A Wider View of India’s Foreign Policy Reveals Clear Strategy
By DHRUVA JAISHANKAR
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the latter's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on May 29.Toshifumi Kitamura/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the latter’s official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on May 29.
Shinzo Abe has ruffled quite a few feathers since his return as Japan’s prime minister in December. His cabinet ministers’ visit in April to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, was condemned by China and South Korea, and in no time, Japan became the target of North Korean saber-rattling and American finger-wagging. So it ought to have elicited more surprise when Abe’s soft-spoken Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, plainly declared his comfort with his host’s worldview on a recent visit to Tokyo.
“India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia,” Mr. Singh said in a prepared speech. “Our relations draw their strength from our spiritual, cultural and civilizational affinities and a shared commitment to the ideals of democracy, peace and freedom,” he said, adding, “Prime Minister Abe and I will work together to strengthen our strategic partnership.” The declaration, which was accompanied by a rare private dinner between the two prime ministers, was seen in many quarters as an unambiguous signal to China.
The last year has been a tough one for India under Mr. Singh’s embattled leadership. His government has come to be perceived as ineffective – even absent, when it comes to responding to popular concerns such as the tragic gang rape of a student in Delhi — and venal, linked to one massive corruption scam after another, including a scandal over coal allocations that threatened to taint the prime minister personally. The once-booming Indian economy has slowed drastically, with growth recently forecast to have dropped under 5 percent. A brazen attack by Maoists in the central state of Chhattisgarh last month and an incursion by Chinese troops in northern Ladakh have drawn global attention to the government’s inadequate handling of internal and external security challenges.
Criticism of all sorts has mounted. The Economist ran a cover story in March which argued that the country’s lack of strategic culture promises to constrain its rise. The influential magazine Foreign Affairs published an article by the Boston University professor Manjari Chatterjee Miller which declared that New Delhi lacked strategic ambition. However, as Mr. Singh’s speech in Tokyo hinted, such assertions about India’s emergence may be more than a little misleading.
India’s enigmatic foreign policy
There are many reasons why India’s foreign policy remains something of an enigma to analysts, scholars, and reporters — both in India and abroad. The Indian government is averse to publishing strategic documents of the kind regularly released by the United States, most European states and even China. A careerist bureaucracy and hypercompetitive national politics encourage secrecy in decision-making. Policymakers have traditionally been distrustful of researchers and journalists, both Indian and foreign. And the views of disgruntled critics outside of government resonate far more loudly than bland official pronouncements do. But it is nonetheless clear that India’s objectives since the end of the Cold War have remained remarkably consistent, and its performance surprisingly effective.
In essence, New Delhi’s goals have been characterized by three features. The first is internal balancing: basically, attempts at increasing the country’s resources and capabilities. This has involved the establishment and enhancement of economic and trade links with various countries in India’s neighborhood and beyond. Almost 20 years after announcing a “Look East” policy, India agreed to lower tariffs with Japan, South Korea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while enjoying steadily deeper commercial relations with the United States, China and the European Union. Such efforts appear to have borne dividends: since 1997, India’s total trade has grown more than sevenfold, about 60 percent faster than its economy.
Economic growth also requires stability, and Indian leaders have spoken repeatedly of their objective of maintaining a conducive regional environment for growth. This has been largely responsible for New Delhi’s attempts at normalizing its relations with Pakistan and not intervening as aggressively in places like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. India has also made conscious attempts to enhance its technological capabilities. The centerpiece of New Delhi’s new strategic relationship with Washington was a civil nuclear agreement, an attempt at gaining access to embargoed nuclear know-how.
A light combat aircraft of India performing at the opening ceremony of Aero India 2011 in Yelahanka, Karnataka, on Feb. 9.Aijaz Rahi/Associated Press A light combat aircraft of India performing at the opening ceremony of Aero India 2011 in Yelahanka, Karnataka, on Feb. 9.
The second facet that has marked India’s external relations is deterrence, the dissuasion of others from using or threatening force. India withstood widespread international opprobrium after conducting five nuclear tests in 1998, a decision that enjoyed support across the country despite being portrayed as a nationalistic endeavor. In time, India’s nuclear capability has helped stabilize relations with both Pakistan and China, countries with which it had fought wars in the past. In recent years, the Indian armed forces have also sought to diversify and gradually modernize their conventional weaponry, including combat aircraft, submarines and artillery. All of this has had positive effects. India’s relations with China now exhibit many of the characteristics of normalcy. Manmohan Singh has also followed his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee in managing relations with Pakistan, including through a back-channel dialogue that seems to have come close to a grand bargain.
