From a nonaligned to multialigned India?

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review

When a country hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama in rapid succession for bilateral meetings, it demonstrates its ability to forge partnerships with rival powers and broker cooperative international approaches in a changing world. This is exactly what India is doing under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a display of diplomatic footwork that recently prompted the Russian ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, to publicly remark: “India is a rich fiancee with many bridegrooms.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of their meeting in New Delhi on Dec. 11. Modi will receive U.S. President Barack Obama in January. © Reuters

At a time when a new U.S.-Russia Cold War appears to be brewing, Modi — just after hosting Putin — will receive Obama in January, marking the first time an American president will have the honor of being the chief guest at India’s Jan. 26 Republic Day parade. The charismatic Modi, who won Time magazine’s recent reader poll for “Person of the Year” with his rock star-like following, has also sought to strengthen bilateral partnerships with other key players, including Japan, Australia and Israel. For example, his much-photographed bear hug with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come to symbolize the dawn of an alliance between the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy.

Since sweeping to power in May in India’s biggest election victory in a generation, Modi has shaken up the country’s reactive and diffident foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths. The Modi foreign policy appears geared to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality.

In essence, this means that India — a founding leader of the nonaligned movement — is likely to become multialigned. Building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings will not only enable India to advance its core priorities but will also help to preserve strategic autonomy, in keeping with its longstanding preference for policy independence.

In the last quarter century, the world witnessed the most profound technological, economic and geopolitical changes in the most compressed timeframe in modern history. But much of India’s last 25 years was characterized by political weakness and drift, resulting in erosion of its regional and extra-regional clout. For example, the gap in power and stature between China and India widened significantly in this period. A 2013 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, entitled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how India is resisting its own rise, as if political drift had turned the country into its own worst enemy.

Against this background, Modi — widely known for his decisiveness — has made revitalizing the country’s economic and military security his main priority. So far he has made more impact in diplomacy than in domestic policy, a realm where he must prove he can help transform India. Nevertheless, Modi’s focus on the grand chessboard of geopolitics to underpin national interests suggests a strategic bent of mind.

Modi indeed has surprised many by investing considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy so early in his term, even though he came to office with little foreign-policy experience. He has succeeded in putting his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than the country’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Foreign policy pragmatist

Modi’s actions thus far suggest a clear intent to recoup India’s regional losses and to boost its global standing. One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark. In fact, India’s new leader has demonstrated a knack to employ levelheaded ideas in both domestic and foreign policies to lay out a nondoctrinaire vision and to win public support. For example, he has launched a “Make in India” mission to turn the country into an export-driven powerhouse like China and Japan and to transform it from being the world’s largest importer of weapons to becoming an important arms exporter. Modi’s clarity and vision, coming after a long era of ad hoc, reactive Indian diplomacy, is seen as a welcome change for India.

To be sure, the Modi foreign policy faces major regional challenges, exemplified by an arc of failing, revanchist or scofflaw states around India. India’s neighborhood is so chronically troubled that the country faces serious threats from virtually all directions. This tyranny of geography demands that India evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defense. India must actively involve itself regionally to help influence developments, which is what Modi is attempting to do.

A broader and more fundamental challenge for him is to carefully balance closer cooperation with major players in a way that advances India’s economic and security interests, without New Delhi being forced to choose one power over another. One balancing act, for example, is to restore momentum to a flagging relationship with Moscow while boosting ties with the U.S., which has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Even though Modi told Putin during a summit of BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — in Brazil in July that “every person, every child” in India knows Russia is the country’s “biggest friend,” the reality is that the India-Russia camaraderie of the Cold War era has been replaced by India-U.S. bonhomie. Modi must stem the new risks as Russia moves closer to India’s strategic rivals — selling top-of-the-line weapon systems to China and signing a military-cooperation agreement with Pakistan in November.

Despite the challenges confronting Modi, India seems set to become multialigned, while tilting more toward the U.S. and other democracies in Europe and Asia. Yet, importantly, India will also continue to chart its own independent course. For example, it has rebuffed U.S. pressure to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia and instead has publicly emphasized “the need to defuse Cold War-like tensions that are increasingly manifesting themselves in global relations.” A multialigned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be better positioned to expand its strategic influence and promote peace and cooperation in international relations.

Because of its geographical location, India is the natural bridge between the West and the East, and between Europe and Asia. Through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy, India can truly play the role of a facilitator and soother between the East and the West, including serving as a link between the competing demands of the developed and developing worlds. At a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, the world needs such a bridge-builder.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.
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