September 5, 2011

Preoccupations of an emerging power

The daunting scope of Indian foreign policy may explain the few scholarly attempts at surveying it of late

Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy.
By David M Malone.
Oxford University Press, 2011, 425 pages

Author’s note: The following excerpts are drawn from the book’s introduction and focus on three major preoccupations of Indian foreign policy and an important partner. In the interest of brevity, references have been cut. The book seeks to understand Indian foreign policy mainly through the Indian literature on the subject, and through a focus on history, geography and capability. Some themes shine through: India’s quest, arising out of its colonial subjection, for autonomy in its international relations; and its innate caution in international relations, one aspect of which—its “strategic restraint”—is much discussed among the geo-strategically inclined. This caution might best be attributed to Indian politicians rather than to India’s commentariat, media or elements of the security establishment, all sometimes excitable and quick to believe that India is not sufficiently “standing up” for itself.


Photo: Elyce Feliz

India is a huge, boisterous nation bursting with optimism for its future, and reaping some early fruits of its profitable engagement with globalization, while struggling to reduce the severe poverty afflicting hundreds of millions of its citizens. Like the USA, India is primarily inward-oriented. But today, we witness an India reaching out: its private sector is doing so aggressively, carving out markets for itself globally, investing widely and taking over industrial and service icons abroad.

The size and population of India is now complemented by sufficient economic progress as to guarantee it a place at the global high table of influence. In the G-20 emerging powers like India clearly matter more than a number of the Western participants. When Indian PM and distinguished economist Manmohan Singh spoke during the global financial and economic downturn of 2008–2009, those at the G-20 table listened.

Thus, it was India’s economic significance that lent weight to the country’s international profile. Its foreign policy, regional concerns, and geo-strategic views were largely unknown to the rest of the world, as they are to most Indians, who remain overwhelmingly preoccupied with the struggle for improved conditions within their own country. But, as of 2008, India escaped from the partial international purdah into which its nuclear tests had consigned it since 1974, thanks to multilateral acceptance of its nuclear cooperation agreement with the USA. In this sense, India “emerged” fully in 2008.

The scope of Indian foreign policy is daunting. This may explain the few scholarly attempts at surveying Indian foreign policy of late.

Among the basic decisions attending the planning of the book was whether to devote a chapter to Pakistan or to fold Pakistan into a wider discussion of India’s neighbourhood. I chose the latter course. As India has trained its aspirations on wider ambitions, the place of Pakistan in its preoccupations has shrunk somewhat. Of course, India itself contributed significantly to shrinking Pakistan in 1971, when its military intervention allowed the emergence of an independent Bangladesh from the wreckage of East Pakistan. The cautious nature of India’s military engagements with Pakistan since then, particularly India’s carefully calibrated and low-key response to Pakistan’s adventurism on the Kargil heights in 1999, suggests that a full-scale war between the two countries is today less likely than ever (barring the accession to power in Pakistan of radical individuals or groups).

A discussion of Pakistan along with India’s other neighbours brings out several characteristic Indian pathologies when dealing with neighbours—some already fading into history, others still topical. This accounts for a long chapter on India’s immediate neighbourhood, the first of its three major foreign policy preoccupations. It raises questions not just about India’s management over time of its sub-continental links with such often resentful and sometimes unhelpful neighbours as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, but also how it has factored in historically and geo-strategically important ties with Afghanistan and Burma. The relative paralysis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) suggests the absence of an overall plan and a largely reactive Indian approach to regional developments. However, the chapter notes a much gentler approach to managing regional bilateral relations today than was evident in the 1980s.

Its second major preoccupation, China, warrants a chapter of its own. It outlines the history of ties and conflicts dating back to the emergence of the Communist regime in China and Nehru’s early quest for comity with it. Against this backdrop it touches on tensions over border issues that precipitated war in 1962; friction over Tibet; China’s support for Pakistan; and suspicion over the motives of other powers in the region (notably the Soviet Union and the USA). The relationship today is defined increasingly by both economic cooperation and competition

China constitutes India’s only convincing rival in Asia and is currently more powerful economically and militarily. Thus, the relationship today is complex—growing fast economically, but contentious in other spheres. Outright military conflict seems highly unlikely, as both governments are focused on economic expansion, and are quite prudent by nature, but their competition touches on many other countries, and spurs policy innovation by both. Nevertheless, Indian resentments linger.

The third major preoccupation of late has been its “emergence” as a major actor on the global stage, due to its economic performance. India’s effort to establish a meaningful partnership with Brazil and South Africa under the IBSA banner is an imaginative way to give practical expression to the idea of South–South cooperation, too long an empty vessel. Its emphasis on democratic kinship within this formation, which might be taken as a dig at China, should perhaps also be seen as an effort by India to develop a ‘soft power’ component to its diplomacy. Placing many bets on different playing fields, India has also courted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), participated in BRIC Summits, and formed groupings of convenience.

This third preoccupation connects with India’s wider role in international relations. Early on, non-alignment, in theory, allowed India to play the two blocs against one another during the Cold War. After the 1950s, India was not successful in doing so. The actual achievements of India’s multilateral diplomacy are open to question and it is perhaps to this sphere (rather than to that of bilateral diplomacy, in which India has often been remarkably successful) that Indian policymakers and analysts need to devote more thought as India gains access to the most coveted multilateral forums.

The India–USA relationship, a historically contentious and counterproductive one, has been largely transformed of late, yielding the major happy recent surprise in India’s international relations: an improvement pregnant with potential implications for both countries and also for other regional and global actors.

The difficult path towards this rapprochement was marked by a degree of anti-imperialist prickliness on India’s part, and a large dose of condescension in Washington during the Cold War. In engineering the unshackling of India from its nuclear pariah status, the USA, a key partner for India today, needed to overcome aspects of the non-proliferation regime it had itself set in place to punish India and to discourage any further proliferation. These were ultimately an unsuccessful set of arrangements as demonstrated by subsequent developments in North Korea and Pakistan – and perhaps soon in Iran. The negotiations were thus difficult on both sides.

Thus, talks first engaged in the late 1990s only came to fruition a decade later. US motivations may have been as much commercial as geo-strategic, but the political rewards for India, and perhaps also for the USA, have significantly altered the positioning of players on the global chessboard.

© 2011. Oxford University Press. Published with permission.

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