In the context of India’s renewed ‘look-east’ policy and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus on a regional development agenda, there is no gainsaying that all of Asia in general stands to profit much from India taking its foreign policy seriously and fleshing it out to be more in keeping with it’s geopolitical importance in the homily of nations. However, there still remain many ifs and buts, Modi’s strong posturing and his hitting the floor running from day-one of his electoral victory notwithstanding. While the right signals have been emanating from important ministries that are India’s power-centres, it still remains to be seen how successful the new PM is in positioning India to take optimum advantage of it’s stance on the world arena. Raman Swamy embarks on a mini-analysis of what is in store this autumn …
“Speak softly but always carry a big stick”. Nobody really knows the origin of this proverb. Some say it is an old West African adage. Others give Theodore Roosevelt the credit for coining the phrase. President Xi Jinping of China probably knows that it has been the wisdom of oriental sages since the Ming dynasty and “big stick diplomacy” is his preferred foreign policy doctrine while dealing with other nations. Despite speaking softly and smiling sweetly for the camera throughout his India visit by attending Prime Minister’s birthday dinner, promising to invest US$ 20 billion into infrastructure and manufacturing projects, pledging to open a new land route to Kailash Mansarovar, urging Narendra Modi to visit China as early as possible next year, despite all these friendly gestures, the Chinese leader simultaneously wielded the big stick by sending his Army into Indian territory in northeastern parts of Ladakh.
Even as the two leaders were closeted in New Delhi’s Hyderabad House, talking of medium-term plans for economic and trade development, signing a dozen MoUs on civil nuclear cooperation, peaceful uses of outer space and railway modernization, Chinese soldiers and personnel were setting up three camps within 300 km of Leh and Chinese helicopters were making several sorties to air-drop food and supplies for the men of the People’s Liberation Army. Taken aback and astonished, officials of the Indian government could do little but attempt a feeble show of token retaliation – signals were reportedly sent to the police outside the venue of the high-level talks to allow a small group of 20 Tibetan women to assemble near a side gate, indulge in half-an-hour of slogan shouting and flag waving before being carted away from the scene in buses and jeeps. Even the man keen to become known as a straighttalking Prime Minister chose to do little more than tell the media after his one-to-one conclave with President Xi: “Respect for each other’s sensitivities and concerns and peace and stability in our relations and along our borders are essential”.
If the brief mock demonstrations by a bevy of Tibetan girls were a pale response to the provocative PLA incursion in Ladakh’s Demchok and Chumar region, so too was Modi stress on the need for “mutual respect” a less than adequate reaction to the mood changing act of the Chinese Army. The immediate effect of the timing of China’s “big stick diplomacy” was to dampen the mood of what could otherwise have been euphoric celebration of the advent of a new era of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai friendship. From the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad to the treelined avenues of Lutyen’s Delhi, all reports till then had indicated that Modi and XI had developed a personal chemistry that was genuinely a good augury for better relations between the two most populous countries in the world. Adding to the atmosphere of hope and optimism was the tremendous personal impact that the Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan made on whoever she met, including the students and teachers of the Tagore International School which she visited. Not only is Madame Peng Liyuan the Chinese President’s wife, but she has been a celebrity singing star hugely admired in the own country and rated by US magazines as being even more charming and photogenic than the American first Lady Michelle Obama.
The talk in diplomatic circles is that this is the way China conducts its foreign policy. In the words of one Western envoy: “The Chinese know how to launch a charm offensive when they wish to. They smile broadly and bow courteously but wave a big stick once in a while, just to remind you not to assume you have won them over. That is how they do business. It is just their way of measuring your limits of patience and tolerance and your yearning for friendship”. Such an approach might well have been part of ancient India’s art of war and peace too. But perhaps because of India’s turbulent history of being ruled by outsiders over the centuries, much of the age-old knowledge has been lost and forgotten. China, historically much more fortunate in terms of foreign invasions and conquests, appears to have retained old learnings and incorporated such Oriental wisdom in 21st century diplomatic strategies. In many ways, the experience with President Xi may have been an eye-opener for Narendra Modi. Till then his foreign policy initiatives showed that he had something of a Midas-like knack of pulling off spectacular diplomatic successes with a personal touch. Just as he won kudos for taking the oath as Prime Minister in the presence of a galaxy of SAARC leaders, so also his idea of inviting the Chinese President to be the guest-in-chief at his 64th birthday celebrations was hailed as a masterstroke. Within the first three months of his tenure Modi has shown a dexterity to create and seize opportunities to make symbolic gestures when dealing with foreign leaders, which add value to the atmospherics and lend a sense of cordiality and intimacy to diplomatic relations between two countries. In the case of President Xi Jinping, the very decision to land in Ahmedabad rather than New Delhi might have bent protocol norms to quite an extent, but it did signify that the Chinese were equally keen to reciprocate such confidence building gestures. Indeed many foreign policy pundits have noted that one of the strong points of the Modi government seems to be the manner in which it is approaching foreign policy and global security issues. It is worth reiterating that the Prime Minister’s visits to Japan and Nepal reflected the ability to think out of the box. These initial successes have been due to imaginative initiatives taken by India, such as the invitation to SAARC leaders for the oath ceremony, the upgrading of the trip to Kathmandu into a grand photo opportunity and even the masterful manner in which Modi himself raised the Japan visit to the level of a celebration of his personal rapport with Prime Minister Abe. With the amount of interest that has been built up over Narendra Modi’s much-anticipated meeting with President Barack Obama, it is widely anticipated that India’s international profile would rise further.
