India emerged from its birth pangs into a world that was polarised between the East and the West. Lacking the means to generate hard power, and dependent upon foreign assistance to feed its teeming millions, it was in no position to play sides during the cold war. What it possessed was a moral high ground based upon the nonviolent and principled character of its freedom struggle which brought it international recognition. Jawaharlal Nehru, along with Josip Tito, Gamal Nasser, Achmad Sukarno and Kwame Nkrumah -- the famous five -- jointly took the initiative to form the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at Belgrade in 1961. Today, with 120 members and seven observers, the NAM is just a babble of voices.
For nearly four decades, the NAM was the cornerstone of Indian foreign policy. As proxy wars raged in South East Asia, Southern and Eastern Africa, and South America, India was able to create geopolitical manoeuvring space to avoid involvement and build relationships with major powers on both sides of the political divide. During the 1962 Sino-India war, India was actively supported by the U.S. with arms, ammunition, and equipment. Russia, on the other hand, maintained a studied silence in deference to its communist ally. The situation was to be reversed in 1971.
While the NAM stance suited India as a third-world developing country, it constricted its ability to grow as an economically strong and stable nation. Healthy bilateral relations with rich western bloc countries were critical to obtain technology, capital, and access to their flourishing markets. Being critical of them in every forum was not the best way to attract capital and commerce.
INDIA IN A MULTI-POLAR WORLD
Geopolitics underwent a transformation after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. India too had by now progressed to a developing nation, with aspirations of a regional power.
In this new multi-polar world, India has all but shed its cloak of non-alignment and adopted a more realpolitik approach in re-establishing its equations with the different powers. The question arises whether this pragmatic and realistic approach has left India rudderless, without ideological moorings that are so essential in defining the character of a nation.
With the two-pronged approach of multi-polar diplomacy and non-alignment, India did grow economically in the last two decades, building many steady partnerships with major powers. This worked when globalisation was in its heydays, and there was shared prosperity from booming markets. Under Pan Americana, the prevailing peaceful international system gave India ample strategic space to seek economic growth.
Yet, there was a hint of uneasiness, a sense of Indian foreign policy becoming adrift. While a new strategic partnership with the U.S. brought India recognition as a de-facto nuclear power and access to nuclear fuel supplies, its refusal to participate in America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan earned it ridicule at the highest level and dampened the relationship. It continued to be the largest customer for Russian arms, yet it can now no longer count upon Russia as a strategic ally against China. In its immediate neighbourhood, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Bangladesh doubt its status as a credible balancer in South Asia, which emboldens China.
A foreign policy focussed on just economic growth cannot replace a larger strategic outlook. Either India places itself with countries like Singapore and Japan that rely only on their financial strength to secure their place in the comity of nations, or it can aspire to become a regional, if not a global player, with hard and soft power to match, and a clutch of reliable allies to vote for its cause in international fora. India's potential as a huge market alone cannot win it friends and supporters. The deafening silence from India's "friends" in the ongoing crisis with China is indicative of this.
With the decline in American power and the rise of China, India has to face new realities. India needs a new policy which will take into account the rise of a belligerent neighbour, a restive and unfriendly neighbourhood, declining multilateralism and restrictive trade practices.
THE AMERICAN ANGLE
The "peaceful rise" of China, its aggressive moves in the South China Sea, Taiwan Straits, and the Indian Ocean Region created mutual concerns which India was able to leverage to some extent. China is convinced that India continues to "snub" the BRI and RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) due to its acceptance of the 2017 American Indo- Pacific strategy. Perhaps the basis of this relationship, a strong anti-China statement, led to the drifting apart of Russia, which stated that "Washington was using Delhi as its tool."
There was great hope in Washington for India as a strategic partner to balance the rising influence and power of China. This is being replaced by a sense of despondency as in their view, India has failed to rise to its potential. Internal political and ideological strife, rising right-wing nationalism, and a slowing economy have to a great extent taken the sheen off this relationship.
The Center for New American Security (CNAS) has voiced this concern unambiguously in its report of October 2019. It states that the “United States has made a strategic bet: that India will decisively shape the military balance in Asia in an era of avowed great power competition with China at a time when the U.S. military's edge over the People's Liberation Army (PLA) continues to erode. If India can maintain an advantage over China along its Himalayan frontier and sustain its dominance in the Indian Ocean, U.S. efforts to deny Beijing a regional sphere of influence are far more likely to succeed—as is the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific shared by Washington and Delhi. If India fails to realise its military potential, the United States, caught in between its many global commitments, will struggle to uphold a favourable balance of power.”
Walking the middle path will no longer be a safe option in modern politics unless India wishes to be confined to the backwaters of the geopolitical landscape. It has to stand up and be counted, and to be able to do so, it must have a stiff economic backbone and hard military power to boot, and more importantly, harmony in its domestic polity.
Modern geopolitics can be said to suffer from “cognitive dissonance,” since it is no longer possible to bracket foreign policy between place holders simply marked black and white. International relations are far more diffused make dealings between nations extremely complex and the inability to make sense out of this dissonance, is a recipe for disaster.
India has to walk the talk. If it advocates a policy of 'Act East', it must work towards implementing such a policy to broaden its strategic and economic choices and options. If it expects its immediate neighbourhood to be supportive, it has to be realistic in its expectations from them.
Declarations of intent by a nation which seeks recognition as a serious international player must come with matching capacity. In a globally connected world, every word, every action is visible in near real-time to a global audience, and therefore actions have to match words. While India may continue to espouse its strategic autonomy, it must be aware that for aspiring powers, it has become almost impossible to remain neutral. The architects of Indian foreign policy have to cobble together a plan that is able to safeguard its national interests.
Author; Major General Ajay Sah, SM, VSM(Retired), Chief Information Officer, Synergia Foundation