Diplomacy for the new decade


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INDIAN diplomacy has ended the first decade of the 21st century on an impressive note. The rash of civil nuclear cooperation agreements that Delhi has signed with many countries in 2009 underlines the significance of the controversial but consequential Indo-U.S. engagement through the decade. Delhi’s outreach to Washington, despite the persistent scepticism on the left and right of the Indian political spectrum, not only ended three and a half decades of Indian isolation on global nuclear issues but also created new space for Delhi in dealing with the unending conflict with Pakistan, and catapulted India into the same league as a rising China in international perceptions. Put simply, three long-standing objectives of Indian foreign policy – a claim to parity with China, elevation above Pakistan, and the acceptance of its status as a nuclear weapon power – were all realized substantively, if not in a full measure.

To be sure, George W. Bush, the U.S. President during 2001-09, does get some credit for creating new space for Indian diplomacy in the last few years. Bush himself would have had no reason to embark on his India initiative but for Washington’s positive assessments on India’s rise and its consequences for global balance of power. Thanks to the sustained high economic growth rates that were interrupted only at the end of the decade by the global financial crisis, the international perceptions of India have altered remarkably over the last decade. A variety of projections suggest that India will emerge as the third largest economy in the next few decades, and this economic growth in turn is bound to add new muscle to India’s military capabilities.

It is this newfound economic strength that insures against potential changes in America’s policy towards India under President Barack Obama. Even more important, India’s growing economic weight has generated unprecedented political and economic opportunities across the world – from South America to the South Pacific. In responding to the new demands on it, Indian diplomacy acquired a pace that is frenetic and a reach that could have been barely imagined during 1998 when India had to confront international condemnation of its nuclear tests. To consolidate India’s rise to great power status, Delhi will, however, need to address at least seven major challenges in the second decade of the 21st century. These are by no means the only challenges, but arguably among the most important.


Managing a Multipolar World: The idea of a multipolar world has had a powerful resonance in India for quite some time. Confronting the challenges of a unipolar world – dominated by the United States since the end of the Cold War – has been a major preoccupation for Indian diplomacy during the last two decades. This in turn involved a policy with two seemingly contradictory objectives. On the one hand, Delhi sought improvement in relations with the sole superpower; on the other, India had to devote considerable energies to preserve its strategic autonomy. India, then, simultaneously deepened its relations with Washington while actively working to promote a ‘multi-polar world’ that could limit the primacy of the United States. In real terms this meant improving relations with all the great powers – the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and Europe – at the same time without having to take sides. Given the absence of a deep conflict among themselves, the great powers too did not demand that India choose one over the other.


This benign context in which India could pursue omni-directional engagement is likely to change in the coming years as the world becomes genuinely multipolar. The United States is going through a complex phase of readjusting its national security strategy to the altered global circumstances. The talk of American decline has once again become fashionable in the United States and beyond. Although the U.S. may most certainly bounce back, there is no denying its current weaknesses as it confronts two costly unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and struggles to break out of the economic crisis. Japan and Russia may find that their best years might be behind them. Europe has emerged as a powerful economic force, but is yet to acquire the political characteristics of a great power. Meanwhile China’s power has risen faster than any one had anticipated.

On the face of it, India should be pleased that its wish for a ‘multipolar world’ has been granted. But it is by no means clear if India and its diplomacy are institutionally prepared for a multipolar world. If the logic of a multipolar world leads to a ‘unipolar Asia’ led by China, India might find itself in the fire rather than the frying pan. If on the other hand, India’s main objective is to construct a ‘multipolar Asia’, it would need the cooperation of the United States to preserve the Asian balance of power.


In a world of many powers, India is clearly the weakest on most counts for the moment. This would imply, on the one hand, that New Delhi could be the potential swing state that defines the balance of power in the system and build on the advantages that derive from it. On the other hand, India is also vulnerable to shifting alignments and realignments among the great powers. For example, India is wary of a Sino-U.S. Cold War that might compel it into making choices it is not ready to make. At the same time, India is equally anxious of a Sino-American condominium or G-2 that will severely constrain India’s room for manoeuvre.

