Theme: India’s foreign policy in the 21st century will remain rooted in core values, but Delhi must necessarily adapt to changing external circumstances and shifting domestic needs.
Summary: India’s foreign policy faces five important challenges in the years to come: (1) the creation of an area of peace and prosperity in the South-Asian Subcontinent; (2) the construction of a stable architecture for peace and cooperation in Asia; (3) the peaceful management of Asia’s maritime commons; (4) a new internationalism that will be shaped by a deepening integration with the global economy and an effective contribution to the management of global problems; and (5) a clear line between celebrating its own democratic values and imposing them on others.
Keywords: India, foreign policy, peace, prosperity, regional architecture, Asia’s maritime commons, new internationalism, democratic values.
Analysis: The word ‘new’ in the title of this analysis refers to the substantive changes in India’s foreign policy orientation in recent years. While the notion of ‘non-alignment’ continues to animate the domestic and international discourse on India’s foreign policy, Delhi’s international engagement has significantly evolved over the past two decades. India’s perception of itself and its role in the world have been dramatically transformed.
If change, indeed, has been the central theme of India’s foreign policy in recent years, nowhere is it more evident than in its relations with the great powers. During the Cold War, India steadily drifted towards the Soviet Union and its relations with all the other major centres of power –the US, Western Europe, China and Japan– remained underdeveloped. However, from being ‘estranged democracies’ just a few years ago, India and the US are now locked in an unprecedented engagement, at once intense and expansive. After the prolonged chill in India’s bilateral relations with China from the 1960s to the 1980s, Beijing is now India’s largest trading partner in goods, and while it is building strategic partnerships with the EU and Japan, India has also managed to hold on to its special relationship with post Soviet Russia.
Nevertheless, while change has been the trend of the times, the foreign policies of large countries like India are always rooted in a set of core values. These do not change with the usual turnover of governments and leaders and nor do they alter much over time. India’s commitment to internationalism, independence of judgement in the conduct of external relations, support for world democratisation and contributions to the maintenance of international peace and security are enduring legacies of India’s national movement and enjoy strong bipartisan support.
India’s foreign policy in the 21st century will remain rooted in these core values, but Delhi must necessarily adapt to changing external circumstances and its shifting domestic needs. Its main purpose, however, will remain the same: the creation of a favourable external environment for the rapid improvement of the living standards of the Indian people.
Despite considerable change in Indian foreign policy in recent years, there is much impatience among the friends of India in the West, who consider that Delhi must do a lot more on the world stage and do so swiftly. Unlike autocratic and authoritarian societies, where a strong ruler can rapidly turn the fundamentals of a nation’s foreign policy on their head, the adaptation of democracies to external and internal change is incremental and slow. While change occurs slowly, India compensates by ensuring that, as a large and diverse democracy, its foreign policy is both credible and predictable. Despite the large multiparty coalitions that have governed India in the past two decades, Delhi has managed to re-direct its internal and external orientation on a sustained basis.
Looking ahead, it is possible to delineate five major challenges that confront India’s foreign policy in the early 21st century: (1) the creation of an area of peace and prosperity in the South-Asian Subcontinent; (2) the construction of a stable architecture for peace and cooperation in Asia; (3) the peaceful management of Asia’s maritime commons; (4) a new internationalism that will be shaped by a deepening integration with the global economy and an effective contribution to the management of global problems; and (5) a clear line between celebrating its own democratic values and imposing them on others.
The Subcontinent as an Area of Peace
The first and most important challenge for India is the creation of an area of peace and prosperity in the South-Asian subcontinent. Since the late 1970s, the north-western parts of the subcontinent have seen disturbances and violent conflict that has affected not only India but also the entire world. India’s ability to cope with this turbulence has been undermined by its tense relations with Pakistan. India is determined to work with its neighbours in the region as well as with the world’s major powers to defeat the scourge of violent extremism that has taken root in the subcontinent’s north-west.
India has devoted much energy –both diplomatic and political– over the last decade to transforming its relations with Pakistan. Three prime ministers, representing three different political trends –Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh– have persistently attempted to normalise the country’s ties with Pakistan. The effort has begun to pay off. India and Pakistan are now implementing a road map for the comprehensive normalisation of bilateral trade relations. They also signed an agreement in September 2012 to liberalise a four-decade-old restrictive visa regime.
India is committed to supporting the Afghan people’s efforts to reconstruct their war-ravaged economy. Its interest in the security of the Afghan state is reflected in the strategic partnership agreement signed a year ago.
The quest to normalise India’s relations with Pakistan and to deepen its strategic partnership with Afghanistan are part of a single vision that seeks political stability, economic modernisation and regional integration in the subcontinent’s north-west.
India has been eager to work with the other major powers in promoting regional connectivity –as reflected by the notion of a ‘new silk road’–. Peace and prosperity in the north-west of the subcontinent depend on India’s success in reclaiming the region’s role as a bridge between the different parts of Asia. India is also unilaterally opening its markets to its other neighbours in the subcontinent, contributing to the internal stability and prosperity of Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives.
Delhi has demonstrated India’s political will to lead the subcontinent in a positive direction. It nevertheless has a long way to go before it can transform South Asia into a peaceful and prosperous region.
A Stable Architecture for Peace and Cooperation in Asia
The second challenge for India lies in making an effective contribution to the construction of a stable architecture for peace and cooperation in Asia. The idea of Asian unity and solidarity deeply influenced the Indian national movement in the early decades of the 20th century, while promoting political solidarity and economic cooperation within a newly liberated Asia was one of independent India’s diplomatic initiatives. These ideas were far ahead of their time in the 1940s and 1950s.
