The proactive and out-of-the-box foreign policy pursued by the Modi government has put the global spotlight on India’s growing role in the international arena and the kind of power India can, and should become in shaping the agenda on a range of global issues.
In this wide-ranging conversation with Manish Chand, Editor-in-Chief, India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org), Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive of The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a preeminent UK-based think tank, shared his views and perspectives on recent foreign policy initiatives pursued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the growing global “demand push” for India to play a bigger role in global affairs. Dr Chipman argues that India needs to develop a strategic culture to realise its ambitions of getting a permanent seat in the UN Security Council by pursuing a foreign policy that is not only supportive of its own national interests, but also in support of wider public goods in the international arena. He speaks about the growing importance of “fast power” in international affairs and the delicate interplay of India’s relations with China and Japan in creating a balance in the region.
Excerpts from the interview:
Excerpts from the interview:
Putting Neighbours First
Q) A new narrative of India is emerging. There are high expectation from the BJP-led NDA government in India in the economic arena as well as in the sphere of foreign policy. How do you look at core foreign policy priorities of the new Indian government? How has the global strategic community reacted to it?
A: I think everybody was impressed initially that Prime Minister Modi invited all the leaders of SAARC countries to his inauguration. They would remark at that time that it was an intriguing innovation and demonstrated that the security of home also depended on the security of the region and that was the gesture the world responded to. It indicates a pragmatic approach to global relations in the neighbourhood, but I think the outside world is looking to see a much more extrovert India in foreign policy and even in the security realm. Everybody recognises that it is easier to play an extrovert role if your own neighbourhood is secure, but that one shouldn’t wait until a perfect outcome in regional relationships to play a role outside of the region. One can’t have one’s own foreign policy as a rising great power hostage to the particular stability of countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood. So, in the rest of Asia and I think also in the Middle East, you have a number of countries that are hoping that once the economic challenges are well tackled and that there is a sense of momentum in domestic politics, it would translate into a stronger role of India in other parts of the world.
Q) You are stressing that India’s foreign policy should not be hostage to that the regional situation in its immediate periphery. Are you suggesting that India should first sort out problems in its neighbourhood before attempting a bigger global role?
A) It’s is a question of balance of approach; it wouldn’t be right for India to spend all of its foreign policy energy far away from India and ignore its so-called near abroad. India’s ability to manage neighbourhood effectively would also impact on its ability to carry diplomatic weight internationally. So there is a relationship between being able to handle one’s neighbourhood well and being able to exercise influence much further away, but it should not be the case that you wait for the perfect situation at home or in the region to take care of foreign policy abroad because India is too big a country, it’s a G20 country, an aspiring member of the UN Security Council. In economic terms, there is a huge demand pull for more Indian activity in other parts of the world
A demand pull i.e., it’s not only the question of supply, it is not a supply push but a demand pull, which we have in other parts of the world especially in Southeast Asia. Countries in ASEAN, particularly leaders in ASEAN and Singapore, would be keen for India to play its full role in the East Asia Summit, where India was included precisely to make certain that all the big Asian powers like China, Japan and India will play an individual role in that 18-nation grouping. And we expect that Prime Minister Modi will want to have excellent relations with China and sustain its all-weather relationship with Japan. India’s presence in that balance is also important.
India and China: Conflict versus Cooperation
Q) The last decade has seen this inevitable comparison between India and China as emerging Asian powers with different contrasting styles of diplomacy and priorities. When we compare India with China in terms of foreign policy and foreign policy projection, do you think India will have a distinct trajectory in terms of its global ascent as a major power?
A) Well, India is, of course, a very different country from China; what’s similar is only the size of their population and almost everything is very different. So the fact is India is the world’s largest democracy, the fact that India has its own national interests to defend, naturally it would mean it will have its own individual policy. I think it can exercise its national interest in the Asia-Pacific region and Middle East with perhaps greater force than it had in recent years. In Asia I would expect that India would seek to develop very strong relations with Japan, Singapore and Australia. And having an important relationship with Myanmar. And in all of these areas, it will bump up against the interests of China in the region as well.
Q) What about this construction of India and China as rivals? How realistic is this scenario of rivalry? Do you think China represents a credible threat to India’s core national interests?
