There was good news and bad news on the global strategic front at the end of 2012. The good news was that many of the anticipated conflagrations—particularly the ominous war clouds over Iran and the maritime spats in the South and East China Seas, both of which had the potential of sparking wider conflict involving several great powers—dissipated. Similarly, there was a modicum of success in tackling maritime piracy off the Somalia coast. Moreover, optimists point out that several domestic political transitions, notably in China, Russia, the US and North Korea, which might have furthered tensions, were relatively smooth and uneventful (despite the high drama in China and the bitter US campaign).
The bad news was that diplomacy played little or no role in preventing these tensions: it failed to resolve the South and East China Seas tussle and the Iranian imbroglio as well as the conflict in Syria. In fact, diplomatic efforts to seek long-term solutions to some of these challenges, such as the proposed conference on the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, did not even get off the ground. Pessimists warn that all of these simmering tensions and many more (such as the squabbles over climate, food and cyber security, not to mention the Arctic) might still come to boil in 2013 if serious diplomatic efforts are unable to deal with them.
In fact, both optimists and pessimists agree that 2013 will be a turning point and, perhaps, a last chance for diplomacy. The omens for diplomatic initiatives are propitious.
Iran has indicated that it might be slowing down its enrichment programme to buy some more time. Coupled with the Iranian presidential elections in June 2013, which will, hopefully, bring a less confrontational new leader onstage, and US President Barack Obama’s avowed desire for negotiations, there is promise. Though the vehement opposition of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council to normalize relations with Iran will have to be managed.
Similarly, the four-pillar US pivot to the Asia-Pacific with an emphasis on “resolving conflict without the use of force” and building partnerships with India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is a positive development to at least seriously engage China. However, the moves by the ultra-nationalist Shinzo Abe government in Japan to inject itself into the South China Sea dispute coupled with its disparaging view of China and Korea might complicate issues.
Although most leaders in important countries, including India, recognize the opportunity for diplomacy they might be unable or unwilling to take the initiative, given their preoccupations with domestic political and internal governance challenges. This would be unfortunate given that the domestic economic and even political well being of India is now closely intertwined with developments in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, as well as further afield in Africa.
New Delhi’s initiative in hosting the Asean-India Commemorative Summit in December reflects the recognition of this interdependence. India would serve its own interests as well as the cause of international peace and security if it were to take a similar diplomatic initiative related to Middle East in general and Iran in particular. While this would be a daunting undertaking given the fractious relations between Iran and its neighbours it is a worthwhile exercise given India’s historical political and economic links to the region.
Although India has been strong in articulating the need to give diplomacy a chance, it has been found particularly wanting in contributing to making it happen. The year 2013 offers that opportunity. If India does not take up this chance, it will have missed its turn and would in effect have outsourced its vital interests to the actions of others.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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