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Geopolitical role of India: Problems of multi-vector policy

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In the wake of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide victory in the recent parliamentary elections, observers are now discussing the prospects of a new phase in the role their country is playing in the world.

Indian experts believe that “the world is moving in the direction of multi-polarity, albeit asymmetric, which in the long haul can turn into a US-Chinese bipolar system.” According to them, New Delhi is wary of China’s claims for global dominion. Simultaneously, the current Indian government has set itself ambitious, long-term goals aimed at strengthening the country’s international standing as a “serious global player,” while creating new opportunities for speeding up its development and economic growth. The experts also believe that India can gain a full-fledged status of a great power only if it manages to “independently create multilateral organizations that would safeguard its interests and express its values”. One of the most realistic scenarios being contemplated is developing a strategy of “counterbalancing” China to combine “new and revived functional initiatives of regional economic cooperation, as well as models of sub-regional integration”.

India is now trying to counterbalance its growing strategic partnership with the United States by strengthening and diversifying ties with Russia and building a comprehensive interaction with China.

The developments currently unfolding in Greater Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, which the Americans and many others now call the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR), apparently favor India. Almost all countries having interests in this vast area, which is gradually turning into one of the world’s primary regions, now want to work closely with New Delhi in an effort to achieve both their tactical and long-term strategic goals. This means that without India’s participation, let alone with the open opposition by its leadership, neither Washington’s IPR project, nor Beijing’s “Community of Common Destiny” concept can be fully implemented. Without India the Chinese project remains incomplete, downgraded to a trans-regional status from a continental one. The same with the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy which, in the event of India’s departure, will essentially lose one of its two main pillars.

However, experts believe that, objectively speaking, both these initiatives assign New Delhi a supporting role, while India is yet to formulate its own big concept, its strategic vision of the future of Asia. India also wants to retain for itself maximum freedom of maneuver and flexibility in international relations and uphold its claim to be the “system-forming” power of South Asia. Meanwhile, the interest of Washington and Beijing, which are struggling for dominance in Asia, in adding a third equal “pole” to what is happening, is apparently situational and limited just to certain aspects of their relations with India. Europe, for its part, may be prepared to recognize and support India’s growing sway, but is equally burdened by its own problems.

The geopolitical aspect of relations between India, China and the United States is thus becoming increasingly complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, Beijing and New Delhi both recognize the objective need for mending fences, with China interested in ramping up cooperation with India, all the more so amid its current standoff with Washington. On the other hand, systemic factors holding back a qualitative improvement of Sino-Indian relations remain too significant. First of all, these are the struggle for spheres of influence in Asia and India’s growing economic lag from China. Hence the steps being taken by New Delhi to contain the spread of Chinese influence across the vast region stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. New Delhi is openly probing the possibility of cobbling together coalitions, which would have a certain anti-Chinese tilt, primarily by building up ties with the United States, Japan and, probably, also with Australia as part of the hypothetical “Asian Entente.” India is also counting on Shiite Iran in its effort to offset Beijing’s growing influence in Sunni Pakistan, which is India’s “main historical adversary.”

As for the US, it also needs India, primarily as a counterbalance to China. Washington calls India a “vital partner” in safeguarding its interests across the entire Indian Pacific region. Washington is also making clear to New Delhi its desire to ramp up its current confrontation with China beyond purely economic issues. Simultaneously, Washington’s political goals for the long haul are multidimensional: to check China’s growing sway across Greater Asia, including in Pakistan; to prevent a military-political alliance between China, Pakistan and Iran; maintain leverage over India by acting primarily via Pakistan and Afghanistan. Donald Trump’s current policy vis-à-vis Pakistan is objectively prodding that country to take more decisive action in Afghanistan. This is also playing into the hands of those in Pakistan who are the most unswerving supporters of confrontation with India. Meanwhile, any escalation of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad could bring about a new cool in relations now existing between India and China. US political observers are certain about the incompatibility of the fundamental interests of these two countries, which they believe are “doomed” to remain strategic rivals in the entire Indian Ocean region. Chances are high, therefore, that the two Asian giants will remain stuck in a “midway” position for years to come. “Between not being ready to give in and not being able to move forward,” as some experts put it.

A relatively sluggish pace of socio-economic development remains the main obstacle to strengthening India’s position in Asia and elsewhere in the world.  India suffers from the “standard growth diseases” that normally come with accelerated changes in the economy and social sphere. Social inequality is increasing, corruption is widespread, the country is short of natural resources, and the environmental situation is deteriorating. Add to this recurrent terrorist attacks, manifestations of separatism and vestiges of traditionalism constraining efforts to modernize Indian society. Hence the intense discussions, which are being held “regarding the sustainability of current models of socio-economic development.”

