The biggest diplomatic challenge in 2021 remains to be dealing with China which New Delhi has been perforce drawn into. The other challenges are fallouts of Chinese expansionism and attempts to bully India into a submissive status in Indo-Pacific region. New Delhi will have to brace itself this year for containing the coercive diplomacy of Beijing consisting of flexing its economic as well as military might. The challenge is compounded by world powers caving into Chinese egregious economic diplomacy. The latest to be seduced by Chinese economy is the 27-country European Union. Last December, both EU and China signed the Comprehensive Agreement in Invest (CAI).
After seven years and 35 rounds of negotiations the EU and China concluded the agreement on investment. Germany, which is largely driven by economic interest and has much less of a world role, pushed this agreement under the leadership of Angela Merkel. Obviously, Merkel fell for RCEP-Integrated China. The agreement will provide unprecedented access to the Chinese market for European investors. European companies can participate in multiple sectors of Chinese economy. The agreement has to be approved by the European Parliament and the final text will be signed in early 2022 under the French EU presidency.
The signing of CAI bespeaks EU’s priority and perspective on international politics. This is a major inflection point in world diplomacy. The EU was created to promote a set of political values across the globe – freedom, cooperation, federalism, human rights, peace, stability and a rule-based world order. The EU member countries, all practicing democracies, were critical of the Chinese political system which they termed as ‘systematic difference’. The EU objected to the security law imposed in Hong Kong by authoritarian China, resented the disinformation emanating from Beijing on Corona virus, and the violations of human rights within Chinese territory. The EU was working on a Trans-Atlantic plan to counter the strategic challenge posed by China.
The NSA-designate of Biden Administration had said days before the pact was signed between EU and China “we will be entering into an early consultation with our European partners on our common concerns about Chinese economic practices”. But both Xi Jinping and the EU leaders namely Markel had perhaps a better sense of timing to sign up the agreement, days before Biden assumes Presidency. The immediate implication of this pact is the impression that EU seems to have given up its intent of becoming a global geo-political player. Also, Beijing seems to be saying that democracies have no stomach for a long-term fight; the so-called democratic block which was being constituted by the US becomes a non-starter.
What is the implication of this development on Indian diplomacy? To be sure, New Delhi could not have prevented EU from signing the agreement. In fact, even Donald Trump, who was the main architect of counter-China policy, signed the Trade-1 Agreement with Beijing. The important lesson for New Delhi to learn is an axiomatic truth in international diplomacy, i.e. “even virtuous leaders inevitably must be backed by the availability of the material power if they are to enjoy enduring political success”. So, limitations of national capabilities have to be overcome.
To start with, India will have to offer the market, conduce the investment from abroad, build technological and productive capacities. Even during the pandemic, Chinese economy grew more than those of others whereas Indian economy nosedived into -20% growth. New Delhi has to catch up with Beijing, which boasts of a five-time higher economy than that of India. India’s foreign policy and its much-lauded principles have been bedevilled by its weak economy. The real politik theorist Hans J. Morgenthau had commented, “India’s widespread and chronic poverty prevented it from pursuing its laudable foreign policy objectives”. The chronic poverty has considerably reduced but the economic strength is not commensurate with India’s potentials for world politics.
In addition to a weaker economy, there are structural and process problems in our foreign policy even under the present Prime Minister. These problems cut both ways; they have broken the mould in certain areas, but have gone against our image and interest in others. Some observers should say that, owing to such problems, it is not a happy moment for India’s foreign policy. On the contrary, foreign policy seems to be directionless and floundering. The problems are as follows:
One, foreign policy inputs are coming from some nebulous groups outside South Block. For instance, a nondescript NGO was behind inviting 23 European MPs to visit Kashmir immediately after Article 370 was defanged. All those MPs belonged to one ideological block – right-wing Conservative. Therefore, their endorsement of the situation in Kashmir somewhat lacked credibility.
Second, the decision-making on foreign policy is centralised; the Prime Minister takes a call on each issue and the Finance Minister simply executes. Particularly, with Modi, this has been the practice. Trump’s visit to Ahmedabad was planned, designed and choreographed by the PM himself. On the ‘famous’ demonitisation, he took the sudden momentous decision, even the Finance Minister was not on board and piled on later. So, all the grand designs on foreign policy emerge out of the PMO.
Third, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, by far a competent career diplomat was hand-picked by Modi. Admittedly, former Prime Ministers like Indira Gandhi also have hand-picked their Foreign Ministers. It is so because the PMs perhaps do not want to share the limelight with the Foreign Ministers. But Jaishankar does not have grounding in politics. That is his Achilles’ heel. That is why the FM does not interact with the public, which he used to do when he was the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Minister should not be kept away from the limelight.
Fourth, Modi depends too much on the personal factors, rather than structural ones. He has built personal rapport with his ‘warmth and charm’ with Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Shinzo Abe of Japan, Donald Trump whose candidature Modi undiplomatically had endorsed, and perhaps Boris Johnson of UK. It is another thing that all these leaders are populist and conservative.
Fifth is the personal angle translating into Summit diplomacy. The Summitry should be the end point or the last resort of diplomatic exercise not the start. If the Summit meetings between the heads of the governments of two countries did not yield results, then where does one go! This is what happened between Modi and Jinping in Wuhan and Mallapuram. Xi Jingping could not be swayed. He has come up in politics the hard way and is ambitious about making China the world power. In this mission, he wants to cut India to size to prevent it from being a potential rival in Indo-Pacific region.
Sixth, the Modi regime seems to underestimate the impact of domestic policies and politics on our foreign policy. India’s democracy and stability have played a complementary role for India’s diplomacy. On the other hand, domestic problems like poverty in the past and unrest and resentment at present could harm our foreign policy interest. For instance, the imposition of CAA and NRC have upset our Islamic neighbours, likewise at the time of this writing the ongoing farmers’ agitation is having international echo, at least where Indian Diaspora is sizeable. And worse, we seem to be mixing up the domestic and foreign policy, like the government picked up a fight with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau as he expressed sympathy for the farmers’ issues.
On the brighter side, Modi has made a radical departure from India’s traditional foreign policy which was time-worn, reactive, ideologically-driven, and please-all. India now takes positions and sides on international issues. Even a Chinese State-run newspaper commented, “India now has a government that would not be scared to offend others”. Coming from China, this is a big compliment to our new foreign policy. However, if the problems identified above are addressed, it could be happier times for India’s foreign policy.
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