Play it like Beijing

Play it like Beijing

Modi must break from past pieties, create a new strategic culture.

By: P. Stobdan

With the kind of decisive mandate the BJP and its leader Narendra Modi have received, the new government should now seize the opportunity to debunk the moribund Nehruvian principles that animate India’s foreign policy. Nehru’s doctrinaire approach entailed a series of self-seeking lofty ideals and the country lost a good half of the last century preaching the moralistic precepts of non-alignment, self-reliance, strategic autonomy, third world solidarity, etc, on the world stage. Our myopic phraseologies and moral overtones failed to become substitutes for a prudent foreign policy. Instead, they diminished India’s stature and its global role.

Foreign policy floundered in the absence of a “strategic culture”, which the Congress party failed to create. “Statecraft” was reduced to the art of retaining power. Kautilya’s thoughts were discarded and Western narratives embraced by the elite grossly distorted an Indian strategic narrative. Divergent political or nationalistic discourses were labelled as communal or reactionary.

The Chinese, in contrast, were more dogmatic than we were to start with, but have constantly sought to transform and pursue their foreign policy interests with clarity and originality in strategic thought. Of late, India has tried to play a supporting role to the West to offset China’s rise. Certain fringe political groups seemed to shape the course of the country’s Sri Lanka policy — our administration’s strategic thinkers seemed unable to change the trajectory of such a policy.


A paradigm shift is needed to redefine India’s worldview, one that would place it on the path to becoming a superpower. Foreign policy challenges abound, but first, our thinktanks need to go beyond ideas sourced from the West. Without original and clever thinking, India will remain behind others.

Second, India should position itself in Asia as the future hub of global power. To do that, however, we need to rethink our relationship with China, as Beijing enhances its soft power. Antagonism with China might have been an emotionally appealing proposition earlier, but it would not be judicious to follow this course forever. For our ancestors, “Cina” fell within the inner circle of the Indian mandala. Wisdom lies not in containing or confronting China, but in exploiting and benefiting from Chinese achievements, at least at the present juncture.

China’s new leaders have exhibited “positive vibes” and they believe that the “dreams” of both countries are interconnected and mutually compatible. Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and even Narendra Modi may stay in power for a decade, until 2023. Together, they can make a fresh beginning and join hands to rebuild Asia. If commerce drives the main agenda, we should be more receptive to Chinese proposals. Modi has not been that jingoistic about China in his actions. He has handled Gujarat’s business ties with China astutely and expressed admiration for China’s achievements when he visited Beijing. He also seems to have learnt from China’s ability to spur internal growth through regional and global linkages.

To overcome the trust deficit between the two countries, India needs to make a cost-benefit analysis of its position on Tibet. It must guard against Western powers using it as a linchpin against China. New channels of communication between India and China should be opened, beyond just leaders and diplomats. Every effort should be made to revive an ancient cultural confluence. There exists a broad convergence between India and China on a range of global issues. Together, both should seek to alter the rules of global economic competition.

If the influence of the US on the global stage narrows further, rising superpowers like China and India could risk becoming prominent targets for terrorists. India needs to pursue a more nuanced politico-economic idiom, one that is envisaged to achieve a more balanced and equitable global development pattern as a counter-terror strategy.

To start with, a calibrated move to work with China in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops could become a harmonising effort. Together with China, India could fill the strategic vacuum in West Asia. Historically, relying on the US as a partner has not worked in India’s favour, despite the shared values of democracy. India’s relationship with the US must be need-based, to promote our national interests.

The writer is president of the Ladakh International Centre, Leh