Indian Diplomacy

How India is Running the Race for the Asian Century

After having done some legwork on the connectivity front, India needs to take ownership of its ideas and articulate them cogently, making it clear to regional partners that it is not vying for influence against China or other powerful actors.

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Credit: PTI

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Credit: PTI

In 1981, India hosted the foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), in circumstances that were nothing less than extraordinary.  New Delhi had taken over as the NAM chair from Cuba, with the bloc’s credibility having suffered after Fidel Castro’s ill-fated attempt to brand NAM as the “natural ally” of the Soviet Union. Complicating matters was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, which some NAM members wanted the group to condemn. India, perceived to be closer to the USSR after the signing of the 1971 Indo-Soviet friendship treaty, faced a difficult task: to pull NAM back from an existential crisis, without jeopardising Delhi’s relationship with the USSR. Indian negotiators travelled extensively to NAM capitals ahead of the meeting, and circulated the draft “Delhi Declaration” with a view to push for a consensus document. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who opened the conference, did not flinch in expressing her “distress” at the Soviet invasion, which was ultimately reflected in the NAM declaration as well. India’s “credibility as a host was genuinely enhanced”, as the scholar M.S. Rajan put it, and Delhi’s diplomacy prevented NAM from going off the rails.

The success of the conference rested on three pillars: India’s ability to grasp the severity of the international crisis, its willingness to take ownership of the NAM conference, and finally, an acknowledgement that New Delhi must take a long view of the movement rather than pushing its agenda in the draft document. Even as it chided the Soviets in Afghanistan, and muted its own criticism of the US military base in Diego Garcia, India realised NAM’s premature death could seriously destabilise regional and international security during the Cold War.  The NAM conference was in some respects an extension of the diplomatic moment that Jawaharlal Nehru seized through the first Asian Relations Conference in 1947.  If the ARC was convened to herald the “emergence of Asia”, India’s steering of the NAM conference – three decades later – signalled that this post-colonial moment remained unswayed by Great Power politics.

A similar moment is upon India’s foreign policy establishment once again, as the “Asian Century” that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others before him have referred to, threatens to become coloured by regional contestations for power. The question for Indian diplomacy, plainly put, is: can New Delhi facilitate the resurgence of Asian economies without being drawn or drawing smaller countries into zero-sum relationships with rising powers? India is not a marginal player in the Asian storyboard, and how New Delhi projects itself through economic, political and military means will determine the culture of engagement in the neighbourhood and region. The “old imperialisms have faded away”, as Nehru observed in his curtain raiser for the ARC, but it is incumbent on India to ensure they are not replaced by new, dominant coalitions.

To lead or follow, that is the question

This discussion is animated today by the rise of China, and whether it will fashion a new governance and security architecture for the region. Remarks directed by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and foreign secretary S. Jaishankar at the inaugural Raisina Dialogue toward China’s “unilateral” connectivity programmes – namely, the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative – have been construed as Indian antagonism towards the project.  What the foreign ministry said at Raisina is not new: the Indian view on OBOR was articulated in June 2015 by Jaishankar in his Fullerton lecture at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Characterising OBOR as China’s “national initiative”, the foreign secretary then suggested “it is not incumbent on other countries to buy [into] it”. Jaishankar stated that “larger consultations” with India have simply not happened, meaning it was perceptibly absent from the Xi-Modi bilateral agenda just a month before.

His remarks on OBOR earlier this month, therefore, are a logical extension of this position. It is not without merit, because until late 2014, it was President Xi Jinping’s claim that China will “discuss the initiatives of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” with India. The foreign secretary did, nevertheless, tread new ground at the Raisina Dialogue when he suggested that connectivity measures that “hard wire” choices should be “discouraged”. The Indian view on OBOR is no longer of indifference, but of concern.

There is no denying the link between connectivity initiatives and geopolitics; Jaishankar himself acknowledged this to be a “universal proposition”. Through infrastructure building abroad, the Communist Party of China may indeed be trying to bridge the country’s surplus labour and technical capacities. But that does not preclude the OBOR’s strategic implications. The Marshall Plan provides a good analogy: the recovery programme devised by the United States for post-War Europe created a captive market for American goods, stimulating the US economy. The role of the Plan in Europe’s prosperity is contested, but it created an enduring economic and strategic architecture from which the US emerged as the indispensable ally of Europe.  Similarly, the concern that OBOR may create a relationship of dependency between China and several Asian countries is not far-fetched. China’s own vision paper identifies “financial integration” and “policy coordination” as two of the key pillars behind the OBOR initiative.

While Indian analysts debate OBOR, one needs to guard against the reflexive assumption that China’s physical infrastructure projects will place it at the hub of Asia’s governance architecture. The Asian Century has not been defined by China’s rise alone; Beijing is only one, albeit significant, contributor to this historical phenomenon. Second, it leads us to limited solutions. Those who suggest India should compete with OBOR do so from an exaggerated sense of Indian capabilities, while those who advocate India joining it are offering a non-prescription. It is naturally in India’s interest to boost connectivity by linking to Chinese projects, but India’s position in the region’s supply chains and its services-led growth do not necessarily converge with Chinese plans for pan-Asian connectivity.

Whatever the pros and cons of the Chinese plans from India’s perspective, it is significant that Indian policy in Asia has not been a “passive recipient of outcomes”, to use Jaishankar’s phrase. Ever since Modi’s visit to Xian and Beijing in May 2015, when it became amply clear that India would not be privy to Chinese conversations on OBOR, New Delhi appears to have engaged other Asian interlocutors on its own terms.  In fact, the Ministry of External Affairs has made a concerted effort to highlight the importance of connectivity, and often, tie it to the region’s political developments.

