Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to expand the engagement with the United States on regional security in the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean has set off much hand-wringing in New Delhi’s foreign community about the potential Chinese reaction. This is not surprising, given the deep concerns in the UPA government that drawing close to America might provoke China. Although it was then-PM Manmohan Singh who took the initial steps in the first term of the UPA to expand the strategic partnership with the US and its Asian allies, there was a definite attempt at distancing Delhi from Washington in the second term.
These fears were more about the lack of self-assurance in the Congress leadership and the security establishment rather than a credible assessment of China’s foreign policy record, or its current geopolitical calculus, or the nature of Asia’s international relations today. Consider, for example, the fact that China had been closer over extended periods of time to Washington than India has ever been to America in the last seven decades. Even today, China’s economic and commercial relationship is much thicker than Delhi’s ties with either Washington or Beijing.
If India’s trade with the US and China stands at around $100 billion and $70 billion respectively, China-US trade now stands at $560 billion. Even America’s Asian allies, including Japan, South Korea and Australia, have dense relations with China. Instead of viewing its relations with Washington and Beijing in binary terms, Delhi must recognise that its relations with both America and China have potential and must be developed with greater purpose and vigour.
China, of course, does not limit its partnership with America by citing the concerns of its large neighbours like Russia, Japan and India. Beijing, in fact is urging the US to agree to a “new type of great power relations” with China that could generate a shared leadership between the two giants.
Beijing uses its relationship with America to secure its own national interests, shape the global balance of power and reshape its regional environment. Unlike the UPA government, the NDA governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Modi have not been paralysed by the fear of engaging all the great powers with equal enthusiasm.
The idea that Beijing will react violently to India’s engagement with America is also not borne out by the history of China-Pakistan relations. After all, Pakistan has been a strong military partner for both America and China. Pakistan joined the US military alliance system in the 1950s, including the Central Treaty Organisation and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, at a time when America was determined to combat communism in Asia and did not recognise the People’s Republic of China.
The military alliance with America did not prevent Pakistan from warming up to China in the 1950s. Unlike India, where the hot air about non-alignment began to introduce ideological rigidity and strategic incoherence into India’s foreign policy, Pakistan thought more creatively about the possibilities with America and China.
Navigating the complex dynamic between Washington and Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan became a valuable bridge between America and China when the two sides wanted to normalise relations at the turn of the 1970s. China did not object to an intense military partnership between America and Pakistan in the 1980s, or when Washington declared that Islamabad is a “major non-NATO ally” in the 2000s.
If Delhi drones on endlessly about strategic autonomy as some kind of uniquely Indian concept, Pakistan is only one example of how all countries, big and small, seek flexibility in foreign policy and seize opportunities that present themselves.
India’s problem lies in the infusion of ideology into the concepts of strategic autonomy and non-alignment. From a practical perspective, “strategic autonomy” is about expanding one’s room for manoeuvre by engaging all potential partners. In India, though, the idea of “strategic autonomy” has been viewed through an anti-Western lens over the decades. Signing a security treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971 was not seen as undermining India’s strategic autonomy, but doing anything with America was denounced as a departure from non-alignment.
In India’s foreign policy discourse, sitting together with China and Russia in a room was welcome, but building a joint platform with the US and Japan was not. Modi is saying that India can no longer afford this kind of ideological self-indulgence. As one of the world’s largest economies and as a rising power, Modi is suggesting that India needs “multi-alignment”, or more intensive partnerships with all great powers, including America and China. The PM is also signalling that, given India’s expanding interdependence with the rest of the world, what Delhi needs is “strategic influence” in regional and global affairs.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’
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