Playing on geopolitical chessboards

Wed 26 Oct 2016

The BRICS-BIMSTEC meeting in Goa this month, that immediately followed the annual India-Russia Summit (also in Goa), capped months of hectic diplomatic activity, during which India pursued a robust, even aggressive, foreign policy. By and large, such activism has served India well — the most evident being the furthering of relations between India and the United States. Given the several changes in direction — and departures from past policies and practices — taking place, there is perhaps scope to debate whether this amounts to a redefining of India’s foreign policy.

International diplomacy is hardly a ‘zero-sum game’. It has become even more complicated with the passage of time. Hence, giving a new direction to the country’s foreign policy demands careful consideration and assessment of all relevant aspects. Systemic, national and decision-making factors must determine foreign policy choices. Maintaining coherence and balance is also a vital aspect. It would seem, however, that this kind of exercise has yet to be undertaken, even as shifts in policy have been effected.

Among the acronyms

One indication of this would seem to be India’s current approach towards different multilateral organisations and plurilateral groupings. Many are better known by their acronyms such as NAM, SAARC, BRICS, BIMSTEC, etc. Multilateral fora have today become indispensable to the conduct of international diplomacy, and how a nation deals with, or adjusts to, the alphabetic soup of organisations that exist is important. This is so even if a case exists that some of the older ones have lost much of their relevance.

Since Independence, India has played a leading role in multilateral fora. It was a founder member of NAM (Non Aligned Movement), SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar). India has sought membership of the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) and the Wassenaar Arrangement (on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-use Goods and Technologies) and also full membership of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation), etc, recognising the potential of being inside rather than outside such bodies. Even granting that the world is increasingly tilting towards the post-modern phenomenon of transactional politics, and that older institutions such as NAM are increasingly out of sync with this, a proper study of the utility of participation in such fora — prior to treating many of them as of little consequence — would have been useful. To optimise its many advantages, India clearly needs to play on as many geopolitical chessboards as possible.

NAM may be a pale shadow of what it was during an earlier period when towering personalities such as Nehru, Tito, Nasser and Castro dominated its proceedings. With non-alignment giving way to strategic alignment, organisations such as NAM may seem anachronistic, but it should not be lost sight of that it still resonates with many Third World countries. It also offers an alternative platform for putting forward a different viewpoint. It would, hence, be premature to pronounce the death of NAM. The Indian Prime Minister’s decision to skip the NAM Summit in Venezuela may well hasten its end, but does not take away from the fact that NAM still has some relevance and India could still utilise NAM — perhaps less ideological but more purposive than in the past — to counter newer challenges such as China’s not so ‘peaceful rise’.

SAARC is still relevant

India’s stakes in SAARC are, if anything, higher. It is the most important country in South Asia, and India was the progenitor of the idea of a primarily economic grouping of countries of South Asia. Admittedly, SAARC has been on ‘life-support’ for much of the period, but had begun to display a new vigour and dynamism of late. India had also shown a willingness to adopt an asymmetrical and non-reciprocal approach towards other SAARC members which had gone down well with these countries. To undermine SAARC due to the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan may well be an instance of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’.

Propping up bodies such as BIMSTEC and BCIM in place of SAARC is hardly the answer, and could even prove counterproductive. The China factor is all too predominant here, with almost every country (other than India) under China’s thrall, having been assiduously wooed with financial and other inducements. China is hoping to further consolidate its position through its One Belt, One Road initiative which has been warmly welcomed by all these countries, the sole exception again being India.

In the case of BRICS, the weakening of the so-called strategic triangle between Russia, China and India does affect its image. The diminishing economic fortunes of Russia, Brazil and South Africa, of late, have also dented its image as a flag-bearer of newly emerging economies. Still, the idea of BRICS remains valid though it will require hard work and skilful diplomacy to reproduce the previous elan, and avert a pincer move against India by Russia and China as they move closer strategically and economically.

Changing ties

Undoubtedly, India’s foreign policy has to evolve in keeping with the changes and shifts taking place across the globe. Permanence in relations, and consistency in alignments, is not a signal virtue in the world of the 21st century. Not all relationships can or should be regarded as cast in stone, and impervious to change. This applies equally to ideologies. Nevertheless changes, if any, must not take place in an episodic manner, or as a series of isolated steps.

For instance, India-U.S. relations today are at an all-time high. This was hardly the case a decade and a half ago. On the other hand, the ‘all weather’ India-Russia relationship is today nowhere at the same level as it was even a few years back. Notwithstanding the rhetoric from Goa, Russia can hardly be viewed as a strategic ally as of now. Russia may have been restored to the position of ‘the most favoured defence supplier’, but this is a far cry from being a strategic ally. India may be only partly to blame for this, as Russia has been looking at diversifying its options for some time. It had moved closer to China and has achieved a degree of strategic congruence to counter U.S. moves in Asia.

The China, Russia and India triangle thus heralds a situation where two sides, China and Russia, have grown much closer to each other, with India in danger of losing out in this process. The China-Russia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination, as also the recent Russia-Pakistan military exercises, even though on a limited scale and a subtext of this, only demonstrate the growing strategic ambiguity in our neighbourhood and in Asia as a whole.

On the sidelines of the March

It is China that will demand India’s wholehearted attention. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent reference to a ‘new Long March’ is not without significance. China’s ‘not so peaceful rise’, alongside its growing economic and military muscle, its growing strategic congruence with Russia, and a further tightening of its links with Pakistan pose a pre-eminent challenge for India in the competition of influence in the region and beyond. It may have other graver implications as well. The One Belt, One Road initiative and the new Maritime Silk Route/Road also have the potential to bottle up India and Indian initiatives in Asia.

As India aspires to become a leading power, these are real matters for contemplation and action. It would be a mistake if India were to fritter away its energies by viewing regional and world developments through a very narrow prism, viz., terrorism. There are far bigger and larger issues at stake that demand attention. Most important would be highlighting India’s capabilities to accelerate economic growth during a period which marks the demise of globalisation. India could also bring to the attention of the rest of the world its tremendous ‘human assets’ that can power the country as the world transits to an incredible future, viz., the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.

To undermine SAARC due to the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan may well be an instance of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’


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