IDR Blog

Indian must Doggedly Preserve its Strategic Independence
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Ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee
The author is a former Indian Ambassador to The Netherlands who was concurrently accredited to the ICJ.

A nation’s foreign policy is strongly influenced by the imperatives of its neighbourhood, its strategic environment and the perception of its own status in the international community.  India’s extended neighbourhood, outlined in Kautilya’s  ‘Arthashastra’, the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, as one of widening concentric circles around a central axis of historical and cultural commonalities, is an appealing definition which is a rational mean of demonstrating India’s future great power status. 

India is proactively pursuing a vigorous bilateral and multilateral agenda, based on its national security templates, at a time when the world is facing many new global strategic challenges. What are these new challenges? To what extent have our decision makers in the making of foreign policy been successful in addressing them?

The remarkable continuity in Indian foreign policy despite change of governments has some advantages, but also drawbacks.

There are certain principles in our foreign policy which we are reluctant to shed even if the global scenario starkly demonstrates our need to move on and find new strategic paradigms.

Non-alignment is one of them. We have never formally jettisoned non alignment.  After the present government came to power, we have only sent our former Vice President to attend Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit meetings.

This is a clear signal of our distancing ourselves from NAM. Today, our lip service to NAM makes a mockery of our continued membership.

With the end of the Cold War, a new era of globalisation and, in an increasingly uni-polar world, India should have analysed and thought through its foreign policy and strategic directives based on its definition of strategic autonomy and its national security interests.

This did not happen because of the subjective attachment of the political leadership to certain cherished principles.

There was an attempt to reformulate some   core pillars of India’s foreign policy in actual terms, including building new bridges and establishing new strategic partnerships with the EU, the USA and also its Look East policy.

It was ultimately left to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take the necessary measures to reinvent, redirect and reinvigorate India’s foreign policy in response to shifting global strategic challenges.

This resulted in India coming to the forefront of global political dialogue and discussions on many issues including Security Council reform and climate change. Soft power, culture and heritage became other important areas of focus.

The unanimous adoption by the UN General Assembly with an overwhelming number of co-sponsors of PM Modi’s special initiative on International Yoga Day highlights how he has changed the global narrative on India. These are very positive aspects of our shifting foreign policy imperatives.

Have we successfully responded to all new global strategic challenges?

These new challenges of today are linked to the tectonic events in the last two decades of the last century.

The dramatic changes in the global order with the collapse of the former USSR and the reshaping of Europe after the end of the Cold War resulted in the end of bipolarity, the virtual collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the strengthening of NATO and a new resurgent EU.

When USSR collapsed, we took time to adjust to the shifting strategic priorities of a Russian Federation in internal chaos and in external retreat.

Later, we were slow to respond to the suggestion of the EU to their request for a strategic partnership and to become a new pole in a multi-polar world.

After the economic meltdown in USA, the global economic crisis, the European sovereign debt crisis, the talk of Grexit and now a Brexit, we spoke of a strategic shift to our East, a Look East Policy and an Act East Policy as a response.

However, the Look East Policy is more beneficial from an economic perspective rather than a strategic one.  One has only to analyse the timid ASEAN response to Chinese posturing after the international award on the South China Sea issue to understand that ASEAN will never be able to stand up to Chinese pressure except with American support.

There have been multiple other crises where we have been conspicuously absent, notably in the chain of events following the so called Arab Spring and its aftermath.  In retrospect, this was probably a good decision, but was it thought through by foreign policy makers?

Much has been said about our neighbourhood policy.  Given our troubled and volatile neighbourhood, every Indian prime minister has tried a carrot and stick policy.

The present government has successfully settled the boundary with Bangladesh and there is hope of a new beginning in Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, nothing seems to work in our Pakistan policy.  One reason is that successive Indian prime ministers have hoped to leave in their legacy a permanent peace with Pakistan.  This has   sometimes resulted in a flawed strategy towards this troubled neighbour.

The basis of our policy towards Pakistan till today has been that a stable Pakistan is in India’s best interests since it acts as a buffer between India and Afghanistan. We need to reflect whether this policy has worked at all to serve our interests.

The India-Russia relationship has recently seen many course corrections.  Some feel that India has not been able to convince President Vladimir Putin that the Russia-India equation continues to be of strategic and political importance to both sides.

This neglect of a time tested friend is based on superficial Western projections of Russia’s declining status and its future collapse.  Is this a fair analysis?

This brings us to the core question of the Indo-US partnership. Have Indian policymakers decided to make a decisive shift in its terms of engagement with America? The India-US relationship is without doubt one of the greatest achievements of Indian foreign policy in this century.

It should be anchored in a realpolitik framework that is not dependent on wishful thinking or dubious assessments of the international environment.

India may need to be more circumspect on its strategic choices, be more sensitive to external conditions, and doggedly preserve its strategic independence for the tumultuous years ahead. On multilateral issues, our quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council had run into many roadblocks including on the veto issue.

Today, despite all our efforts, even a non-permanent seat seems very far away.  Our legitimate campaign for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) has been held up by the Chinese on technical grounds.

It seems unlikely that China would agree unless a similar exemption was made for Pakistan. Where does this leave India?

During these challenging times India needs to brainstorm its future foreign policy direction.  Should we formally break with non-alignment?  Should we become a Dialogue Partner of NATO?  Should we re-balance our relations with USA and Russia?  As for the European Union, do we share a common strategic vision?  India needs to carefully re-craft its relations with the EU.

What is required is a sober assessment of our short, medium and long term priorities based on our projection as an emerging power. Our foreign policy needs to reflect and calibrate on these requirements.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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