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India's Foreign Policy Options in the Asia-Pacific: A Critical Evaluation

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  • June 10, 2016
    Fellows' Seminar

    The IDSA Fellows Seminar by Dr S. Kalyanaraman, Research Fellow, IDSA, on the topic "India’s Foreign Policy Options in the Asia-Pacific: A Critical Evaluation” was held on Friday, June 10, 2016. It was chaired by Sudhir T Devare, India’s former Ambassador in North Korea, Visiting Fellow and former Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. To discuss the paper, two external and two internal discussants participated in the seminar: Prof Sujit Dutta, the Mahatma Gandhi Chair at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi and whose expertise is in Chinese Politics, Foreign and Security Policies, India-China Relations, International Affairs in East Asia, India’s Strategic Thought, International Relations; and Rajesh Rajagopalan, Professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, whose areas of research are international relations theory, military doctrines and nuclear weapons and disarmament; Dr. Uttam Sinha, Research Fellow at IDSA; and Cdr. Aman Saberwal, Research Fellow at IDSA.

    In his presentation, Dr. Kalyanaraman began by highlighting how the Asia-Pacific region is gaining greater salience in both the economic and political spheres, how China is emerging as a central player in this unfolding dynamic, and what impact these developments have for India’s security and role in the region. It is against this backdrop that he critically evaluated four policy options that have been prescribed for India. These are:

    Multi-Alignment: Proponents argue that multi-alignment not only enables India to advance its core developmental priorities through greater economic integration at the regional and global levels but also helps preserve its strategic autonomy by avoiding too great a dependence on any one major power. Contrary to these assertions and aspirations, however, multi-alignment is unlikely to prove practicable in an Asia-Pacific that is tending towards fragmentation into rival economic and security groupings led by America and China, respectively. Practising multi-alignment would be impracticable because, during periods of intensified great power rivalry, alliances are likely to be rigid and the interactions between rival great powers zero sum and conflictual in nature, thus rendering membership in multiple groupings impossible and the contradictions involved in pursuing such a policy unmanageable.

    Nonalignment: A modified version of nonalignment, Nonalignment 2.0, between China and America is the second policy prescription that has been identified. Advocates contend that nonalignment would help India derive economic, military and technological benefits from multiple sources as well as enable it to play the role of “a unique bridge” between different countries and groupings. But this idea of replicating the policy adopted during the Cold War to the unfolding circumstances overlooks the fact that the Soviet Union did not pose a threat to India whereas China does. Further, external balancing in the form of an alliance is necessary given limited domestic economic and military capacities and the growing power asymmetry vis-à-vis China.

    Bandwagoning with China: The third prescription is the establishment of a closer economic relationship and forging of a new political equilibrium with China. While India would indeed gain from a closer economic relationship with China in terms of furthering its domestic economic transformation, it is highly unlikely that enhanced economic cooperation would either cause an amelioration of rivalry or move the two countries towards a mutually acceptable political accommodation.

    Aligning with America: Alignment with America is the fourth policy choice. Advocates view an alignment with America as necessary to protect India’s core values of democracy, pluralism and secularism from an authoritarian China aligned with jihad-exporting Pakistan. Further, an alliance with America is also necessary, even natural, given the vast and growing power asymmetry between India and China, which gulf can be bridged only through external balancing given the lack of “political will and executive capability” to rapidly build up national power through internal balancing. There is no denying the importance of, and even necessity for, an alliance with America to counter China’s growing power and consequent ability to reshape the Asian and international order. But two main objections have been articulated by critics to such a policy course. First, it would prematurely antagonise China and impel that country into adopting overtly hostile policies towards India. The second objection is that an alliance with America would transform India into a junior partner and lead to its enmeshment in various American military misadventures.

    Concluding his presentation, Dr. Kalyanaraman pointed out that China’s rise to great power status poses major challenges for India’s foreign and security policies. Given that India will not be able to arrive at a mutual political accommodation with China, and given that dealing with China requires external balancing because of limited internal capacities, the optimal policy option for India is to forge an alliance with the United States.

    The presentation was followed by comments by the discussants.

