Opinion | India must focus on neighbourhood first
India is already among the front ranking countries of the world, writes Shyam Saran
By the metrics of power, whether economic or military, India is already among the front ranking countries of the world. It is likely to emerge as the third largest economic power by mid-century, behind China and the US, and will have matching military capabilities. Its scientific and technological capabilities are also impressive and growing, whether in space sciences or in the digital realm.
The instruments of power are at hand but their use remains sub-optimal because of structural issues. There is an under-investment of both human and material resources in India’s diplomatic machinery. You cannot run an expansive foreign policy of an emerging great power with less than a thousand diplomats and a budget that treats the ministry of external affairs as a sideshow. There is also the issue of quality that can only be improved through better recruitment and capacity building. We need to put in place an effective, efficient and autonomous development agency that can overcome the persistent shortcomings in delivery of projects in developing countries, undermining our international credibility.
With rising power should come greater self-confidence. This is particularly important at a phase in history when an established and familiar geopolitical landscape begins to deconstruct and a new world order must take its place. India’s interests will not be served if it has to acquiesce in an order in the making of which it had little role to play. It must determine what place it wants to occupy in the new world order and align its foreign policy to that objective. In my view, it is a multipolar world order that will give India relatively greater room for manoeuvre.
Others may advocate an approach in which alignments should trend towards alliances against the prospect of a new hegemon seeking monopoly of power and influence. India can play the role of an architect of the new world order only if it is not constantly preoccupied, as it is today, by tensions, even crises, in its immediate subcontinental neighbourhood. Furthermore, a multipolar world order will only be possible if there is a multipolar Asia, since the centre of gravity of global power has now moved to the trans-Pacific from the trans-Atlantic. What happens in our part of the world will determine the shape of the new order.
For the foreseeable future, India’s foreign policy will need to remain anchored in this region, even while expanding engagement with other parts of the world.
I would like to see much greater investment in three key policies declared by this and previous governments: Neighbourhood First, Act East and Indian Ocean. This is intimately related to meeting the China challenge and in ensuring that Chinese hegemony does not become an inevitability. The only credible countervailing power to China in Asia is India and it also has the advantage of being a civilisational entity like China.
India sees its own emergence as an opportunity to revive its cultural affinities with its extended neighbourhood east and west. China sees, instead, an opportunity to reassert a regional dominance which it believes is bequeath upon it by history. This gives India a significant perceptional advantage. The subcontinental neighbourhood is India’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability. This is a region where its power is overwhelming even when it is being contested by an expansive Chinese power. A China card in the hands of some of our neighbours is potent because we allow it to influence our neighbourhood policy, making it defensive.
It is often the case, particularly in the case of Pakistan, that we allow domestic politics to distort neighbourhood policy. Neighbourhood First must be reflected in India emerging as the engine of growth for the subcontinent, as the most efficient and cost-effective transit and transport corridor for our partners, underpinned by modern infrastructure and with borders which serve as connectors rather than as walls behind which we cower in fear and suspicion. India has the greatest stake in South Asia integration. Our foreign policy must truly reflect this.
Indian foreign policy has leveraged its appeal as a successful plural democracy managing immense diversity. It is a constant refutation of the argument that rapid economic development requires political authoritarianism.
Our domestic political rhetoric and actions must be careful not to undermine this hard-won reputation.
(The writer is a former foreign secretary, and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research)