In the meeting of Consultative Committee on External Affairs held last Saturday, an animated exchange occurred between Minister S Jaishankar and Congress members led by Rahul Gandhi. The stack of questions put to the EAM included: the impact of domestic policies on foreign affairs, engagement with USA, countering China, balancing between US and Russia and India’s position on ratcheting rivalry between US and China. One can lump these into three foreign policy strategies that India has embarked upon. Interestingly, Rahul had quipped, “instead of a laundry list, India should have strategy to counter China.”
First is the Indian strategy to deal with what looks like a polarised world with USA and China, emerging as two major (super) powers. This is going to be the likeliest global scenario but, strangely Jaishankarseems not to grasp it. He said in the meeting that the world will not turn bipolar in the immediate foreseeable future and pointed out the important roles of big powers like Russia, Japan, Germany and the European Union. Jaishankarhas been maintaining this position for quite a while. This is not pragmatic and misreading of the present and emerging global geo-politics. However, let us examine this assumption.
Russia, for various reasons mainly for economic weaknesses and military disparity with US and now China, has declined as a world power. The fall was exacerbated by the disintegration of USSR in 1991 and the subsequent conflicts between its erstwhile member states. Russia is leaning more and more on China for its economic recovery. Consequently, Russia is tilting insecurity terms towards an alliance with China and its satellite state Pakistan, while making ineffective occasional attempts to broker peace between India and China.
Japan grew economically quite fast after the Second World War. The peace treaties signed between the victorious Allied powers and the vanquished Axis countries – Japan, Germany and Italy, which meant to be a humiliating compromise for the latter, ironically became a boon for their economic recovery. As Germany and Japan were banned from any military exercise, they devoted all their energy and resources to building their economies. Japan has been under the security cover of America. It could not extend the similar security support to India.
Like Japan, Germany has not much of an international political role after its crushing defeat in World War II. It has, however, become a powerful economy. It has relied on transactional relations with other countries including those in EU. According to a not-so-researched assumption, Germany as a new economic power wanted a market as it did not have colonies as France and Britain had. That is why it went an extra mile in building the EU in close cooperation with France, which wanted to be an alternative to Anglo-American influence in the world. Germany continues to dominate and direct the EU by virtue of its superior economic power. Can India expect political and security support from Germany?
Following from the above, the EU hasn’t prospered as political power notwithstanding its combined economic strength. Thanks to Germany, the EU has remained more transactional than political. The EU had vowed to promote new political principles of equality, federalism, cooperation, human rights protection and rule-based order. All these were drowned in the quest for economic gains. Despite proclaiming ‘systemic difference’ with China and blaming Beijing for withholding timely information on COVID-19 which havocked the whole world in 2020, the EU went ahead to sign last month, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.
How does New Delhi expect EU to help in security matters? The axiomatic truth is, “providing security and deterrence is a function of economic and military power”. If these powers cannot influence the security environment of the world, which is a major concern for many countries including New Delhi, where is the scope for a multi-polar world! Does it escape MEA’s attention that India is in constant conflict with Beijing and Islamabad; the PLA is in illegal occupation of Indian territory since 1962 till date, and Islamabad has been sponsoring cross-border terrorism since 1947. How does New Delhi combat them?
The second strategy then should be to conduct India’s foreign policy in a bi-polar world led by USA and its allies, and China with its satellite state Pakistan and a couple of allies. New Delhi has certainly historically faltered in dealing with China. One had expected from Prime Minister Modi, who had made some radical shifts in India’s long-traditional foreign policy, that he would strongly deal with China. But alas! He mistakenly relied on a personalised approach to sway Xi Jinping, not a strategic and structural mechanism.
The consequence is staring in our faces as our military bears the brunt of it. New Delhi has to take its position vis-à-vis USA and China, although it is doing so unconvincingly. New Delhi continues to misread both Beijing and Washington. Modi unwisely got involved in the domestic politics of US by endorsing the re-election of Donald Trump, again a part of personalised policy.
On China, one is reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s exasperated comment after he failed to make peace between Japan and Russia over Manchuria, “the Czar is a preposterous little creature as the absolute autocrat of 150,000,000 people. He has been unable to make war and is now unable to make peace”. It would be sad if the same opinion is made about New Delhi as it deals with China. India needs to counter China, as I have maintained in this column repeatedly, by building strategic alliances. Given the power disparity with China, New Delhi has no other viable option. Countering China is an indispensable act for Indian politics and diplomacy.
Any transactional diplomacy either with Russia or China will not cut ice. Robert B. Zoellick in the latest publication, “American in the World: A History of US Diplomacy and Foreign Policy” stresses the importance of maintaining alliances, rather than transactional diplomacy for one-off gains. Zoellick was a US trade representative, Deputy Secretary of State, and President, World Bank. Yet he disregards transactional diplomacy in favour of long-term dependable alliances like perhaps US has with Israel, Taiwan and Japan. New Delhi must take a leaf out of such perspectives.
The other important aspect of US foreign policy, which chimes in with India’s geo-political situation, is the remark of former President Woodrow Wilson, “the world must be made safe for democracy”. Somehow, “these words have reverberated across American diplomacy for a century and even longer”. New Delhi could leverage its long-maintained democracy in dialogue with Americans and hold them on to their promise of making the world safe and conducive for democratic politics. For New Delhi, in keeping with its political ethos and fundamentals, the inevitable choice would have been an alliance with America but it got diverted towards the Soviet block and later into the deathly embrace of China. It is high time we correct the historical and current fault lines.
The third strategy which the Congress got wrong and the Modi regime continues with it is the so-called balancing of ties between US and Russia. This is like the proverbial running with the hare and hunting with the hound or straddling two horses at the same time. This has not worked and will not in future. While New Delhi makes strategic agreements with US, it tries to keep Russia in good humour by buying defence equipments, even by ignoring American sanctions. Has New Delhi done any cost-effect analysis of its defence purchase from Russia in terms of security implications? Have Russian weapons or support mattered to India vis-à-vis China or Pakistan except perhaps 1971 Bangladesh war? Certainly not! If at all, it is the US challenging China and taming Pakistan which has helped New Delhi ease its tensions with these two traditional adversaries. Why then dabble in philosophical, altruistic and unrealistic postures in India’s foreign policy? It is time to be pragmatic and to learn from experience, how to do better.
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