The author is of the view that foreign policies remain dynamic on account of shifts in global geo-politics and domestic pressures. In our case, we have to manage it keeping in view the Prime Minister Modi’s objective of ‘India First’ and a focus on our ‘neighbourhood’. However, as we pursue these goals, the Chinese extending their influence in our neighbourhood remains a major obstacle. Further, with our growing proximity to the US, the Russians are firming up their relationship with Pakistan. Under the circumstances, what policy contours must we exploit to emerge as a reckonable power in the region? Ambassador Anil Trigunayat provides a few answers.
Current Challenges for Indian Foreign Policy
Foreign policies of countries usually remain in a state of flux and readjustment despite certain broad contours of international discourse that are defined by its strategic objectives and geographical diktat. It is also further calibrated by domestic compulsions and global outreach possibilities and potential so that its national interests are served in the best possible manner as perceived by the government of the day. India is no exception to this and so far there has been a broad congruence of views on matters of national interest and essential crux of the foreign policy objectives across the political spectrum since independence be it the Non-alignment or selective collaboration with the major powers. Shifts are predicated on the perceived benefits in the short and long term. However, since the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm of affairs from May 2014 the style, conduct and content of the foreign policy outreach has seen dramatic changes. It has become visible though arguably some may differ with the outcomes.
PM Modi succinctly articulated the key objective of the foreign policy as “ India First” and began his outreach with the primacy to “ Neighbourhood ” inviting the SAARC leaders at his swearing in that was perceived by many observers as a great and unusual, but essential beginning. According to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, interactions with over 170 counterparts were held in this period. It is important for a country like India seeking to exercise greater influence in regional and global affairs to have collaborative countries in its vicinity. There is no other way since one cannot choose the neighbours which are bestowed by geography and history. The efforts need to continue, in our case, despite intransigence of terror sponsoring Pakistan.
This is the approach we have pursued inspite of the fact that the results have been more attacks by Pakistan; despite goodwill diplomacy by PM Modi himself or for that matter the much publicised “surgical strikes’ or the supposed impact of demonetisation on terrorism.
The policy makers wanted to expose and isolate Pakistan internationally, and though some success can be claimed, it has not been sufficient to dissuade Pakistan from its nefarious designs and indulgence in more anti-India attacks and activities .On the other hand Pakistan has successfully sold its strategic locational advantage especially in the context of a Taliban ridden Afghanistan to USA and the west, and now Russia.
China has of course been its fair-weather friend and stands by Pakistan under all circumstances irrespective of global concerns. Our other neighbours, also often play Poker to extract maximum mileage from the regional powers, especially China. Viewed from their national interest perspective perhaps some justification for their sea-saw diplomacy is understandable, but our security and national interests get compromised in the bargain. Could any of our neighbours indulge in such defiance without the fillip from other major powers who either want India to remain bogged down in the sub-region or do not want it to get out of the slumber.
India’s biggest foreign policy challenge will not only be how to manage its near and extended neighbourhood including the ASEAN and the Middle East but how to manage and calibrate its relations with the major powers of the world, since among themselves, they compete for exclusive pockets of influence and would like to work through surrogates -a role India may not be able to play given its size, economic and military might, human resource endowment and strategic advantage. Under the circumstances how does one get out of the shadows hovering overhead?
Managing China is the most tedious of all relationships as apart from its global ambitions China through its financial and military muscle and liberal doles has created a strong constituency in India’s neighbourhood that could work at cross purposes with our foreign policy objectives. China’s ‘String of Pearls’ strategy fits well with its China -Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative and Belt & Road projects. In fact, it expands Chinese influence way beyond, much to our strategic discomfort. China has further strengthened its defence relationship with Nepal and Sri Lanka. This would have to be contended by a parallel but more attractive package of viable incentives for the stake holders in the region.
As for Sino-Indian relations, on the face of it, things seem to be moving forward in a ‘cooperation-competition’ paradigm but the elephant continues to sit in the room and stares at the Indian tiger while trying to wean away some of India’s traditional partners like Russia. China’s consistent opposition to India claiming strategic global space will continue to block our efforts to get into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and a permanent seat at the UNSC. Recent meetings between China-Pakistan-Russia and Russia-Pakistan military exercises despite terrorist attacks on Indian military installations, is a case in point.
India‘s relations with Russia are time-tested and diversified but India’s increasing proximity to the American establishment has given an alibi and excuse for the Russians to get cosier with Pakistan even if overtly it is in the context of Taliban and Afghanistan. One could see it coming for at least seven to eight years. But has it gone to a point of no return. Until a few years back, it was a given and virtual redline that the Russians would not yield to Pakistani overtures. The fact remains, it has happened and it needs to be confronted and curved up. Of course it can no longer be reversed with such emotive statements like “a reliable and time-tested friend “or at par with the ‘Russi – Hindi bhai bhai’ platform any more but the greater persuasive force would be a hard economic relationship with India still being one of their biggest markets for military hardware and civil nuclear installations apart from other minerals and diamonds.
Nothing works like the logic of business. Moreover, if the Trump – Putin equation fructifies in the years to come we could see less emotional deficit on the part of Russians towards India both in the Chinese and Pakistani context. But we cannot predicate our outreach efforts on these imponderables alone. We have to reduce the trust deficit and misapprehensions, if any, with the Russians through directly confronting the leadership and not let it be drowned in diplomatic innuendos.
As for the USA, although there is a bipartisan support for further enriching strategic ties with India, the Trump Administration’s indulgence and commitment is a ‘tabula rasa’ and to keep them focussed towards India one could count on the strong influence of the Indian diaspora in the US and mostly business oriented team of President elect Trump. Of course with the professed policies of bringing jobs and manufacturing back to US along with proposed changes in tax structures the flight of US financial investments in India could be foreseen which may strain the Indian economy to some extent. Again, it is necessary for us to remain an attractive market with competitive and comparative advantages and incentives by avoiding retroactive application of rules that have created doubts in the mind of foreign investors.
In order to counter growing Chinese influence if the Americans would want to place more on the Indian plate in accordance with their strategic vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean regional cooperation, it could be leverage in the short run. India’s defence engagement with the US will continue to grow since military- industrial complex in the US is a driving force but reliability of supplies especially that of spares must be ensured to avoid any surprises during a conflict .We should also be able to intensify engagement through India-US-Japan tri-lateral dialogue or better in the Quad context adding Australia to the group with similar regional objectives.
Terrorism has been the biggest threat to India for decades especially from Pakistan sponsored terrorist groups. India’s efforts to get the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) at the UN have been stymied by lack of commitment on the part of major countries. Fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda and its various offshoots and radical Islamist groups will have to be carried out through greater and closer intelligence sharing and cooperation especially with the Middle Eastern countries by converting the “Look West“ to “Act West” policy which could have an effect of neutralising their proximity and support to Pakistan.
Countries like China despite their own exposure to terrorism continue to shield Pakistani terrorists like Masood Azhar, and Russia is averse to declaring Pakistan a terrorism sponsoring state. This has emboldened Pakistan’s resolve to continue apace in their anti-India terrorist tirade which needs to be countered directly through extensive and meaningful international collaborations.
The world in 2017 will be in a flux and new bilateral equations especially among the major powers may emerge which may or may not have a positive impact on the fight against terrorism, global economy and trade, on-going conflicts or simmering ones but will surely have a defining influence. India will have to calculate the risks and calibrate approaches to stay relevant.
Ambassador Anil Trigunayat
(Anil Trigunayat is a former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya and Malta)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)