India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar recently delivering the 4th Ramnath Goenka Lecture and gave what he called an “unsentimental audit for Indian foreign policy.” He contended that “change is upon us as never before.” The structure of the international system is, indeed, undergoing an apparently significant change. While a sense of uncertainty pervades the global order, the general understanding seems to be that the world is becoming increasingly multipolar in nature. Although New Delhi professes India’s interest as being best served in a multipolar world, such an outcome is not preordained. India is a significant pole in the multipolar order. However, such a configuration of power will also require India to hedge its bets among multiple poles of power and in doing so expand its foreign policy options. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in little more than five years at the helm has shown such intentions through the policy of multi-alignment. Compared to his predecessors, Modi has clearly reached out more vigorously to countries far and near, and powers, bigger and smaller, including countries that were hardly in the travel itinerary of former Indian leaders.
However, does Modi’s unmistakable political heft and penchant for optics, translate into anything that is remotely radical, a remarkable break from the past? Or, is there more continuity than is acknowledged by the current administration?
What is evident across Modi’s foreign policy establishment is an eagerness to patent a new era of realism. What sort of opportunities lie before New Delhi and what kind of challenges are ahead, as the current administration espouses a mission to take Indian foreign policy out of its Delhi “dogmas”? Are India’s aspirations in the emerging multipolar world, mindful of India’s capabilities and the manifestations of the global and regional balances of power? Invoking greater realism and evolving an effective grand strategy to emerge a “leading power” should essentially rely on a better appreciation of not only India’s rising national power but also its deficiencies.
Sans comparison with any country, there is no denying that India’s national power has shown tremendous growth in the absolute sense. However, the national power of any country as it rises tends to be compared and contrasted with other powers. Therefore, the future of Indian foreign policy practice will be acutely tested in how it recalibrates its playbook to maximize its options in dealing with powers both bigger and smaller. When it comes to relations with countries like the United States and China, the power asymmetry disfavors India. However, when it comes to dealing with most of India’s neighbors, the power asymmetry favors India. Both these cases bring challenges to Indian foreign policy.
India’s tariff tussle with the United States or India pulling out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) citing concerns of cheap Chinese imports swamping the Indian market reflect persisting concerns of dealing with larger economies that wield much more international clout. A China that unabashedly exercises its power in India’s vicinity and in the larger Indo-Pacific lends strategic prudence to India doubling down on its security ties with the United States. Nevertheless, the complex competition-cooperation dynamic within the India-China relationship will constrain India’s ability to shape its strategic embrace with the United States completely to its taste. In addition, India’s burgeoning defence trade with the United States and increasing interoperability reduces its traction with its traditional defense suppliers, like Russia, which has been at the receiving end of American sanctions. The S-400 tangle has made this more apparent than ever. India’s multilateral engagements with Russia and China are seen through different permutations and combinations, as in the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) grouping, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Russia, India and China (RIC) trilateral. However, the rising strategic alliance between China and Russia, though not targeted at India, will present a formidable challenge for India’s ability to affect preferable outcomes in these bilateral and multilateral dealings.
The change and disruptions in Indian foreign policy conceptualization and practice have at best been cosmetic. While non-alignment was meant to help New Delhi practice strategic autonomy in a bipolar world, multi-alignment is meant to help navigate India’s way in a multipolar world. Therefore, despite Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s intention to break from the past and an obsession with consistency, there seems to be more of both in Indian foreign policy.
India’s handling of its neighborhood policy is also fraught with contradictions, symptomatic of a two-front challenge: The first relating to the concerns inherent among India’s smaller neighbors of its overwhelming national power vis-à-vis their own and the second relating to the intention and ability of smaller countries to hedge between India and China.
The emergence of China as a security and development partner of most South Asian countries remains a complicated facet of the country’s politico-economic statecraft that will challenge India’s ability to shape political outcomes in its neighborhood. Given the glaring gap in China’s and India’s relative economic power, geopolitical prudence does not lie in India trying to play a catch-up game with China. However, the question is how does India define success in its neighborhood? On a hardnose reading of its capabilities, how should India project its aspirations, what it can promise and deliver? Such a policy conundrum is also existent in India’s extended neighbourhood. Despite India’s substantial growth in ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an institution and with the individual countries, India’s power gap vis-à-vis China severely limits India’s ability to turn aspirations into reality. As such, in a clear material sense, there is not much of a rivalry between India and China. A recognition of this reality is required to recalibrate India’s policy to not compete with China, but to maximize India’s gains and minimize its losses. India’s growing emphasis on sub-regional projects through its Act East Policy and through institutional mechanisms like the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), as opposed to the grandiosity seen in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is perhaps a step in the right direction that needs to be followed with implementation and timely delivery.
A better appreciation of the role of power in the international system and its impact on Indian foreign policy will augur well for the future of the nation’s standing regionally and globally. Choices in foreign policy come at a cost. The challenge is in knowing not only the costs, but to engage in a clear-headed calculation of the costs that India can and cannot incur. Will choosing new partners come at the cost of old partners? To what extent can India manage its ties with multiple poles of power in a “purposeful pursuit of national interest”? As the Indian foreign policy establishment aims to break new ground, and move toward outcome-oriented policies, greater realism would suggest New Delhi be mindful of what its national power can and cannot acquire, and hence to cut its coat according to the cloth. That would be the peak of Indian foreign policy practice in the multipolar era.
Monish Tourangbam is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.