Indian foreign policy is one area where the Narendra Modi government has shown itself at being adept and its foreign minister S Jaishankar has emerged as an articulate member of the Union Cabinet, unlike most others, and his views and pronouncements are carefully studied and analysed. Therefore, the lecture he delivered at the fourth Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture deserves wider debate and engagement, because he allows the Indian public to understand the contours of our external relations, assesses its past and present-day moves.
The approach of the Modi government on matters of foreign policy is encapsulated in his assertion that “...hedging is a delicate exercise, whether it is the non-alignment and strategic autonomy of earlier periods or the multiple engagements of the future. But there is no getting away from it in a multi-polar world… In that sense, it is having many balls up in the air at the same time and displaying the confidence and dexterity to drop none.”
He insists that “the truth is that ascending up the global ladder did require taking big calls, whether conventional or nuclear, political or economic. Not all risks are necessarily dramatic; many just require the confident calculations and determined follow-up of day-to-day management, but their aggregate impact can result in a quantum jump in global positioning. To a certain degree, we see that happening today.”
And he goes on to say that “We are now at the cusp of change. With more confidence, the pursuit of seemingly divergent goals and straddling of contradictions are being attempted. Taking risks is inherent to the realisation of ambitions. A nation that has aspirations to become a leading power cannot continue with unsettled borders, an un-integrated region and under-exploited opportunities. Above all, it cannot be dogmatic in approaching a visibly changing global order.”
What comes through is a hard-headed pragmatic approach, which valorises “willingness to look beyond dogma and enter the real world of convergences”. Dogma, in his reckoning, is euphemism for value-based foreign policy with a long view of ourselves and the world, and he goes about ridiculing it. Although there is nothing in value-based foreign policy which disallows being part of Russia-India-China as well as Japan-America-India or the Quadrilateral Dialogue with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. He does mention Saudi Arabia and Iran too, but here the ball has dropped on Iran. However, his argument nevertheless does hold, in so far as he himself acknowledges that more and more countries are doing something similar. Which means that sooner or later each country, including India, must also take a call: what next? Because reality is not static but fluid.
For instance, C Raja Mohan draws attention to the Russia-China partnership extending to the Indian Ocean and refers to the Navies of Russia, China and South Africa holding an exercise named ‘MORIS’ outside South Africa’s shores for the first time. He refers to the fact that a Russian naval vessel recently paid a visit to Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and Russian nuclear bombers visited South Africa. This is the first time South Africa is reaching out to countries beyond the West. Iran, too, plans to hold naval exercise with Russia and China in the Persian Gulf.
In other words, India, which has been focused obsessively on challenges posed by China, cannot but be alarmed at Russia-China military alliance slowly acquiring a global footprint, and in particular pose concerns in the Indian ocean. The Indian foreign policy establishment holds out Russia as India’s long-standing and trusted ally, but Russia’s ties with China are progressing much faster. Also, Russia has not taken to the new coinage ‘Indo-Pacific’, and sticks to Asia-Pacific, as does China. So, while India can carry on believing in “juggling balls” there are shifts taking place in alignments which are a challenge to it.
Now, no Indian would oppose India acquiring a leading status in the world order. The question is what we mean by “leadership status” and also how to get to it. Does India wish to flex its military muscle, like any other authoritarian regime, rather than focus on first becoming a robust and progressive economy which can uplift its people from lives of indignity, before it ventures into a leadership role which leaves us mired in multiple crises? In this sense, “juggling many balls” may not help push India’s leadership claim. Because neither India’s economy nor military is of a stature which commands much respect today.
India’s economy is facing a downturn and India blinked at the last moment on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Pact (RCEP), which announced to the world that Indian industry is afraid of competition. The economic slowdown has pushed even the most ardent supporters of RCEP into sounding the alarm about the “crisis on hand”.
