With a new government coming to power in India in 2014, the first indication of the trajectory Indian foreign would take came when the Prime Minister invited Heads of SAARC countries to attend the swearing-in ceremony. This was unique though not divergent from known Indian policy of maintaining an environment of regional cooperation and neighbourhood first.
It was followed by a significant shift from “look east” policy of the previous government to “act east”. It was also intricately linked to the development of India’s own northeastern states. Delhi also began to pay greater attention to India’s maritime geographical advantage.
The PM, very early in his tenure, appreciated the strong linkage between economy and security, these being two sides of the same coin. Delhi also realised that India’s growth story will be better addressed if the entire region grows with it and ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region) reflected that realism. India is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, has minuscule trade with its neighbours.
While the new government was coming to terms with domestic realities, the geopolitics was galloping omnidirectional. This presented opportunities and challenges for India. Two major geopolitical events, a new administration in Washington and China’s assertive rise has had a profound impact on the world. US administration pulled out from major multilateral forums and created anxieties by its uncertain policies, unexpected of a sole superpower.
China, which had made full use of Washington’s withdrawal symptoms from economic and security architectures, tasted power for the first time in over 100 years and began disrupting the international order. US slogan of ‘make America great again’ and China’s assertion of the beginning of ‘New Era with Chinese characteristics’ was at loggerheads with each other.
Chinese disruptive behaviour was met with a call for freedom of navigation, flights and lawful trade in the South China Sea/East Sea by the US. The increasing trade deficit of the majority of nations with China was threatened with trade war by the US. China’s emergence in the IOR and its encirclement of India by weaning away its neighbours was challenged by a new construct of Indo-Pacific and Quad.
While no security architecture has emerged yet, it clearly reflects that China is unlikely to go unchallenged. Washington and Beijing came together to address threats in the Korean Peninsula. It was clearly advantaged China given the influence it exercises over DPRK (North Korea).
However, Washington and Pyongyang began talking to each other via US ally South Korea. Date of talks between the US and DPRK heads of state was fixed for 12 June at Singapore (another close ally of the US). Beijing sensed that it could be left out of Korean debate which would marginalise its image as emerging and challenging power. The talks were called off by Washington even before China could influence North Korea not to engage in bilateral talks with the US leaving China out.
In these changing paradigm, PM Modi acted swiftly and scheduled personal engagement with Presidents Xi and Putin at Wuhan and Sochi respectively. It was an opportunity for Delhi to reset its lost ground in rapidly evolving geopolitics. He also paid a quick visit to Nepal which had gone too far from its traditional cooperation with India.
This was followed by visits to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore which are important pillars of maritime security in the sea lanes of communication (SLOCS) for world trade. The announcement by Indonesian Minister for Maritime Affairs regarding future joint cooperation for port development and operational use of Sabang Port with India of maritime security reflected India’s intimate understanding.
While ‘Make in India’ is still work in progress, the grounds have been prepared, such as ease of doing business, uniform taxation laws and moving away from taking the moral high ground on international issues. Present ‘New Norm’ of India provides more flexibility in pursuing its self-interest.
Delhi’s realisation that its soft power appeal has not been as appealing as China’s in its own backyard due to unequal hard power, has led to reset of ties with China and Russia. Both these countries foresee the potential of trade with India and the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the IOR. As far as West Asia is concerned, India’s foreign policy must be credited for the fact that it has balanced relations with Israel and the Shia/Sunni world.
India is not alone in the emerging challenge from US withdrawal from JCPOA and imposition of CAATSA on countries doing trade with Iran. This fresh approach of the US multiplies its uncertain policies and basis of friction with its traditional allies, the EU.
The imposition of secondary sanctions will create geo-economic turbulence. The Prime Minister of Netherland during his visit to India mentioned the effort being made by the EU collectively and individually to address the new reality. Delhi will have to find common cause with EU and other countries to ensure continuity of its oil supplies from Iran and the development of Chabahar port as also the construction of the North-South Corridor.
The dynamism of geopolitics calls for India to steer a course which suits her national interests and does not reflect any alliance. Delhi is playing realpolitik great game just as a bridge player would play a ‘no-trump’ hand of cards as against choosing one of the four trumps to score a game. This will open opportunities for India at an appropriate stage of the great game which is now being played in the Indo Pacific.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM
and Bar is the former Commander in Chief Western Naval Command & former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff.