In the prevailing polycentric world order, they also have greater scope than before to diversify their ties with extra-regional powers, with a view to retain their strategic autonomy vis-à-vis India.

Sri Lanka is a case in point at present. It has succeeded in warding off western pressures on human rights issues at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (which were essentially geopolitical in character) through support from China. In the period ahead we may expect that the new regime in Colombo will try to shake itself free of India’s mediatory role in the Tamil problem as well by strengthening its hands, ironically, with renewed support from the US and Britain.

We shouldn’t forget that India is not the only major regional power in its neighbourhood. India’s northern neighbour China, is knocking at the door of the SAARC for admission. It cannot and will not be kept away from the South Asian region in the coming decades. As a superpower, China’s interests have acquired a global character and that is visible even in regions where China has not been historically present – Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.


The South Asian and Indian Ocean region not only form China’s immediate neighbourhood but they impact its security, the development of China’s southern regions (which are relatively underdeveloped) and also happen to be the corridor through which China conducts the bulk of its foreign trade. Therefore, it is an exaggerated notion to think that Chinese policies in the region are ‘India-centric’. The Chinese policies might have been heavily focused on countering India in the sixties and seventies, but its concerns and priorities have dramatically changed in the recent decades and there is enough evidence that in the shaping of the world order, China increasingly sees India as a meaningful interlocutor. Except in propagandistic terms, it is no longer possible to regard the ‘all-weather friendship’ between China and Pakistan as India-centric.

Indeed, India has every reason to be concerned if China’s activities in the region tread on India’s core concerns or vital interests of national security. In this context, the recent Chinese statement mooting the idea of trilateral cooperation between it, India and Sri Lanka merits attention. Is there scope to work with China in the Indian Ocean region? Specifically, China has proposed a dialogue on maritime security.

To make an analogy, Russia and China are cooperating in Central Asia, a region that Moscow not only regards as its backyard historically, but which actually formed part of Czarist Russia and the former Soviet Union. The convergence of Russian and Chinese interests in the stability and security of the Central Asian region forms the basis of their cooperation. The cooperation in the security spheres within the ambit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has provided much stability to that region despite its proximity to Afghanistan.

The western propaganda harped on the contradictions in the Russia-China relations and often invoked the spectre of China ‘replacing’ Russian influence in the region, but from Moscow’s point of view, regional stability and security are the top priorities taking precedence over the grand notions of ‘influence’. Moscow remains confident that for reasons of history, geography, culture and so on, China can never replace Russia in its sheer ‘soft power’ in the region. Moscow sees no harm if trade and investment ties develop between the region and China. In fact, Moscow trusts that the fiercely independent Central Asian states will reject attempts by any outside power to dominate it.


Again to turn to India’s western neighbourhood, there is Pakistan, which is a nuclear weapon state, one of the world’s biggest Islamic countries, and a major regional power in South Asia with a highly strategic geographic location. Pakistan will never accept India’s pre-eminence as a regional power in South Asia or the Indian Ocean. In fact, even today, Pakistan carefully measures the degree of US ‘tilt’ toward India and accordingly calibrates how far it should cooperate with the American regional strategies in the region at any given time or how far it should resort to ‘non-cooperation’ as a geopolitical tool to force Washington to do course correction.

Further to the west of Pakistan in India’s ‘near abroad’ is also Iran, which is situated in the Gulf region where for reasons that one needn’t go into here, India is a stakeholder in regional security and stability. Iran has lately surged as a regional power with a capability to influence world politics. Iran is a hugely ambitious regional power with a technological capability that can match India’s in the future. It is also an immensely wealthy country endowed with natural and human resources. Once the international sanctions get lifted and Iran’s integration into the western world gains momentum, Tehran is bound to figure as a pivotal regional capital for several regions – Persian Gulf and West Asia, Caspian and the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Iran has close relations with China and Russia and its induction into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is on the cards. In the prevailing international situation, characterized by tensions in US relations with Russia and the unpredictability of Sino-American relations, Iran’s foreign policies rooted in the principles of non-alignment gives the country a status similar to India’s – a ‘swing state’ which no big power can afford to ignore.


Unfortunately, India’s strategic understanding with Iran has eroded during the past decade due to US pressure on the UPA government. In the past ten-month period in power, the Modi government too has not made any worthwhile effort to mend India’s ties with Iran. During his January visit, Obama made it a point to publically compliment Modi for continuing with the UPA government’s Iran policy. The Hindu nationalists have always given primacy to Israel as their number one Middle Eastern partner.

Although there are no contradictions in Iran’s relations with India, which historically have been friendly, Iran is also conscious of its ‘tryst with destiny’ as a civilizational power. There is no way Iran will accept the pre-eminence of India – or any other country for that matter – in the Indian Ocean region.

Suffice it to say, a period lies ahead when it will be unrealistic for India to even imagine that it is ‘more equal than others’ in the South Asian and Indian Ocean region. India should not punch above its weight. The fact remains that the country presents a paradox – an emerging power that at times also resembles a ‘failing state’. Clearly, the strategic overstretch as happened to the former Soviet Union will be catastrophic. From the perspective of foreign policy, therefore, the cardinal point is that India’s international stature will inevitably follow its success in economic growth and development and in being a flourishing democracy.


In sum, Indian diplomacy will do well to come up with imaginative ideas on regional cooperation by taking a leaf out of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiatives projected in a ‘win-win’ spirit. In the coming decades India’s regional influence will depend on its intellectual resources and ingenuity to project an appealing and credible leadership role in regional cooperation. That is also the best means of keeping the region sequestered from the negative fallouts of big power rivalries in the region.

Unfortunately, India has not made any serious or sustained attempt to make the smaller countries in its neighbourhood ‘stakeholders’ in partnership. Our initiatives are episodic and more often than not a hastily assembled patchwork to embellish momentarily the high level visits by our leaders and make them look larger than life. That is not a track record worthy of an aspiring regional power. The Modi government promised to make amends, but as the government’s first anniversary draws closer, we are yet to see a single substantive regional initiative worth highlighting.