Features | Politics | South Asia

India’s Foreign Policy Tightrope

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is in India for a high-profile visit. But the real clues to regional relations came last month.

By Rupakjyoti Borah for

US President Barack Obama’s trip to India last month was seen by many as a defining moment in the shifting sands of Asia’s international relations. But although the high-profile visit this week by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will offer a further glimpse of where India stands, the real implications of what’s going on are perhaps best understood by contrasting Obama’s trip with another, more low-key meeting that took place in November.

The most recent trilateral meeting of the Russian, Indian and Chinese (RIC) foreign ministersin China’s Wuhan wasn’t just significant because of the sheer combined size of the countries they represented—40 percent of the global population and about 20 percent of its landmass. It was also important because it underscored where India’s future interests likely lay.

The first RIC ministerial meeting was held in New York in 2002, while the first standalone foreign ministers meet was held three years later, in the Russian city of Vladivostok.

Inthe initial meetings to prepare for this year’s get-together, Russia and China suggested that the summit should discuss the possibility of some form of security architecture for the region based on the ‘non-bloc’ principle. Wary of annoying the Americans, though, India decided not to go along with such an adventurous undertaking. As a result, the joint communiqué issued at the end of the meeting merely expressed vague support for a ‘multi-polar, democratic world order based on international law and collective decision-making.’

But there was also an uncomfortable irony for India. While China and Russia had been keen to emphasize a multi-polar order and greater security co-operation, they also refused to take the opportunity at the RIC meeting to offer clear-cut backing for India’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Instead, India was left holding a joint communiqué that called for ‘reform to make the UN more representative and democratic.’

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The failure to back India then was in stark contrast with Obama’s India visit, where he surprised many by announcing his unequivocal support for India as a permanent member of the Security Council in his address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament.

The two events are an interesting sign of the changing times—once reliable supporter Russia apparently wary to press China in support of India’s goal, while the United States, with which India has often had prickly ties, openly flaunted its support.

So what does this shift mean for Asia?

The significance of Obama’s visit was underscored by more than his warm words over a Security Council seat. A bevy of Indian CEOs were there to welcome Obama in Mumbai, while deals worth about $10 billion were inked between Indian and US companies. Included in the list was an announcement by Indian low-cost carrier SpiceJet that it planned to purchase 30 737-800 aircraft from Boeing at a cost of $2.7 billion, while the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group said it was to purchase power equipment from General Electric worth $2.2 billion.

But although Obama was keen to stress for his own domestic audience the fact that the trip will result in 50,000 additional US jobs, for India the news was all about a permanent Security Council seat. Although, Obama was clearly unable to put a timeframe on the likelihood of India securing one (this will in part depend on how other leading claimants Brazil, Germany and Japan react to the US gesture), the announcement has at least set the ball rolling.

This is all the more important now as India takes up atwo-year term as a non-permanent member of the Council after securing the support of 187 of the 191 members of the UN General Assembly.Taking up this rotating seat gives India an opportunity to tackle a host of testing international issues and show that it’s truly ready to take its place at the high table.

And there are plenty of sensitive issues likely on the UN agenda in which India will have a very specific interest. First up is Iran. India has voted with the United States in the International Atomic Energy Agency and is loathe to see another nuclear-armed state in its neighbourhood. In addition, India would like to keep its relations with Israel on an even keel as the country has emerged as India’s second-biggest defence supplier. And on top of this is the simple fact that India wants to ensure it doesn’t tarnish its image in the international community by giving even a hint of supporting a nuclear-armed Iran, especially as it’s always so quick to brag about its own strong record on non-proliferation.

But there’s a catch to India taking a tough line, or two catches to be precise. First, India’s rapid economic growth requires vast amounts of energy, and Iran is a key country for helping ensure India has the resources to keep growth chugging along. The other issue is Afghanistan, and bordering Iran offers India a path for influencing events in that country.

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A second problem is Burma, ruled with an iron fist by a military junta thought by some to also be pursuing a nuclear programme. During his trip, Obama pressed India to speak up against oppressive regimes, including in Burma. But India finds itself in a bind as its interests lie in ensuring that the Chinese don’t make the same deep inroads of influence in Burma as they have done in Pakistan. In addition, as in the case of Iran, India sees an energy-rich (in this case with natural gas) nation that could help fuel India’s economic growth.

And perhaps most challenging of all for India is how it will cope with a rising China. Back in October, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was visiting Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam as part of India’s ‘Look-East Policy,’ sections of the Chinese media were quick to argue that India was trying to encircle it with a string of alliances with countries that have strained relations with China. This view was likely bolstered by the fact that Singh’s visit to Japan came in the immediate aftermath of a high-profile spat between Japan and China in waters off the disputed Senkaku islands. 

So, will India be able to tread the tricky political tightrope in front of it? The United States remains, of course, the dominant power in Asia. Yet as it tries to grapple with a China that’s increasingly willing and able to flex its muscles in Asia, it’s looking to underpin current and potential core allies such as Japan and India.

The differences at the Wuhan meeting are just a precursor of things to come. Obama’s visit to Asia, meanwhile, has only served to deepen the faultlines in the region.

Rupakjyoti Borah is a senior lecturer at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, India. Last year, he was a visiting fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.