Aligning India’s Foreign Policy with The World

05th Jan 2015 Security

“The power of nations assembled here is not military power or economic power, nevertheless it is power. Call it moral force”

The aforementioned quote is credited to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The statement was made at the first Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in 1961. The potency of the statement and the concept attracted many nations, which were grappling with issues of underdevelopment, poverty, hunger and disease, and searching for a voice in a post-colonial era. Undoubtedly, the concept emerged from a sense of fear that increased global interdependency in the backdrop of a weak economic and military scenario would make these nations vulnerable to imperial powers yet again. The movement also reflected a sense of positivity for such nations given their newfound political freedom, which would assist them in addressing the socio-economic issues plaguing their respective countries.

Over the next few decades the NAM evolved in a dynamic fashion responding to the bipolar geopolitical scenario, particularly the Cold War era, in a fashion, which allowed the members to maintain their “strategic autonomy”. This policy allowed nations such as India to deal with both USSR and US in a manner, which would serve theirnational interest. At the same time, despite lacking economic and military might, the members propounded a theory of moralpolitikin contrast with the prevalent global practice of realpolitik. This is not to say that the NAM policy did not have an element of realpolitik, however the practice of moralpolitik was advanced with a profound sense of belief that idealism and moral advocacy would help these nations in achieving global stature and influence, thereby giving them a voice on pressing global issues. While the policy may have served these nations well in the cold war era, the world has coalesced from a bipolar to a multipolar entity. No matter, how much we would like to debate that the emerging world order is a western construct, the fact remains that nations such as India and China have made significant strides on both the economic and military front and have emerged as a force to reckon with in the past two decades. This holds true for many other high growth emerging markets. The current landscape has compelled the great powers to rebalance their interests in a manner, which areboth appreciative and complementary to the development goals of the emerging economies, particularly in Asia. It would be safe to argue that current nature of global relationships have created a complex matrix which may not fall squarely within any of the existing foreign policy codes.

From an Indian perspective this presents a greater challenge altogether as NAM as a concept is fast becoming obsolete and it must adopt a more aggressive stance in the international forum on issues of national and international interest. Merely advocating morality in an otherwise amoral world, will not allow India to protect her interests globally. Further, the Machiavellian practice teaches us that politics employs a different set of moral checks than a private individual. A political leader must essentially assess morality on basis of the needs of his state. This is primarily the reason why international relations remain in a constant state of fluxwhere national interests trump international norms. Fitting only morals and self-righteousness within this context will become a problematic exercise for any country with development and security imperatives such as India. Rather, India finds itself at an opportune moment to eschew a policy of non-alignment and project its economic potential with the objective of fostering robust strategic partnerships. It may be added here that it is not India’s righteousness and morality, which has invited the attention of the world; rather it is her potential to be a great economic and military power with an enviably large market, which may yield beneficial returns for her prospective partners.The naysayers may argue that the thrust of NAM is to pursue an independent policy, which provides room for evaluating issues on its merits and doesn’t preclude strategic alliances. However, in practice it reflects a lingering mistrust on such issues and perhaps a lack of self-confidence to manage domestic issues, which would allow a successful execution of such strategic partnerships. Thus, while India has been pursuing strategic alliances ever since the end of cold war, it remains ambivalent about its response to for example the US pivot in Asia or the emergence of Sino-Centric Asia.Although India has categorically stated that it doesn’t want a Sino-Centric Asia, her diplomatic efforts to curb this development have been unsatisfactory. This ranges from its inability to effectively engage with countries in the region on several issues and is particularly highlighted by the overtly cautious diplomatic engagement in the South China Sea. There is also fragmented consensus on the feasibility of US pivot to Asia in curtailing the prominence of China. Perhaps India is not yet in a position to politically, economically or militarily challenge China’s hegemony and is thus reduced to making postures of defiance. The foreign policy prescriptions advanced by NAM fails to appreciate practice of power politics and therein lays the cause for its ultimate doom.  Judging by the prevalent geopolitical landscape, India in right pursuing deeper economic integration with her neighbors to allay their respective fears owing to the power disparity in the region as well as global players, which may have lost the influence they once commanded but still remain extremely powerful.