In its effort to rectify the growing imbalances in the country’s development, the Modi government is preparing and is already implementing large-scale reform programs in the economy, administrative and financial spheres. The authorities say they are going to bring the national GDP to $5 trillion by 2024. With the country’s need for investments increasing, the primary goal now is to lure investors from both China and the United States. Chinese money is not only breathing new vigor into India’s economic development, but is also becoming a factor in smoothing out existing contradictions. Following a brief worsening of relations in the summer of 2017, the leaders of India and China still managed to achieve a positive “balance.” Whether this equilibrium remains a balance of forces or becomes a mutually-beneficial long-term cooperation remains unclear though.

India’s leaders pinned high hopes on the United States, but with the change of guard in the White House in early 2017, Washington embarked on a policy of bringing US investments and industrial capacities “back home.” Coupled with fundamental trends in global capital markets, this has led to a significant drop in US investors’ interest in sinking their money into projects in India. Moreover, in June 2019, President Trump declared what was essentially a trade war on India, depriving New Delhi of trade privileges that allowed duty-free deliveries of up to $5.6 billion worth of Indian goods to the US market.

Adding a new twist to the tension, India decided to buy batteries of S-400 air defense missiles from Russia, and Washington demanded that New Delhi roll up its mutually-beneficial cooperation with Iran. Finally, India is seriously worried by Washington’s plans for the future of Afghanistan following the formal withdrawal of US troops from that country.

All that being said, however, Mukesh Ambani, the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries Limited, India’s largest holding company and, according to Forbes magazine, the richest man in India and all of Asia recently made light of the emerging slowdown of the national economy calling it a “temporary phenomenon.”

All this gives Russia a good chance to play a stabilizing and creative role here. On December 1, 2018, the leaders of Russia, India and China met for the first time since 2006 on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina. During the meeting, proposed by Russia, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi called for “closer coordination of the three countries’ approaches, primarily in the field of security and building constructive interstate relations in Eurasia.” They also underscored the partnership nature of relations between Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi, and the coincidence of their interests and goals “in the field of development.”

“Moscow has been very helpful to its Indian partners in resolving a wide range of issues – from high technology and defense all the way to building modern infrastructure and reducing poverty,” the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs said. New Delhi is showing a great deal of interest in collaborating with Russia within the framework of the BRICS and the SCO. Meeting ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the 5th Eastern Economic Forum to be held in Vladivostok in September, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev and Indian Minister of Trade and Industry Piyush Goyal discussed measures to increase bilateral trade turnover to $30 billion by the year 2025. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is one of the most promising long-term joint strategic projects for India and Russia.

During their second meeting held on the fringes of the June 2019 G20 summit in Japan, the leaders of Russia, China and India praised the highly efficient work being done in a single format to create ”an equal and indivisible security architecture in Eurasia.”  However, India’s balking regarding its joining the projects being implemented as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) demonstrates the lingering contradictions of Indian foreign policy. On the one hand, India has reason to consider itself as a state that, “at the end of the day … will determine in which direction the geo-economic pendulum will move” in almost the entire Eastern Hemisphere. On the other hand, it remains unclear to what extent India will be able to harmonize its interests between the projects of Greater Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific Region, considering their fundamental geopolitical contradictions.

A multi-vector foreign policy has been a hallmark of India ever since the country gained independence in 1947. To this very day, New Delhi has been trying to stick to this line. Whether to stand for a multipolar world together with Moscow and Beijing … or to join the US, Japan and Australia and form a ‘quadripartite alliance’ to contain China”  – this is the way the situation is seen by some segments of India’s political establishment. The growing uncertainty of the existing international system is one of the objective trends of the past few decades, and India is just one of many countries simultaneously participating in several rival coalitions, whose real  goals often contradict each other.

 From our partner International Affairs

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South Asia

India’s Unclear Neighbourhood Policy: How to Overcome ?

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India has witnessed multiple trends with regards to its relations with its neighbours at a time vaccine diplomacy is gaining prominence and Beijing increasing the pace towards becoming an Asian superpower, whereby making these reasons valid for New Delhi to have a clear foreign policy with respect to its neighbourhood.

