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Does Indian foreign policy need a rethink? 29 Jan 2021
Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in UK stated in a recent report, ‘While giving India the attention it deserves, the UK government needs to accept that gaining direct national benefit from the relationship, whether economically or diplomatically, will be difficult.’ It questions India’s diplomatic policies by stating, ‘India did not join the group of countries that criticized China at the UN in July 2019 over human rights violations in Xinjiang. India has also been muted in its criticism of the passage of the new national security law in Hong Kong.’ The basis for these comments were India’s foreign policies.
Fareed Zakaria, an international affairs columnist, CNN news host and an author, stated while speaking to an Indian daily, ‘In order for India to decide what it wants, it needs to have a strategic conception of its place in the world, its place in Asia, and it doesn’t right now.’ He adds, ‘Prime Minister Modi says his policy is multinational…but, you know, I am going to be nice to everybody. But that is the opposite of having a foreign policy. Foreign policy is making choices. You have to make strategic choices and orient yourself in a direction and some people will be happy and some people will be unhappy.’ This is the view of many governments, who have questioned Indian foreign policy approach.
India has always visualized that a foreign policy of close relations with opposing camps would provide it with leverage. While it remains a strategic partner of the US, it continues to maintain close contacts with RIC (Russia, India and China), SCO and BRICs grouping, enhancing ties with Russia and Iran, avoiding criticizing China, adhering to its one-China policy, while China discards its one-India policy and openly adopts an anti-India stance at every global body including the UN. Its hostile actions and claiming Indian territory by use of force confirms it has scant regard for the one-India policy.
India has traditionally maintained close ties with Russia or the erstwhile Soviet Union. India-US relations have had their ups and downs. The US stood by India in 1962, however in 1971, Nixon and Kissinger considered Pakistan an ally and threatened to deploy the US seventh fleet in the Bay of Bengal to support it. In the 1990’s Clinton was seeking to involve the US into the Kashmir dispute to arrive at a plausible solution. Bill Clinton considered South Asia as a nuclear flashpoint. Bush turned direction of US approach towards India.
The US has historically acted keeping its national interests in mind, ignoring concerns of others. It is strategic reality that there are no permanent friends and allies, only national interests. The United States has also been viewed as a nation manipulating allies and rapidly switching allegiances. Hence, there is always a doubt in Indian strategic circles on whether the US would again change direction, as it has done earlier.
Russia on the other hand has always been supportive of India and stood alongside when others backed away. Indo-Russian relations are cemented on Indian procurements of Russian military equipment, much to American objections. European powers are currently moving closer to India, possibly due to India’s growing economic and military clout. Thus, while India considers its growing relationship with the US as a boon, it is unwilling to jettison Russia. This is possibly why the US is considering imposing CAATSA on India procuring the S 400 Missiles from Russia.
US declassified documents of 2018, released last week, intending to guide the Biden administration, stated that the US believes ‘a strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China.’ The actions proposed in the document for enhancing Indo-US ties include building a stronger foundation for ‘defence cooperation and interoperability; expanding defence trade, transferring defence technology to enhance India’s status as a major defence partner; increasing cooperation on shared regional security concerns and encouraging India’s engagement beyond the Indian Ocean Region.’ It had sought to assist in building Indian military capabilities post the Doklam crisis.
There is no doubt that few countries in the globe face two major hostile neighbours, both nuclear powers and working in close collaboration, as India does. These nations, Pakistan and China, are seeking to pressurize India to act against its own national interests while attempting to grab Indian territory and lower its status within the global architecture. Despite these strong security challenges, India has grown as a global economic power, however at the cost of military power, which is currently being exploited by China.
However, Indian foreign policy approach to its challengers remains confusing. PM Modi’s refusal to name China as the aggressor in Ladakh, continuing adhering to its one-China policy, avoiding global criticism of Chinese handling of Tibet and Hong Kong is unexplainable. This, despite India having stalemated China in Ladakh and being aware that talks between the two countries is unlikely to bring about any tangible solution. This display of foreign policy weakness is being exploited by China in global organizations and in informational warfare.
India has sought to be the goody boy of foreign policy. It is this goody boy approach which has been exploited by nations. The UK parliament discusses Kashmir, farmers agitation and CAA, while Trudeau of Canada comments openly on the agitation. Various senators in the US criticize Indian actions. On the contrary, India has never commented on other nations. India needs to re-evaluate its outlook.
India advocates that it is adopting strategic autonomy, implying taking decisions devoid from any global pressure and governed by its sovereign interests. While India realised the benefits of moving closer to the US, it was wary of the same to avoid antagonizing China. Where we have possibly failed is realizing that alignments and alliances boost strategic autonomy as it provides the nation strength to counter its adversaries. India joining the QUAD has added to its ability to take stronger foreign policy decisions. Realistically, we need to consider our national interests and determine the best approach to achieving them, even if it means enhancing allies and partners and angering our challengers.
India possesses the world’s fifth largest economy and the third most powerful military as also remains the most lucrative market. By holding its ground against China, India has displayed that it is no pushover. It needs to determine its global and Asian ambitions and adopt the best means to achieve them. The days of being goody boys in foreign policy, where other nations can openly comment on its internal matters should now be things of the past. India should, on the other hand, discuss internal matters of states, which comment on India, thus displaying its arrival on the world stage.