Foreign Policy challenges for Modi
Foreign policy agenda has never been central to any election campaign in India. This holds true for Narendra Modi’s campaign too. During the year long campaign there wasn’t much focus on India’s security challenges barring the threat from China or the economic relationships that it must pursue to attract growth and maintain peace. There were sporadic reiterations of Vajpayee’s vision of pursuing power and peace simultaneously and occasional references to the Sanskrit phrase “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (The world is a family) but no concrete debate on India’s foreign policy imperatives. Needless to say that it was assumed India would still adhere to a Nehruvian set of values and principles albeit a more pragmatic stance would be adopted. To everyone’s surprise, NarendraModi has quickly made foreign policy his top priority seeking deeper economic engagements not only with global players but with India’s regional neighbors too. It is true that relationship between India and Pakistan has soured in the past couple of months but this hasn’t stopped India from pursuing regional cooperation with other neighbors and continued economic cooperation with China, despite border provocations. Modi’s tenor has created positivity in the international community about prospects of engagement with India yet much needs to be done in order to translate rhetoric into action.

A case in point is Modi’s trip to USA and his efforts towards rebuilding the deteriorating ties with the country, which was welcomed by President Obama. This is because the US is cognizant of the importance of India inits rebalancing initiative in Asia, which is targeted at curtailing the rise of China. Although, the meeting between two leaders has opened the possibility of greater strategic engagement, in terms of the deal executed during the trip, Modi’s approach was found wanting.  There was no development on the civil nuclear cooperation deal, which has been in cold storage since 2008 and despite American willingness; many crucial defence deals ranging from co-production to transfer of technology were not inked. Further, Modi fell short of attracting investments to India, a feat, which he managed to achieve with both China and Japan. Thus the nuanced policy of pursuing strategic partnership with US on one hand and engaging with China on the other is yet to come to fruition.

Further, as mentioned above, much of India’s reluctance to seek strategic partnerships and attract investments is also a result of its archaic and complex domestic policies, which promote rent seeking and hamper business. India has been ranked at a dismal 142 out 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, which particularly highlights the woes suffered by business entities in obtaining construction permits and cumbersome labor laws. The issue is further compounded with the presence of ministries sharing overlapping mandates, which create unnecessary and burdensome channels for processing investments in the country. Even though Modi has managed to make Japan and China pledge investments in the India through his diplomatic parleys, both nations remain wary of India’s ability to facilitate investments. Japan has already expressed concerns over the need to reform the investment climate in India through introduction of reforms and eradication of red tape for its investments to reach India. Thus it is imperative for the government to facilitate such investments and bolster the strategic partnerships lest we regress to another phase of “cautious” foreign policymaking.

Further, although India appears to be comfortable with the US rebalance to Asia as a counter to China’s growing prominence in the region, it must remember that the rebalance essentially seeks to alter the trading environment in the region which are commensurate with US interests. This environment may not be in line with India’s interests and is primarily the reason why it has chosen to stay out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). To counter this trend, India must simultaneously pursue FTAs with countries that are currently negotiating TPP. It may be added here that FTA negotiations with Australia and New Zealand (TPP negotiating parties) commenced in 2010 but very little development has been made on this front. The time is also ripe to hasten efforts targeted towards the execution of ASEAN led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

It may be noted here that there is a greater degree of priority attached to foreign policy initiatives under the current government, which is not only acting east but engaging the west simultaneously. A welcome development comes in the form of India’s aggressive foray into the South East Asian countries through both soft power and economic diplomacy. This is evidenced through the systematic efforts made by India in reaching out to countries such as Fiji, which haven’t enjoyed much attention under India’s foreign policy. India has also emboldened her security and cultural ties with Vietnam, to counter the Chinese hegemony in the region. However, much more needs to be done in terms of attracting investments, encouraging foreign trade and building long term economic relationships. India needs to shed its ambivalence in its foreign policy approach and explore various routes including maritime relations through which its relations with the global markets can be strengthened and can attempt to diminish the Sino-centrism that Asia-Pacific may be headed towards. Economic diplomacy and foreign policy pragmatism are ideas whose time has come within the Indian policy discourse and it would require the sustained effort of the government to iron out the shortcomings within both Indian domestic and international policy making to prevent the country from regressing towards the comfortable yet impractical cocoon of non-alignment.

The author is a Policy Analyst at Oval Observer Foundation. The views presented in this article do not reflect the views of the Foundation, its partners and affiliates.