As for the military, it remains an import-dependent force and one which is more adept at fighting wars at home and fending off Pakistani irregulars, and it is currently reeling under a severe fund crunch. While taking risks is a welcome attitude, being reckless and oblivious of our inherent weakness is senseless. It is one thing to risk an informal summit with China and quite another to risk downgrading relations with Iran, a friendly country in our neighbourhood, because of United States (US) pressure. If this is a small price to pay to achieve a better convergence with the US then Indians are still waiting to see its positive fallout.
The much touted Indo-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), which, it was said, would usher in transfer of high technology for India’s military and non-military use, has been downgraded content-wise by removing what was a key highlight of the deal for India, namely co-development of jet engines. The decision was taken, instead, to stick to joint production of bits and parts, because the US has export control laws and does not part with ownership and control over intellectual property rights where military wherewithal is concerned.
The US also expressed its inability to get a domestic Indian partner with “credible technological capability”. Which is to say what looks good from far, is far from good on closer look.
Besides, Jaishankar’s criticism of the past and of dogma as an obstruction to risk-taking are contentious, especially when generalisations can underplay the nuances of a situation. For instance, during India’s first war with Pakistan and Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947-’49, it was the military’s decision not to move troops inside Pakistan-held Kashmir in the winter of 1948-’49, because the Indian Army’s logistical line would have been stretched, especially because Pakistani troops held better positions. Now this military decision gets replaced with a myth which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been using to damn the political leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and paradoxically Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
But nuances apart there are other more pressing matters.
There is no dispute that Indian diplomats are reaching out to countries that were earlier ignored. The Wuhan informal summit between President Xi Jinping and Modi was a remarkable feat of ensuring that differences do not turn into conflict. Most recently, the agility shown in reaching out to the newly-elected president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is evidence of a more energised diplomacy. The foreign minister is quite correct in pointing to India’s dexterity in having Russia-India-China (RIC) as well as Japan-America-India, engaged in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as well as the Quadrilateral Dialogue. Besides, Indian diplomats are reaching out to countries, a road previous governments did not travel. So, there is some credence in the claim of multi-alignment—“juggling many balls”—at the same time? The issue is, how long can this “juggling” go on? In real life, a juggler has to stop throwing balls in the air.
So the first thing is to ask is if we are living in a multi-polar world or in a bipolar world, comprising the US and China at the top, followed at a distance by second-rung powers? The size of the American and Chinese economies, as well as the overwhelming military superiority enjoyed by the US, with China the only power capable of catching up with it in the near future, seems to suggest that a pecking order is in place. It is this bipolar contention which opens up space for second-rung countries to engage and align around mutual and reciprocal interest.
Russia, for all its military muscle, is economically way behind the US and China. That it has leveraged its military might to emerge as a global player is in no small measure due to the fact that it has a close alliance with China, which compensates for its weak economy. Their alliance is now gradually acquiring a global footprint. In other words, a multi-polar world presupposes that no one power is too far ahead of others. For instance, the US may be a declining power, one being challenged by China at that, but its clout has not eroded to a point where anyone can claim that it is no longer a superpower. In comparison, the power and influence wielded by other powers is relatively modest, if not limited. This makes the proposition that we live in a multi-polar world not-so-convincing.
Consider the size of the Indian and Chinese economy, where India’s $2.7 trillion economy is a fifth of the size of China’s $13.6 trillion economy. Or take the manufacturing sector in India, with its $300 billion output, compared with China’s $2 trillion manufacturing output. Or the size of their military budget, with China spending $250 billion and India $54 billion. Up to 1987, India and China’s GDPs were almost equal. By 2000, China’s GDP was double that of India’s and by 2014, more than five times that of India. It is the very nature of India lagging behind China and fears of Chinese goods flooding the Indian markets which drove India, at the last minute, to decide against signing the RCEP.
Consider it another way. India regards South Asia as its area of influence. But even in this region its clout is neutralised by the sheer strength and depth of Chinese engagement with India’s neighbours. Thus, India has to contend with China in its own backyard, because it cannot match China’s economic and financial clout.