Navigating a multipolar world demands less emphasis on preconceived ideological slogans alongside a diplomatic agility that allows India to respond effectively to the shifting balance of power dynamics in the world. Delhi must continue to strive for a lasting partnership with the United States that is far removed from our borders, build new partnerships with Japan and Europe, sustain the traditional links with Russia, manage the complex dynamic with neighbouring China, and insure against a hostile alignment of these powers against India’s interests in one or more issue areas.


Responding to China’s Rise: The rapid rise of China is the single most important geopolitical development of our time. The consequences of China’s emergence at the top of the international system are likely to unfold throughout the 21st century. Yet, it has not been easy for many generations of the Indian elite raised on the notions of ‘north versus south’ or ‘east versus west’ to come to terms with the prospect that one of India’s Asian neighbours is on the way to becoming a superpower. As a result there has been little debate about the meaning of the rise of China and its long-term implications for India’s foreign and national security policies. India’s debate on China continues to oscillate between crude formulations of the China threat or romantic notions about Sino-Indian cooperation as reflected in the idea of ‘Chindia’. By the end of the decade, the anxieties about China’s assertive policies had comprehensively enveloped India’s chattering classes.

Although China is already India’s largest trading partner and the two nations are neighbours, the level of contact and communication between the two governments and societies remains way below potential. As a consequence there is profound ignorance about each other across the board among the elites of the two nations. As it promotes more intensive engagement with Beijing, Delhi must take major steps to promote the study of China in all its dimensions within the Indian business and political classes.

The UPA government signed a landmark accord with China on the unsettled boundary dispute in 2005. The hopes raised by this framework on the guiding principles for addressing this long pending issue have been dashed amidst the squabbling on the interpretation of the agreement and the seeming reversal of political will to take difficult decisions. Failure to move forward on the boundary dispute will cast a shadow over the entire bilateral relationship, especially at a time when Tibet is restive.

As India reaffirms its political commitment to move forward on a boundary settlement, it needs to look at China beyond the prism of bilateral relations for the rise in Chinese power is affecting India’s foreign policy across the board. From the reorganization of major international organizations to India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours, and from the bilateral competition for natural resources in Africa to securing influence in the remote islands of the South Pacific, New Delhi and Beijing are constantly stepping on each other’s toes. India cannot address the challenge by simply raising the spectre of a China threat or attributing malevolent intent to Beijing.

The rise in Beijing’s influence all across the world, including in India’s own immediate neighbourhood is an inevitable consequence of China’s rapidly increasing weight in the global economy and polity. There is no way India can alter this trend. New Delhi should focus instead on revamping its own foreign policy to make it more effective in the subcontinent and the extended neighbourhood in Africa, Asia and the Indian Ocean littoral.


Pacifying the Trans-Indus Territories: Although the renewed American focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Obama Administration has concentrated the whole world’s attention on this region, our north-western frontiers have always been the major source of external threat to India. For millennia, the turbulent region between the Indus river and the Hindu Kush mountains has attracted foreign invaders and challenged the authority of large empires in the Indian heartland. That basic framework has not changed after the Partition and Independence. For more than sixty years, all of India’s external and internal security challenges expressed themselves together and in the sharpest possible form in the trans-Indus regions. That context has only become more acute at the turn of the decade, as the U.S. escalates the war in Afghanistan in what could be one last shot at regaining the initiative, and the militants retaliate by stepping up terrorist attacks all across urban Pakistan.


In trying to bring the culprits of the Mumbai terror to book, putting an end to the sources of anti-India terrorism across the border on a permanent basis, and finding durable peace in India’s north-western borderlands, New Delhi must be alive and open to rare opportunities that are coming its way in the Af-Pak region. In the past India found itself at odds with the major powers and the international system in dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Today, in contrast, Manmohan Singh may have a chance to work with the rest of the world in changing the internal dynamics of the Af-Pak region.

