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Permanent Interests

A neighbourhood first policy would definitely help; we may start by providing food and vaccine aid to countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Pakistan, which are facing grave food and vaccine shortages. We can restore friendly relations with our neighbours, at no extra cost, by toning down our rhetoric and not letting domestic compulsions affect foreign relations and most importantly, by treating smaller countries properly

DEVENDRA SAKSENA | Kolkata |

A rampaging bull is an apt characterisation of present-day China, which is expending much of its energy in browbeating its neighbours. Sharing geographical boundaries with China and its client States, some of which, like Pakistan, openly support terrorism, India is waging a lonely battle against Chinese hegemony. The rout of the US in Afghanistan, where we were actively involved ~ on the losing side – has precipitated an unpleasant chain of events. We will have to fight on all fronts ~ economic, military and diplomatic ~ to salvage our prestige.

Even before the Afghan debacle, our perennially unstable neighbourhood required a nimble and quick-witted foreign policy. However, domestic compulsions limit our options. For example, dependence on cheap Chinese imports ensure that despite a continuing military confrontation with China, it remains our largest trading partner. Then, open espousal of religiosity has created a schism between us and our predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. Complicating matters further, 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.
Our foreign policy in the twenty-first century, is completely different from our earlier idealistic foreign policy based on the principles of truth, non-violence and Panchsheel, because as India took its place on the world stage, we had to eschew our earlier policies and practise realpolitik, in which we had little expertise. That said, an overweening desire to appear as everything to everyone and a persistent tendency to talk down to others, has been the permanent bane of our foreign policy.

The US, which we are courting assiduously, has always 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 Government vis-a-vis India is to sell us highly priced, defanged military equipment and prevent us from buying arms from alternative sources.
Otherwise also, the core of American policy is deployment of military resources for protection of its interests abroad and establishing the primacy of the US. Historically, the scent of oil or rivalry with Russia had sent the US in overdrive, leading to debacles such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. China is the new US bete-noire after its emergence as a formidable military and economic power.
After the MALABAR naval exercises, we had hoped that the US would support Quad (an alliance of US, Japan, India and Australia) militarily and the Quad would evolve as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, formation of AUKUS – a military alliance between the UK, US and Australia, which is Quad minus Japan and India – has put paid to our expectations, because, according to US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, AUKUS is a military alliance, while the Quad was created for other purposes.

Being formed with the immediate aim of snatching a US $60 billion submarine deal from France, a trusted American ally, AUKUS is an example of American duplicity. AUKUS furthers several aims of US foreign policy simultaneously viz. establishing US supremacy, checkmating China and increasing US arms sales. Presently, the primary focus of AUKUS is on keeping open South China Sea routes, that provide passage to one-third of the world’s maritime shipping. For this purpose, AUKUS participants regularly challenge Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, by freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), which involve sailing warships in the marine areas claimed by China.

FONOPS are increasing at a fast pace; the US mounted five FONOPS in 2015, nine in 2019 and 13 in 2020. In a decidedly hostile manoeuvre, in July 2021, Britain sent the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its Carrier Strike Group, consisting of six Royal Navy ships, a Royal Navy submarine, a US Navy destroyer, a Dutch frigate backed by formidable air power to enforce FONOPS.
To show that it treated friend and foe alike in questions involving American policy, in a FONOP against India, the US sailed 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.

The US does little to conceal its deceitful foreign policy. American officials generally visit India and Pakistan together; while in India, they vilify Pakistan unreservedly but change their tune once they reach Islamabad. Even PM Modi’s personal friend, President Trump, right after his historic reception in Ahmedabad, in February 2020, highlighted the “very good” U.S. relationship with Pakistan and preached to us about the importance of unity among India’s various religions.

Despite sweet words, the Biden administration has proved no better for India. The US has threatened to levy additional tariffs of up to 25 per cent on around 40 Indian products including shrimps, basmati rice, gold and silver items in retaliation against the Equalisation Levy or Digital Services Tax, imposed by India on non-resident e-commerce operators.

Our foreign policy problems start with our leadership that sees all foreign investors and businessmen as supplicants or worse still, as cash cows. Probably, they are not aware that business and politics are closely aligned in the West and Western governments are committed to promote and protect their businesses abroad. On a visit to India in January 2020, the world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos, announced a $1 billion investment in India, with a potential of creating 10,000 new jobs. Leave aside gratitude, Union Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal lambasted Amazon, saying that Amazon was not doing a favour to India by its investment, and for good measure, accused Amazon of predatory pricing. For the record, Amazon has invested more than $6.5 billion in its Indian business that employs more than 1 lakh professionals. Similarly, the former Law and IT Minister got into a number of ugly spats with Facebook and Twitter, that only ended with his ouster from the Union Cabinet.

The disdain for foreign businessmen spills over to visiting dignitaries of countries that are considered less important by Indian officialdom. The churlish treatment meted out to the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is well known. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew directly to Islamabad from Delhi, after staying in Delhi for less than 24 hours. While in Delhi, Lavrov met his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar but not PM Modi, who was campaigning in West Bengal. In stark contrast to his reception in India, in Pakistan, Lavrov was received personally at the airport by the Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Later on, Lavrov met Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. During the visit, Lavrov expressed Russia’s readiness to supply special military equipment to Pakistan, to strengthen its counter-terrorism capabilities. This sequence of events should be seen in the perspective of our alliance with the USSR during the Indo-Pak War of 1971, when the Seventh Fleet had to beat an ignominious retreat from the Bay of Bengal, due to the steadfast support of the USSR to India.

Since India does not find place in the US coterie, we have to devise an alternative strategy to counter China. A neighbourhood first policy would definitely help; we may start by providing food and vaccine aid to countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Pakistan, which are facing grave food and vaccine shortages. We can restore friendly relations with our neighbours, at no extra cost, by toning down our rhetoric and not letting domestic compulsions affect foreign relations and most importantly, by treating smaller countries properly. In fact, cultivating a working relationship with arch-enemy Pakistan, even at some cost to ourselves, would considerably lessen the threat from China.

Lastly, we should not put all our eggs in the Western basket by getting too closely aligned to the US, because the US has a history of ditching all friends, except its proxies, UK and Israel. We should not blindly trust a country whose foreign policy has been summarised by its foreign policy 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.”