ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Indian Foreign Policy Today

While China seeks to alter the global balance of power in its own favour and gives every indication of moving forward with calculated purposiveness, India lurches forward unsteadily, reacting to external pressures erratically rather than anticipating them. It is also unable to achieve the degree of domestic consensus necessary to devote resources and energy to urgent goals.

India may be a satisfied status quo power, but its economic progress and associated political consolidation threaten the regional aspirations of a revanchist China. The latter is seeking to alter the global balance of power in its own favour and gives every indication of moving forward with calculated purposiveness. By contrast, India lurches forward unsteadily, reacting to external pressures erratically rather than anticipating them. It is also unable to achieve the degree of domestic consensus necessary to devote resources and energy to urgent goals. The most telling difference in their modes of thought and operation is the complete agreement between Taiwan and its bitter rival, the Peoples’ Republic itself, over the status of Tibet as inviolably Chinese. By comparison, most Indians care little about the terrible dangers looming in the northeast and a substantial number of educated ones, including virtually every prominent social scientist abroad, privately advocate the cession of Kashmir to Pakistan. Again and again, foreign opinion-makers seek to clinch arguments about Kashmir by citing the opinions of such Indians.

Luck apparently eludes Indians, but the consequences of the adverse circumstances they face are being compounded by a lack of perspective and skill in playing their hand. Elites, who have robbed India of economic success, through gross incompetence and short-term greed, take refuge in secrecy to stop others questioning decisions based on their alleged superior knowledge. They finally understood that relations with Pakistan are almost exclusively a function of India’s relations with the Sino-American axis. But with alacrity born of desperation and a penchant for making deals, instead of achieving national capability to secure fundamental interests regardless of the preferences of others, Indian policy-makers have latched on to the idea that the answer to their problems is to somehow become useful to the US.

They forlornly hope that the US may need India to curb the threat of alleged Chinese power. Non-resident Indians in the US, many of whom are thoroughly compromised by the geographical location of their fragile personal and economic interests, are peddling this absurdity. Most Indians are oblivious to the fact that this purported gift horse, the self-styled Indian lobby in the US, is in reality a two-edged sword. In fact, NRIs are more a US lobby in India than an Indian one in the US. The fervent activity of some US-based NRIs over Kashmir, with the apparent blessing of the US State Department, seems to have imperceptibly tweaked existing Indian goals in Kashmir. It is staggering that some have suddenly discovered that Indian and US interests may coincide after all, despite the continuation of US sanctions, demands for India’s nuclear disarmament and the publicly available record of utter disagreement over Kashmir since 1947. Indians must ask themselves if conflicts of interest between the US and India can occur. If they do, will the NRI lobby attempt to cajole the surrender of the weaker party so that their usefulness to the stronger party remains intact?

It is difficult to understand the real state of Sino-American relations without detailed knowledge and analysis. Yet many influential Indian professionals and businessmen now speak with alarming confidence of a growing Sino-American rift. The US assisted China’s nuclear weapons’ programme during the 1970s because it was concerned about its relative nuclear inferiority vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, which had become China’s mortal enemy, and remains deeply solicitous of its welfare. Doubters should download from official web sites the voluminous evidence of lobbying by the White House recently to ensure congressional approval for Chinese accession to the WTO, in order to understand the depth of this commitment. The surpassing scale of US military supremacy and the improbability of a Chinese challenge to it also need to be understood. More to the point, a non-nuclear India, which is what the US is striving to ensure, is unlikely to be a serious deterrent to Chinese ambitions in Asia on behalf of it. Perhaps India’s capacity for absorbing blows with Gandhian equanimity might eventually demoralise the emerging leadership in Beijing, described to me by one leading US scholar as hard military men.