While sceptics are right to caution against exaggerated expectations on what the world can deliver in Pakistan and Afghanistan, India loses nothing in engaging the Obama Administration in a purposeful dialogue. Given the scale of threat that Pakistan poses to the region and the world, the real dangers of a collapsing nuclear state in Pakistan, and prospect of Al Qaeda and its affiliates establishing a permanent home in the Af-Pak region, the U.S. can no longer conduct business as usual in Pakistan. The question for India is not whether it should work with the rest of the world in stabilizing the Af-Pak region, but how best we can leverage the current international interest in the subcontinent.

Meanwhile India must continue to develop its own independent policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the last few years, India has emerged as a major investor and partner of post-Taliban Afghanistan. The UPA government has also invested heavily in finding lasting peace with Pakistan and settling all outstanding disputes including Jammu and Kashmir. While the peace process has stalled since the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, India’s objective cannot be a simple return to the old framework of the composite dialogue. Delhi must instead find an approach that will strengthen our potential partners for peace in Pakistan and isolate those who are irreconcilably hostile to normalization of relations with India.

Delhi must also figure out a way to deter future organization of attacks of the kind the nation endured in Mumbai. Given the recent political gains in Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi must step up the efforts for an internal reconciliation and reduce the scope for Pakistan’s intervention in the sensitive state. Over the longer term, India needs to look beyond the traditional bureaucratic engagement with Islamabad and find ways to separately engage the many different political forces in Pakistan.


Reintegrating the Subcontinent: A series of political and military crises in different parts of South Asia and the rapidly expanding role of China in our neighbourhood have raised the awareness in New Delhi for a comprehensive strategy towards the neighbourhood. During the last decade India’s two prime ministers, both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, emphasized the importance of recasting India’s South Asian policy. They highlighted the need for a peaceful periphery, offered unilateral economic concessions to the neighbours, unveiled plans for the modernization of the border infrastructure, promised to resolve long-standing bilateral political disputes, and accelerated the pace of regional integration. Although the government moved on all these fronts, the pace and scope were never enough to cope with the rapidity of the region’s political evolution and the momentum behind China’s rising profile in South Asia.


In the next few years, Delhi will have to move much faster to sustain India’s primacy in the region. While the government must continue to focus on political engagement with the neighbours and trade liberalization, Delhi must enlist the corporate sector to boost Indian diplomacy in the region. Without significant Indian private investment in the neighbouring countries that can produce exportable goods to our markets, there is no way trade with our neighbours can be expanded in an equitable manner. Without a visible balance in trade, it will be difficult to generate political support across the borders for economic integration with India. This would demand that Delhi create well-funded special vehicles for Indian investments in the neighbouring countries and generous market access to goods produced with Indian inputs. That will rapidly boost two-way trade with our neighbours and create enduring constituencies across the borders for economic cooperation with India.

Linked to this must be a larger role for the private sector in partnership with central and state governments in the modernization of trade facilities all along our borders. Major Indian corporations must also be encouraged to undertake trans-border mega projects in collaboration with international entities to depoliticise trans-border infrastructural cooperation with our neighbours. Building modern transport links with our neighbours is the key to progress and the negotiations on these are held up because of the traditional emphasis on inter-governmental negotiations. By minimizing the direct role of governments and thereby reducing the political incentives for ‘standing up’ against India, New Delhi will make it easier for our neighbours to do what is in their own enlightened self-interest. By encouraging the private sector to take the lead on trans-border economic cooperation, the government will be able to focus more sharply on political and security cooperation with our neighbours, modernize the outdated bilateral treaty arrangements, and checkmate hostile activities by rival powers in India’s neighbourhood.


Revitalizing the Look East Policy: For nearly two decades now, the renewed engagement with Asia or the Look East policy has been the one enduring feature of India’s external relations and one of New Delhi’s more successful diplomatic initiatives. After being marginal to Asian economic and strategic affairs, India is now very much part of almost all the major regional institutions of Asia, including the East Asia Summit. At the same time, it is quite clear that India’s Look East policy has hit a plateau and the conduct of India’s relations with Asia has not been able to stay abreast of the region’s strategic evolution.

