India’s pursuit of a leading power status is linked to its role in the neighbourhood
The Narendra Modi government will be midway through its second term when India celebrates its 75th anniversary as an independent nation in 2022. How is the current regional and international situation likely to evolve over the next three years and where would India wish to locate itself in that altered geopolitical landscape? One, the confrontation between the United States (US) and China will sharpen and there will be steady intensification of pressures on countries to side with one or the other. Two, China will continue on its march towards superpower status even though there will be a slowdown in its hitherto relentless accumulation of economic and military power. The asymmetry of power between India and China will expand as will Chinese influence in India’s immediate subcontinental neighbourhood. The China-Pakistan nexus will not only endure but become more salient. Three, the situation in the Gulf and West Asia will worsen with the US ratcheting up pressure on Iran, Saudi-Iran tensions escalating and the likelihood of oil prices going up as a consequence. The welfare of six million Indians living and working in the region will be adversely impacted. Worse, any outbreak of hostilities, by accident or design, will be a serious setback to India’s energy security and pose a huge burden in evacuating even a fraction of its citizens in the region. The Modi government and its foreign policy team led by the external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, will have to deal with a much more complex external environment as compared to Modi’s first term.
As foreign secretary, Jaishankar had asserted that India aspired to be a “leading power”. That has merit since it is only in a period of major geopolitical transition that emerging powers may have the opportunity to expand their own strategic space. The confrontation between the US and China will increase India’s leverage vis-à-vis both powers but only if such confrontation does not assume Cold War-like proportions. This may be unlikely in the next few years because of the dense economic interdependency between the Chinese and American economies which may take a while to unravel and perhaps never unravel completely. India’s interests will be best served by continuing to upgrade its relations with the US while stopping short of joining a military alliance against China. To keep India from leaning in that direction, China will be more sensitive to Indian concerns but this will be tactical. However, even limited room for manoeuvre in the next few years will be valuable.
How India fares in its own neighbourhood will be critical to its pursuit of a leading power role. The “neighbourhood first” policy needs to invested with both human and material resources far beyond what has been deployed so far. This should be done even if it means reduced engagement in other parts of the world. We are spread too thin across regions and this detracts from concentrating resources where they are required most. In the face of Chinese intrusion India must maintain its dominance in its own neighbourhood, with priority to the Himalayan states, Bangladesh and the maritime states of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Relations with Pakistan will continue to be adversarial but it should not become an obsessive concern. India cannot be a leading power if it hyphenates itself repeatedly with Pakistan.
India’s foreign policy options relate directly to its economic prospects. In the period 2003-2007, India’s regional and international profile increased because its economy was growing at 9% per annum, its economic and commercial engagement with the rest of the world was expanding and its technological capabilities were being acknowledged the world over. The country was behind China but seen as shrinking the gap with the latter. It is this perception of a rising India in the same league as China which significantly expanded India’s diplomatic space. This enabled India to conclude a game changer deal like the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement. The lesson to be drawn is that India must change its economic narrative drastically through speedy adoption of second generation economic reforms, expand rather than retard the globalisation of the Indian economy, conclude the Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement, renew its application for membership of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation community and play an active and constructive role in the reform of the World Trade Organization. This may be a more propitious opportunity to revisit the proposed free trade agreement with the European Union which is facing headwinds on other fronts. The benign political relationship with Japan ought to translate into a much larger flow of capital and technology than has been evident so far. A leading role for India cannot be built on weak economic foundations. More diplomacy may be required at home than abroad to infuse decisions on domestic reforms with a critical global perspective. As external affairs minister Jaishankar is uniquely placed to undertake this.
(This is part of a series of articles on India’s priorities as we head towards 75 years of Independence)
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary of India and a senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal