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Tag Archives | India Foreign Policy

Three Indian schools of thought on the India—US partnership

A note on the retaliatory, bandwagoning, and swing power strategies.

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s recently concluded India visit was keenly tracked — the attention garnered was comparable to President Obama’s last visit to India in January 2015. The visit concluded with an in-principle agreement between the two states on the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) that provides mutual military logistic support.

The US Dept of Defence described the agreement as a signal that “Our countries and militaries are closer than ever before – brought together by shared values and mutual interests”. The non-official stances were far more conservative, with some commentators highlighting the hesitation from India’s side in aligning itself with the US.

From the Indian side, the visit attracted the attention of all watchers of India’s foreign policy. These numerous views can broadly be classified into three categories. Classifying and reflecting on these viewpoints is a good point to start thinking about what India should do in this game of international relations.

The first school of thought is retaliatory in nature. The underlying principle behind this line of thinking is that why should India support the US when it continues to support and even encourage Pakistan’s military—jihadi complex, an irreconcilable adversary? This perspective has further found an availability heuristic: our minds are fresh with the news of approval on the sale of F-16 to Pakistan, further confirming the bias that the US continues to play a double-game with India. This position was conveyed, amongst others, by Bharat Karnad. He says:

the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi is not proving as adroit in maintaining distance from the US. Modi seems smitten by America, and losing the plot on how to further the national interest.

This retaliatory school of thought is low on realism. That’s because the optimal scenario from a US perspective is not the one where it blocks equipping Pakistan militarily, but a scenario where the US military-industrial complex can be a service provider to India and Pakistan, both. In that sense, a simmering localised conflict between India—Pakistan is not an adverse outcome for the US. And this will continue to be the case until the US is forced to reconsider its India partnership for much stronger reasons such as challenging China in East Asia or the Indian Ocean Region. In such a case, it would be in the direct interest of the US to ensure that India is focused on one common enemy only. Until that happens, US will continue to secure its partnerships with both India and Pakistan — its support to the military—jihadi complex is a bitter reality that India has to come to terms with.

Bandwagoning is the second school of thought. This position was conveyed most effectively by K Subrahmanyam, the most famous of India’s strategic thinkers. The perspective is as follows:

We don’t have any clash of national interest with the Americans. There are some issues that usually arise because of America’s dealings with third parties such as Pakistan. But at a time when the government-to-government relationship was not good, we still saw about two million Indians settling in America. If things improve, this trend will get stronger. India has to leverage this situation and change the US-EU-China triangle into a rectangle. Until then it is in our interest to help America to sustain its pre-eminence. After all, in a three-person game, If America is at Number One, China is at Number Two and we are lower down, it is in our best interest to ensure that it is America that remains Number One.

The idea here is that at least in the short term, India must align itself with the US and use this partnership to increase its own power. This assumption ignores the scenario that an alignment with the US can actually decrease India’s power if it is put on a collision track with China, or pushed to participate in conflicts of little interest or purpose.

The third school of thought is a marginal cost-benefit strategy which sees India’s role as that of a swing power. Pratap Bhanu Mehta speaks of this position when he says:

Its (India’s) interests have always been to do business with both countries so that both take it seriously. This is a sophisticated game. But an open declaration of a political and defence alignment with the US forecloses those options. We will come to be unwittingly identified with American rhetoric and designs for Asia. And the overblown rhetoric emanating from Washington about positioning India in its pushback of China will reduce our options.

My colleague Nitin Pai also agrees:

despite an alignment of interests, it must not always side with the United States. It must swing. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, India’s options toward the United States and China must always be greater than their options toward each other… until New Delhi demonstrates that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other, it won’t be seen as swinging. It will be mistaken for sleep-walking.

The cost of this strategy is that with neither US or China backing India completely, their conduct with Pakistan becomes a determinant for India’s success as an international player.

Regardless of which of the three schools of thought the Indian government aligns itself with, the highest common factor for all the three is a substantial and rapid rise in India’s power — economic, military, maritime and political. Unless that happens, India’s options with any major power will always remain less than their options with each other.Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas) is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution.
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The Afghan conundrum and India’s national interest

India’s interest is to find a way to play the role of mediator to negotiate with Taliban towards  stability in Afghanistan

With the exit of US a fait accompli, there is a clear signal to engage with Taliban for an enduring peace in Afghanistan.  A meeting under the auspices of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World affairs was conducted on January 23-24, 2016 at Doha. This was not the first time that a solution was being sought by the concerned parties at Doha. In May 2015, Pakistan, China and US tried to broker a peace between the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani and Taliban without success. The failure of official mechanism has led to efforts on a track two level.

The argument to engage with a terror entity seems counter intuitive. More so, because India’s relations with the outfit have been patchy especially after the Kandahar hijacking incident in 1999. Dealing with Taliban is the least bad option in the present circumstances. With Taliban controlling almost one third of Afghanistan’s districts, it cannot be dismissed as a fringe player. The US too does not have much leverage to control the violence with a token force of just 10,000 troops. With the reconstruction expenditure from the start to date pegged at $ 113 billion, enough flak is being faced by Obama administration for continued presence and aid to Afghanistan.

