India’s next foreign policy

By Jaswant Singh
April 30, 2014

(This piece comes from Project Syndicate. The opinions expressed are the author’s own)

A guest holds the flags of the United States and India and a program in the East Room at the White House in Washington, November 24, 2009.     REUTERS/Jim Young/FilesNext month, India will complete its marathon election. A new government is expected to assume power at the end of May, and, if the polls prove correct, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has named Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, will lead that government.

With India’s sluggish economic performance having rightly dominated the campaign, the question of what foreign policy the new government should pursue remains unanswered. Whatever the specifics, one imperative is clear: India must move beyond its allegiance to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

The muddle that NAM diplomacy causes is perhaps best reflected in the Congress-led Indian government’s recent quasi-endorsement of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government appear to have overlooked that China covets Indian territory and may thus be pleased that Russia has set a precedent for a powerful country to thumb its nose at international law and seize part of a neighboring country.

It is as if Indian foreign policy has been on autopilot since the 1980’s, when the government almost always adopted a pro-Russia stance.

The reality is that the NAM was never particularly effective at keeping India out of conflict, as the wars with China and Pakistan in 1962, 1965, and 1971 clearly demonstrated. In 1971, it was the Soviet Union’s support, rather than that of the NAM, that helped India to overcome the refugee crisis caused by Pakistan’s genocide in Bangladesh. Likewise, in 1999, India relied on American intervention to pressure Pakistan to end its aggression around the Himalayan town of Kargil.

Given this track record, how can old NAM diplomacy be expected to resolve the foreign-policy challenges that India faces, especially at a time when China and Pakistan are uniting to confront India?

The most pressing threat to India’s peace lies on its borders, especially the Himalayan border with China, the world’s longest disputed frontier – not least because uncertainty there facilitates inflows of terrorist forces bent on undermining India’s territorial integrity and sowing seeds of ethnic and religious conflict. While India has fought terrorism longer than any other country, the problem now affects the entire region, including Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan.

With Islamist terrorism spilling across its borders, India can no longer leave the turmoil in the Arab world to others to manage. Instead, it must take an active role in efforts to contain and ameliorate it – and that means developing new strategic alliances. Just as terrorists have created a kind of multilateral offensive, the countries that they threaten must construct a multilateral defense.

For starters, India should welcome – and foster – the thaw in relations between the US and Iran. Given that both countries are friends of India, and that all three share many strategic interests, a nimble Indian government has an opening to help facilitate a diplomatic rapprochement.

Meanwhile, a strategic alliance that supports peace in the Indian and Pacific Ocean region – for example, among India, the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Vietnam – could be shaped quietly and calmly, without impeding any of the partners’ ability to establish economic ties with third parties, including China. India must also work vigorously to renew its relationships in Southeast Asia, where it risks abandoning the field to China.

At the same time, India must develop a strategic understanding with China, Russia, and the US concerning the jihadist explosion in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Central Asian countries. Such an understanding would, of course, have rough edges, with India, Russia, and China simultaneously competing for influence in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, some sort of accord, whatever its gritty nuances, is both possible and necessary, given that preventing Afghanistan from relapsing into civil war or again becoming an export base for terrorism is in everyone’s interest, including Pakistan’s.

India’s next government must also nurture the country’s partnership with the US. Until recently, the bilateral relationship has tended to be guided by a transatlantic, trans-Eurasian perspective, while ignoring the trans-Pacific option. But India, blocked to its west by Pakistan, is increasingly looking east for trade and strategic partnerships. As it explores these possibilities, it can work with the US to shape a common perspective in Central Asia.

As for Pakistan, India’s NAM-driven inaction has given its nemesis the upper hand in isolating India strategically. This is extraordinary, given that Pakistan is the region’s principal protector of terrorist forces – and has now, sadly, become the victim of its home-grown militants.

America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will, in the short run, be a setback for the entire region. But, even as the US withdraws its infantry, it cannot ignore the threat that Islamist terror poses to America. That is why the US will increasingly depend on countries like India to ensure the success of its global anti-terror policy.

But the value of the bilateral relationship extends far beyond the war on terror. The US and India must also establish clear channels for technology transfer – military, industrial, and scientific, including with regard to space.

Any forward movement in US-India cooperation must be characterized by care and respect, with objectives that are unambiguous, practical, and achievable. If both governments devote the necessary time and energy to each other, they can create a partnership between the world’s two largest democracies capable of playing a key stabilizing role in South Asia and beyond.

2 comments

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Mr Singh’s comments are fine in parts but need explanation and also demand alternatives. NAM has been buried for some time and has no implication for the BJP policy. I discuss the new possibilities under different headings.
Relations with the USA; President Obama is keen to leave a legacy and has only a token interest in India. US companies will be welcomed by the new government, particularly, because many Indian ex-pats are employed by them. Indo-US trade will increase. Close Indo-US relations will, however, have to wait till Mrs Clinton is elected President. Meanwhile, new India will be more interested in its neighbours.
Russia; Soviet Union stood with India when Nixon’s USA was against it. India cannot forget that debt.
China; the new President of China seems to recognise that India needs to be treated as an equal partner. It is not unlikely that one of the first foreign visits of the PM Modi will be to China. The relations between the two will begin to improve and border questions will be resolved slowly and peacefully. Chinese leadership knows that India being a relatively youthful country will become the top economy in the next 3 decades. Trade between the two countries will increase.
Afghanistan; Afghanistan and India are siblings who grew together more than a millennium ago. The Afghan sibling has always created problems for India. Princess Gandhari (now called Kandhar in Afghanistan) was the mother of Kurus in the great Indian war called Mahabharta where Lord Krishna gave the pre-war lecture to Arjun which is called ‘Gita’ or ‘Gitanjali’, a Hindu religious book. India cannot leave Afghanistan to suffer from terrorism. There is already Iran, Russia and India alliance. There are signs that China and the USA will join it.
Pakistan; Indo-Pak ties will improve under PM Modi. He has promised to the ‘City of Gurus’, Amritsar that he will make it the Centre of Indian trade to Afghanistan and central Asia. This assumes good Indo-Pak relations. I do not foresee a meeting between the two PMs in the first year of Modi Premiership but it is not needed as there is a close working relationship between the CMs of the two Punjabs. For re-election Sharif brothers (one Pak PM and the other Pak Punjab CM) need to solve Pak Punjab’s electricity problem. The easy way is to import electricity from India. The Indian Punjab CM will ensure that electricity supply begins in about a year under Modi. The two Punjab siblings will then become tied with electric wires and they will either prosper together or burn together. I bet on prosperity.
Iran; Iran depends on India for ensuring that Taliban do not take over Afghanistan as they kill Shias. India is developing Iran’s Chahbahar port for direct access to Afghanistan. Indo-Iranian ties are sealed by oil. There is now a talk of sea gas pipe line from Iran to India. The old friendship between India and Iraq under the Sunni Mr Hussein is being revived under the current Shia leadership of Iraq.
Saudi Arabia; Indo-Saudi relations have been good. PM Modi will strengthen them. It is likely that a few years hence, when Iran and Saudi Arabia are tired of proxy wars, India will facilitate peace between them.
Destiny beacons India.

Posted by AtamVetta | Report as abusive

I think US will have to revise foreign policy toward India.
First of all Obama administration has to send “Damge Control Unit” to India to please Naredra Modi. US wanted to make corrupted ruing party congress for soem reason, so it bans Mr. Modi for US visit. Now they have to issue him visa (No choice left). Not only US will lose lot of business opportunity with India, if they don;t restore relation with Mr. Modi.

Posted by Mehtasaab | Report as abusive