Millennium Post

East or West, India puts best foot forward

Over the past two decades, India’s foreign policy has coped quite successfully with the transition from the Cold War international system to one under the American hegemony. During this period, Indian economy has also plugged into and enormously benefited from globalisation. If India is billed as a major power in the making, it largely due to its ability to handle these two transitions with some finesse.

Yet, the international order with which we have grown comfortable is undergoing subtle but significant change. The ongoing change is taking place at several levels and will play out to different timelines. But it will pose challenges for Indian foreign policy that are arguably as pressing as the ones we faced in the beginning of the 1990s.

Consider, for a start, the changes that are underway at the global level. It is commonplace to assert that the central problem of international politics is the management of change. It is usually assumed that the drivers of change are the ‘rising powers’ that want to alter the existing system, while the reigning great powers want to preserve the status quo. China, for instance, is routinely described as a rising power that wants to change the global status quo. Yet the trends that we are now witnessing confound this conventional expectation. In many ways, the challenge to the existing system stems from the fact that the status quo powers – the US and its allies – are dissatisfied with the status quo.

Take the global trading system, for instance. Emerging powers like China and India have benefited tremendously from globalisation. At the same time, their growing economic profile has also given them substantial stakes in the management of this system. Given the differences in their interests from those of the US and its allies, it is not surprising that the latter have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the existing system. The WTO is a case in point. The inability to compel countries like India and China to toe its line in trade talks has led the US to consider other ways of changing the system.

So, the US is promoting a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Signed in 2005 by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, the TPP has drawn the interest of five other countries: Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Japan and Vietnam. The TPP has an ambitious tripartite agenda. It aims at a regular FTA with provisions for protecting intellectual property; at the creation of investor-friendly regulatory frameworks and policies; and at emerging issues, including measures to ensure that state-owned companies ‘compete fairly’ with private companies and do not put the latter at a disadvantage.

The TPP as an economic grouping aimed principally at China, though its provisions will hurt India’s interests as well. The US evidently hopes that a successful TPP will eventually compel China to come to terms with it – just as China did with APEC and WTO. India, too, will be forced to follow suit. Negotiations are also underway between the US and the EU for a trans-Atlantic trade and investment pact. The prevailing global economic order is set to undergo far-reaching changes with equally important consequences for India.

New norms and principles are also being introduced in the global political order. The structure of the UN system, particularly the Security Council, is increasingly seen by the US and its allies as uncongenial to them. While countries like India and Brazil point to the need to expand the Security Council, the US rightly believes that this would further complicate the management of its global interests.

To facilitate the pursuit of these interests, the US and its allies have spearheaded the introduction of norms like Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Designed to protect gross abuses of human rights by sovereign states – an agenda shared and championed by human rights organisations – R2P provides the perfect fig-leaf behind which to preserve and advance US interests with the Security Council’s acquiescence if possible and without if necessary.

It is hardly surprising that the US and its allies invoked R2P for their ‘humanitarian’ intervention in Libya, secured the Security Council’s reluctant authorisation and used it to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Tyrants like Gaddafi may deserve to go, but this should not mask either the ruthless pursuit of great power interests or the ensuing instability that continues to rock countries that were at the receiving of such ‘humanitarian’ beneficence. In turn, the expected resistance of Russia and China to the application of R2P to Syria has led to a bloody impasse.

All this poses serious challenges to India. After all, West Asia accounts for nearly 65 percent of our crude imports, $93 billion of trade, and has 6 million Indian expatriate workers who remit over $35 billion every year. The changes being introduced in the global political order will have direct implications for India’s interests.

At the regional level, too, important changes are in the making. The spectacular rise of China is part of the larger economic transformation of East Asia, yet it has wider political and security implications. Put simply, East Asia today is at once the most dynamic economic region of the world and the theatre of major strategic rivalries. East Asia is also a region that does not – despite the alphabet soup of organisations and groupings – have any settled institutional architecture for dealing with political and security problems. The US proclaimed a ‘pivot’ Asia a couple of years back, though it remains unclear if this has a definite security component to it. Meantime, the Obama administration is looking to reinforce ties with its other formal allies in the region – Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Thailand – while crafting new relationships with erstwhile foes like Vietnam.
The US has also shown its willingness to intervene in regional disputes such as the South China Sea.

American leaders have also spoken about the importance of partnership with India in their engagement with the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. This emerging scenario presents both opportunities and challenges for India. So far, New Delhi has done well to leverage this opportunity to build strategic ties with countries like Japan and South Korea. But India has considerable distance to go before it becomes a serious player in East Asia. Its economic ties with the region are just beginning to grow.

It is useful to remind ourselves that China’s trade with ASEAN is almost five times that of India. India is largely unplugged from the integrated supply and production chains that are central to East Asian economies.

Similarly, while India does have relative advantage in the maritime domain, it is far from being a maritime power to reckon with.

By arrangement with Governance Now
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