India’s foreign policy: a new normal
Not only is India willing to engage countries that are otherwise opposed to each other, it is also willing to cooperate with and challenge countries simultaneously
Since the 2000 New Delhi summit between prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition and US president Bill Clinton of the Democratic Party, followed by the 2005 Washington summit between prime minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress-led coalition and Republican president George W. Bush, there has been bipartisan support and remarkable continuity in progressively widening and deepening Indo-US relations. Despite the marked downturn in relations between 2008 and 2014, the two summits between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama are reflective of the trend towards steady enhancement of relations irrespective of domestic political leanings. This continuity is also evident in India’s bilateral relations with other key global powers.
There is, however, a noticeable change in both the manner and pace of India’s foreign policy and the abrupt change of guard at the helm of the foreign ministry is indicative of this trend. Today, not only is India willing to engage countries that are otherwise opposed to each other (such as the US and Russia through a policy described as multi-alignment), it is also willing to cooperate with and challenge countries simultaneously.
This two-pronged approach is designed to help India advance its economic and strategic interests by shaping global rules and norms in areas where they are still evolving and is particularly evident in its dealings with the US and China. Consider the following: Though Modi hosted President Xi Jinping, and is seeking Chinese investment and has signed on to the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank—both of which are likely to be dominated by China—New Delhi also signalled its intentions to balance an assertive China, albeit in partnership with other key countries.
Thus, the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region singles out the South China Sea to assert the “freedom of navigation and over flight” rights and calls for states to “avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means”.
The reference to the South China Sea evoked a sharp response from Beijing—which appears to have forgotten its own US-China Joint Statement on South Asia of June 1998 (after the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests) that called for the US and China to “jointly and individually contribute to the achievement of a peaceful, prosperous, and secure South Asia”.
Although some experts interpret the US-India joint strategic vision statement as a quasi-military alliance, there is very little by way of operational details to support that assertion. In fact, there is as much emphasis on the economic and political pillars of the Act East and Rebalancing policies. The reference to the East Asia Summit—a regional arrangement initiated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—which includes not only China but also Russia indicates a desire to build an organization for broader regional security and cooperation by establishing a common code of conduct.
In addition, the specific mention of India’s interest in joining the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (which is also endorsed by China) indicates the possibility of enhancing trilateral US-China-India economic and trade cooperation to the benefit of all three and the entire region. Thus, both the US and India are keen to work with (rather than contain) China to establish a “rule-based global order”.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to China and protocol-denting meeting with Xi (clearly encouraged by the Modi-Obama summit and the joint statement on the Asia Pacific) is an ideal opportunity to encourage greater cooperation from China from a position of strength.
As the India-US Delhi Declaration of Friendship notes and as is evident in its new approach, New Delhi is now willing “to work through areas of differences”. Welcome to the new normal.
W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings Institution. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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