Wrapping up an account of the Narendra Modi government’s foreign policy activism in its first hundred days in office, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj claimed last week that Indian diplomacy had moved into high gear with its “fast-track diplomacy”. The foreign ministry’s public diplomacy division has published a colourful booklet filled with photographic evidence of the government’s impressive global engagement in the past three months.
In claiming credit for this diplomatic activism, the foreign minister has drawn attention to a new facet of power in the contemporary world, which John Chipman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) explored in an essay for the Munich Security Conference of 2013. Students of international relations and diplomacy are familiar with Joseph Nye’s concept of hard power and soft power as well as Hillary Clinton’s smart power.
Chipman suggested, on more recent evidence, that a nation state’s ability to influence developments in an increasingly complex and fast-changing world, other things being equal, is determined by the “speed” of its diplomacy. Thus, proposed Chipman, fast power matters too.
While hard power and soft power are necessary attributes of sustainable power projection by nation states, smart and fast power can help nations, big and small, find their way through or adapt to complex and rapidly changing strategic environments. By acting “fast”, the Modi government can claim it has more than neutralised, in a short period of time, the negative impact of its predecessor’s months of inaction. While critics and cynics may dismiss this activism as nothing more than photo-ops and collecting flying miles, a la Hillary Clinton (the most travelled foreign minister in history), the MEA’s “fast-track diplomacy” booklet is indeed an impressive document, in that it shows clarity of purpose in all this speedy activism.
The booklet itself draws attention to four different categories of diplomatic engagement by Modi and Swaraj: first, with South Asian neighbours, second, with East and West Asian “neighbours”, third, with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P-5) and, finally, India’s most important economic and strategic partners, led now by Japan and including Australia, Brazil, South Africa and Singapore. Within its first 100 days in office, the Modi government has engaged all.
Swaraj’s last port of call at the end of the 100 days was, interestingly, Bahrain. This writer was in Bahrain watching Swaraj manoeuvre her way through the increasingly complex and charged West Asian diplomatic minefield. While Swaraj’s Bahraini hosts were delighted, many West Asia watchers raised their eyebrows, speculating on the significance of her choice.
Recall the fact that the first foreign visitor Swaraj met, apart from the South Asian and Indian Ocean heads of government invited to the Modi government’s swearing-in ceremony, was the foreign minister of Oman, another West Asian neighbour. With its wide-ranging economic, political and military relations, Oman is an important neighbouring country. Bahrain, however, has not had the same salience in Indian foreign policy till recently, despite the long history of ties between India and the island kingdom (the rupee was the official currency of Bahrain till the Bahraini dinar was launched in the mid-1960s), and the large presence of people of Indian origin.
Bahrain, it seems, has acquired new clout in the fast-changing strategic environment of West Asia. As a Shia-majority nation with a minority Sunni ruling elite, stuck between the region’s big powers — a Sunni Saudi Arabia and a Shia Iran — and as host to the US’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has understood that it has the potential to emerge as a regional Switzerland and Singapore woven together. A politically neutral territory, keeping a safe distance from the sectarian rivalry of regional powers, and a business and financial hub, offering security of life and investment.
In what way, then, does Bahrain fit into India’s emerging West Asian diplomacy? The first sign of the new Indian thinking was, in fact, made visible during the last months of the Manmohan Singh government when then External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid chose Bahrain as the venue for a regional conference of Indian ambassadors to the Gulf. By convening a meeting of India’s ambassadors to the region on the sidelines of the annual IISS conference of defence and foreign ministers, the Manama Dialogue, in December 2013, India signalled to the region’s rivals that it would choose a path of regional non-alignment.
India’s West Asian “non-alignment” meant that it would pursue good relations with all regional players, namely, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (India’s biggest trade partner) and the US. There was no better place for the region’s ambassadors to meet to discuss this policy than Bahrain.
The Modi government has taken one more step. It has made it clear to all regional players that it would not like to get drawn into the Muslim world’s sectarian conflicts. India has, so far, been fortunate that such sectarian conflict has not entered Muslim politics here. While former defence minister A.K.
Antony explained away his government’s decision to establish defence ties with Saudi Arabia in sectarian terms, claiming that Kerala had more Sunni than Shia Muslims, and the Congress repeatedly explained away Indian friendship with Iran in terms of the importance of the Shia vote in Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and a few other pockets, the BJP seems to have adopted a policy of non-alignment between Sunnis and Shias, if anything, tilting a bit towards various Muslim minorities persecuted in Sunni-majority countries.
The BJP government has also had no difficulty in letting everyone know that maintaining good and strategic relations with Israel will not come in the way of seeking better relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states. With China reducing its dependence on Gulf oil and gas, plugging into Central Asian and Russian sources, and the US increasingly energy self-sufficient, it is India and other East Asian economies that will remain critically dependent on West Asian energy. India also has millions of productive workers living there and remitting billions home every year.
However, while India seeks “stability” in the region and feels Western, particularly US, policies are in fact destabilising West Asia, it has not done enough on its own to help stabilise a region of great strategic importance to it. West Asia seeks Indian hard, soft, smart and fast power projection. Having enunciated the doctrine of high-speed diplomacy, the Modi government now needs the intellectual and administrative wherewithal to think and act fast.
The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy, International Institute of Strategic Studies, and honorary senior fellow, Centre for Policy
Research, New Delh.