    Prof. Sujit Dutta:

    Prof. Dutta began by noting that the paper has raised many interesting ideas which were central to the foreign policy discourse in India. The paper is based on the ‘Offensive Realist’ theory of international relations. The principal argument revolves around the thought that “India needs an alignment with United States to deal with the emerging challenges from China”, and this has been well articulated. Nehruvian foreign policy has often been criticized thus: it did not look into the realities of power politics clearly and therefore India suffered. The paper has gone to the opposite of the Nehruvian paradigm, i.e., it has dealt with power politics in terms of military alignments which poses problems in many ways. India’s political elite are not very happy with power politics in the international domain although they are happy to practice power politics in the domestic domain. So, it is very difficult for a consensus based foreign policy on the assumption that power politics should drive India’s foreign policy. Second, liberal institutionalism and liberal interdependence which are the fundamentals of the liberal peace are also important. China is a trade dependent country. It can ill afford to undermine interdependence. China’s economy is declining and it should understand that India today is a good market. Third, China’s power has been magnified. China spends on defence much more than India but China’s security paradigm is much more problematic than India’s. India’s defence expenditure should rise for sure but it need not to be same as China’s. Further, we must not underestimate the overwhelming power of the United States. China is in no position to catch up with the United States anytime soon. We must not overstate China’s power. India’s economy is rising and it will reach up to China’s level soon. So we should analyse what India’s foreign policy is and what changes it requires within the framework of an independent foreign policy. It cannot be done in isolation with other countries but it can be done in cooperation with other countries due to globalization. We need a proactive foreign policy. In this multi-polar world, balance of power is required so that no single country dominates the others. By getting engaged with the United States in terms of alliance rather than strategic partnership, we will constrain ourselves. The United States has many flaws in its policies, like Pakistan policy, Vietnam policy in the past, etc. It is important to have relations with all the great powers. India-China relations today are far less acrimonious than at the time when we had no trade relations.

    Prof Rajesh Rajagopalan:

    China has a great impact on other nations in every term, whether economic or defence. China is larger than all of its key competitors in Asia. China has already surpassed that threshold where it can be balanced by a combination of regional countries. If you have an imbalance of power, there must be a balance created irrespective of the policies of other countries. The US can anchor the regional countries to create a balance against China. There is a difference between alignment and alliance, which can be shown by the alignment of China-Pakistan during the cold war, even when Pakistan had an alliance with the US. They had collaboration on a number of different levels. It is always necessary to point out that difference between alignment and alliance. Alignments have their own problems. One of the problems of American alignment is not just the capacity of the US but its willingness to align, and this is one of the key problems that India and all other countries face. India has been gradually moving away from nonalignment for the past 30 years. According to various surveys, the US has public support in India. Inter-dependence has not prevented China from dealing aggressively with countries in South-East Asia and East Asia. China is a dominant power irrespective of its aggressive behaviour. India doesn’t have the power to internally balance China. An alignment is about meeting specific threats. India-US partnership should be looked at from this perspective.

    Uttam Sinha: He pointed to five trends in the changing geopolitics of the Asia-pacific:

    • The Chinese moves at developing a counter strategy to deal with US rebalancing to Asia-Pacific region have potentially set the stage for the new polarising order in Asia.
    • There are limits to full convergence of Asian country’s economic interests and their political objectives. It is the natural political dilemma witnessed in the region which will lead china to seek competitive relations with Asian neighbours.
    • The US, India and China are pushing their respective interests in the region by reaching out to old and new friends. Alliances and partnerships are turning to be dynamic.
    • China and India are going to compete and cooperate at the same time. China will take advantage of the Indian market but on the strategic front relations will be tricky.
    • Emergence of new great game –India’s Act East policy, US rebalance and China’s OBOR.

    Aman Saberwal:

    • The title of the paper is “India’s Foreign Policy options in Asia Pacific”, but it seems to focus totally on China, so perhaps a more China centric title could be considered.
    • China’s air force squadrons and aircraft are higher in number than India’s for sure, but then they also have more service and maintenance complexities than India’s.
    • Only Army and Air Force aspects have been discussed but not the Navy’s in which realm India is more capable.
    • India’s military strength has been greatly underrated in the paper.

    Intervening from the floor, Director General Jayant Prasad said that there should be emphasis on both internal and external balancing, as well as an independent foreign policy even while being aligned. But alignment bordering on some kind of alliance system with the US could be dangerous for India.

    In his concluding remarks, Amb. Sudhir Devare noted that:

    • India should be dexterous rather than being aligned to countries
    • Chinese aggressiveness has become a matter of concern.
    • The fact of multi-polarity has come in the frame now.
    • The policy of maintaining relations with middle power needs to be continued. The aspect of cooperative security needs to be explored.

    Prepared by Urvashi Rathore, Research Intern, IDSA