Hence, apart from a few short-duration blips such as the abrupt cancellation of peace talks with Pakistan and the initial lack of clarity on New Delhi’s policy stance on the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the Modi government appeared to be sure-footed on foreign policy or external security. This indicates that the Prime Minister appears to have the benefit of advice from a pool of experienced and innovative geo-strategic experts who appear to be not only shaping foreign policy contours but also creating opportunities to ramp up India’s global image through dramatic gestures and symbolic initiatives. Such a think-tank, if it exists at all as a formal entity, also appears to be dealing directly with the Prime Minister and his National Security Advisor rather than through the External Affairs Ministry. This explains why Sushma Swaraj, the de facto Foreign Minister, at times to have been not quite in step with Modi’s emergingand carefully-crafted global strategy. Not only was she not part of the ministerial entourage to Japan, but she was also apparently not fully in the loop about the complex approach to the Gaza crisis. In spite of that, Sushma Swaraj has been able to hold her own by virtue of her outstanding success in negotiating the release and safe return home of the large number of nurses and other Indian citizens who had been held hostage or otherwise stranded in war-torn Iraq when the ISIS phenomenon first raised its head.
It is a different matter that NSA Ajit Doval was, perhaps, the real architect of success story by reportedly making personal under-cover trips to meet his contacts in various countries in the region. But Swaraj did have a key diplomatic role to play and she richly deserves whatever credit she got. A pertinent issue which is likely to prove a different kind of challenge in the coming weeks is the ISIS issue, which could pose an interesting foreign policy issue dilemma. Apart from the direct impact that the rise of the ISIS has had on India due to alarming reports that hundreds of Indian citizens are being lured to enroll as ISIS fighters in the Middle East, New Delhi has till now been watching the developments in Iraq and Syria from afar, as it were. With US President Obama’s announcement that it had finally taken the decision to carry out aerial bombardment of Syria if necessary in pursuit of its mission to “defeat and destroy” the ISIS forces, India can no longer afford to continue its traditional fence-sitting posture. Obama has pledged a “relentless” war against the “Islamic State” (ISIS), raising crucial questions about US plans to aid rebel groups and carry out air strikes in Syria and also potent questions about what the Syrian government’s response to such violations of its sovereign territory will be. Already, one of President Bashar al- Assad’s ministers has warned that “any action of any kind (by the US) without the consent of the Syrian government would be an attack on Syria.” If India wishes to pursue its goal as a major global player, New Delhi may have to significantly alter the contours of its West Asia policy and make common cause with the US and its allies as well as engage with the Kurdish Regional Government eadership in the fight against ISIS in northern Iraq. Reports say the Kurd leaders, with whom Ajit Doval reputedly has close links, have already sought India’s active help.
Moreover, the White House has also issued an official pre-visit statement indicating that the upcoming Modi-Obama meeting “will focus on regional issues, including current developments in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, where India and the United States can work together with partners towards a positive outcome”. The implications are clear – America wants India on its side in the War against Terror. As time goes by, in the emerging complex multi-polar global scenario, New Delhi will inevitably be confronted with several tough choices. The frenetic pace at which Modi has been shaping foreign policy in the last month alone indicates that greater reliance is being laid on instinct and intuition rather than on the tried and tested methods of meticulously weighing all the pros and cons before making nuanced, calibrated and deliberately gradual shifts in foreign policy stances. Conventional wisdom suggests that rapid and instinctive decision-making and spontaneous initiatives on the international geo-strategic chessboard can be fraught with dangers. Rightly has it been said that the purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world. Narendra Modi’s style of diplomacy may appear energetic and imaginative. At the same time it gives the impression that enough thought has not gone into the nitty-gritty of policy formulation. After all, diplomacy is more than saying or doing the right things at the right time – it is avoiding saying or doing the wrong things at any time. In order to avoid making false steps or errors that can prove costly or embarrassing, it is advisable to make haste slowly.