Without a rejuvenation of India’s Look East policy, what we might have in the near future is a ‘Chinese century’, rather than an ‘Asian century’. On the trade and economic front, India has lost valuable time in the prolonged negotiations on a free trade agreement with the ASEAN. After returning to power, the UPA government has signed the ASEAN FTA as well as an agreement to deepen economic partnership with South Korea. Meanwhile, India has not been able to respond to the scorching pace that China has set for making the yuan the dominant currency for Asia.

India has also steadily fallen behind China in the area of infrastructure diplomacy in Asia. While China’s plans to build north-south transport corridors in Asia are moving forward, India’s proposals on east-west corridors through Burma and Thailand have languished. India must make the construction of the Hanoi-Delhi and Singapore-Kolkata transport corridors as high priority projects in the second term. Japan, which is looking at such linkages and is helping India build the Delhi-Mumbai corridor, could be a natural partner in India’s infrastructure diplomacy.


In the debate on Asian institutional architecture, there are warning signs that New Delhi must wake up to. Although India became a member of the 16 nation EAS, China has succeeded in ensuring the primacy of the 13 member ASEAN Plus Three. Growing trade and economic cooperation in Northeast Asia, between China, Japan and Korea is also overshadowing the prospects for an ASEAN-led integration. This, in turn, would suggest that merely tailing ASEAN is not an adequate policy for India in East Asia. Sustained economic growth and successful consolidation of its democracy are making Indonesia a powerful force in the region and a natural ally of India.

Finally, India has teased the region about its potential role as a security provider in East Asia. Yet, India’s institutions are a long way from responding to the growing interest in military and security collaboration with New Delhi. Emphasizing security partnerships and delivering on such cooperation must be at the very top of a rejuvenated Look East policy.


Unveiling a Look West Policy: An overarching foreign policy priority for the next decade must be to reconnect with India’s traditional friends and allies in the Muslim world to the west of the subcontinent. For a variety of reasons, including the post-911 international environment, India has not been able to impart a strategic content to its ties with its Muslims neighbours in Central Asia, the Gulf and the Middle East. Manmohan Singh’s second term offers a valuable opportunity to unveil a Look West policy that will provide the basis for engaging the Greater Middle East, if you will, on a sustained and result-oriented basis.

Such a policy would involve high-level bilateral engagement that has been long overdue with key countries of the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. It would also focus on collective regional engagement of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The talks on a free trade agreement between the GCC and India need some political boost. The shared interests in energy security are self-evident, but need a clear framework of cooperation amidst the current volatility in global energy markets. India has begun a tentative military and naval engagement with important states of the GCC but there is enormous potential for further development in this sector.

Cooperation in counter-terrorism and joint struggles against religious extremism were identified as important areas of cooperation during the very successful visit to India by the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah in 2006. India will need to institutionalize this cooperation with Riyadh and the GCC as a whole. Meanwhile the worsening situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan demands a sustained strategic conversation between India and Saudi Arabia.

Iran is not part of the GCC but is emerging as a power in the region. It is also an important neighbour of Afghanistan and Pakistan and could be a valuable partner for India in stabilizing the region. As the United States seeks reconciliation with Iran, the regional balance of power in the Gulf may be on the verge of a historic transformation. A rising India could help contribute to the balance of power in the Middle East as well as leverage relations with key countries there to stabilize the Af-Pak region. The articulation of a comprehensive Look West policy, then, is a critical imperative.


