India in the new world order

Print edition : December 11, 2015

November 10, 1961: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the Plenary Meeting of the United Nations in New York. Although shocked by the way the U.N. Security Council handled the Kashmir issue, Nehru continued to believe that the U.N. was an important organisation for world peace. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

December 21, 1988: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. This was the first visit to China by an Indian Prime Minister in 34 years. Photo: John GIANNINI/AFP

A comprehensively structured book that is a substantial contribution to the debate on India’s foreign policy approach and engagements in the new era.

THIS handbook of Indian foreign policy is a serious and substantial contribution to the debate on India’s foreign policy approach and engagements in an era that is witnessing significant changes: a new world order is emerging and India needs to contribute to shaping this new order and create a place for itself within it commensurate with its historical, political, economic and cultural achievements.

The editors of the handbook—Srinath Raghavan, C. Raja Mohan and David M. Malone—are distinguished scholars. To provide space for the broadest possible comment, they have brought together writers from different parts of the world: out of over 55 contributors to the handbook, fewer than half are Indians working in India. The list of contributors includes established authors as also 17 young specialists in Indian studies in Indian and foreign universities.

The structure of the book is comprehensive. The introduction, which contains a joint essay by the editors, sets the framework for India’s foreign policy amidst the emerging challenges. The next section looks at the context in which the country’s external priorities and policies were shaped from the mid 19th century to the present and also has essays on resources, India’s development assistance programmes, and its “soft power”. Part III studies the institutions and players who have a role in foreign affairs in the country—the government, the foreign office, Parliament, the corporate sector, think tanks, defence scientists and the media. Part IV looks at “Geography”, namely India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood. (I have contributed the essay titled “The Gulf Region”.)

Part V analyses India’s “Key Partnerships” outside the neighbourhood, that is, the United States, western Europe, Russia, Brazil, Israel and South Africa. The next part looks at India’s role in multilateral institutions and its diplomatic effort with regard to global issues such as finance, trade, nuclear matters and climate change. The last part, titled “Looking Ahead”, has two essays that reflect on the dynamics of India’s international engagements and highlight the serious challenges that India will face in safeguarding and promoting its interests in the new world order emerging in this century.

Geography has linked India with neighbours from the Mediterranean to Indonesia; nearer home, Partition has handed India a poisoned chalice that has led to confrontations and war and has even corroded inter-community ties within the polities of South Asia. In terms of national capability, India had experienced poverty and deprivation for much of its early period as an independent nation, and only in the last few years has it emerged from this quagmire with high growth rates and the promise of prosperity for a larger number of its citizens. But challenges of resource access and human resource development remain as serious constraints on the national success story.

India has enjoyed a diverse but remarkably capable leadership in its 68 years as an independent country. The main challenge that its Prime Ministers have had to face has been to pursue the national interest in an uncongenial environment characterised by discord and limited economic capacity at home and divisions and conflicts abroad, as also war with neighbours—China and Pakistan—that have sapped national capacity by diverting considerable national resources to augmenting defence capabilities. In terms of identity, Indians generally view themselves as moderate, accommodative and peace-loving, but this view has frequently been contested by neighbours, such as Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and even by the U.S., which believes that India harbours aspirations of hegemony in South Asia.

In sum, one can agree with Kanti Bajpai that India’s foreign policy has been marked by “ambivalence” in that “its deepest instincts have been internationalist and cosmopolitan… [while] Partition and war scarred its foreign policy psyche, leaving it unable to transcend narrow, gnawing anxieties over sovereignty”.

Strategic legacy

India’s strategic legacy is diverse. The intellectual bases of its world view veered from the principles of universal brotherhood and peaceful coexistence of Keshub Chandra Sen and Vivekananda to the militant nationalism of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and V.D. Savarkar, while also embracing the liberalism of Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who decried the opium trade with China and defended the interests of Indians settled abroad. The Constituent Assembly debates on foreign policy reflected this diversity, with Mahavir Tyagi calling for a militarily strong nation, K.M. Munshi advocating defence preparedness and international cooperation among nations, Begum Aizaz Rasul voicing opposition to communism, and Frank Anthony insisting that “India’s strength should be built up most rapidly”. As Rahul Sagar points out in his essay, both Nehruvian idealism and “realism” in present-day Indian discourse have strong roots in the Indian intellectual tradition.

