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India’s Foreign Policy in Changing Times


India’s foreign policy has acquired a decisive expression with the coming to power of the new government. During the previous UPA regime, India’s foreign policy was passive and non-ambitious. This passivity was not similar to India’s post-Independence policy of Non-Alignment, which was a product of attempts by the economically weak, newly decolonized nations to keep all sources of foreign aid open and to assert an alternative political vision. However, the policy of Non-Alignment gave way to an activist foreign policy seeking to establish India’s role in South Asia right from the time of Indira Gandhi. Even though the majority of intervening years under the UPA government were passive, the Modi-led NDA government has now given a new life to the country’s foreign policy.

In this article, we will look at the new foreign policy themes heralded by the government and major challenges emerging in India’s bilateral relationships.

Marginalizing bureaucratic intervention

One of the weaknesses afflicting the previous government’s foreign policy was the excessive role of the bureaucrats sitting in the Ministry of External Affairs. The Devyani Khobragade episode last year, because of which the Indo-US relations reached a staining limit, is a case in point. Another weakness lay in poor implementation due to lack of coordinated functioning among different ministries. Clinching important economic deals has always formed a crucial part of bilateral and multilateral foreign policy engagements. However, non-implementation of these partnerships due to lethargy in the Indian bureaucratic establishment and inability of the PMO to extract accountability from it, has prevented foreign policy from moving beyond diplomatic engagement to actual implementation.

This mode of functioning is now undergoing substantial changes. The Ministry of External Affairs is directly under the control of the PMO and the PMO also exercises great deal of leverage over other ministries and bureaucrats. This has considerably centralized authority and made translation of foreign policy commitments in various sectors more likely.

Prioritization of bilateral partners

The new government has actively engaged in a series of bilateral dialogues with key countries like China, Japan, US, Australia and Vietnam.

There are three levels to the government’s bilateral engagements, pertaining to the neighbourhood and international policy.

 At the government’s first level of engagement, the major agenda, as highlighted by the PM in one of his initial speeches, includes building a ‘peaceful, stable and economically interlinked’ neighbourhood in order to achieve collective development in South Asia. This was confirmed by Modi’s independent visits first to Bhutan and then to Nepal, instead of Japan, which officially marked the beginning of his proactive foreign policy.

The second level of engagement further seeks to grow India’s strategic international role through engagements with countries like China, Japan and Russia. This is seen by the fact that the government gained assurance from China, recently, that its membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be considered.

Finally, at the third level of engagement, countries like the US, Australia and Europe would be prioritized from the point of view of economic partnerships.

Active role in regional blocs and multilateral cooperation

The government’s prioritization of bilateral partners clearly shows that an active neighbourhood policy, within the context of rising importance of Asia, is the defining direction of the government’s foreign policy. To this effect, India’s pivotal role in a revived SAARC will play a key role in the government’s approach towards regional blocs. It is clear from the experience of long-enduring regional blocs like EU and even ASEAN that the revival of a regional bloc requires not just a shared heritage and culture, but also a building up of political trust, to ensure cooperation. As a symbolic first step, Modi’s invitation to SAARC leaders and Mauritius in his swearing-in ceremony was a beginning in this direction. India’s active role in SAARC will also represent a fulfillment of its immediate neighbourhood policy.

Beyond SAARC, the new Indian foreign policy also seeks a greater role in other regional blocs. These include purely economic blocs like BRICS and mainly security/military blocs like Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). PM Modi’s address at the recent BRICS summit in Brazil affirmed the usual agenda of socio-economic development and the independence of the BRICS from the financial turmoil in the Western economies by encouraging autonomous institutions like the New Development Bank. The success of the BRICS depends greatly upon the extent to which it succeeds in establishing strong independent institutions as a viable alternative to Western structures like World Bank and IMF.

Setting groundwork precedents

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has been continuously engaged in an active, albeit low-key, agenda of reaching out to countries such as Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and Vietnam. This has served an important political purpose, by acting as a realistic balancing force to the larger level diplomatic engagements. As a part of its ever-progressive decades-old Look East Policy, the President recently visited Vietnam and the military cooperation between the two countries was given further boost, as India extended a $100 million defense credit deal to Vietnam and also signed a joint oil-exploration pact in the South China Sea with the country. This is significant as China’s claim over the South China Sea has always been contested by countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Security challenges: Pakistan, China and neighbourhood policy

Military security remains one of the key challenges of India’s current foreign policy. Even as the government continues to institutionalize a strong foreign policy, the magnitude of security challenges also keeps mounting. This is especially so vis-à-vis the relations with Pakistan and China, which will exercise a great impact on India’s position in South Asia.

While the border dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir has been the root of cross-border terrorism bred in Pakistan, even the anticipated thawing of tensions due to a temporary goodwill between the two countries, when the new government came to power, did not materialize. Over the last few weeks, due to frequent ceasefire violations, the relations have become even more hostile. There is nothing new in this, as Pakistan engages in this routine around this time every year, in order to enable the militants to infiltrate in India.

 The only thing different around this time was a tough and measured response from India. This has led to a lot of debate whether Modi was right to have authorized retaliation against Pakistan. The questioning of India’s tough stand misses the point that India-Pakistan relations can never be normalized by ignoring the diseases at the root, the continuous border tension and by focusing only on artificial goodwill through diplomatic dialogue, which is what we have been doing over the years. At the same time, India has not been rash in its response. The policy of the government has been to respond in proportion to the Pakistani aggression and any further escalation in tension has been left at the door of Pakistan.