Introduction

The Covid Pandemic has led to increased uncertainty in the global order where it comes to power dynamics, role of international organisations. New Delhi has tried to leave no stone unturned when it comes to dealing with its immediate neighbours.  It has distributed medical aid and vaccines to smaller countries to enhance its image abroad at a time it has witnessed conflicts with China and a change in government in Myanmar. These developments make it imperative for New Delhi to increase its focus on regionalism and further international engagement where this opportunity could be used tactically amidst a pandemic by using economic and healthcare aid.

According to Dr. Arvind Gupta, New Delhi has to deal with threats coming from multiple fronts and different tactics where it is essential for New Delhi to save energy using soft means rather than coercive measures.. India under Vaccine Maitri has supplied many of COVAXIN doses to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where many have appreciated this move. The urgency of ensuring humanitarian aid during these periods of unprecedented uncertainty are essential in PM Modi’s Security and Growth For All ( SAGAR) initiative, which focusses on initiating inclusive growth as well as cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

This pandemic witnessed various threats coming in India’s neighbourhood through multiple dimensions which include maritime, land, cyber as well as air threats where adversaries are using these to put pressure on New Delhi to settle land as well as marine disputes as per their terms.  These encirclement strategies have made it necessary for India to open up various options such as holding maritime joint exercises with like-minded countries, developing partnerships, providing economic as well as healthcare support to weaker countries plus having a clear insight about changing global dynamics and acting as per them.

This piece will discuss about various changing tactics, pros and cons which India has with respect to developing its national security vis-à-vis its neighbourhood, why should it prioritise its neighbourhood at the first place?

Background

India’s Neighbourhood is filled with many complexities and a lot of suspicion amongst countries, some viewing India because of its size and geography plus economic clout as a bully where it is wanting to dominate in the region putting others aside. This led to New Delhi play an increased role in nudging ties first with its neighbours with whom it had multiple conflicts as well as misunderstandings leading to the latter viewing Beijing as a good alternative in order to keep India under check.

Ever since PM Modi has taken charge at 7 RCR, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy has been followed increasingly to develop relations, to enhance understandings and ensure mutual cooperation as well as benefit with its neighbours. The relations with Islamabad have not seen so much improvement as compared to other leaders in the past. Even though former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited for PM Modi’s 1st Swearing In ceremony in 2014, terrorist activities have never stopped which could be seen through Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror attacks which killed many of the Indian soldiers. Even though surgical strikes were conducted on terror camps in retaliation to these bombardments, Islamabad has not changed its heart at all about its security or regional demands. New strategies and friendships are being developed where Beijing has played a major role in controlling power dynamics.

The Belt and Road initiative, first time mentioned during President Xi’s 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, then officially in 2015,  lays emphasis of achieving a Chinese Dream of bringing countries under one umbrella, ensuring their security, providing them with infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, pipelines, highways etc. The main bottleneck is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor when it comes to India’s security threats, passing through disputed boundaries of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir till Gwadar. Other projects have been initiated in Chittagong, Hambantota, Gwadar , Kyapkyou. These projects form a String Of Pearls in the Indo Pacific where New Delhi is being balanced against through economic plus development incentives being given to the member countries under the project. That’s why in the recent past, New Delhi is asserting its influence in the region, looking at new dimensional threats where Beijing’s threats in the maritime domain in the islands in East as well as South China seas are not being seen favourably in many countries such as ASEAN, US, Australia and Japan which is giving India an opportunity to look towards countries with a common threat. Amidst this great power struggle between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is stuck between a rock and hard place i.e., having a clear and strong foreign policy with its neighbours.

In this region, India has a sole threat which is mainly Beijing where the latter has achieved prowess technologically and militarily where New Delhi lags behind the latter twenty fold. So, there is a need for improvising military technology, increase economic activities with countries, reduce dependence on foreign aid, ensure self-reliance.

Situation

South Asia is backward when it comes to economic development, human development and is a home to majority of the world’s population which lives below poverty line. The colonial rule has left a never-ending impact on divisions based on communal, linguistic and ethnic grounds. Even, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi lags behind Beijing significantly in the neighbourhood because the latter is at an edge when it comes to bringing countries under the same umbrella. Due to these, many initiatives have been taken up by New Delhi on developing infrastructure, providing humanitarian aid to needy countries.

There have been numerous efforts made by India with respect to reaching out to the Neighbours in 2020 through setting up of the SAARC Covid Fund where many Neighbourhood countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave contributions to ensure cooperation, joint scientific research, sharing information, healthcare kits where the countries contributed USD $ 18 million jointly towards this fund where New Delhi made an initial offer of USD $ 10 million.