The realist school in contemporary Indian thinking draws heavily from the legacy of the Raj. This is most palpable in regard to India’s ties with its neighbours: the British had developed the concept of the “buffer state” to safeguard India’s frontiers, maintaining Iran, Afghanistan and Tibet as the “outer ring” and Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan as the “inner ring”. The Raj also set out the “orbit” of the Government of India: it stretched from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf to the Malay Peninsula, and from China to the southern edge of the Indian Ocean. While treaties with local rulers were signed by the government in London, the Indian government paid for the properties and facilities, met the recurring expenditure, and provided its armed forces to maintain British interests across the region. Thus, an Indian “sub-imperialism” was put in place.

Sneh Mahajan notes in her essay that “free India inherited the territory bequeathed by the British… [and] accepted that the inherited boundaries were legal and sacrosanct and had to be defended”. The lasting legacy of the Raj is the country’s northern border, which is now “the most dangerous border in the world”. At the same time, its immediate neighbours are convinced that India is seeking a hegemonic role in the region; even China believes that India would like to revive Tibet as a buffer between itself and the People’s Republic.

Nehruvian legacy

Given Jawaharlal Nehru’s influence on India’s foreign policy in its formative years and even beyond, it is not surprising that several essays in the book refer to his thinking and his impact on specific issues. Andrew Kennedy points out that “realism and idealism are not wholly incompatible and… Nehru’s foreign policy was an attempt to reconcile the two”. In general, he believes that Nehru “sought to transform international norms and institutions on the basis of moral principles”, but in doing so he was also interested in obtaining advantages for India. Although shocked by the way the United Nations Security Council handled the Kashmir issue, Nehru continued to believe that the U.N. was an important organisation for world peace. Hence, he used it to campaign for nuclear disarmament and supported its peacekeeping operations. Surjit Mansingh quotes Indira Gandhi describing herself as a “tough politician” who conformed to the principles of realism: she saw national interest in terms of power and was conscious of India’s limitations in this regard. Hence, she avoided direct confrontation with the superpowers and used non-alignment to defend India’s autonomy but was also willing to use force in the national interest. Mansingh, however, faults Indira Gandhi for not institutionalising national power, defining it entirely in personal, dynastic terms, even as her “mismanagement” of domestic insurgencies corroded national capacities from within.

Srinath Raghavan, in his article on the Rajiv Gandhi years, notes that in the mid 1980s far-reaching changes in the global order were already apparent, particularly the easing of Cold War tensions and increasing differences between China and Russia. Rajiv Gandhi seized the opportunity to effect some important domestic and foreign policy changes by liberalising some sections of the economy and reaching out to neighbours, above all, China, and the U.S. He describes Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 34 years, as his “finest hour”.

Other initiatives, though equally bold, were less productive: the outreach to the U.S. did not yield the expected results, mainly because of the U.S.’ abiding military commitments to Pakistan and deep suspicions in the U.S. security establishment about India’s nuclear aspirations and its “hegemonic” intentions in South Asia.

The post-1990 scenario, discussed in an excellent essay by C. Raja Mohan, has been described as “transformation through incremental adaptation” characterised by a stable adjustment to far-reaching challenges emerging in that turbulent period at home, regionally and globally. Looking ahead, Raja Mohan insists that India give up the mantra of “strategic autonomy”, which he believes is outmoded and sterile, and instead pursue the “quest for strategic influence”, though he does not spell out how this is to be achieved.

‘Triad of troubles’

The end of the Cold War, the economic resurgence of Asia, and the decline in U.S. influence following its debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq expanded India’s strategic space, enabling it to build new relationships, consolidate old ones and, with high growth rates from the turn of the century, carve a larger regional and global role for itself. But, the resurgence of China as an emerging economic and political power further complicated the security terrain for India. The bulk of the narrative now set out in the handbook looks at the complex triangular relations between the U.S., India and China.