More than six decades later, many of those ideas have become a reality. Asia has never been as integrated within and with the world as it is today. This has generated unprecedented levels of prosperity and the continent is once again becoming an important driving force for the world economy. Asia’s extraordinary accomplishments in the last few decades, however, could easily be reversed if the region falls prey to great-power rivalry, national chauvinism and unbridled arms races. India needs to help prevent such an outcome by accelerating its own economic integration in the region, deepening its bilateral and multilateral security partnerships, promoting an inclusive political and security order for Asia and finding a balance between the interests of the major powers. Above all, India must help Asia rediscover the ‘universalism’ of Rabindranath Tagore and other pioneers who made the region aware of its shared cultural identity but refused to define it in opposition to the West.
Securing the Maritime Commons
The emerging negative trends in Asia express themselves most clearly in the maritime domain. The intensification of territorial disputes over small islands has begun to threaten Asian waters. China’s growing assertiveness and America’s ‘pivot to Asia’ are likely to herald a tense period in the region’s international relations. At precisely the time when Asia needs to strongly adhere to the principles of the Law of the Sea, the legal framework for maintaining good order at sea appears to be breaking down. Competing interpretations of the principle of freedom of navigation are threatening the vital lines of communication linking the different parts of Asia and connecting it to the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, as the role of seaborne trade in the economic life of Asia rises, all the major powers in the region, including China and India, are strengthening their maritime capabilities. The rise of new naval powers in Asia is bound to generate inevitable friction with the US, that has long been the dominant maritime power in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. India does not agree with the proposition that the maritime politics of Asia are a zero-sum game. Nor does it see an inevitable confrontation between China and the US in the Indo-Pacific.
India already cooperates with the US in wide-ranging maritime security activities. It is also planning to initiate a maritime dialogue with China and to build on the first steps towards a coordinated anti-piracy policy in the Gulf of Aden. India has supported the proposal of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a trilateral engagement between Washington, Beijing and Delhi and hopes that sooner rather than later China will agree to begin talks in such a trilateral framework. Strong and sustained cooperation between the US, China and India holds the key for the peaceful management of Asia’s maritime commons.
Although some will be tempted to see such cooperation as an attempt to impose a ‘Concert of Asia’, since not everyone in the region agrees that a concert of great powers, of the kind developed in Europe after the Napoleonic wars, is the best remedy for the region. Nevertheless, trilateral cooperation between the US, China and India must be seen as one of the many mechanisms that, combined, may contribute to peace and stability in the region.
India’s New International Role
There is considerable interest in the US and Europe on the kind of global role that India might undertake in the 21st century and the contribution it should make to resolve the many global challenges now facing the world. In India too there is an intense debate on the meaning of Delhi’s emergence as a responsible power in the 21st century. India’s new internationalism is likely to be shaped by two factors. The first is India’s deepening integration into the global economy. Two decades ago the rest of the world was not critical to India’s inward-oriented economic strategy. After two decades of reform, more than 40% of India’s GDP is now linked to international trade. India needs massive amounts of imported energy and mineral resources to sustain the high growth rates that are so vital to its people’s well-being. This is only one example of India’s increasing interdependence with the rest of the world. In turn, this makes India’s commitment to internationalism less of an ideological conviction and more of a vital self-interest.
Equally important is the second factor. India’s growth is not merely an additional factor in the world economy. India’s advancement will have systemic consequences for the world in a number of issues –from energy security and global warming to the management of maritime commons and global governance–. Put simply. India cannot prosper without an effective contribution to the management of global problems and, consequently, this raises India’s stake in the development of multilateralism.
To be credible and effective, Delhi argues, the multilateral process must become more representative and take into account the changing global distribution of power. The current gap between the international expectation of India’s global role and what Delhi is prepared to do is indeed real; but India, in its own interest, is likely to contribute more vigorously to the construction of global norms and enforcing them.
India’s Democratic Values
One of India’s greatest political successes since independence has been the zealous guarding of its democratic values. Since the end of the Cold War and more recently in the wake of the Arab Spring, many questions have arisen on what democratic powers must do to help others move towards political pluralism, the rule of law and representative government. However, India draws a clear line between celebrating its own democratic values and imposing them on others, for democracy is not a gift one people can bestow on another. It is necessary to pause and reflect on the recent experience in the use of external force to promote internal change in various countries and the costs and benefits of international intervention. As in the provision of medical care, so in the case of the use of force to promote democratic transformation, the guiding principle must be a simple one: do no harm.
Use of force, in extraordinary circumstances, has been very much part of the history of international relations. But the use of force has been successful only when it has been accompanied by mature political judgement and the recognition of the limits to power. No single power or group of nations today have the power to successfully change other societies along pre-determined lines. The democratic powers should allow others sufficient time and space to come to terms with the imperative of political freedom in the quest for economic and social modernisation. The agenda for freedom is best served by deepening democracy in countries like India. Delhi is indeed ready to share its experiences and to offer its support to those who seek it.
Conclusion: India today impinges on the world in unprecedented ways. At the same time it is increasingly dependent on the rest of the world for its own security and prosperity. This sets the stage for an ever larger and expanding role for India on the world stage.
C. Raja Mohan
Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and Non-Resident Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC
 Summary of the Talk presented at the Elcano Royal Institute, Madrid, 24/IX/2012.