An important foreign policy initiative that the external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, took as foreign secretary was to launch the annual Raisina Dialogue, a conclave of foreign policymakers and analysts from around the world. The two questions that would be uppermost on the mind of most foreign delegates to the conference would have little to do with the external affairs minister’s remit. These would be the medium term prospects for the Indian economy and restoration of normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir and, given widespread student protests, in the rest of the country.
As is now widely accepted, the “Rising India” narrative scripted over the two post-Cold War decades, 1991 to 2011, was based on the improving performance of the economy and India’s political ability to deal with many longstanding diplomatic challenges within a paradigm of realism. Three successive prime ministers — PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh — scripted the narrative of India rising as a plural, secular democracy, as opposed to China’s rise within an authoritarian system.
India’s improving economic performance had opened up new vistas for cooperation with major powers and neighbours. Now the economy’s subdued performance and domestic political issues have created new challenges for Indian foreign policy. To add to these external concerns, the new approach to relations with India adopted by both President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping has created a more challenging external environment. What, then, are the prospects for 2020?
Through most of this year, President Donald Trump will remain pre-occupied with his re-election. On the economic side, he is unlikely to resolve all bilateral differences on trade policy. Each time New Delhi has tried to meet a US demand, Washington DC has come up with new demands. Moreover, any resolution of his differences with China, even if short-term and aimed at pleasing domestic consumers before elections, can only reduce whatever little bargaining clout India has. The US has, in fact, actively lodged complaints against India at the World Trade Organisation. On the geopolitical side, US intervention in West Asia has always imposed additional economic burden on India and we must remain prepared for more such initiatives that may not be reassuring for the Indian economy.
There has been continuity and consistency in India-China policy over the past two decades, with some ups and downs, but as the bilateral power differential widens, China has little incentive or compulsion to be accommodative of Indian concerns, much less interests. Xi’s China never fails to remind India of the growing power differential between the two. In dealing with China, India will have to, paraphrasing Deng Xiaoping, “build its strength and bide its time.” Russia, the other major power, will remain focused on Eurasian geopolitics and the geo-economics of energy. Both these factors define Russia’s relations with China, and increasingly, with Pakistan, posing a challenge for India.
The government’s Pakistan policy has run its course. It yielded some short-term results thanks to Pakistan’s efforts not to get “black-listed” by the Financial Action Task Force, but the fact is that the rest of the world is happily doing business with Pakistan, lending billions in aid. The global community may increasingly accept future pleas from Pakistan that terror attacks in India are home-grown, related to the situation in Kashmir or concerns about the welfare of Muslims, unless incontrovertible evidence to the contrary is offered. India needs a new Pakistan policy. Back channel talks should be resumed and visas given liberally to Pakistani intellectuals, media and entertainers to improve cross-border perceptions as a first step towards improving relations.
If much progress cannot be expected this year in relations with Trump’s America and Xi’s China, then which countries should engage the attention of the external affairs minister? There is a category of nations that share India’s concerns about the direction that Trump and Xi have been taking, especially in trade policy and West Asian geopolitics. Like India, these countries have a stake in what the US and China do, but little influence over either.
These are the world’s “Middle Powers” — Germany, France, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam and perhaps South Korea. One could include Russia, Nigeria and South Africa also in this group. It is a mix of developed and developing economies, some friends of the US and others friends of China. It is an amorphous group but can emerge into a grouping of the like-minded in a world of uncertainty capable of taming both the US and China. A new Middle Powers coalition may be the need of the year.
At home, a “New India” script is being written in a period of domestic and global uncertainty that has already influenced global perceptions about India. We are moving from an era of predictability to an era of unpredictability at home and abroad. Fresh doubts are being raised about India’s place in the world in the 21st century — its economic significance, its political standing and its ideological moorings.
An economic turnaround and restoration of domestic political equilibrium will widen the space for foreign policy initiatives. Persistent economic uncertainty and radically disruptive politics at home will mean that the external affairs minister can at best conduct a holding operation, ensuring that the external environment does not also deteriorate.
There is a view among some policy analysts at home that India too can adopt a “disruptive” approach as a clever tactic in foreign affairs. This is an illusion. Disruption is not an end in itself. It has to be a means to an end. Powerful nations can afford disruption as tactics. However, given that the strategic elements defining Indian foreign policy in the post-Cold War era have not changed, India cannot risk such tactics without measuring the risk they pose to strategy.
Merely because domestic politics has changed, we cannot afford to be adventurous in foreign policy. The principal question for policymakers is: Has a proper risk assessment been undertaken with respect to the external consequences of domestic policy initiatives? The US may be able to pursue policies at home and abroad without adequate measurement of risk. But India has to assess external economic and geopolitical risk carefully and improve the quality of the external communication of her national interests and personality.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 14, 2020 under the title ‘The world from Raisina’. The writer is a policy analyst and former media advisor to prime minister of India.
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