Sumit Ganguly points out that India has yet to reach “a working consensus on the contours of a strategic relationship” with the U.S. in spite of the tremendous domestic and international capital expended by the George W. Bush administration in finalising the civilian nuclear agreement with India. He ascribes this to “lingering memories of the U.S. involvement with Pakistan” during the Cold War years. Surprisingly, he fails to mention the U.S.’ sustained support to Pakistan throughout the past 25 years, during which Pakistan has unleashed jehad upon India and attacked iconic Indian symbols even after 9/11, culminating in the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008. The U.S. has also backed Pakistani interests in Afghanistan, even looking for the elusive “good” Taliban at Pakistan’s behest. U.S.-India differences are not just a “shadow of the past”, as Ganguly believes, but an ongoing reality.

Rajesh Basrur, in his essay on Pakistan, strongly advocates U.S.-India security ties, but his writing lacks nuance or subtlety. According to him, India has no clue about how to deal with Pakistan besides “the old combination of threats and offers to negotiate”; it has foolishly not used the option of backing radical groups fighting the Pakistani state, perhaps fearing Pakistani state failure. In fact, “Indian policy lacks the thrust that might nudge Pakistan toward a closer relationship”, a truly fatuous remark. These failures have left India “a weak power in a world where power is central to ensuring national security”. The answer to the Indian predicament: “India is likely to perform better by drawing strategically closer to the United States.”

Ashley Tellis, a long-standing advocate of a robust U.S.-India strategic partnership, is much more realistic in his assessment of U.S.-India ties. The principal source of disagreement, Tellis notes, is that the U.S. wishes to retain its primacy in world affairs and sees the value of an alliance with India only insofar as it supports this aspiration. Thus, the U.S. will view the rise of China as “dangerous” if it “precipitates a power transfer at the core of the global system and undermines the U.S.-backed security and trading systems in Asia”. Tellis recognises that whatever may be India’s concerns relating to a resurgent China, it sees itself as a subaltern in the U.S.-led world order and desires a multipolar world order.Tellis notes that U.S.-India ties will be determined by a “triad of variables”: the extent of China’s rise and its conduct, the U.S.’ strategic response to China’s rise, and how India views the interplay between the two giants. Tellis concludes that the U.S., China and India are already so enmeshed with each other economically and politically that security competition between them will be a complex “mixed-sum” game; this mutual interdependence will effectively dilute the pressures on the U.S. and India to converge.

The veteran scholar of South Asian affairs Stephen Cohen offers a trenchant critique of India’s strategic situation, saying: “There has been ambition aplenty, but marked strategic underachievement.” Infrastructure development has been ignored so that “India has disconnected itself from regional neighbours”.

The Kashmir issue represents “the worst kind of Wilsonianism [i.e., self-determination], Pakistani irredentism and the failure of the Indian imagination”. Most of India’s outreach initiatives have failed, particularly in Central and South-East Asia. Above all, “India has no answer to the military and economic expansion of China, except to bemoan it”.

Cohen comes up with some tantalising possibilities when he asks the following: Can India build on common interests with China? Could India turn to China as an Asian partner?

Imperatives of partnership

Alka Acharya in her essay on China first sets out the central significance of the triangular U.S.-India-China relationship: from the Indian perspective, she notes that “the triangular dynamic rests on seeing the United States as a natural ally on the one hand, and China as a partner in building a multipolar world on the other”. She goes on to point out that the growing international footprint of China and India has gradually expanded the platforms of dialogue between them on a wide range of issues: terrorism, piracy, energy security, the West Asia scenario, Afghanistan, U.N. reform, the iniquitous world financial order, climate change and human rights. Most of these issues are discussed in depth at the annual BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summits and other meetings and are reflected in the substantial consensual joint communiques finalised at summit meetings, which witness considerable mutual accommodation and understanding.

As brought out by different writers, Sino-Indian cooperation is not just productive at multilateral fora but could also ease contentious situations in a number of countries in South Asia where there is a nascent Sino-Indian competition. In Nepal, S.D. Muni has urged that India work with China towards putting in place a framework for “developmental coexistence”. Afghanistan would also benefit from a concerted Sino-Indian effort to strengthen the Central government and combat extremist forces.

Pakistan is, of course, a more complex challenge. China has an “all-weather” relationship with Pakistan.

These ties have been deepened with promised Chinese investments in developing logistical connectivities between Pakistan, China and Central Asia, and the long lease of the Gwadar port offered to China which has considerable economic and strategic significance. However, China also has deep concerns relating to Pakistan’s affiliation with jehadi elements, many of whom recruit from China’s Muslim-dominated provinces and also carry out terrorist activities.