Political Blunder

Of all the political blunders made by Indians in several millennia the failure to respond effectively over the fate of Tibet may turn out to have been the most consequential. The terrifying price for this blunder may be paid in 2009 if the Chinese government carries out its plans to change the course of the Brahmaputra river by setting off a nuclear explosion at its source in Tibet. This will be a catastrophe for India, easily dwarfing the depredations of the Ghaznavids, Tamerlane, Nadir Shah and devastation of the partition combined. The poignant paradox is that it is the elites of Assam, West Bengal and Bangladesh, who admire China with perverse determination that will take their region into oblivion. China has already conducted military experiments by opening a specially constructed dam upstream, causing flash floods in Arunachal Pradesh that inundated vital road links with the rest of India. Quite unbelievably, informed sources say that senior ministers of one state are seeking to restore road access to Chinese controlled areas, apparently in exchange for substantial consideration.

Lord Curzon’s dire warnings of the consequences for India of Tibet’s loss of independence, ignored by a racist India Office in London, unconcerned about the price to be paid in Asia for its rapprochement with Russia, may be fated to haunt India soon. From his deathbed, Sardar Patel presciently and bitterly anticipated Nehru’s failure to extract forbearance from China, weakened by its involvement in the Korean war, to ensure some protection for Tibetans and secure minimal Indian interests. Tibet and Nepal, which had become the vital repository of India’s traditional civilisation while it was being swept away north of the Vindhiyas, finally gave it up in the 1950s to the most exclusivist monotheism in history. Much authentic traditional Indian knowledge and culture, which now only survives as a caricature, is soon to vanish altogether. Nepal itself is succumbing to a calamitous demographic shift, with the relative size of the Hindu population collapsing by a third in a generation and its virulently anti-Indian elites in virtual political alliance with Beijing and Islamabad. The politics of Gandhian non-violence, ending in the cataclysmic violence of partition, and the political economy of statism, have managed to amputate India’s head and limbs in one generation.

The Sino-Pak alliance and implicit US support for it remain the greatest immediate problem for India. Unfortunately, clever manoeuvres and grand gestures are no substitute for basics. According to one leading western academic strategist, China is determined to see India off and is using Pakistan as a very effective distraction and a masterly nuclear stratagem that creates severe dilemmas for India’s strategic calculations. Abandoning the goal of parity with China in the missile arms race, which acceding to US demands would entail, would be a grievous mistake. India needs to move rapidly to ensure the integrity of a second-strike capacity (not weaponising without securing it and no first use, abjuring defensive pre-emption, are meaningless) that can threaten major populations centres, including Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Before India achieves such a second-strike capacity there is grave danger of some sort of pre-emptive Chinese action to prevent it being attained.

In the grim, adversarial conditions intensifying, India needs to consider the circumstances in which recognition should be accorded to a Tibetan government in exile. Recognition should occur in concert with countries within its orbit and, possibly, one or two outside it. Indian rearmament is also urgently required to ensure the ability to intervene decisively in the north-east in favour of Tibetan exiles. Enhancing Indian relations with other countries fearful of China’s intentions must therefore be desirable. India should immediately examine the possibility of offering free trade to Vietnam and Cambodia as well as complete freedom for outward Indian investment in these countries. If the diversion of the Brahmaputra by China seems likely, it would be tantamount to a nuclear attack against India that would justify a commensurate response. In this scenario all bets are off. India will find itself alone and must ponder the unthinkable. Timing would be of the essence and knowledge of China’s plans a paramount necessity. But India should be prepared to negotiate with China and make significant concessions as a quid pro quo for cast iron guarantees, once India’s retaliatory intentions have been understood.

The Nuclear Context

India’s long-standing posture of goodwill gestures and accommodation in its foreign policy actions has been misplaced and is especially so now, in the context of nuclear deterrence. It is also the reason for the periodic setbacks in its regional policies and rapid recent loss of influence in Nepal, so vital for India’ security. Self-indulgent leaders may experience a feel good sensation by banal moralising, but it does not impress others. The failure of Indian policy in Nepal, for example, is not so much the product of incompetence, though that can boast a proud and long history, but the admixing of bullying with intermittent attempts to be philanthropic, which only conveys a message of weakness and lack of political will. This behaviour derives from India’s domestic political culture and practices, where it may have some utility, but becomes self-defeating abroad because ultimate power does not reside with India. Nepal’s elites therefore have no respect for India when what they should feel is a well-grounded fear of India’s ire. The propensity of such fear to transmute into respectful regard is a commonplace occurrence, exemplified in asymmetric relations everywhere and noted in standard history and political science texts. Of course, members of the Indian elite cannot, by and large, be accused of a weakness for study and reflection.

The marked tendency to affect moral poses during the Nehru era rankled deeply with the US and has now become a positive danger in the nuclear era to the security of India as well as the region. The most important mechanism for ensuring peace between nuclear powers is credible signalling, which can involve deceit but not a public display of anxiety. Indian paranoia about escalation is increasing the risk of a nuclear exchange by encouraging adversaries to take greater risks in the expectation that India can be relied upon to concede. Appropriate signalling is also crucial for making sure that the possession of nuclear weapons does not frighten the possessor into frozen inaction. In fact, it is now constraining policy actions that India was able to previously undertake, when nuclear weapons should have achieved the exact opposite. It is also instituting an unhealthy and growing dependence on the US, when respectful mutual regard alone should be sought.

India needed to have assured the capacity of delivery systems for nuclear weapons, but tested prematurely because it wrongly feared that the CTBT would be ratified by the US, allegedly making it harder to conduct nuclear tests subsequently. Its second-strike capability is therefore in doubt, increasing the dangers of a pre-emptive strike by China. The likelihood of US ratification was so small that it is surprising that it escaped the attention of Indian policy-makers. The useful position of a nuclear threshold state was therefore surrendered thoughtlessly, at considerable political and military cost. Having erred in this crucial regard India has now communicated its fear of escalation to the world by declining to cross the line-of-control to punish Pakistan for aggression. By signalling anxiety to avoid escalation at almost any price, in the apparent pursuit of self-preservation, it has offered Pakistan carte blanche. In effect, India has conceded the game of chicken, which nuclear deterrence constitutes, by swerving first to avoid collision the moment the race commenced. Paradoxically, crossing the line-of-control to impose costs on aggression would have signalled India’s nerve to stay the course when a headlong collision seemed to threaten, deterring the adversary from risking an even more dangerous escalation in the future. The risk of escalation of carefully planned conventional military action to deter continuing interference in Kashmir was not absent though infinitesimal.

Misguided Venture

Strangely, India is apparently poised to cooperate with assorted parties against the Taliban in a venture that might involve a Russo-American strike against Osama bin Laden’s hideouts. Most Indians are so irrationally excited at the prospect of such a strike that they have thrown caution to the winds. The bywords of statecraft: national capacity, calculation and cynicism have given way to a kind of vacuous opportunism that is a sure sign of weakness and prelude to self-inflicted wounds. The US has no interest in overthrowing the Taliban (which it helped to power) and the elimination of Osama bin Laden would be a specific and solitary action, prompted by domestic clamour for retaliation after recent attacks against US targets. A militant Afghanistan, backed by Pakistan’s military resources, is a formidable challenge to unpopular central Asian regimes. These remain politically beholden to Russia despite US dominance of their oil economies.

The Russians and Indians may have the most to gain from a change of regime in Kabul, but the Russians, unlike the Indians, can choose and have chosen a policy of all-out confrontation against Islamic militants. Unlike India they do not have the world’s second largest Muslim population within their borders and can fight a dirty war against so-called Islamic terror, without fear of serious reprisal. This is why they have adopted a scorched earth policy in Chechnya. India, by contrast, has usually, rightly, held back from such an indiscriminate policy of counter terror except in a specific and limited response against infiltrators in Kashmir. Its policy of carrot and stick, which attempts at genuine reconciliation and inclusiveness in conjunction with military resolve, though costly, exhibits a realism that others could well emulate.

