JUSTIN WINTLE, historian and author of several books including Perfect Hostage, a biography of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, on the public discussion on a potential superpower’s search for global influence.
On 30 September 2010, the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association (UK) convened a well-attended meeting in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Room (an annex of the Great Hall of Westminster in the British parliament complex) to discuss the risks and challenges for India’s foreign policy
Co-ordinator: Rita Payne (formerly Asia Editor, BBC World TV)
Chair: Humphrey Hawksley (BBC foreign correspondent, documentary maker and author whose many books include Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About Having the Vote? (2009)
Jonathan Fenby: Formerly editor of the South China Morning Post and The Observer and author of The Penguin History of Modern China (2007).
Irfan Husain: A long-serving member of the Pakistani Civil Service and now a political commentator for Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language daily newspaper.
Major-General Ashok Mehta: A distinguished career soldier with the Indian Army who has latterly redeployed as a defence analyst for both the Indian and Western press.
Deepak Tripathi: A former BBC correspondent and editor who now writes about Asia for many publications, and whose books include Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan (2010).
From the chair Humphrey Hawksley (right, pictured with Mehta) questioned whether, on the world stage, India should be considered as a ramshackle ‘leaking toilet’ (referring to media reports on the state of the Commonwealth Games Village in Delhi) or as a nuclear threat. While there could be no doubt about India’s emergence as a global economic power, one of the four BRIC nations no less, is it’s foreign policy fit for purpose?
While stressing the need for all international diplomacy to work toward peace and harmony, Deepak Tripathi (right in picture below) spoke about the ’radicalisation’ of India’s foreign policy since independence, against a background of continuing domestic unrest. In the 1950s, India pursued the path of moral leadership as a principal non-aligned nation with some close ties with the USSR. In the 1960s, conflict with China, and China’s development of the nuclear bomb, provided a wake-up call, eventually leading to India’s own acquisition of a nuclear capability. The collapse of the USSR presented the next great challenge, pushing India into an ‘overfly’ alliance with the USA (and also Israel) at a time when the economy was liberalising and globalising, and domestic politics faced the emergence of the BJP as a major party player. Tripathi expressed his regret that, seeking to become a significant military as well as economic power, India appears ready to abandon its time-honoured quest for non-violent solutions to international problems.
Speaking as a Pakistani moderate, Irfan Husain (left in picture) broadly concurred with what Tripathi had said. Mutual distrust between their two countries made harmony difficult. He cautioned that India would be well advised to distinguish between posturing and genuine defence and security needs. To demonstrate good faith, India should withdraw at least two of its divisions from the India-Pakistan border areas and depend more heavily on ‘soft power’ means to achieve its ends. Unless such steps are taken, hostilities will continue, and with both sides in possession of nuclear weapons there could be no ‘guarantees for any sort for the future’.
Fresh off a plane from Beijing, Jonathan Fenby (below) outlined Chinese attitudes toward India. While size and proximity dictate that Sino-Indian relations are of paramount importance, Fenby reported that overwhelmingly the ordinary Chinese take on India is one of indifference and ignorance, in line perhaps with the historic outlook of the Middle Kingdom. Chinese interest in S.E. Asia, always seen as a natural part of the Chinese sphere, is much greater. Within official circles, however, Fenby suggested there is ‘considerable concern’ over India, not least because of competition for regional and extra-regional resources. The Chinese are also wary of India as an emerging nuclear power on their doorstep, and see India as a surrogate of the USA. Both nations have a fear of encirclement by ideologically hostile allies of the other. For the future, any conflict is likely to arise out of China’s growing sea-power spilling out into the Indian Ocean.
Speaking at some length, Major-General Ashok Mehta said the ending of the Cold War was the main turning point for his country. As the relationship with the USSR dissolved, in the 1990s India at first pursued a ‘Look East’ policy, with a particular eye on Burma / Myanmar and its considerable natural resources. India’s entry into the nuclear club as a means of bolstering national autonomy initially caused concern in Washington, but quickly paved the way for greater Indian-US amity and co-operation. With India’s shift from socialism to capitalism, a more pragmatic foreign policy evolved. It is India’s relationship with Pakistan that has been most troublesome, the more so given the rapid escalation of terrorism and insurgency. Mehta dismissed the argument that India has nothing to lose by withdrawing divisions from its frontiers; to do so would weaken, not strengthen, national security. But to a degree, Indian foreign policy is hamstrung because of its multi-party coalition governments, which may inhibit decisive action. ‘India’s failure to use its military power to optimal effect,’ Mehta said, ‘is a source of worry.’ Mehta was also worried that by pushing for closer relations with Washington Delhi has ‘neglected promoting stability in its own neighbourhood’. He cited India’s withdrawal of support for Sri Lanka’s government as an example.