China and India have shared interests not only in combating extremist elements but also in integrating Pakistan into the regional economic success networks of which China and India are the major role players.

The Indian Ocean, usually seen as the premier space for Sino-Indian competition, also throws up important opportunities for cooperation between the two countries.

As noted above, over a hundred years ago, a British commission described the Indian Ocean littoral as part of the “orbit” of the Indian government. This led to the setting up of colonies and protectorates across East Africa, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the ports of Oman and Yemen on the ocean and its choke points.

Much of the projection of British power was realised through the deployment of the Royal Navy, which patrolled the ocean and kept hostile elements at bay. India inherited interests in the Indian Ocean littoral but not the naval capabilities essential to assert its authority over those interests. This has changed since the turn of the century, with the Indian Ocean being increasingly seen as a “geography of opportunity”, as David Scott puts it, and government sources expressing the same strategic interest in the ocean that their British predecessors did, projecting “combat”, “constabulary” and “diplomatic” roles for the Indian Navy now being developed as a “blue-water” navy.

India has balanced this military posture with institutionalising regional economic engagements through the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), anti-piracy operations with international partners such as the U.S. and China, and expanding economic links with the littoral African countries of the Indian Ocean.

Scott in his essay postulates a growing Indo-U.S. naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean as part of the two countries’ “soft-balancing strategy” vis-a-vis China. But, the flaw in this prognosis is that the U.S. is more focussed on the so-called Indo-Pacific region, specifically the South China Sea, while India’s crucial interests lie in the Persian Gulf and the western Indian Ocean in general, an area of limited interest to the U.S., and from which it is reducing its security role in favour of other players whose core interests are involved in regional security. The security of the Persian Gulf, for instance, is of deep and abiding interest to both India and China. With the U.S. increasingly withdrawing from security responsibilities in the region, the space has opened for India and China to work together for Gulf security.

Return to Nehru

In the last section of the book, Sunil Khilnani ruminates on the wellsprings that influenced Nehru’s world view and shaped the foreign policy of his country. While conscious of India’s great destiny, Nehru was aware of its relative weakness in conventional definitions of power. He had no wish to see India enmeshed in the two blocs competing for power and influence. He sought instead “an alternative conception of the international order”, one that was outside the Cold War framework and that would at the same time take cognisance of the emerging significance of Asia, particularly the place of China in it.

He saw Asia as composed of four power blocs: the Chinese, the Indian, the Near East (now West Asia) and Soviet Asia (now primarily Central Asia). He was concerned that once the glue of anti-Westernism wore off, these blocs would turn against each other. After several years of war, Asia needed to be at peace and Asian nations prevented from joining military alliances so that India could develop its economic potential. China was a beneficiary from Asian conflicts and was likely to expand its domination from Korea to Indo-China, particularly over the smaller states.

It is against this background that Nehru proposed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, or Panchsheel, converting Asia into a “zone of peace” at one stroke, as Khilnani puts it. This doctrine provided the basis for larger states to accept the sovereignty of the smaller states of Asia, particularly those where China was asserting “historical” claims. Nehru, Khilnani concludes, was thus putting in place a balance of power on the basis of a new definition of power founded on China and India acting in concert.

Most of the commentators in this handbook of Indian foreign policy have based their analyses on conventional power equations, seeking to accommodate India as an emerging or rising power in the straitjacket of these power structures.

Cohen, for instance, notes that India’s great state status is restricted to South Asia; even then, it is “the weakest of the great states”.

Cohen believes that India “will have one foot in the developing world and one in the world of advanced economic and military powers for the indefinite future”.

What contemporary challenges demand is not fitting India into the emerging power competitions and the structures that define them but contemplating new definitions of power and arrangements to pursue national interests that will be cooperative and collegial and in the long term more effective. The challenge before India, as Khilnani puts it, is to “maintain a policy of positive engagement with China where interests may converge, while also acquiring capacities to check China from overriding India’s interests.… It will require discerning once again… how power asymmetries can be turned to India’s advantage.” This will be the central challenge for Indian foreign policy in the coming years.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat.