Last Thursday, the Brookings Institution, a prominent Washington, D.C. think tank, held a panel featuring prominent experts to discuss Indian foreign policy in a changing world. The panel touched upon various subjects, including the role of China in Indian foreign policy thinking, India’s role in Afghanistan as the United States begins talks with the Taliban, and the recent 2+2 talks in Delhi.
India’s next general election is less than a year away—the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be pitted against the Congress Party, and various regional parties. It is no surprise then that India’s energies for the next few months will be mostly focused on the 2019 general election, the world’s largest election.
India’s complex political dynamics, poverty, and socio-religious balance are all factors contributing to its traditional insularity on the global scene, notwithstanding its geopolitical potential and military heft. As panelist Tanvi Madan, fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution and director of The India Project, noted, we don’t have “sufficient evidence that most Indians vote on foreign policy issues,” though economic trends, such as oil prices could have an impact, and there are various other ways in which foreign policy and domestic policy interact—for example, spending on social programs is prioritized over defense spending in the year before an election.
Nonetheless, India remains a great, nuclear power with important geopolitical interests—it is the world’s largest importer of arms, according to Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India and the moderator of the panel. This dichotomy, or paradox, is woven into India’s experience with the contemporary world: it has enormous wealth, power, and potential, and yet, it must still overcome many challenges to be a increasingly consequential world player: it faces “tough administrative and military reforms as it transitions from historically what has been a much more inward looking country to a much more outward looking country,” according to Jaishankar. Yet, most of India’s security challenges are in its immediate neighborhood, and involve China and Pakistan.
These factors all condition India’s foreign policy and domestic priorities, which is why India is, for the United States, “important but never urgent,” despite the current administration’s rebranding of the Pacific region to the Indo-Pacific region. While this is reflective of the fact that India is growing in importance, India is still not a primary player in most of the major issues concerning U.S. policy in Asia. Despite its participation in Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the United States, Japan, and Australia, India is not going to join any sort of formal alliance designed to contain China in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Even closer to its own neighborhood, India is not really “a consequential player” in Afghanistan’s security environment despite its legitimate interests there, according to Joshua T. White, a nonresident fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
The most important factor in India’s rise, its relations with its neighbors, with China, and with the United States is its economic growth, and its ability to translate this growth into power and influence. This is where India has the most work to do. As Constantino Xavier, fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India, noted, China’s rise has driven India to increase its efforts to increase interconnectivity in South Asia, one of the world’s least connected regions. Interconnectivity has been a major factor in spreading economic prosperity through trade in Eastern Asia, now it has potential to work similarly in South Asia. Connectivity is how India can remain relevant to its neighbors, now that the Cold War strategic and economic insulation of the region is over, and, as such, is a strategic imperative in addition to an economic one. Countries often have a choice between a “poisoned gift from China or no gift from India, which is very weak on delivery.” With even a moderate improvement in its ability to deliver projects on time, India can gain a leg up on China if it offers assistance without the debt and political intimidation that now comes with Chinese aid.
All this reflects both the limits of the will and capacity of the Indian state to as yet take on a greater mantle in international politics. But this may be a temporary state of affairs: the panelists all stressed that India is now taking steps toward rectifying its past mistakes, and is deploying its resources to improving its relations with its neighbors and other states in Asia. Moreover, the panelists all also stressed the need for the U.S. relationship with India to be a long-term investment. Setting back the bilateral Indo-U.S. relationship, over say, Iran’s import of oil from Iran, would be incredibly short-sighted. Additionally, the United States must still take India’s security needs into account no matter how it decides to move forward in Afghanistan, and it must acknowledge that India still has regional expertise and political contacts in that country that the United States simply does not. After all, India cultivated the Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan long before 9/11.
Furthermore, despite India’s position in Asia vis-a-vis a stronger China, it is still is the dominant player in South Asia, and has the ability to hold its own. While China has definitely becoming a more important partner for the Maldives and Nepal, Jaishankar points out that media reports of India losing its neighbors to China were exaggerated, and that despite challenges, that it would be hard for China to replace India throughout South Asia for geographic and economic reasons. After all, the majority of Nepal’s exports are through nearby ports in India, over a million Nepalese work in India, and Gurkhas serve in the Indian army. The particular nature of this relationship cannot be replicated by China.
Ultimately, foreign policy watchers must continue to be patient toward what they can expect from India. Nonetheless, India is continuing to increase its presence in international affairs, and it will continue to become an ever more important player on the world stage, despite any setbacks. As its economy and military grow stronger, and with the foreign policy ideals of both its major national parties envisioning a large role for it in the global area, India will inevitably become more important and relevant to policymakers in the United States and China.