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India’s Season of Summits

Dr. Sujit Dutta is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Presently he is on lien from IDSA and Professor at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 30, 2010

    This has been an extraordinary season in India’s foreign relations. Visits to India by the British Prime Minister, the US, French and Russian Presidents, Indian participation in the G-20 Summit in Seoul and the India-China-Russia summit in Beijing, the Indo-European summit in Brussels along with the Prime Minister’s meeting with the German Chancellor, the Chinese Premier’s short but important trip to India – all within a span of a few months, and the bulk of them packed in December -- marks the arrival of India on the world stage. If the country was not so badly gripped by the internal state of affairs – the sordid saga of scams at the top echelons of the government and the crony capitalism that weakens the capacity to govern and deliver public goods – the media would by now have produced reams in praise of an India basking in global attention. Yet the significance of this extraordinary season cannot be missed. There has never been such a packed series of summits and never has India been more wanted as a partner by the major actors of the world.

    That India’s weight and status is rapidly rising in world affairs despite the less than optimal functioning of the state and the distractions that grips the political class, can be attributed to two factors – the sustained and high growth rates that has already made India a major world market at a time when the Western economies and Japan are facing deep recession, and the rise of an assertive and authoritarian China that -- for many -- now casts a ominous and growing shadow over the world strategic landscape. The first of these reasons is of course primary; the second is dependent on the success of the first. If India was not growing rapidly into a major world economy with the ability to play a wider strategic role, it would not matter in global perceptions and the search for ways to balance China. The fact that India is also investing in building its military capacities, in capital and technology intensive energy, infrastructural, industrial and service based processes makes the growth story that much more important. There is a perception that despite the domestic troubles and political incompetence India can still be a significant international actor and that India matters. There is a global anxiety and uncertainty about the new found assertiveness of China, and a growing India is now a valued partner.

    The world wants India to succeed because in it lies its vital interest. The rapid growth of India and China over two decades has sustained world economic growth, serving as the twin engines of demand and, in the recent years of gloom, the hope for a global recovery. More significant, the growth has a long-term trajectory. China turned its growth, its low wage manufacturing and the attraction of its large market and large investments in infrastructure into assets for industrial transformation and globalisation. The world hopes India too will turn its opportunities to transform itself into a prosperous, stable, strong and well-governed democracy. The rise of an export driven China is no more adequate for a world reeling from recession and neither is it desirable. The world needs India as a balancer – in trade, as a market, as an alternative model, and as a world power. Given China’s giant size who else can match it? A former Singapore Defence Minister visualised Asia as a jumbo jet with India and China as its two wings. Thus four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the US, Russia, France and Britain -- want India now to be in it as a permanent member and as their strategic partner so that the global order can remain stable and secure.

    But is India ready to play its role? As India grows in economic size and international significance it faces huge challenges and responsibilities. Is it prepared to deal with them? It desires to be a member of the UN Security Council; it is already a member of the increasingly important East Asia Summit and the G-20. What will it bring to the table? What new ideas on global economy and governance, climate change, Asian stability and security can we expect from India and what commitments is it willing to make towards them? Tommy Koh, one of Singapore's best-known diplomats, has been quoted in one of the cables released by Wikileaks as saying that India is “half in, half out” of the ASEAN region. He said this about India's Southeast Asian policy during his conversation with US officials in September 2009 in a mood of frustration. This view, according to reports, is shared widely in the diplomatic circles in the region. India is not devoting enough resources -- diplomatic, political and economic -- to its vital engagements in East Asia, which has emerged as one of its most important regional partners. This is also true in the case of the South Asian neighbourhood, the Gulf States, the Indian Ocean region and Eurasia – all crucial for securing rapidly expanding Indian interests. In addition, India needs significant investments in ties with the United States, Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Britain, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Egypt, South Korea, Israel and crucially China.

    India’s growing involvement in world affairs, rising trade, energy needs, security requirements, and its entry into major international institutions demand rapid capacity building -- both intellectual and institutional. Its diplomatic strength of about 800 officers is woefully inadequate to meet the growing demands of diplomacy, trade and security. A three to four-fold increase is needed if the international tasks are to be effectively undertaken. Even a small state such as the Netherlands has over 2000 diplomatic officials. India also needs an integrated policy-making think-tank within the government that will bring together the diverse demands of political ties, external and internal security interests, commerce, technology, intelligence, resource needs, environmental policies, and regional engagements. The National Security Council ought to do this but urgently needs capacity building and direct involvement of all the relevant Ministries. India also needs a far more robust, integrated and modernised military and a reformed Ministry of Defence that brings together the civil and the military. Finally, it needs to sustain long-term quality growth in education, research, manufacturing, agriculture, water management and infrastructure. Without broad-based and sustained economic growth India’s international role will be a mirage.

    All this brings us to the second issue mentioned above regarding India’s international significance – the rise of China. Premier Wen Jiabao’s recent visit to Delhi was short and has not resolved any of the growing list of pending political, diplomatic, territorial, security and economic issues. Wen has promised to look into them, but given the three-decades of ongoing unresolved talks on many of them, the prospects for satisfactory resolution of even a few of the issues do not appear bright or imminent. A resurgent and increasingly assertive China is unilaterally pursuing its goals and it does not seem to care much, except for the Indian market. If China continues to pursue its current policy stance in the coming years – in conjunction with its strategic ally Pakistan – it is likely to be an important obstacle to India’s growth. China’s rise has a multidimensional impact on India – on security, trade, regional ties in South and East Asia, water resources, and relations with other major powers. It can complicate both the domestic and the external environment as few others can. India cannot remain coy any more.

    The significance of capacity building and integrated strategy mentioned above is therefore vital in order to meet the huge challenges posed by China. India needs to engage, compete peacefully, and balance China in order to secure its interests. Bold diplomacy and robust engagement can only take place if India has the overall capacities to deal with China. That however means a fundamental change in the manner in which the political class governs the state and conducts its foreign policy.

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