A) There is a long-standing border dispute between India and China that is not adequately resolved. The previous government talked openly about the cyber threat coming from China. There are, of course, many border challenges that have occurred as well; and the press sometime criticizes the previous government for not being strong enough in standing up to this. The clarity is needed in international affairs; strategic ambiguity is not always helpful and I am sure this government will have a clear-cut policy with China. India has to work to ensure that the economic engagement between the two countries is such that there will be a very high cost to any disagreement going downhill fast. I think India’s approach to China will be to be constructively worried, wanting to develop a strong relationship with China, but at the same time worry that there can be difficulties on border or in other ways that require a straightforward approach.
India: Smart Power, Hard Power, Fast Power
Q) Coming back to the question of the kind of power India could become, India has been pitching for long for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. At the Munich security conference, you spoke about fast power. Do you see India becoming a smart power or fast power? Looking ahead, what should be two or three core priorities for India’s foreign policy establishment to play a more proactive and more credible role in the international arena?
A) I think I spoke principally about fast power. Soft power is about economic weight, hard power is about force and fast power is about acting swiftly in the international arena. In a sense, we live in the age of ‘fast power’. Our sense of stability, and indeed the rise of insecurity, is dramatically affected by the speed with which events happen and the very many different agents of power with which governments and the private sector have to deal with. Therefore, governments, and the defense and foreign ministries that serve them, have to be readier to act at speed if they are to shape, rather than be shaped, by changing events. In the past, strategists asked if a country had ‘soft’ power, ‘hard’ power, or ‘smart’ power. Today they must assess the quality of a state or of an alliance’s ‘fast power’ if they are to make a proper appreciation of the capability to respond to threats and to change.
Speed has become an important element in international affairs, like the rapid deployment of forces by the military or the foreign ministry sending a special envoy in an emergency situation. Speed is an important attribute of power in global affairs and certainly PM Modi has himself exercised fast power by acting very quickly on many issues, taking initiatives quickly and implementing them fast. The idea is not to not let the bureaucracy impede important diplomatic foreign policy initiatives.
Of course, fast power can be mistaken power if you move too quickly without proper consideration and reflection; like everything else in life, a balance has to be maintained. For India, many countries have supported its membership of the Security Council, but India needs a more well-thought out strategy to achieve this aim. It’s not good enough to say we are a billion people, we are big, and therefore we should be a member of the Security Council. I think like for any executive position one need to say what are the particular things I would bring to the table, and it makes no sense to become a member of Security Council and abstain on every issue of controversy. That I think is one of the challenges for India to develop that strategic culture that permits it to take more regularly position on issues of international controversy. And I am sure over the next five years a more politically extrovert India would do it on a more regular basis.
It’s for the leaders and people of India to decide that. What is this strategic culture that India should develop itself to be a more imposing actor in international affairs, not only in support of its own people and its own principles, but also in support of wider public goods in the international arena?
The real sign of a superpower is a power that is able to exercise its influence on issues in areas that aren’t only of national interest but also of interest to the international community as a whole. India should no doubt be more forceful in exerting its own national interest in various parts of the world, but it should also weigh in on broad issues of the international community’s public goods. These are the directions in which India is bound to move as India grows. But it needs a public debate on strategic culture within the country.
Q) Dr. Chipman, there is a new term gaining currency in foreign policy circles: multi- alignment. There is an assessment that India is no longer ideology-driven, but will align with different blocs or coalitions depending upon its national interests. Is this pragmatic flexible diplomacy the way to go?
A) In the West, a number of countries form alliances but nevertheless form coalitions of the willing when particular issues require what some people call a mini-lateral approach to international affairs, when you bring together the countries that operate usefully on a subject and can also help resolve a problem. So I think it’s perfectly fair for India to have various sets of relationships, but in the end it needs to decide for itself what are these fora for and in which of these fora India can most productively express its interests. I think there is some scepticism outside as to whether the BRICS, the four and five countries brought together by Goldman Sachs economists, share enough real strategic goals in order to be a real organisation of foreign policy of international weight. They have created certain institutions like the New Development Bank. But I know for a certain that India would not want to put all its foreign policy into the BRICS and its most effective foreign policy would be one that is guided by international interests in certain different regions and different places.
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