Even though Ministry of External Affairs accepted that Turkey is a friendly country, it did not take kindly to its criticism over the action on Kashmir. New Delhi retaliated strongly by condemning Ankara’s aggression in North-East Syria. The MEA spokesman said: “India was deeply concerned over the unilateral military offensive by Turkey. This will undermine stability in the region and the fight against terrorism”.
India called upon Turkey to exercise restraint and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. It added: Turkey’s action has the potential for causing humanitarian and civilian distress. It urged for peaceful settlement of all issues through dialogue and negotiation. Indeed, a strong reaction.
Predictably, Syria’s Ambassador Riad Kamal Abbas in Delhi promptly complimented India for its stand, “New Delhi has a ‘strong voice’ in the international community and Damascus looks forward to joining hands with it in further cooperation”. This stance is a new-found strategy in India’s foreign policy. That is to assert its legitimate power and position and hit back. New Delhi has been doing so with Islamabad and now Ankara. To recall, Turkey and Malaysia condemned New Delhi’s latest action in J&K, defanging of Article 70, and declaring Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as the Union Territories.
New Delhi has not directly hit back at Malaysia, but has indicated its unhappiness. For now, the trading community has decided to stop importing palm oil from there. India is the world’s biggest importer of palm oil, taking up to 9 million tonnes per annum. Only this year, India lifted 3.9 million tonnes of palm oil from Malaysia which was stockpiled. The business community, the refiners and traders of palm oil, having sensed the chill towards Kuala Lumpur by New Delhi, have decided to shift their purchase orders to Indonesia, Argentina and Ukraine. The government is letting the rebuff from the business community and social media’s boycott bite in and assess Kuala Lumpur’s reaction before taking any action.
Admittedly, New Delhi would not have reacted so strongly as it did to Turkey, for the latter’s criticism of Kashmir at the United Nations General Assembly. It would have engaged Turkey diplomatically to somewhat undo the damage. It would have attempted to re-inform and persuade Ankara. But, Modi did not do all that, instead took Turkey head on. Soon after Erdogan made those remarks, Modi decided to call on the arch-rivals of Turkey, namely Greece, Cyprus and Armenia, on the fringe of the same General Assembly session.
Obviously, New Delhi’s reaction appears to be in line with its aspirations and strategy to claim the status of a global power. But, when one observes and evaluates New Delhi’s dealing with China, the foregoing premise stands nullified. China has been supporting Pakistan since 1960s as a countervailing force to New Delhi’s rise as a regional power. China and India have fought a war, and consequently, there is considerable territorial dispute between the two. China has been frustrating India’s global campaign against terrorism, and even shielding terrorists operating from Pakistan soil. Yet New Delhi’s reaction to Chinese internal suppression or external threats is muted, or absent. Surprisingly, New Delhi has not uttered a word on Hong Kong, Tibet or Xinxiang, where Beijing has been ruthlessly snuffing out any dissent.
That is when Beijing has been highly vocal and active on Kashmir. Moments before setting off for India, a few weeks back, Chinese President Xi Jinping said: “We are watching Kashmir”. There was absolutely no reaction from New Delhi. Instead, it spread the red-carpet for him. I have, in last week’s column here, commented how such non-reaction and grand welcome of Chinese President sent wrong signals to the world, mainly our neighbours. It gave room to Nepal to sneak into the Chinese tent with 20-odd agreements.
New Delhi’s approach to Beijing begs the question whether India has a reactive strategy to global power-status or has a long-term pro-active perspective on its global aspirations. Many friendly observers of India’s foreign policy would opine that India’s global recognition has been a function of the personalities of its Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.
From among them, Nehru and Modi standout in two contrasting ways, Nehru was known in the world for conceptualising the policy of non-alignment and neutrality, and weighing in with Third World solidarity. Modi’s extraordinary international activism is driven by strategic engagement with friendly countries.
Yet, to be sure, Modi, despite his hard work and building inter-personal relations with world leaders, is faltering vis-a-vis the big powers and China’s penetration into our neighbourhood. He has dealt well with the middle powers. Having said this, there have been some impressive gains at all these three levels.
We may divide India’s engagement into three levels, South Asia, the middle powers and the international system and the great powers constituting the core of the power-configurations. In the sub-continent why has India not been able to vivify its natural supremacy? There could be two reasons. One India has not been backed by national strength, or to put it pithily, it has been limited by its inadequate capabilities. India has not met the development needs of a large section of its people, and it has not been able to invest any surplus money in the neighbourhood. Thus, it could not shape the strategic choices of neighbours.
India could neither coerce her neighbours nor induce their submission. On the contrary, because of India’s large size and apparent power advantage, the neighbours sought countervailing assistance from countries like China. And when nationalism and convulsive politics in the neighbourhood interacted with Chinese ability to use economic instruments and growing power, the wind blew against India and weakened its hegemony.
With the middle powers like Japan, Australia, Israel and Europe, India has done well. In a shared strategy to contain China, Japan has enhanced its investment in India. France is actively supporting India; together, they created International Solar Alliance with India as its convener. Other European powers like Britain & Germany are doing brisk business with India.
On China, one is baffled over Modi’s policy. It is guided either by exaggerated assessment of India’s capabilities, or underestimation of threats by China or preserving India’s autonomy in decision-making, or take-it-as-it-comes; or all of these. Whatever it is, New Delhi is not decisive on its position in regard to China and America. It is no secret that America has been wooing India since 1960s as a counter-balance to China. New Delhi has been hesitant in responding to such overtures. Some of us have repeatedly been urging New Delhi to make-up its mind.
At the same time, New Delhi has to build its own internal strength, which would help it exert its influence and provide it space for manoeuvre. Modi regime fails to realise that it has to continue with the economic reforms, strengthen the institutions, maintain the constitutional ethos and ensure internal cohesion. Such actions determine the degree of efficacy and influence of our foreign policy. Hope, South Block realises this and urges the PMO to match our global ambition with our national capabilities.
The writer is Prof. International Politics, JMI.