While Jaishankar’s multi-polar world may not capture the overall global reality today, other aspects also undercut some of his arguments. For instance, for all the tall claims about being able to “juggle several balls” and not drop even one, the fact is that while India’s relations with Saudi Arabia have improved by leaps and bounds its ties with Iran have plummeted under the threat of US sanctions over trade (in oil, in particular) with Iran.
As for Israel and Palestine, the harsh reality is that India buys 50% of Israel’s military products and is fine-tuning its anti-insurgency, anti-terror and law and order concerns with Israeli help including brutal Israeli methods. In contrast, India’s engagement with Palestinians has turned perfunctory and cool. So there is no equivalence between India’s ties with both countries.
Take another issue, for instance India’s stance on the South China Sea (SCS), where its interests converge with those of US, and where the US-led naval armada frequently enters to provoke China. What would be India’s stance were China to retaliate against this entry into SCS, which it considers its territorial waters? China may be wrong to assert its exclusive claims, but recent developments show that China and the ASEAN countries are currently negotiating a treaty for a Code of Conduct in the SCS.
India’s defence minister made a pointed reference to this by saying that these negotiations “need to protect the rights of states that are not party to these negotiations”. So, would India go along with the Code of Conduct worked out between China and the ASEAN countries, and urge China to continue allowing Indian merchant ships to freely ply through SCS? Or will it defiantly—as the US is likely to do—go and flex its muscles alongside the US in the SCS?
Above all, for all its claims to a hard-nosed approach, India turns ideological and dogmatic when it comes to Pakistan. The one thing highlighted by India’s foreign minister regarding Pakistan is the charge of terrorism, to the exclusion of everything else. But one cannot ignore what was equally true in the past. For years it was claimed that Pakistan’s military and civil government are two parallel power-centres and that it is difficult to strike any deal with Pakistan if the military is not on board. Now, with a military protege, Imran Khan, heading the civilian government in Pakistan, this no longer holds true. If, at this moment, the Indian government has shown that it is ready to raise the stakes in Indo-Pakistan equation, that only means that there is no appetite for talks with Pakistan. Presumably, it does not suit the domestic interests of the ruling party to be seen as desirous of rapprochement right now, while they are promoting the ideas of corralling and cornering Pakistan on terrorism and bringing it to its knees. All this is based on the belief that the Pakistani establishment will never give up its hostility against India, when it is equally true that an ideological party like the BJP will not give up its dogmatic pursuit of hating and hurting Pakistan.
What should one make of Jaishankar’s lecture then? In war and peace, as well as war and politics, principles and rules matter and apply. But what we witness in the contemporary world is the exponential rise in rule-less or lawless acts. Twisting facts, deliberate obfuscation of issues and downright lies are the new normal. Wars abroad and at home are fought without any restraint of law or bother of ethical conduct. This is accompanied by demonising the opponent and damning those who disagree.
Hence, it is only to be expected that the same hard-nosed and amoral attitude would become the new dogma where foreign policy is concerned. Because what stands out is the valorisation of the misplaced axiom that there are “no permanent friends, only permanent interests”. In reality, having neighbours as friends and ensuring that differences with them do not graduate into conflict should be first in the order of priority. Because, that is the best guarantee for a society and people to progress.
In other words, if relations are poor then it is all the more important to find ways to resolve them. One of the most memorable contributions of former prime minister Manmohan Singh was that he spoke, in defiance of hawks in his own Congress party, ruling out war with Pakistan and reminding us all that there is a constituency for peace in both India and Pakistan. He said that we must build on that peace constituency rather than engage in war-mongering and hatred.
Under an ideologically-driven party like the BJP, “national interest” appears to be what is good for the party. How else can one explain that under US pressure this “ball-juggling” government decided to stop purchase of cheaper and better oil from Iran, which would have benefited Indians and the domestic oil refineries, instead of seeking more expensive oil from elsewhere, including the US. One should be wary of what is said to be in the “national” interest, because now partisan interest masquerades as the nation’s interest. That is the biggest takeaway from Jaishankar’s lecture.