India still weighs less than its weight in world affairs, says Brahma Chellaney

Chellaney also said New Delhi was mishandling China by allowing bilateral trade deficits to widen and failing to take a tougher stance on territorial issues. He surmised that over the next decade, India’s foreign policy will face three key challenges: a troubled neighborhood, the China-Pakistan bond and China’s revisionism in the Himalayas.

Edited excerpts:

What is your assessment of the state of Indian foreign policy? Are we better today than in 2014?

Even before Modi took office in 2014, India’s rapidly growing economy and growing geopolitical weight had significantly boosted the country’s international profile. India was widely seen as a key pivot state. Modi’s rise to power changed India’s foreign strategy just as it changed domestic politics. The prime minister has enlivened Indian foreign policy by deviating from conventional methods and old shibboleths. The hallmarks of his foreign policy range from pragmatism to zeal and showmanship. His track record shows that he is a realist who likes to play on the grand chessboard of geopolitics. His personal relationships with international leaders, including some Arab monarchs, have helped to further raise India’s international profile.

In a fundamental sense, India today pursues a non-doctrinaire foreign policy approach and seeks to preserve its strategic autonomy. We have moved from non-alignment, which is generally more passive, to multi-alignment, which is a more active policy. However, India remains largely a reactive state and punches below its weight internationally.

Why do you think India tends to underweight?

This is largely because we do not pursue an active policy. Ad-hocism tends to dominate foreign and defense policy. When you have a political leadership that largely learns on the job, you are not able to make long-term plans. This has been India’s weakness. When a new government takes office, it seeks to reinvent the wheel rather than learn the lessons of the past. This compromises the pursuit of long-term interests.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, he sought to befriend China and Pakistan. The first major foreign leader he invited to India was Xi Jinping and also made a surprise visit to Pakistan. He ignored the lessons that previous governments had learned and sought to build a relationship based on hope. It demonstrated the kind of ad-hocism that has plagued Indian foreign policy since Nehru.

China is now seen as the defining challenge of Indian foreign policy. You have been a vocal critic of New Delhi’s treatment of China. Are we wrong about China? If so, what do we need to do to get it right?

India’s goal has been to build peaceful coexistence with China, but Beijing has continued to challenge Indian security since 1949. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always believed that results would only be achieved from a position of power. This explains the invasion of India by China in 1962 after the capture of Tibet. Unfortunately, Indian leaders fail to learn from history. We have repeatedly called treason when it comes to Beijing. In 1962, Nehru said that China had returned “evil for good”. The last leader to be betrayed was Modi, who sought to befriend Xi Jinping and met him 18 times.

We need to correct recurring errors. Indian policy over the decades has contributed to China’s territorial aggrandizement, including its policies of gradual annexation. For example, while China claims Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet”, India has long maintained that Tibet is an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. We must qualify our position on Tibet.

New Delhi has also allowed China’s bilateral trade surplus to grow so rapidly that it now exceeds India’s defense budget. Indeed, India supports China’s continued aggression.

Instead of embarking on a gradual decoupling process, India is doing the opposite and allowing China to have its cake and eat it too. Commercial dependence is the first law of domination over others. We need to counter this and start by targeting non-essential imports from China and implementing a trade diversification strategy.

You recently wrote that the US-India partnership was too important to lose. What makes him so important and is there a serious chance of losing him?

Strategic partnership is essential to the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. With US policy forcing Russia to look to China, Washington’s relationship with India has become more critical for America in the region. The boom in exports to India is also strengthening a bipartisan consensus in Washington for a closer partnership with New Delhi. Both sides also seek to improve military interoperability. We do more exercises with the United States than any other country.

The danger is that this partnership between two of the most powerful democracies in the world is starting to cool. The surrender of Afghanistan by US President Joe Biden to the Taliban and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are creating some discord. On this last point, India has charted an independent course on the war, like many other actors like Israel and Turkey. However, because India is the world’s largest democracy, its neutrality undermines the American narrative that the war in Ukraine symbolizes a battle between democracy and autocracy. These new irritants need to be addressed.

The international environment has deteriorated considerably in recent years with US-Chinese competition and the war in Ukraine. What challenges will this pose for Indian foreign policy?

The world today is at a crossroads. The UN secretary general has warned of a “colossal global dysfunction”. Despite globalization, the world is more divided globally and a new cold war seems to be starting. The current international crisis will weigh on the Indian economy. This is already evident given the impact of energy and rising food prices on India’s import bill.

India does not want to take sides in the next cold war. India wants to act as a bridge between rival blocs. However, there is the danger that if India plays its cards wrong, it could be pinned down by both blocks. So far, India has played its cards well.

What do you see as the three major challenges for Indian foreign policy that need to be addressed over the next decade?

A big challenge centers on India’s troubled neighborhood. This region is so chronically troubled that the country faces what can be called a “tyranny of geography”. India faces serious external threats from all sides. China has made increasing inroads in India’s near abroad.

First and foremost, New Delhi will have to arrest its waning influence in its own backyard. A second challenge is strengthening ties between China and Pakistan. These two powers have claimed entire swathes of Indian territory and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction. The third challenge will be China’s aggressive territorial revisionism. The current Himalayan crisis and the frenetic buildup of military infrastructure along the Indo-China border could make it a hot frontier. China is a common factor in the three big challenges facing India.

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