 Thus, India is not playing into Pakistan’s hand, yet, at the same time, it has signaled that Pakistan’s regular aggression will no longer be accommodated. Pakistan is, thus, now back to trying to internationalize the Kashmir issue and is demanding the revival of UNMOGIP, a United Nations Observer Mission, in Kashmir. Coupled with the rising influence of ISIS among the Kashmiri youth, the government has a serious external and internal security challenge on its plate.

The problem in Pakistan is not isolated. Stable relations with Pakistan are crucial to maintaining peace and India’s rising authority in South Asia. In order to assert this authority, India needs to skillfully wield its soft power to convey its position. That is why it has taken the present approach to China. Ever since Xi Jinping’s recent visit, much has been made of how the diplomatic engagement failed to palliate mounting tensions along the LAC and speculations about China’s possible motives. The fact that India has unveiled a special policy for the North-east and continues to invest in infrastructure in that region and is also sending positive overtures to Vietnam and Japan, is seen to further add to the stand-off and has evoked a sharp response from China.

 However, in the case of China, unlike Pakistan, the border issue is largely delinked with other issue-areas, as China’s favorable response to India’s request for induction into the SCO shows. As a Chinese official foreign office spokesperson, Hong Lei, recently explained, the border question dates back to the colonial era, therefore, it is likely to involve a complex resolution of the dispute. Both the countries are driven by this implicit understanding which does not have too many adverse effects in other issue-areas of engagement.

Relations with China will also have a great impact on India’s position in South Asia. In the near future, China aims to increase its bilateral trade with South Asian countries to USD 150 billion and its overall investments to USD 30 billion, apart from announcing a series of cultural exchange and educational programmes. As China seeks to increase its presence to leverage opportunities in the region, India would do well to cooperate actively and take a lead in helping to promote these initiatives.

Not only will it lead to a more consolidated and powerful role for Asia in international affairs, but India can spearhead these changes. While East Asia is already a powerful economic engine, the World Bank’s recent report also predicted that South Asia will become the second fastest growing region in the world. The rising power of Asia in global affairs is inevitable and India would do well to take an active leadership of this process.

The economic front

One of the major focus areas of the government’s foreign policy has been the economic. In order to avoid the grubbing received by the previous government over economic mismanagement and archaic economic-legal institutions, the new government is keen to counter-balance economic vulnerability stemming from global and internal factors, by attracting investments to the country.

This was highlighted in the PM’s recent visit to the US. The PM signed a range of agreements on smart cities, digital infrastructure, collaboration in infrastructure projects and further push to science and technology and health cooperation between the two countries. More importantly, his symbolic overtures such as providing Visa-on-arrival to US nationals and a range of benefits for the NRI community, were underlined by clear economic logic of promoting tourism and ensuring that NRIs invested in financial instruments back home. An important highlighting factor of his visit was his positive interaction with the US-India Business Council and efforts to attract foreign investors.

However, India’s engagements with the US have largely been transactional. On the other hand, India has also actively engaged with Japan and China on the economic front and shares also a more strategic relationship with them. However, engagements with China over economic deals has been largely disappointing. While both the countries have agreed to correct the large trade imbalance which has been unfavorable to India, the economic deals signed were largely disappointing due to the not-so-large amount of Chinese investment decided for the next 5 years, even though a much larger amount had been pledged.

 More than the US, India needs to focus on developing its economic cooperation with China, as this would have implications for India’s political and military role in South Asia and beyond. Instead of dragging its feet on the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) economic corridor, India needs to take active part in such multilateral regional initiatives, especially since Afghanistan has become even more vulnerable after the US and NATO withdrawal in 2014.

The Asiatic resurgence: India’s role

The dream of Asiatic resurgence throughout the world, expressed by Sri Aurobindo, is now taking the shape of a more concrete reality. The revival of Asia has been viewed differently from various perspectives. One of the most prevalent ways of approaching it views Asia’s revival as entailing the economic and military revival of the various Asiatic countries.

 On the economic front, the power of ‘emerging markets’ and regional blocs like ASEAN, BRICS and SCO, rather than the hierarchical idea of ‘developing countries’, is seen as representing one of the important forms of this revival. On the military front, Asia’s revival is seen to have occurred through the shifting balance of global power towards Asia, with the increasing marginalization of Europe and US. Not so long ago, during the 1990s and before that, US was accepted as a global hegemon. It was seen as being powerful and capable enough to lead international cooperation in all major issues. However, this is no longer true. After the Global Financial Crisis, despite the economists’ predictions of a rebound, it now appears that USA’s economic decline is here to stay. USA’s permanent military decline has also become clear by the self-determining politics of Afghanistan and Middle East. This further reinforced by the fact that the developed countries’ defence budget is becoming increasingly impaired by the economic crisis afflicting them.

Under these changed conditions, the resurgence of Asia is being seen as determining factor in global politics. However, with resurgence come challenges. Security challenges are especially preventing the fostering of regional unity in Asia. And underlying these security challenges are differences of culture which foster distrust. This, underlined by politics of religion, was one of the major causes of weakness of SAARC. Here organizations like ASEAN and APEC would provide commendable models of cooperation which need to be replicated across Asia. India can play a leading role in this. Military and political expansionism in international and regional affairs is only a surface necessity. However, in order to bring about deep-rooted changes in Asia, India needs to revive and promote its cultural heritage, since Indian culture, continuously replenishing itself through the universality of the true Sanatana Dharma, is the only light that can provide the much-needed cultural mediation that can ensure Asia’s political resurgence in the world.

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