Can the Taliban be trusted? They have given assurances of their willingness to share power with the Unity government in the conference at Doha. What is most worrying of its attributes is the extremist interpretation of Islam and denying of equal rights to women. Even if the Taliban assurances were to be trusted, there needs to be a guarded approach of dealing with them. For instance, will they be willing to disarm if brought into the power calculus? This will need to have iron clad guarantees. While advising the Afghan government, India has a bitter experience on this with the LTTE when Prabhakaran made only a token effort to disarm after the accord in 1987. So the Ashraf Ghani government has to have guarantees and make sure that the Taliban does not go back to its old ways once in power. This will be a long and torturous road to travel.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings expert on Afghanistan believes that even though Taliban has been actively supported by Pakistan, many within the Taliban resent their Pak benefactors deeply because of Pashtun nationalism. The US usually wants Pakistan to take action against Taliban which it does as a charade against some elements. The Taliban, in turn want to assure India that their foreign policy will not be dictated by any outside power (a reference to Pakistan). The coming months will be closely watched as the cycle of violence repeats itself in Afghanistan. India will have to come up with an out-of-the-box strategy to engage with Taliban and the Unity government.

 

Guru Aiyar is a research scholar with Takshshila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar

Featured Image: Lake Band-e-Amir by Carl Montgomery, licensed from creativecommons.org

 

 

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One year of NDA government’s foreign policy: What changed and what didn’t?

By Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

These are the comments that Pranay wrote for Emerging Kerala, a Malayalam monthly magazine on Kerala’s business, economy and society in the backdrop of the first anniversary of NDA rule.

Q: As Narendra Modi government is completing one year in this May, what do you think the achievements of the country in diplomatic relations with other countries? How Narendra Modi’s foreign visits have benefitted our economy?

The astute selection of countries for engagements is the first significant achievement. Looking beyond the sub-continent and giving a much-needed push to the relations with countries like Japan, Australia, Vietnam and US was long overdue.

It is also important to realise that foreign policy successes aren’t outcomes of foreign visits alone. Foreign policy successes need domestic consensus building as well. On that count, resolving the long-standing land border issue with Bangladesh through the constitutional process constitutes the second diplomatic success. This will allow India to focus on more substantive issues like getting transit access to the Northeast Indian states through Bangladesh.

Third, the operationalisation of the civil nuclear deal with the US is another achievement, removing a roadblock in the partnership between the two countries.

It is good for the Prime Minister to invest time in international engagements: India’s growth is influenced by the world and the world’s situation in turn affects India’s growth. So, foreign engagements are key to the Indian economy.

The benefits of foreign policy initiatives on the economy are delayed by their inherent nature. So, its effects, whether in terms of giving a boost to ‘Make in India’ or in terms of energy security, will take some time. However, a good foreign policy is just solving one part of the puzzle for giving a boost to the economy. The second part demands that the government put the right policies in place domestically like making the Indian setup more market-friendly.

Q: Has India got an image makeover globally? Is India becoming an influential global force?

Yes, to the extent that Mr. Modi’s revitalisation of India’s foreign policy has re-established India as a significant player in international affairs. Mr. Modi has raised expectations across the region. India’s position is key to the Asian balance of power and this government has conveyed the right signals to other important players in the region.

On the other hand, global influence is itself an outcome of national power. And one of the most important factors for national power is consistent economic growth. The other countries look up to India only because they believe that its growth will be of benefit to them as well. So, economic growth will be the key to national power and in turn to a greater influence in the world.

Q: There are criticisms about the huge expense of Modi’s foreign visits. How do you look at this?

Foreign visits by important ministers of state are not junkets. There is a great tendency to view such trips with the lens of “onsite” opportunities.

We have to go beyond the mindset of a “poor” India that cannot be an important player in the international arena. To that effect, these trips are very important, both as a signal to the world, and in terms of concrete partnerships with key nation-states. Overall, India’s policy discourse will benefit from the PMs international engagements and exposure.

Given the huge positive externalities of the PM’s visit to other countries, I definitely do not subscribe to the view that the expenses are worthless.

Q: What do you think the most significant step that Modi has taken in the foreign policy?

The most significant step has been to signal to the world that India wants to proactively engage with every country.

The buzz around the world is that India now has a government that can get its act right and resolve internal issues while engaging externally.

Q: What are the major differences in the foreign policy of Narendra Modi government and former UPA government?

The biggest success during the UPA tenure was the US-India 123 agreement which, by no means was a small achievement. It put the India-US partnership on the right track after several years of sluggishness.

Beyond that success, a large amount of time, and political capital were wasted on international groupings that had little relevance to India’s foreign policy priorities. On the sidelines of one such conference, the PM even committed a big blunder of signing a joint statement with the PM of Pakistan that effectively agreed to India’s role in Balochistan.

In general, there was a lot of focus on getting our relationship with Pakistan right, which was a wishful thinking given that Pakistan was, and is still in control of the Military Jihadi complex (MJC) which sees no benefit in good relations with India. As a result, we missed the boat on engaging with other countries instead.

What we now see is that the new government is more proactive in its foreign policy. Modi’s focus on foreign policy has taken everyone by surprise. This means that foreign countries are taking that one extra step as well.

Secondly, there is a lot more visible focus on engaging with countries beyond the Indian jambudweepa, thereby establishing India not only as a regional leader, but also a global powerhouse.

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Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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