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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 35, August 15, 2009 (Independence Day Special)

Book Review: A Deeply Reflective Study of India’s Foreign Policy

Wednesday 19 August 2009, by S D Muni


Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy by Rajiv Sikri; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi; 2009; pp. XX + 317; price: Rs 595.

Those writing and researching on India’s foreign policy often are constrained by the lack of adequate access to authentic and reliable information. This constraint can be overcome, to some extent, through the writings of policy-makers who are willing and capable of sharing their experiences after retiring. There are courageous Foreign Service officers who have gradually started doing this by writing and reflecting on what they did and saw through their years in service. Rajiv Sikri’s present book falls into this category and he should be complimented to join the small but illustrious band of his predecessors like K.P.S. Menon, Y.D. Gundevia, Kewal Singh, T.N. Kaul, J.N. Dixit and others who have offered a peep into India’s Ministry of External Affairs’ otherwise inaccessible and closely guarded archives.

Sikri’s has taken a wide range of issues and aspects of foreign policy on board for discussion. It covers cultural, traditional and institutional aspects of foreign policy. On institutions, a rather critical assessment of the MEA’s policy-making processes is offered which not many of his other author colleagues have had the courage to attempt. The book delineates on the complex interface of economic, energy and defence sectors in foreign policy and addresses the imperatives of India’s domestic politics that impinge adversely on the smooth and effective conduct of foreign policy, becoming an obstacle in India’s rise to power. Most of the geo-strategic regions that cater to India’s vital interests and stakes in the international arena have been dealt with in the book. The omission of Europe and Africa is inexplicable in this respect; particularly in the emerging context where the European Union is increasingly keen in engaging with India; and Africa is becoming a renewed ground of competition and rivalry among the major global players for access to natural resources and minerals. Five of the book’s sixteen chapters have been devoted to India’s immediate neighbours and rightly so. There is one full chapter on China which it deserves being in a category of India’s neighbours by itself that is emerging as a major Asian and global power. Other neighbours have been clubbed into geo-strategic groupings for clearer policy perspective, but putting Sri Lanka with Nepal and Bhutan is a bit odd. So is the complete absence of Maldives.

The author correctly and carefully cautions India’s policy-makers in their dealings with the two major global players—the US and China. We are told that India cannot attain great power status by piggy-backing the US. In his assessment, China has always tried to keep India “boxed” in South Asia by pitting it against Pakistan and other smaller neighbours. To break out of this ‘box’ India must win over its neighbours through creative policies and economic generosity. After complimenting India for pursuing a vigorous ‘Look-East’ policy, Sikri strongly pleads for a dynamic ‘Look-West’ policy where India must engage with Iran, build cooperative relations with Central Asia and reinforce its strategic understanding and interaction with Russia. According to him, the real and sustainable road to great power status lies through building economic and strategic capabilities and sharpe-ning diplomatic resilience through bold and innovative moves. Who can disagree with the author on all these prescriptions? At least this reviewer does not. And yet there are questions that need to be addressed.

The book strongly and passionately argues against the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. This is done on the fear that India’s independent foreign policy will be compromised, while arguing at the same time that there is need for India to develop ‘all round’ ties with the US and also that “the spirit of July 18, (2008) Agreement was fine”. Now that the deal is past by one year, one needs to review if the suspected “compromises” have been made in India’s policy on behalf of the US. The jury may still be out on this sensitive question, particularly in the light of the raging debate over the end-use monitoring agreement and the ‘enrichment and re-processing technology’ issues, though the in-house US intelligence assessment on India is that it would not tow the Washington line on any issue unless that is seen in its own interest. In the past, it was India’s subtle act in the balance-of-power exercise that made it lean towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War, as the Soviets were a comparatively weaker power. Now that the US power seems to have peaked and China is rising fast to catch up with it and possibly leave it behind, will it be advisable to argue to lean towards the US in the interest of the emerging global balance?

THE discussion on China in the book has been presented with a focus on the Tibet question. The author’s arguments are somewhat confusing when he says that India should withdraw its recognition of Tibet being a part of China if there is any change in the “autonomous region” status of Tibet. (p. 102) How can it be done and with what implications? Because the problem is in interpreting the meaning of “autonomous” status in this respect, that is, to follow the Dalai Lama’s definition or the Beijing definition. That is the crux of the problem. India in fact has substantially and materially diluted its position on Tibet over the years. In 2002, India reiterated that the “territory of the Tibet Autonomous Region is a part of the People’s Republic of China”. This was done in return for the softening of the Chinese position on Sikkim’s merger with the Indian Union. What India needs to do is to insist on the fact that the onus of resolving the Tibet issue is on China, and for that possibly raise an international campaign. Without the resolution of the Tibet issue, there cannot be any solution of the Sino-Indian border dispute. India simply cannot abandon the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama to let the Chinese deal with Tibet in a manner they want. Unfortunately, India’s position during the third Tibet uprising in March 2008 was not reassuring in this respect at all. While pleading for peaceful relations with China, the author prescribes moves that are bound to generate heat in Sino-Indian relations, that is, claim the ownership of Kailash and Mansarover, as also the Karakoram Highway and the part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir ceded by Pakistan in 1963; build up counter pressures on China by mobilising support from the US and Japan; counter China’s capabilities in the Indian Ocean. There is an inherent contradiction between these arguments.

It is not enough to discuss China only as “Eurasian” neighbour. China is emerging as a major Asian and global player and its diverse imperatives have to be factored in. Both the competitive and cooperative aspects of emerging China need matching responses from the Indian policy-makers. Its overall military modernisation, its growing reach in the Indian Ocean, its connectivity and increasing economic and strategic presence in all of India’s neighbours, its aggressive access to energy and natural resources of the world and its economic clout vis-à-vis the US and developed economies—all pose a formidable challenge to India’s immediate and long-term policies.

Sikri clearly brings out the mess that India has made in its policy towards the South Asian neighbours. But he does not offer any effective and doable alternatives, beyond economic generosity, to improve the situation. On Pakistan, his suggestion to use the Indus-water treaty as a lever may actually be impracticable and counter-productive. The conscious and complete lack of political perspective in India’s approach to the neighbours is appalling. Even after committing itself to the global movement for building and promoting democracy, India has failed to support and encourage democratic institution-building in the neighbouring countries. There is also no sincere efforts on India’s part to align with the genuinely popular forces in the neighbourhood.

In dealing with an imposing US, the author suggests that ‘hedging strategies’ and building ‘points of pressure’ be evolved as creative policy options. But then, such options that lie in working through the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa), BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) and India-Russia-China groupings have been mentioned just in the passing. They should have been discussed in depth to assess their viability and impact. The casual attention paid in the book of this level and published in 2009, to the global issues like terrorism, climate change and economic slidedown also makes the reader a bit uneasy. Issues like India’s hesitation in taking initiatives towards rebuilding Asian solidarity also call for a suitable explanation, particularly when other countries like China and Australia have impressively come forward in this respect. India’s shyness in offering its mediation and good offices for playing a conflict-resolution role through the Non-Aligned Movement or directly in the areas of specific concern like Sri Lanka and Palestine also do not augur well for its aspirations to play a larger global role. India is in a bind on issues like the restructuring of the United Nation Security Council. The author could venture to suggest some ‘out-of-box’ moves to get India out of this bind.

Notwithstanding these limitations, Sikri presents us with a lucid and analytical narrative on India’s foreign policy. It is a deeply reflective, than a rigorously researched, study which lays emphasis on ‘should’ and ‘must’ of the policy than its ‘what’ and ‘why’ aspects. It will be welcomed both by policy-makers and analysts of the subject, though for the latter, and many other students of international affairs, proper and detailed references to the events, statements and the contexts, would have enhanced its value many fold.

The reviewer, who retired as a Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is presently a Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. A foreign affairs specialist, he is an authority on South Asia.

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