Once the Americans disappear after launching their courageous air strikes from a safe distance it is India that will bear the brunt of even greater Afghan hatred, which Pakistan will exploit to the hilt. Since India has already signalled that it would not cross the line-of-control, for fear of escalation, it will have the onus of embarking on the very escalation that earlier Indian restraint has made more hazardous. Punishing its tormentors in response to a worsening situation may now be more difficult. Self-preservation suggests that cynically cultivating the Taliban is a better policy option for India, even though it may have to be held in abeyance until the Russians and Americans have ended their ill-advised military venture. India will also need to convince the Russians why such a policy is necessary for India and inconsequential to Russian interests. Ambitious collaboration with a duplicitous Iran over Afghanistan is a mistake because the US would find intolerable an Afghan regime vulnerable to it.

Indo-Afghan differences are essentially ideological and a strong Afghan state, less dependent on Pakistan, will soon be preoccupied with pressing domestic problems and tire of its own doctrinaire beliefs, like almost all militant regimes in history. A cursory acquaintance with Arab and Ottoman history highlights the mundane material objectives of Islamic states and their espousal of religious ideology primarily to deal with inconvenient domestic opponents or weak external foes. Impoverished Afghanistan needs to be detached from the bankrupt state of Pakistan and India now has the financial wherewithal to make such an attempt. Getting even is better than getting mad, but achieving objectives is best of all.

West Asia Policy

Finally, Indian policy in the west Asia is in danger of a comprehensive U-turn, without searching reflection, instead of an overdue partial correction. It needs to be based more on calculation and less on maudlin sentiment about a shared fate with Israel. Israel is not in a position to use its US lobby for India’s benefit, an extraordinary expectation that some Indians have. Israel’s enemies are capable of doing far greater gratuitous harm to India than any compensatory help Israel is capable of providing. Israeli arms sales to India are basically commercial in motivation and the added benefit of timely availability can be assured by merely saying nothing on issues of particular concern to Israel and little to India. Sales of weapons to India over US objections may inspire Indian confidence, but amount to little of significance. Israeli dependence on the US is so great that its wise leaders have never provoked their guarantor lightly. India is simply not important enough for them to fall out with the US over.

Dire and well-founded Israeli fears of nuclear proliferation to the region from Pakistan should also put India on its guard. From an Israeli perspective, if the de-nuclearisation of Pakistan requires India being similarly deprived as well it is an unquestionably worthwhile outcome. I do not recall Israeli public acclaim for India’s nuclear tests. A modest Indo-Pak battlefield nuclear exchange would allow the UN Security Council to impose nuclear disarmament on both countries, with probable domestic support. Friendship with Israel for commendable reasons of sentiment and annoyance at OIC hostility towards India should not confuse ardent desire with feasible reality. Cordial relations with each other do not imply a guarantee of support in the types of fearful scenarios threatening India.

Steady economic growth may not be a sufficient condition for India to become a serious international player, able to achieve its basic goals, but it is a necessary one. The continuing impasse over economic reform, with very small numbers of protestors and minor politicians able to slow or halt the process is laughable. The NDA government itself is a product of this stagnant political culture and embedded in the same morass of opportunistic compromise, unable to rise decisively over mere words. Perhaps this is how the Indian polity inevitably functions and principled espousal of change would only mean being out of power. Yet, international politics is entering a phase of much greater tension and potential conflict, for which India needs to be prepared.

The age of the zero sum and military coercion are returning because the umbrella over weak countries, protected by bipolar cold war stalemate, has disappeared. One emerging situation illustrates it well: while Bangladeshis migrate to India in ever-greater numbers, partly because global warming is playing havoc with the climate and raising sea levels, the Russians and Americans are implementing an agreement, dating from 1974, to let the Arctic ice caps melt. This is designed to prevent the proposed American Alaskan oil pipeline from the Beaufort Sea freezing during winter as well as creating a more direct link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Russians want to navigate directly from Vladivostok and the Americans wish to avoid the much longer route via the Panama Canal. This shared interest between India’s principal ally and its main historical critic makes clear the need for standing on one’s own feet with a strong economy and potent military capacity, without taking anything for granted.

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top