Indian foreign policy has moved significantly away from what commentators called “a moralistic commentary on world affairs” to a more pragmatic approach based on what the prime minister terms “enlightened self-interest,” to boost its economic profile, to counter the threat of terrorism and to attain energy security. This is being increasingly reflected in the way India chooses the chief guests for its Republic Day celebrations: with care and for a purpose, and not merely to give ‘a high’ in the spirit of non-alignment.
The choice this year of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak indicates that New Delhi wants to raise the level of its political relationship with Seoul to a higher trajectory, to match its economic ties with South Korea with which annual trade is pushing $16 billion. Sources in the government also acknowledge that raising the Indian profile in Southeast and North Asia is partly how the government is looking to tackle its key foreign policy challenge: to cope with the rapid rise of China.
India and South Korea, neighbouring and separated by the expanse of China, set up a high-level strategic dialogue on defence and security issues and, seek ultimately, to put in place the mechanism of an annual summit between the South Korean president and the Indian prime minister. Diplomatic sources said the initiative to invite the South Korean leader for the Republic Day celebrations came from the PM himself. Among his key motivators was to understand and, if possible, emulate the rapidity with which South Korea has pushed itself out of poverty into an economic powerhouse in the space of a few decades.
South Korea has cutting-edge technology to offer to India, at lower costs than Japan, Germany or the US. A member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which supported India during its efforts to get a waiver, South Korea is keen to enter into a bilateral civil nuclear agreement with India to facilitate not only the sale of its nuclear power reactors, but also high technology, much of which is for dual use.
This trend of inviting the head of a favoured nation has been visible over the past few years, particularly since the first UPA government assumed office. If, for example, the generals in Myanmar release Aung San Suu Kyi later this year, we may just see the head of the Myanmar junta as next year’s chief guest, given that they have pledged to take action against North-east insurgents hiding there. There is, of course, due deference to the popular sentiments of democracy. It is unlikely that Pakistan’s president or the Chinese president will be called over just yet. And, despite being a widely popular figure here, the US president can just not make those important ceremonial dates, given his prior commitment to the annual State of the Union address.
The chief guests invited recently for India’s Republic Day celebrations have represented both thanksgiving exercises — like the invitation to Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuk in 2005, which came soon after he led an operation to flush out Indian insurgent groups from his country — and investments in the future, like the invitation to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in 2006. The monarch’s visit resulted in an improved understanding with the country that boasts of the world’s largest crude oil supplies, and the man who is custodian of Islam’s two most sacred shrines. That visit, also an initiative of the PM, saw sustained action in curbing monetary inflows for terrorist organisations in the region.
Russia’s former president, and now PM, Vladimir Putin was chief guest in 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in 2009. The last three visits have yielded active results with landmark agreements in the civilian nuclear energy sector and the supply of uranium to fuel India’s energy needs.
Nilova Roychaudhury is a New Delhi-based journalist specialising in foreign policy issues. The views expressed by the author are personal.