There is a constant attempt by Western, especially American, strategic analysts and think tanks to disentangle the seemingly complex threads of India’s foreign policy. The political establishments of the United States and other major Western powers have lately shifted their policies vis-a-vis India in an endeavour to draw New Delhi closer to them as part of their ongoing attempt to re-align the balance in South and South East Asia. This part of their strategy developed since the emergence of China as a formidable Asian economic superpower. They have developed deep concerns over China providing military and other infrastructural assistance to the smaller nations in this region and thereby, exerting its influence over them. Therefore, India is seen as, perhaps, the only nation that can “stand up” to China and it is in this context that they have formulated agreements signifying partnership with India.
This does not mean that India is in any way an economic or military equal to China but India is seen by them as capable of counteracting China’s policy of wooing the smaller nations and creating a band of allies to secure and sustain its supremacy in the region. The Chinese “One Belt One Road “initiative that focuses on connectivity over sea and land ensures a bigger role for it in international affairs and this too has posed a major challenge for Western power balance and trade. Therefore, there is an effort to prod India to be more assertive. However, India’s foreign policy should not be directed by the vested interests of others and it is in this frame that India retains its strategic autonomy much to the chagrin of these powers.
Although China has on several occasions acted in a manner that has raised India’s concerns, these actions have not been construed as posing an imminent danger. Besides, India has been perceptive in identifying that while there are areas in which there may be divergent interests and even conflicting views like border issues, autonomy of Tibet and several other matters related to trade, demographic profiling and river-water sharing, there are also areas where Chinese and Indian perceptions definitely converge. Economic cooperation between India and China will set off a new momentum in the region, a momentum that could be discomfiting to other powers outside the region. While China views the US as an extra regional power jostling for continual supremacy in the Indian Ocean, India views both the United States and China as participants in India’s economic future. Therefore, maintaining strategic autonomy is imperative for India to ensure it is not subject to any initiative or action that is detrimental to its self-interest. For instance, in the Indian Ocean region, India has shown great restraint in not allowing extra regional powers to dictate its initiatives and actions. India is not a party to the Proliferation Security Initiative, a political commitment between nations spearheaded by the US that gives powers upon receiving “reliable” intelligence to board, inspect and seize ships on the high seas. India has been critical of such initiatives that lie outside the purview of the United Nations and are a violation of the freedom on the high seas.
Respecting the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity is apparent in India’s policy in the region: whether it is supporting the right of a change of leadership by the people of Sri Lanka, the decision to desist from interfering in the long and painful transition of the political establishment in Nepal, the rejection of military intervention in Maldives — India has respected the need for the people of these countries to choose their own leaders. Foreign policy has been directed in a manner in which India is seen as neither a threatening hegemonic regional power by its smaller neighbours nor as a weak power that is reluctant to lead.
Often this has led to criticism from within India and outside, and seen as India’s reluctance to exploit the situation, to support leaders who seem favourable to India or to play an active role in regime change. Some writers cite China as a clever opportunist, which rushes into the vacuum created in countries in turmoil — as in an unsettled Afghanistan and Nepal — and criticise India for being slow to seize opportunities to its advantage. International law principles, to which India consistently adheres, do not support interference in the internal affairs of nations. Besides, innumerable interferences by major powers in the guise of humanitarian interventions have led to global disquietude and human suffering rather than alleviated the miseries they set out to mitigate. It is in this context that India prefers, when called upon, to offer logistic help and aid in building infrastructures by which strife-torn countries can reconstruct their economies rather than re-establish and rebuild by direct political interferences. Obviously, this does not suit those powers who want India to be their lynchpin of their South Asian policies and who seek to conduct the containment of Chinese expansion into global trade through India. Were India and China to form strong economic alliances, it would send the western dominated markets into a spin.
It is a pity that some members of the strategic community of India now propagate a view that citizens should play a greater role in formulating foreign policies. Nothing could be more dangerous than that for a nation as diverse as India. Undoubtedly, the needs and expectations of the citizens are responsible for domestic policies and they are major participants in the decisions that affect every facet of their daily lives. Formulation of foreign policies, however, should not become matters of public debate as other primal and parochial considerations will affect the outcome. A sovereign nation’s acts are based on national interest and cordial relations are sustained by an understanding between nations to create a climate where they can exist peacefully.
An asymmetrical situation can lead to rancour among nations and this is especially true of India which is surrounded by several geographically smaller nations that are economically dependent on it. There are many levels of interactions in diplomacy and when devising a foreign policy with its neighbours big and small, India has been sensitive to issues relating to water sharing, energy requirements, climate change and numerous other factors. To open these issues for public debate will not work in India’s interest because national interest will be held hostage to self-interest of the states. Foreign policy is not always about domination and posturing. It is the art of balancing the absolute interests of one’s own country with friendliness and goodwill towards neighbouring countries. India’s foreign policy should never be driven by internal considerations alone nor dominated by external influences. Strategic autonomy, as practised by India, is what will always keep it in an assertive position.
The writer is an expert in international law and a founding member of Centre for Security Analysis.