BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is slowly uncovering his foreign policy vision. The other day while campaigning in Arunachal Pradesh he expressed his concerns over “Chinese assertiveness” and comforted the audiences that under no circumstances will China be allowed to grab the border state. China, interestingly, is one of the three countries that Narendra Modi has visited as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, two others being Japan and Singapore. Obviously, these foreign visits of Modi carried economic undertones. But his assertions in Arunachal Pradesh last week reflected the strategic or security dimensions of his world view.
Having built his reputation as a no nonsense politician committed to development, Modi has now to prove how he combines economics with military power while dealing with foreign countries in general and China in particular. India’s economic ties with China have taken a quantum jump over the recent years; but at the same time China remains the biggest source of security challenge to India. Not only have we unresolved border issues with our largest and most powerful neighbour, it is also a fact that China is the biggest constraining factor to the rise or spread of Indian influence in our strategic neighbourhood. It will be interesting to know how Modi deals with the contradictions pertaining to China. How will he untangle the China-riddle?
If Modi gets the mandate to become the country’s next Prime Minister, will he break with the past and envision a very clear and unambiguous strategic goal post? In fact, we in India, and I think that it is a part of our strategic culture, love to keep things and policies as ambiguous as possible, leaving them to many and different interpretations. Unlike the cases in many leading countries, our leaders hesitate to enunciate clear policies or doctrines having strategic implications. For instance, as a nuclear power, we do not have a nuclear doctrine in strict sense of the term; what we have indeed is a “draft nuclear doctrine” devised in 1999, some clarifications of which were “shared with the public” in 2003 by the then Cabinet Committee on Security. Similarly, we have had the so-called “Indira Doctrine” or “Gujral Doctrine”, which were actually named and popularized by late Professor Bhabani Sengupta. Of late, some admirers of our present Prime Minister have coined a term, “the Manmohan doctrine” to explain his emphasis on economic development as a driver for foreign policy and in shaping India’s strength, interests and relationships.
Of course, there is no disputing the fact that the broad objective of our foreign policy is to protect and promote our political and social systems of democracy and pluralism as well as to further our economic objectives by working for a benign external environment that will ensure these goals. Obviously, we do need a stable global order and a peaceful neighbourhood. We need an open and equitable international trading system; a secure financial system; reliable, affordable and secure energy supplies; and, food security. We need bilateral as well as international partnerships of technology and innovation to meet the extraordinary scale of our development challenges. All these are our strategic objectives.
The strategic neighbourhood is not necessarily the geographic neighbourhood or immediate neighbourhood. Our South Asian neighbours constitute our immediate neighbourhood. While they are undoubtedly vital from out security point of view, our broad strategic goals impel us to be actively involved and engaged in our extended neighbourhood. Here I will like to quote my senior colleague and friend C Raja Mohan: “India’s grand strategy divided the world into three concentric circles. In the first, which encompass the immediate neighbourhood, India has sought primacy and a veto over the actions of outside powers. In the second, which encompass the so-called extended neighbourhood stretching across Asia and the Indian Ocean littoral, India has sought to balance the influence of other powers and prevent them from undercutting its interests. In the third, which includes the entire global stage, India has tried to take its place across as one of the great powers, a key player in international peace and security”.
Importantly, such a broad strategic framework that Raja Mohan had written in the Foreign Affairs journal in the year 2006 was more or less in harmony with the sketch drawn by the then Indian foreign minister, now the President of the country, Pranab Mukherjee. While Raja Mohan used the term “concentric circles”, Mukherjee had talked of “expanding circles”, starting with the immediate neighbourhood and then moving on to the extended neighbourhood. Since then these terms have been used interchangeably by various Indian officials.
For clarity, I have chosen to quote the then defence secretary Shekhar Dutta : “Given the size of the country and its role in the comity of nations, our security concerns are not limited to our immediate neighbourhood . . . India’s area of security interest extends beyond the confines of the conventional geographical definition of South Asia; for India’s security environment extends from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca across the Indian Ocean, including the Central Asian region in the North West, China in the North East and South East Asia”.
Viewed thus, Modi, or for that matter the BJP, has to ponder over strategic challenges and opportunities in our enlarged neighbourhoods. China, needless to say, will figure prominently in this exercise. In fact, the rest of the world is closely watching what role India can play in balancing the rising Chinese power. Here balancing does not necessarily mean military confrontation; it involves strategies of remaining engaged with China without overwhelming it or being overwhelmed by it. In fact, this is the strategy other important countries of the world, including the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia, are adopting in this part of the world—popularly termed now as Indo-Pacific (areas connecting the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean).
Of course, India’s defence and security cooperation with the countries of Indo-Pacific have been strengthened of late under what is called “Look-East policy”. But, all said and done about our Look-East policy, the fact remains that China is much ahead of us in its involvement with the region. China is ASEAN’s biggest trading partner, the annual trade figure touching more than US $400 billion in 2012. China’s economic ties with Japan and South Korea are simply incomparable with that of India. And for this sorry state, India is mainly responsible, thanks to its sinking economic reforms, of late.
Similarly, our Look East policy needs to go deeper at strategic level. As the Americans have been saying, instead of “looking east”, India should “Be East” itself by playing a more proactive role in shaping the trajectory of regional integration. I am here being reminded of what former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said during a speech in Chennai not long ago where she called on India to “not just to look east but engage east and act east as well.”
Of course, in a way, as Prof. S D Muni has argued, the current challenge in India’s look-east policy arises from the disturbed regional strategic balance in East Asia due to China’s rise and the perception of US constraints on playing its traditional role of ensuring stability. The revival of tensions in South China Sea over territorial disputes between China and the Southeast Asian countries, and between China and Japan in East China Sea and now the North Korean offensive against the South are all indications of the disturbed regional strategic balance. But then the fact remains that the growing Chinese assertiveness over territorial issues in the region provides India an opportunity to expand its influence by deepening relations with countries along China’s periphery.
Be that as it may, Modi is expected to replace “a subcontinental mindset that had virtually confined India to a small portion of the Afro-Asian region, so-called South Asia”, a mindset that had , to quote Prof. K R Singh, who had taught me, “denied India its rightful place in the neighbourhood beyond South Asia”. But then the question is that of the reality check. Can India afford to play such a role, given its existing economic and military power? How far can India intervene militarily outside South Asia if the situation so demands? How far will India push its economic development? In fact, some commentators argue that it will be better if India concentrates more to be the preeminent power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean but not an extra-regional power in Southeast, Central and West Asia.
But then the fact remains that you cannot expect India to dominate the Indian Ocean but not play a leading role in the other regions which are connected by the same Indian Ocean. You cannot fight the globally operated and coordinated menaces such as terrorism and fundamentalism by confining yourself to a particular geographic region. You cannot confront rising hegemony of certain powers without coordinating other countries in other regions that are equally affected by such a danger, and that too when your help and cooperation is solicited by them. After all, working jointly or collectively has got great advantages. The idea here is that you may not be a dominant player in a particular region, but if you play your cards well then you can deny your rivals to be preeminent either in that region. Viewed thus, it is by playing an active role in its strategic neighbourhood that that India will bridge the gap between its established role as a South Asian power and aspiration to be a global power. Will India under Modi play this role?
By Prakash Nanda