The Right Choice of Friends

Commentary | August 24, 2012

Writing for India's The Telegraph, former foreign secretary of India and EWI board member Kanwal Sibal discusses how India should balance its strategic relationships.

A new debate has started on the nature of a redefined Indian foreign policy that takes into account the country’s transformed relations with the United States of America. The latter is openly seeking a close political, economic and security relationship with India. The rhetoric is at times high-flown, calling US ties with India indispensable for the 21st century and describing India as a lynchpin of America’s ‘re-balancing’ towards the Asia-Pacific region.

Some experts would prefer a ‘non-alignment 2.0’ policy for India to deal with the reconfiguration of geo-politics caused by the relative decline of the US and the West and the rise of China. While this nomenclature may arouse misgivings in some quarters because of its ideological overtones and, more so, its political irrelevance in a world no longer divided into rival alliances, in reality the authors of this concept propose issue-based collaboration with diverse partners depending on the confluence of interests. This seems pragmatic and non-ideological.

Many advocate a foreign policy of ‘strategic autonomy’ for India. This implies that India retain its independence in foreign policy making, and not be obliged to follow any powerful actor or a set of actors in any course of action that does not conform to its long term national interest. Rather than be caught in strategic rivalries between countries that are hurtful to its interests, it should have the freedom to engage with opposing sides if that is useful.

This debate would suggest that India’s foreign policy remains in a fluid state and is seeking to discover its moorings, with the implication that India has not yet come to terms with the radically altered global situation of today. It carries the nuance that India is under pressure to tilt towards one side (the US), which India should not succumb to.

In reality, there should be no need to define Indian foreign policy in core conceptual terms. Defining it thus does not give it a coherence, a sense of purpose and clarity that might be otherwise missing. The big powers do not seem to need to define their foreign policies for conceptual clarity. They just conduct their foreign affairs, based on certain broad principles and practical considerations. An analysis of their positions on a range of international issues would bring out the prominent features of the policies they pursue, but encapsulating them in one or two words would hardly be enlightening.

How would one, in any case, define US or Chinese foreign policies? No single-word definition is possible. US foreign policy, for instance, is full of contradictions. It is supposedly anchored in the promotion of democracy worldwide but it supports some of the most anti-democratic regimes in the world. Military intervention to support human rights in one country is contradicted by military protection to other countries that suppress the fundamental human rights of their population. Religious extremism is fought on the one hand and promoted on the other. Overdependence on China is coupled with hedging strategies against its rise that is seen as adversarial.

China claims that its rise is not a threat, that it wants a peaceful periphery, yet it is developing powerful military capabilities, asserting extensive land and maritime claims in the South China Sea, thriving on Japanese investments but has a visceral hatred of Japan, it is benefiting hugely from its partnership with the US even as in East Asia it is US power that it principally confronts. In other words, it, too, manages contradictions.

In this background, only confusion is caused by seeking to define in political shorthand India’s foreign policy as non-alignment 2.0 or strategic autonomy. India’s foreign policy can simply be loosely described as protecting its national interests as effectively as possible in a globalized world that demands cooperative solutions and a competitive world that demands management of conflicting interests without confrontation. This would eliminate the implicit intrusion of the US factor in explaining the core of our foreign policy objectives. In a situation where India can, by skilful handling, gain much from its improved relations with the US, it would be undesirable to frame its foreign policy objectives in terms of the strategic distance it wants to maintain from the US.

In actual fact, this debate about strategic autonomy is behind the times. India’s post Cold War policies testify to its desire to maintain ‘strategic autonomy’ in a situation of strategic shifts in global power equations. India, for example, has established strategic partnerships with several countries that include, besides the US, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Japan and so on. It has a strategic dialogue even with China, its principal geo-political adversary. By establishing such partnerships with countries with key differences and conflicting interests amongst themselves, India is, in fact, expanding its strategic room for manoeuvre.

India is member of the Russia-India-China or RIC dialogue, with member countries opposing regime change policies and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries, and supporting multipolarity. It is member of BRICS, which, by including Brazil and South Africa, extends strategic understandings on some basic norms of international conduct to key countries in South America and Africa. India supports the US led Community of Democracies, capitalizing on its democratic credentials, even if the sense of the grouping is directed against countries like China and even Russia. India has agreed to a trilateral US-India-Japan dialogue, including naval exercises, with its anti-Chinese thrust quite clear although officially denied. The intensive US-India naval exercises in the Indian Ocean have a China related strategic purpose, even as India is open to maritime cooperation with China in the Indian Ocean area. India cooperates with China in the climate change and World Trade Organization negotiations because it serves a common purpose of countering the US/European attempts to avoid equity in agreements.

India respects Russia’s special interests in Central Asia but is open to US strategic moves to promote strategic energy links between Central Asia and South Asia. It is willing to strengthen its role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization even if the US sees it as an arrangement to limit US influence in Central Asia. India supports an extended US presence in Afghanistan even though Iran is opposed to it. India is avoiding getting caught in the Shia (Iran)-Sunni (Saudi Arabia) conflict building up in the Gulf. It successfully resisted Western pressures to reduce its engagement with Myanmar.

India’s independent posture explains why it has obtained support for its Security Council permanent membership from both the West and Russia. Russia’s position as India’s biggest partner for defence supplies has not prevented India from now expanding its defence ties with the US. The US seems reconciled that India will not be an ally and will want to retain its independence in foreign policy decisions. It will nevertheless seek to tie India closer to itself in a way that India’s pragmatic choices will pull India in that direction. If India continues to have a clear-sighted view of its longer term interests, it will be able to balance its relationship with all the major players in a constructive way. But without a domestic defence manufacturing base, high rates of economic growth and improvement in decision-making, our independent foreign policy will always have weak foundations.


Photo: "Indian Flag - The Mall - Shimla - Himach" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Adam Jones, Ph.D. - Global Photo Archive