The third aspect of Indian foreign policy is autonomy, ensuring that the country is not unduly dependent on any one ally or partner. Thus, India has sought to diversify its sources of energy and other natural resources beyond a handful of suppliers in the Middle East to exporters in Africa and Latin America, among other places. Similarly, it sources much of its military equipment from Russia, Israel, Europe, and – increasingly – the United States. Diplomatic engagement with other major powers has also been active, as attested to by the regularity of two-way bilateral visits. In just one two-month period in late 2010, India received President Barack Obama of the United States, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China and then-President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia.
Consistency in pursuing India’s primary objectives has generally risen above individual leaders and governments. A Congress-led government under P.V. Narasimha Rao oversaw preparations for a nuclear test in December 1995, even though tests were eventually carried out under the Bharatiya Janata Party. Similarly, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s B.J.P. government sought a nuclear agreement akin to the deal secured by Manmohan Singh. Both Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Singh also made concerted attempts at normalizing ties with Pakistan and China. While never overtly declared as doctrine, India’s quest for growth, security, and balanced relationships is intuitive to many members of its strategic community and its patterns of behavior largely consistent.
India’s successes have by no means been categorical. Implementation has often been found wanting, as with its difficulty in concluding trade and security agreements. India’s policymakers are also conscious of the country’s severe limitations, making them reluctant to commit to ambitious endeavors. And India, not unlike other rising powers, is often content to “free ride” on others, making it all the more eager to downplay its own capabilities.
At the same time, there is no question that the country has made extraordinary strides in achieving its goals over the past two decades. India has far more resources, security, and friends than it did in 1991, the year it was confronted by a balance-of-payments crisis, several conflagrating insurgencies and the collapse of its primary ally, the Soviet Union. Perhaps there is more to India’s strategic culture – and strategic ambition – than meets the eye.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a business summit in Mumbai, Maharashtra, on May 21.Rajanish Kakade/Associated Press Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a business summit in Mumbai, Maharashtra, on May 21.
An absence of further liberalization promises to jeopardize India’s international clout, while providing real constraints on its ability to acquire the tools required of a great power. A further change may be brought about by China’s behavior as it continues its rapid evolution into a global superpower. As the incursion in April by a few dozen Chinese soldiers into disputed territory along the border showed, indications of China’s aggressive intent could galvanize Indian public opinion, push New Delhi towards adopting harder positions with Beijing and compel India to cooperate more closely with other countries that share its concerns about China’s rise.
Additionally, India is undergoing a series of unprecedented social and political revolutions that, collectively, could alter its overall approach to international affairs. A new, post-Cold War generation of leaders could well adopt very different positions than their predecessors did. India’s massive military may want to have a greater say on matters of national security. In Kashmir, for example, the army has resisted changes to its legal protection regime that were being advocated both by the cabinet and the state’s chief minister. A competitive media environment could constrain or coerce India’s leaders, preventing them from collaborating more closely with the United States, on the one hand, or forcing India to respond to Pakistani provocations on the other.
The diffusion of political power to regional parties, combined with coalition governments at the center, has already shown signs of altering India’s approach towards its neighbors, for better and for worse. In recent years, regional parties have adopted strong positions on relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, contrary to New Delhi’s stated objectives. India’s thriving private sector is only now becoming a player on matters of foreign policy, compelling the Indian government to become a bigger advocate of Indian business interests abroad, including on such matters as immigration legislation in the United States. And an increasingly activist-oriented diaspora – with stronger links than ever to its country of origin – is beginning to feature prominently in India’s international relations. The External Affairs Ministry, for example, weighed in recently on the treatment of Indian students in Australia and a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
It is easy to take a superficial look at India’s international behavior and see little more than haphazard decision-making and reticence. Foreign observers – and indeed many Indian commentators – have been doing so for years. The Indian government has not always helped itself with its failure to articulate its positions clearly. But taken together, India’s behavior over the past two decades has demonstrated remarkable consistency, clarity and success. Perhaps it is time the rest of the world paid attention.