As we celebrate 75 years of Independence and take our place in the comity of nations as a large and strong country with numerous friends and enemies, we require a clear and coherent foreign policy, which is vital for maintaining international relations, foreign trade, and alliances. Highlighting the importance of foreign policy, US President John F. Kennedy had said: “Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us,” a statement which appears highly appropriate for the present, disturbed times. The first and foremost foreign policy challenge before India is in the neighbourhood; we are surrounded by a number of countries that are culturally similar and have convergent interests, but almost always pull in different directions ~ sometimes because of domestic compulsions and sometimes at the behest of distant, unseen handlers. Adding an additional layer of complication, most countries in the neighbourhood have ongoing grandiose projects fuelled by Chinese credit, so much so that our entire neighbourhood, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and to some extent Bangladesh, are all heavily indebted to China, with no means of repayment, should the Chinese call in their loans.
Also, huge kickbacks for their rulers have made these countries’ align their domestic and foreign policies with Chinese interests. Much of the blame for this sorry state of affairs lies with us; we continued our big brotherly attitude, long after our neighbours had matched us in education, per capita GDP and most social indicators. Plus, we never offered any worthwhile alternative, to counter Chinese blandishments. Chinese initiatives in regional organisation building stand out in contrast to the Indian inertia; China established the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), as an alternative to the World Bank and IMF. China also established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is the putative Chinese Nato. The Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), which brings together leaders from government, business, and academia to discuss economic issues, clones the World Economic Forum at Davos. Though established by Japan, Australia and, Philippines in 2001, China has taken over the leadership of BFA. Alongside “Asia’s Davos” we see the Chinese version of the Shangri-La Dialogue ~ the Beijing Xiangshan Forum.
The power of these China-made institutions is alarming; the Bertelsmann Transformation Index 2020 notes that many AIIB projects challenge US global and Japanese regional leadership roles. India had a long list of sagacious foreign ministers, yet none of them could visualise a South-Asian Common Market. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a grouping of India and its neighbours, has been defunct for quite some time. Despite evident benefits, connectivity between South Asian countries is extremely poor. The Chinese can run trains from Shanghai to Madrid but India cannot run a train between Delhi and Dhaka. Currently, our relations with our neighbours are at a low ebb; prodded by China, Nepal has started a border dispute with us, Sri Lanka is entangled in a Chinese debt trap, our relations with Bangladesh have nosedived after CAA, and Afghanistan is a haven for terrorists of all hues. Relations with Pakistan are the most fraught; for many years Pakistan waged a low intensity war with India, recent full-blooded Chinese support has made the Pakistanis even more intractable. A foreign policy cum economic initiative to bind our neighbourhood cohesively is urgently required.
Earlier efforts in this direction failed because consensus at the top was never followed up at the ground level. An example is the Chabahar Port project in Iran that was envisioned in 2003, started in 2016 but is still incomplete. Perhaps, we should introspect on why we have alienated so many long-time friends. The way forward could be to engage with our neighbours without pre-determined prejudices and bureaucratic sloth. Much of our problems originate with China. Seeing India as a rival, China relentlessly thwarts all our efforts, be it to get a seat in the UN Security Council, or in the Nuclear Suppliers Group or even in small matters like designating some bomber or hijacker, as a terrorist. On top of that, China claims swathes of Indian territory as its own and keeps things boiling on the Indo-Chinese border.
Our inability to respond effectively to the Chinese incursions of May 2020 is our greatest foreign policy failure; after the Chinese occupied Indian territory, the Indian Government could do nothing more than arrange meetings of middle-level military officials. Contrarily, trade with China goes on uninterrupted; there has been no retaliation, except banning some Chinese mobile applications like Tik-Tok. Perhaps, we have failed to understand that robust domestic policies should support our foreign policy. Moreover, our leaders have to learn to avoid bringing domestic politics into foreign relations, an example being our promise of supplying vaccines and wheat to the entire world and then backing out, or a senior minister describing illegal Bangladeshi migrants as termites that incensed Bangladeshis no end.
To cite some more serious examples: One of the reasons for Chinese belligerence lies in making Ladakh a Union Territory, directly governed from Delhi; friendly neighbours like Bangladesh have been antagonised by CAA. On the other hand, little has been done to create civilian and military infrastructure near the Chinese border to deter Chinese adventurism. The Russian invasion of Ukraine complicated the foreign policy of many countries, including India, which had an all-weather friendship with the USSR, before it imploded, and morphed into Russia. Afterwards, a unipolar world order forced us to come close to the USA. Our new-found friends ~ the Western Bloc ~ view us with distrust because of our non-aligned past while our traditional ally, Russia, has moved on, because of our deep engagement with the US.
Traditionally, the US wholeheartedly supports only AngloSaxon countries, to the exclusion of all others. Two instances would suffice. Frequent meetings of the Quad (a grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the US), after the Chinese incursion, had raised Indian hopes that the Quad would act as a counterweight to China. However, soon enough, the US clarified that the Quad was not a military alliance but was meant for co-operation and trade. Afterwards, the US announced the formation of AUKUS ~ a trilateral security pact between the US, Australia and Britain ~ as a military alliance. Some analysts have suggested that AUKUS was formed by the US only to snatch a US$37 billion deal Australia had with a French company for building diesel-powered submarines. Such was the duplicity of the US, that France ~ a traditional ally and a fellow member of Nato ~ found out about cancellation of the deal only hours before it was publicly announced.
France felt so offended that it temporarily withdrew its ambassadors from the US and Australia. Putting all our eggs in the US basket may not be wise; the US has been an unreliable ally, failing to provide material support to us when we were attacked by Pakistan in 1965 and 1999 and by China in 1962 and 2020. During the Indo-Pak war of 1971, the US actively supported Pakistan. Shorn of rhetoric, the main interest of the US vis-a-vis India is to sell us highly priced, defanged military equipment and prevent us from buying arms from alternative sources. We also have to remember that the US would go to any length to protect its hegemony. A pointer was the recent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) against India, which involved sailing its destroyer USS John Paul Jones up to 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent.
The violation of India’s marine boundaries was deliberately publicised by the Seventh Fleet Commander. India’s weak protests against this incursion were brushed aside by the Pentagon spokesman. US foreign policy has been aptly summarised by its architect, the former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, in the following words: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” We are fortunate to have a savvy foreign minister, who has avoided putting us in any of the rival camps and has safely steered us through the Ukraine crisis. It was in many ways, a reiteration of our earlier policy of non-alignment, but, it is time to realise that we have to move on, abandoning our earlier idealistic foreign policy based on the principles of truth, non-violence and Panchsheel. Therefore, the future challenge could be to practise realpolitik, in which we have little expertise, and wherever required, follow a transactional foreign policy.
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the August 28, 2022, issue.