New Delhi has even mustered ties with the Association of Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic under its Act East Policy where proper connectivity through the Northeast could be useful in easing movement of goods but currently, the infrastructure in Northeast needs more improvement where issues such as unemployment, poor connectivity are prevalent whereby disconnecting it from rest of the other states. This region could play an important role in linking Bangladesh, Myanmar to New Delhi along with the proposed India-Thailand –Myanmar Trilateral Corridor. Focus has also been laid to develop inland waterways, rail links and pipelines to ease connections between countries, making trade free and more efficient.

India is focussing on developing the Sittwe and Paletwa ports in Myanmar under the Kaladan Development Corridor, at the cost of INR 517.9 Crore in order to provide an alternative e route beneficial for the Northeast for getting shipping access

Summing Up

 These above developments and power display by a strong adversary, give good reasons for New Delhi to adopt collective security mechanisms through QUAD, SIMBEX and JIMEX with a common perception of having safe and open waters through abiding to the UNCLOS which China isn’t showing too much interest in, seen through surveillance units, artificial islands being set up on disputed territories which countries likewise India are facing in context to territorial sovereignty and integrity. These developments make it important for India to look at strategic threats by coming together with countries based on similar interest’s vis-à-vis Chinese threat.

There is a need for India to develop and harness its strength through connectivity and its self reliance initiative ( Aatmanirbharta ) so that there is no dependence on any foreign power at times of need . Proper coordination between policy makers and government officials could make decision making even easier, which is not there completely because of ideological differences, different ideas which makes it important for the political leadership to coordinate with the military jointly during times of threats on borders. Self-reliance could only come through preparedness and strategy.

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India is in big trouble as UK stands for Kashmiris

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 A London-based law firm has filed an application with British police seeking the arrest of India’s army chief and a senior Indian government official over their alleged roles in war crimes in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Law firm Stoke White said it submitted extensive evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit on Tuesday, documenting how Indian forces headed by General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah were responsible for the torture, kidnapping and killing of activists, journalists and civilians – particularly Muslim – in the region.

“There is strong reason to believe that Indian authorities are conducting war crimes and other violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, referring to the territory in the Himalayan region.

Based on more than 2,000 testimonies taken between 2020 and 2021, the report also accused eight unnamed senior Indian military officials of direct involvement in war crimes and torture in Kashmir.

The law firm’s investigation suggested that the abuse has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. It also included details about the arrest of Khurram Parvez, the region’s most prominent rights activist, by India’s counterterrorism authorities last year.

“This report is dedicated to the families who have lost loved ones without a trace, and who experience daily threats when trying to attain justice,” Khalil Dewan, author of the report and head of the SWI unit, said in a statement.

“The time has now come for victims to seek justice through other avenues, via a firmer application of international law.”

The request to London police was made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which gives countries the authority to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

The international law firm in London said it believes its application is the first time that legal action has been initiated abroad against Indian authorities over alleged war crimes in Kashmir.

Hakan Camuz, director of international law at Stoke White, said he hoped the report would convince British police to open an investigation and ultimately arrest the officials when they set foot in the UK.

Some of the Indian officials have financial assets and other links to Britain.

“We are asking the UK government to do their duty and investigate and arrest them for what they did based on the evidence we supplied to them. We want them to be held accountable,” Camuz said.

The police application was made on behalf of the family of Pakistani prisoner Zia Mustafa, who, Camuz said, was the victim of extrajudicial killing by Indian authorities in 2021, and on behalf of human rights campaigner Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, who was allegedly tortured before his arrest last week.

Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the past two decades in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Muslim Kashmiris mostly support rebels who want to unite the region, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Kashmiris and international rights groups have long accused Indian troops of carrying out systematic abuse and arrests of those who oppose rule from New Delhi.

Rights groups have also criticized the conduct of armed groups, accusing them of carrying out human rights violations against civilians.

In 2018, the United Nations human rights chief called for an independent international investigation into reports of rights violations in Kashmir, alleging “chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces”.

India’s government has denied the alleged rights violations and maintains such claims are separatist propaganda meant to demonize Indian troops in the region. It seems, India is in big trouble and may not be able to escape this time. A tough time for Modi-led extremist government and his discriminatory policies. The world opinion about India has been changed completely, and it has been realized that there is no longer a democratic and secular India. India has been hijacked by extremist political parties and heading toward further bias policies. Minorities may suffer further, unless the world exert pressure to rectify the deteriorating human rights records in India.

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S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?

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S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.

His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.

Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.  The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.

But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.

Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.

There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book.  He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.  

One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.

This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.

The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.  

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