Recasting India’s Multilateralism: In the last few years, India has been so focused on improving strategic ties with the great powers and the neighbourhood in Asia, that its performance on the global multilateral front has been less than effective. Old style posturing, for example at the World Trade Organization, has meant India taking needless blame for the collective failure of trade liberalization. As new issues such as global warming have emerged, India has lost political ground by sounding rigid and inflexible. On the nuclear front, India’s past positive activism has been replaced by a peculiar negativism, so visible during the prolonged nuclear debate during 2005-08. India, that once took the lead in proposing new arms control initiatives, now seems opposed to any nuclear constraint. In the more recent debates on reworking the global financial order, India has largely ceded ground to China. Meanwhile the old vehicles of India’s multilateral activism, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the G-77, have become largely irrelevant for the current issues confronting the world.

Put simply there is a fundamental crisis of identity and purpose in India’s engagement with the global multilateral institutions. Is India a developing country leading the mythical third world trade union or is it a rising power that must contribute to the maintenance of the international order? Singh, in his second term, must affirm India’s readiness to uphold its responsibility as one of the world’s leading economies. Once the notion of responsibility is acknowledged, it becomes easier for New Delhi to develop a policy towards multilateralism and global governance that is focused on strategic outcomes rather than empty slogans. An India that takes a strategic approach to multilateralism will be better prepared to define credible positions on international trade, reconstitution of global financial institutions, mitigation of global warming, and the broader issues of global governance.


A self-assured India should have fewer problems in proposing viable international compromises on trade liberalization, joint development of technologies for reducing carbon emissions, pragmatic approaches to reducing the danger from nuclear weapons, and strengthening the global non-proliferation regime. A more purposeful multilateral strategy would demand a significant reorientation of its bureaucratic and political leadership that has been taught for many generations to prevent the world from impacting on India. A rising India, instead, must learn to focus on effectively managing India’s growing impact on the rest of the world.


As its global footprint becomes wider and deeper, even the best analysis of the global and regional situation is of no consequence if Delhi does not have the ability to implement its grand strategic objectives to be able to take full advantage of its new opportunities. The concluding thoughts of this essay then must turn to the importance of strengthening India’s diplomatic tool kit. Take for example India’s take on economic diplomacy. Although Indian foreign policy today is far more sensitive to economic and commercial issues, there is a lack of coordination between different agencies within the Indian government and little cooperation between them and the private sector.

India today has emerged as a major aid donor in the developing world; nevertheless it needs a better administration and organization of this aid to ensure maximum effectiveness on the ground. A full-fledged international aid agency that works under the overall supervision of the Ministry of External Affairs would serve India’s interests better than the current control of the process through the Ministry of Finance. Similarly, India is unable to fully leverage the incoming aid flows, because of outmoded approaches in North Block.

On the security front there is growing clamour in the developing world for Indian arms, training, and range of other forms of security cooperation such as joint military exercises. In the last few years there have been piecemeal initiatives by different agencies and services to expand such cooperation and derive benefits for the nation as a whole. This effort, however, needs to be given a strategic thrust and organizational coherence. Specifically designed ‘political-military’ divisions in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Defence are needed to ensure that India’s external security cooperation can grasp the many opportunities that are coming its way.


India also needs to develop new instrumentalities in leveraging its widely acknowledged ‘soft power’ strengths. This would involve expanding and reorganizing India’s cultural centres around the world. Developing a solid public private partnership would allow India to fully mobilize its real cultural strengths that are in the private sector. On the media front, too, the government needs to take a comprehensive re-look at its ageing propaganda infrastructure. India’s foreign radio broadcasts, for example, date back to the Second World War and have been barely upgraded since. China, in contrast, has embarked on a massive venture to improve the reach and attraction of its radio and television broadcasting as well as the print media. China is on its way to having credible competitors to the CNN and BBC in English language broadcasting and the Chinese Communist Party has recently launched the publication of an English newspaper for worldwide distribution.

There is no reason for India to imitate the Chinese model in the media sphere. New Delhi, instead, must find ways to leverage its natural strengths in this area through public-private partnerships. One area for urgent governmental action is on visa liberalization. Although India’s attractions have grown on the world stage in recent years, its claustrophobic security mindset has constantly undermined the nation’s natural advantages. The new government must move quickly to make it easier for citizens of other countries to tour, visit, study, research, or work in India.