Strategic shift in 2021?

India’s Foreign Policy

By Dr D KGiri
(Prof. International Politics, JIMMC)

Quite a few India’sforeign policy analysts contend that New Delhi over the last year has taken a strategic shift in dealing with the World. It is a spectacular departure from the policy adopted under Prime Minister Narendra Modi 1.0. The new term, Modi 2.0 began to recalibrate the external policy, in articulation as well as implementation. If 2019 began the process, 2020 gripped by the pandemic, stalled the progress. It is in the year gone by that the strategic changes were visible. Let us examine the claims as we reflect on the year 2021.
One of the changes identified is the policy of conciliation towards the neighbours. In the previous stint of the current government, the policy ‘reeked of hegemonism’. It was also partly a reflection of Hindutva in the external affairs. For instance, relations with Nepal, the blockade in favour of the Madhesi, interference in their Constitution-making, the Citizenship Amendment Act leaving out Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and hegemonic attitude towards Sri Lanka, policy of untouchability with Taliban until they took over the reins there — all of it did not help good relations with these countries in the region.
In 2021, it is argued that New Delhi has adopted a pragmatic policy towards the neighbours devoid of religio-ideological bias and an imperious inclination. It has regained the goodwill and confidence of Bangladesh. President Ram Nath Kovind was present on the Golden Jubilee celebration this year of the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. New Delhi is talking to and assisting the Taliban regime with relief and development aid. India-Sri Lanka relations are returning to normalcy.
The second claim of change of strategy is retrieving the traditional strength and role of balancer in the bi-polar world. The third shift stemming from the second, is New Delhi’s contribution to genuine multilateralism. New Delhi is being credited with balancing USA and Russia, even though it is being perceived being closer to the former. Think of New Delhi buying S-400 missile system from Russia in spite of the threat of sanctions from USA, and participating in the Quad in the face of Moscow decrying it.
Likewise, New Delhi is balancing huge contradictions in the Middle East, between the Arab states and Israel, between Saudi Arabia and Iran and so on. The West Asia Quad is a success story in the balancing act. New Delhi’s relation with China is another act of super balancing skill of New Delhi. Even during the military stand-off, India-China trade increased by 62.7 per cent in the first half of 2021.
In multilateralism, New Delhi is dealing with several countries, regional blocks and major issues. It helped with vaccines and other medical support during the pandemic. In the climate change negotiations New Delhi has played a commendable role and is leading the International Solar Alliance. In the face of irritants between Western Europe, namely France and Germany and the US, New Delhi is doing business with Paris in many areas in addition to the purchase of Rafael fighter aircrafts.
The foregoing viewpoints on conciliation, balancing acts, multilateralism are really old hat. The normalisation of relations with neighbours has come because of the neighbours’ concern with the Chinese exploitative trade and investment policy and the autocratic regime at Beijing. Indian neighbours are more comfortable with India’s foreign policy principles, its adherence to peace and security. So, they bounce back to normal relationsdespite occasional irritants. If they turn to Beijing, it is only to tap the surplus money Beijing has generated.
On the balancing role, New Delhi is holding on to its long-term friend Russia on defence purchase. India has been importing armaments from Moscow since the 1971 treaty. Our defence apparatus has been too dependent on Soviet supply, now Russia, to cut off so soon. In fact, it is America’s overture to India that has drawn other countries closer to New Delhi. Quad has America in the lead. West Asia Quad is brokered by USA. It consists of USA, its closest ally Israel and UAE, apart from India. On China, India cannot decouple economically as its economy, like those of many other countries have been sucked into Chinese manufactures. India and other counties have not built alternative, shorter and multiple supply chains. That is the challenge China poses.
In fact, there is no multilateralism in power terms. The countries can have bilateralrelations with each other. But world politics has been dominated by two super powers in the past — USA and USSR, and now USA and China, the latter tacitly backed by Russia. This rivalry also is reflected in two world systems in conflict — one of democracy and free will, and the other of autocracy and repression. Is it too difficult for India to choose if it believes and prides in its democracy and pluralism? By not making a clear choice, and muddling through both the blocks, which the traditionalists euphemistically call the balancing act, New Delhi has not helped itself.
New Delhi’s diplomatic inability to openly identify China as the enemy and USA as a friend, has cost it economically. The companies wishing to relocate away from Beijing are reluctant to do so. Australiaplayed smarter. It rebuffed Beijing’s bullying. It rallied the support of USA and Britain and created AUKUS — the security alliance of Australia, United Kingdom and USA. India was left out. The Quad got diluted at least in perception.
Therefore, the strategic shift attributed to India’s foreign policy is not evident. It is the same old strategic autonomy in playing the balancing role. New Delhi is not able to grasp the moment of decision in India’s foreign policy direction, which is a closer strategic embrace of the United States in particular, and the West in general. From military-to-military interoperability to dealing in a range of non-military issues, India wishes to engage with USA. At the same time, it wishes to deal with China and Russia, just not to alienate them. But is it working?
India is appreciated for its traditions, civilisation and modern-day democracy. It has always sought and promoted peace, goodwill and stability. What is it fighting shy of? Only drawback is that it has failed to build its economy like Japan, South Korea and even China have done. It must make up for it. At the end of the day, it is one’s economic might that matters, military strength comes next. Russia is the example of such a model. Strong in military, but weak in economy. Should India follow the Russian model?
At any rate, for now, an assessment of India’s capabilities and threats emerging around the country prompts New Delhi to take sides, it can no longer delay that decision. That will be the real strategic shift in the times to come. — INFA