Indian foreign policy: Are we on the right path?

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Independent of issues and personalities, India has been on an unacknowledged fire-fighting mode on the foreign policy front, ever since the end of the Cold War and also the advent of the economic reforms. The inevitability of events and developments in the world around us could be blamed for it, but it also implies that a nation that is still reactive and cannot be pro-active does not belong where it wants to be, or believes where it already is.

On the geo-strategic front, India has made and unmade friends, only to re-make some friends and re-evaluate some others. Our relations with the US and Russia make a comparative study in this case. Though we assert ‘strategic independence’ at times of confusion, we are now identified with the ‘US camp’ even when the latter’s European allies from the Cold War past are not as much sure of their present and future.

It won’t be easy to acknowledge it likewise, but we have also made and un-made adversaries, depending on the perceptions of other nations and not necessarily influenced by the compulsive realities of our own immediate circumstances. China is a case in point. We have had a problem on the border and the Pakistan front when we think of China.

India shares a 4000-km land border that our new-found geo-strategic friends in the US, Japan and Australia do not have to worry about. They would not have to fight a land-war with China, nor could they be expected to fight a land war with China for India’s sake, if at all joined. This would be especially so if China does not display any intent to take any such war with India to the Indian Ocean in particular.

China could keep any land war of the future localised to its unacceptable claims to Arunachal Pradesh. India cannot, for instance, reopen the case on Tibet. Any Indian initiative on the choice of a future Dalai Lama could at best be a political issue, not necessarily becoming an international diplomatic row of any serious kind.

India also needs to be mindful of China’s status as a P-5 member and the unqualified backing that Beijing (alone) is capable of offering some of our neighbours near-eternally stung by the ‘human rights’ bug that the US-led West continues to selectively unleash at will. India has come to acknowledge their insatiable, no-holds-barred need for development funds of a possibly non-refundable kind in any foreseeable future.

Neither of these or other predictable or not-so-predictable behaviour of India’s neighbours, and its consequential impact on India’s security prognosis and prescriptions, could be addressed with satisfaction unless we have a predictable relationship with China. For India, Pakistan remains a basket case, but other South Asian neighbours have clearly shown that they are not ready to extend the same yardstick to measure their relations with China.

New axis

India’s concern about Chinese presence and influence on the neighbourhood is not even about the possibilities of the former setting up military bases there. It would be a major issue in each of these nations, owing to domestic politics and compulsions, unlike during the Cold War era. Instead, India should be concerned about a return of a Voice of America/Trincomallee oil tanks farm-like situation involving Sri Lanka and the US during those Cold War years.

It is thus about the possibilities of China setting up secretive listening-posts, to snoop down on India and also the Indian Ocean. This includes  the US base in Diego Garcia too. Can and should India influence our neighbours, and help them too, if willing, to stall any Chinese such projects.

For India, the larger question should involve – and should have involved already – the theoretical possibilities of not only China and Pakistan, but also Iran and Russia forming a politico-military axis, not over years but possibly during the upcoming decades. India’s intervening vacillation in ties with Russia, and the American blow-hot-blow-cold relations with Iran since 9/11 are pointers that cannot be overlooked.

Nation-in-transition

Addressing these concerns in full measure to India’s entire satisfaction with flexibility sans confusion is a tough task, more so for a nation-in-transition such as ours. This would take us back to the question if our post-Cold War allies would be willing to fight India’s war where the adversaries want it to be fought, or if India would want such a war to escalate to levels that our adversaries might be happy with, but we ourselves may not want.

Despite claims and expectations to the contrary, the Indian economy is still at a take-off stage, only that the goal-posts have changed. So have the goal-posts of most other nations, our American and most other western friends. If the economy of our American ‘adversary’ was booming during the Cold War, post-Cold War it is that of our ‘Chinese adversary’ that is on the top.

The question is this: Is India always on the wrong side of geo-strategic and geo-economic evolution that we get caught on the wrong foot all the time? For all this, however, the Indian economy is relatively stable, and India has a government that is really stable in full 25 years. The nation cannot continue to fire-fight or experiment with.

Instead, it needs to evolve a fresh consensus that is realistic, re-defining India’s role in an emerging world, as defined, refined and re-defined by India, and none else!

The work cannot be completed overnight, yes, but it cannot wait further for a fresh start and a fresh look. It can begin with India doing some tough-talking with our western friends frankly about our own long-term concerns in the immediate and extended neighbourhood (Iran and Russia included) if they mean business.

Likewise, India also needs to talk to our non-Pakistani neighbours about their own security concerns before planning our security plans, if we expect them to stay on our side. Both during the signing of the first-ever defence cooperation accord with the US in 2005, and extending it for another decade under a new government in New Delhi, India was not known to have discussed it with the neighbourhood.

How then can they be expected to trust India, or India’s plans for them, other than in general terms – and not plan for their own security, both neighbourhood and geo-strategic, in their own way, throwing ‘sovereignty’ and territorial integrity, occasionally and for effect? Maybe, it is time India started with these both counts and take forward comprehensive negotiations for ensuring comprehensive security for the neighbourhood as a whole, keeping our own more serious security concerns in mind, still.

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to Rediff.com since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University