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India can't sit out the great issues of our time

Last updated on: March 18, 2010 11:37 IST

India has to leverage its "swing" status, engage with all and align with none, observes Shyam Saran

In the first half of the first decade of the new millennium, India's emergence as a major political and economic power became an acknowledged reality worldwide. It was able to shed its nuclear "outlier" status to be accepted as a de facto nuclear weapon state with full access to international nuclear energy commerce. Indo-US relations achieved an unprecedented density across the board. Even China, usually seen as an adversary, sought a strategic and cooperative partnership with India. A permanent seat in the UN Security Council seemed within reach.

There were positive trends in our own troubled neighbourhood. Relations with Pakistan achieved remarkable improvement with long outstanding issues being addressed in a new spirit of realism. In Nepal, there was promise of a democratic transition with India, for once, on the right side of history.

While Bangladesh continued to cause concern, relations with Bhutan, engaged in its own democratic transition, reached unprecedented levels of mutual trust and extended cooperation. The growing integration of Indian and Sri Lankan economies, under the historic Free Trade Agreement, helped keep political relations in balance despite the tensions generated by ethnic turmoil in the island country. By 2006, India enjoyed a regional and global environment supportive of its developmental objectives. Its strategic autonomy had unmistakably expanded.

However, since then, India's external environment began to change in a clearly adverse direction. Domestic turmoil in Pakistan and resurgence of cross-border terrorism brought the bilateral peace process to an uncertain pause. In Nepal, the Maoists and political parties failed to consolidate multi-party democracy.

The Indo-US nuclear agreement ran into political opposition at home and relations with China appeared to shift to a more adversarial pitch. While the nuclear agreement eventually did go through by the end of 2008, it was a lonely positive. The current picture remains grim but there may be some opportunities appearing on the horizon as we enter the decade 2010-2020.

India's vulnerabilities in the next decade will be centred mainly in its neighbourhood. While the Indian subcontinent is a single geopolitical unit, it is fractured into several states, each with its own dynamics. As the largest country in the region, India's security concerns have always encompassed and will continue to encompass the entire subcontinent. This dictates a strategy that neutralises vulnerabilities inherent in these political divisions, specifically ensuring that India's neighbours do not become platforms for hostile activities against it by current or potential adversaries. Otherwise, India's ability to overcome an adverse, or leverage a potentially favourable, global environment will confront severe constraints.

The management of our neighbourhood should enjoy the highest priority in the next decade. Episodic engagement and crisis-management must yield place to a long-term focus on the following elements:

  • The economic integration of South Asia, with a willingness to implement significant and, if necessary, unilateral trade and economic liberalisation measures favouring our neighbours. This will give them a stake in India's growth and propriety.
  • Improving and upgrading connectivity among all countries of the region, through roads, rail, air and electronic links. Without this infrastructure in place, regional economic integration will remain a chimera; and,
  • Significantly expanded cultural diplomacy to leverage the strong and enduring cultural and linguistic affinities we share with our neighbours.

Our engagement with our extended neighbourhood in the Gulf, Central Asia and South-East Asia must be built on the solid foundation of our subcontinental policy. With Russia, emerging convergences on the geopolitical front should take us beyond the largely military hardware relationship we currently have.

What is the outlook for the global environment in the next decade? What are our strengths and likely vulnerabilities?

India's rising profile as a major emerging economy with significant strategic capabilities makes it an increasingly indispensable partner in the construction of emerging security and economic architectures both in Asia and the world, and in dealing with cross-cutting issues such as terrorism, climate change, global trade and finance.

The resilience its economy has shown in the wake of the continuing global economic and financial crisis positions India somewhat better than China, since India's growth is mostly domestic demand-driven and not linked to an artificially-maintained low exchange rate. In a landscape of several rising powers, India's rise is likely to be more sustainable than other largely export-driven economies.

Nevertheless, our task is complicated by the fact that the geopolitical environment continues to be in a state of flux. Its eventual denouement remains unpredictable. During 2009, there were worries in this country over a possible Sino-US or a G-2 condominium. The anxiety today is about the impact of rising tensions between them. A polarised international landscape will constrain India as much as would a collusive arrangement between major powers. India will need to manage its relations with major powers in a subtle and sophisticated manner, leveraging its "swing" status wherever possible, engaging with all, but aligning with none.

But this contemporary non-alignment does not allow India to sit out the great issues of our time and seek comfort in a policy of interminable fence-sitting. This is like being dealt a hand in the geopolitical card game but refusing to play.

This tendency is partly the result of becoming a premature power. India's relative power globally has outstripped the indices of personal and social well-being, unlike in the established industrialised powers, where they have historically moved in sync. We will need to overcome the ambivalence this creates and embrace a more proactive regional and global role in line with our national power. A seat at the high table should be sought not as an end in itself but as an opportunity to negotiate arrangements conducive to our economic and social development, and the overall welfare of our people. That should be for our agenda for the next decade.

The author was India's Foreign Secretary and until recently the Prime Minister's Special Envoy

Shyam Saran
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