Disconnected directionless diplomacy
Dealing with a belligerent neighbour that shares a military bonhomie with the world’s top three military superpowers on its soil must be unnerving for any country. It must be equally uncomfortable for a country, which aspires to be a global economic powerhouse, to find itself surrounded by the world’s third largest military superpower and second biggest economy. India may be the lone example of such a country. India, the world’s ninth largest economy in dollar term, has lately broken the global slowdown trend to maintain a seven percent plus GDP growth. But it is faced with both external and internal challenges to growth and economic stability. As a multi-party democracy with several regional power centres, the country’s administrative and intellectual energies are spent more on managing internal political frictions than pursuing a more effective mode of external diplomacy that would build some strong trusted friends among leaders in the international community.
Russia -- long considered to be India’s most trusted friend -- signed a defence pact with Pakistan in 2014. Washington persistently indulges in more lethal arms sales to Islamabad. China, meanwhile, is increasingly registering its presence by offering military hardware, strategic infrastructure projects, and economic software to Pakistan. As a result, India has been pushed to a highly challenging situation, where it must harmonise its foreign policy towards Russia, the US, and China. Diplomatically, Pakistan is having a ball. It has turned more and more belligerent towards India over the years no matter who is in power. And, the strategic developments across India’s borders and coastlines, airspace, and cyberspace have presented no source of comfort. While India’s foreign policy is clueless about how to handle such a situation, its economic policy seems to be totally delinked with diplomatic considerations. So much so that foreign airlines are allowed a strategic proxy presence in domestic operations.
India’s latest diplomatic failures with its neighbours such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Bangladesh and top global military powers such as the USA and Russia -- distantly located in geographical terms -- are a matter of serious concern. Though Bangladesh is diplomatically somewhat closer to India now than most part of the last four decades, India’s inability to honour a water sharing pact with Bangladesh has provided room for a strong anti-India feeling in that country. Interestingly, Bangladesh has shown little concern over the latest Chinese dam at the Brahmaputra river source in Tibet even though the river serves as one of Bangladesh’s most important lifelines. The dam has not impacted Bangladesh’s diplomatic relations with China. The latter continues to be the largest exporter to Bangladesh. China is also putting up a host of strategic infrastructure projects in the country. A strong global maritime power, China is building the biggest sea port in tiny Sri Lanka. Nepal’s new Prime Minister is most impressed by China’s latest offer to build strong rail and road links with China to substantially reduce the landlocked country’s historic dependence on India. On the contrary, India is constantly warned by China against partnering Vietnam in oil exploration in the latter’s offshore economic zone.
Paradoxically, the Chinese military and strategic expansion around India seems to be of the least concern of India’s economic policy makers. In the last five years, China has been encouraged to emerge as India’s largest trade partner. However, the trade is almost one-way -- the China way -- inviting diplomatically difficult and militarily awesome China to dump almost every product -- from small-scale lamps, flimsy decorative, viscose fibres to security sensitive electronics products which even the United States and the European Union are afraid to touch. ZTE and Huawei, the two Chinese electronic majors, which are under constant watch in Europe and the US for security reasons, are allowed to constantly expand in India.
The direct import and smuggled arrivals from China are close to worth $100 billion. As if, India is trying its best to help diplomatically hostile China that supports Pakistan in protecting such anti-India terror plotters and executors as Hafeez Sayeed recover from economic depression. Massive export dumping to India is helping China keep millions employed there whereas, according to the latest data, employment in the production sector is shrinking in India. China has officially offered to pump in an investment worth $20 billion into India to manufacture small-scale (MSME) products to highly security sensitive gadgets, all between 2014 and 2019. Selling and investing in China by countries like India are simply the toughest due to local rules and business systems.
India’s contradictory economic and diplomatic stances on China are somewhat bewildering. They are certainly out of tune with the principles of diplomacy codified by such internationally acclaimed India-inked treatises as Kautilya’s Arthashastra dated 4th Century B.C. focussing on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, and K M Panikkar’s Principle and Practice of diplomacy (1956).
No other country in the world would maintain such a complex and contradictory relation with another nation that would demand nothing but total diplomatic and economic subjugation. This week, two of India’s heavyweight ministers -- Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj -- are scheduled to meet their counterparts in Beijing and Moscow, respectively. It would be foolish to expect any military or diplomatic gain for India out of the two meetings. Adversely, China could extract more concessions and deals from India from India’s Defence and External Affairs Ministers.
It may be time to revisit India’s foreign affairs and external economic policies since the Nehru era, in general, and the post-reform period since 1991, in particular. In any relation, the trust holds the key. Do Russia, the US, and China truly trust India? Who are all else that trust India as a reliable diplomatic partner to work together and grow together on the global platform? The world recognises India’s economic potential and tries to exploit it to the maximum possible extent, but few trust India diplomatically.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)