With the debate being thrown open to the floor, Tripathi reiterated his call for an ethically guided foreign policy that should be reactive rather than pro-active. Husain questioned whether this was remotely feasible given the eventual withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan and the probable recapture of Kabul by the Taliban – events that must impact on India itself. Major-General Mehta concurred. India was and should be nobody’s surrogate. The good relationship with the USA was simply one of several enjoyed by India – others included Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and … North Korea. India has a ’strategic partnership’ with America, not a formal alliance. There was no actual marriage between the two. Pragmatic multi-lateralism is the correct path to follow. As for Pakistan, the problems will only begin to dissipate if Pakistan becomes a democratic Islamic nation. For as long as the military remained in charge terrorism and Islamic extremism would continue to destabilise the region.
Fenby used an audience question to underline the increasing centrality of natural resources and their acquisition to the foreign policies of all nations. In this regard, China seems the ultimate real politik player. Once India stopped shipping iron ore to China, retaining it instead for its own use, it was both natural and vital that China should look for supplies elsewhere. In so doing, China has drawn on its centuries old ‘tribute system’ when dealing with smaller nations, offering patronage as well as cash for the commodities it needs. India still has much to learn in this respect.
Tripathi suggested that India is learning, citing Myanmar as an example, and the red carpet treatment recently given to the Burmese regime leader Senior General Than Shwe during a visit to Delhi.
Mehta urged that the key to a stronger foreign policy was stronger leadership on the domestic front, where more ‘coherence’ is needed. Unavoidably India’s foreign policy is entangled with domestic security failures. Mehta expressed the wish to see fewer parties and a stronger opposition. As it is the politicking of India’s individual states, ethnic groups and political factions too often produces stasis. As an example, he cited India’s communists and their support for Nepal’s Maoists. Previously India could determine what happened in its smaller northern neighbour. But not so now. It has become impossible to deal with the Maoists effectively without provoking a domestic backlash.
Tripathi suggested that India’s debilitating domestic conflicts were the result of continuing inequality and poverty among the Indian people at large as much as anything else. Husain said that the situation would ease if India and Pakistan could find a way of co-operating against Islamic jihadists.
From the floor it was asked ‘just what kind of power does India want to become?’ Tripathi observed that while India aspires to a permanent seat on the UN Security Culture, really (or morally) it should aspire to just the opposite. Shaking his head, Major-General Mehta bemoaned India’s apparent incapacity for proper, realistic forward planning – the likely withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan being a case in point. Nor, for that matter, has India succeeded in evolving a ‘suitable response to cross-border terrorism.’ Fenby expressed the view that while there was a certain inevitability about China becoming a global power after the advent of Dengxiaoping in 1978, the same could not be said about India, which is still at the cross-roads of uncertainty. Mehta countered with the instance of India’s decision to develop nuclear weapons. The tripartite possession of nuclear warheads by India, China and Pakistan contributed more to stability than instability. There was, he said, a ‘nuclear hotline, between India and Pakistan’, with each side giving the other notice of any tests carried out. Such measures were ‘confidence-building.’ Conversely, there was no ‘nuclear dialogue’ with China, which seems strangely unwilling to recognize India as a nuclear power.
Husain doubted that, as regards India and Pakistan, both sides would forever respect the rules of mutual nuclear deterrence. It was just as likely, he thought, that one side might one day chance its arm by launching a limited non-nuclear attack which could then escalate. Much better, he thought, for India to focus on developing trade with Pakistan and easing visa controls.
Further debate was timed out. Held on the very eve of the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games, the forum furnished many invaluable insights into the contending pressures at work within India’s foreign policy, even if it tended to dwell upon India’s relations with the USA, China and (above all) Pakistan at the expense of such smaller countries as Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. There was no mention of ASEAN, and Africa only got a look-in once. What emerged most forcibly was the unusual extent to which India’s foreign and domestic policies overlap and sometimes mesh – a state of inter-dependency governed not only by the huge volume of India’s peoples, but also by their ethnic and cultural diversity. While Muslims, for example, form only a minority, it is sometimes forgotten that India hosts the world’s second largest Muslim population.