Between May 2015 and March 2016, the prime minister, external affairs minister, the minister of state for external affairs, the foreign secretary and secretary (east) collectively made 45 interventions on the subject. Figure 1 highlights their individual interventions, and Figure 2 maps the location and context of these speeches/statements. Their interventions, broadly summarised, reflect three questions:

  1. Which actors should take the lead in connectivity initiatives?
  2. How do connectivity projects benefit Asia?
  3. What are the norms underpinning Asian connectivity?

Aligning the actors

Conscious of the strategic implications of connectivity projects, the Indian approach has emphasised the role of regional actors. For instance, on South East Asia, New Delhi maintains the “centrality of ASEAN” in any regional security architecture, including at the East Asia Summit that has China and the United States in its fold. At the FIPIC summit in Jaipur last year, Prime Minister Modi lent his support to the vision of “Pacific regionalism”, which according to the Pacific Islands Forum is a “political principle” to better integrate the 16 constituent countries. During his lecture at the Nazarbayev University in Kazakistan – part of his tour of the five Central Asian states – the prime minister went further, reminding his audience of the historic Great Game. Central Asia became “no longer a bridge between regions […] but a land in the shadows of the high walls of the powers around it”, he cautioned.

As for the Indian Ocean region, the question of who should be its “net security provider” was decisively answered by the foreign secretary in his Fullerton lecture. “[…] Those who are resident in this region have the primary responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indian Ocean,” said Jaishankar.  These four sites — South East Asia, the Pacific Islands, Central Asia and the Indian Ocean — are expected to be the hotbed of strategic contestation in Asia, and therefore the Indian establishment’s remarks become pertinent. Elsewhere, the MEA has reiterated its call for connectivity measures to be built through “mutual consultation” and governance architectures to be “shared”. The remarks by Swaraj and Jaishankar at the Raisina Dialogue are but a by-product of previous assertions.

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On this count, the Indian position is in contrast to the “Asia for Asians” narrative that is the ideological fountainhead for the OBOR project. The Indian position has underlined the primacy of sub-regional actors in governing Asia’s many institutions, which is distinct from Xi’s top-down slogan for the Asian Century. For e.g., the importance India attributes to ASEAN leadership — a central pillar of the Look East and Act East policies — cannot be overstated. New Delhi should now weave this into a coherent narrative, playing to its strength of engagement with the region’s multilateral fora.

Articulating the benefits

When New Delhi has talked connectivity, it has drummed up the importance of cultural and people-to-people contacts in addition to the economic benefits of physical infrastructure.  The narrative of “shared heritage” and “interconnected destinies” has been actively tapped by South Block, with references to the region’s history. “Asia’s re-emergence is the greatest phenomenon of our era”, Modi grandly declared at the 37th Singapore lecture last year,  calling India’s reintegration with it “a return to history”.  “We are retracing our ancient maritime and land routes, with the natural instincts of an ancient relationship”, the prime minister announced. The Indian line is in remarkable contrast to the OBOR, which calls itself the Silk Road Economic Belt, but has been decidedly forward looking.  In fact, India has not hesitated to deploy this narrative strategically. The fear that the demands of reconstruction after the 2015 quake would drive Kathmandu closer to China led Sushma Swaraj to re-invoke the “Roti-Beti ki Sambandh” (relationship of bread and daughters) between both countries.

Then, New Delhi sought to stress that India’s assistance to Nepal was not driven by economic considerations, but borne of a familial interest in its development.  At the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction, Swaraj linked Indian connectivity projects to “long term recovery” of the disaster-struck country. The link that India sees between connectivity and political convergence was made explicit by Vice President Hamid Ansari in his address at the Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, last month. “Connectivity with ASEAN in all its dimensions – physical, institutional and people-to-people – continues to be a strategic priority for us […] special efforts are being made to develop a coherent strategy,” said Ansari.

Developing norms

Perhaps the sharpest divergence between Indian and Chinese perspectives on the rise of Asia occur in the field of norms. Beijing has been careful to articulate OBOR as a physical connectivity project that would bring material benefits to the region. India does not have the capacity to execute a similar, grand project but it has relentlessly advocated the development of norms that modulate and restrain the behaviour of states in Asia. This goes beyond usual paeans to cooperation and peaceful co-existence. During his visit to Bangladesh, for instance, Prime Minister Modi said Dhaka’s decision to allow power equipment and food grain to transit its borders onto the Northeast “echoed the strength of [it’s] human values”.

For the prime minister to tie connectivity projects to value-based decisions is no trivial signal. At the East Asia Summit and elsewhere, the PM and foreign ministry have sought “norms of behaviour” in cyberspace, which when linked to the norm of “ASEAN centrality” projects sub-regional institutions as the norm-makers in this field. In contrast, Beijing has been largely content with bilateral arrangements on cybersecurity and internet governance. Similarly, the notion of the “blue economy” – to which India is but one contributor – is infused with norms like equitable access to oceanic resources and a “decoupling of economic development from environmental degradation”.

The strategic context in Asia is not just influenced by the rise of China, but the perceived withdrawal of the United States as it attends to a period of relative isolationism.  Making allies foot the bill for their own security is now a bipartisan idea in the US – personalities as divergent as Barack Obama and Donald Trump endorse this view, only with varying degrees of sophistication. But for the most part, US relations with the Asia-Pacific have been transactional, save Japan and South Korea. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a belated attempt to mould norms of commerce in the region, stirred by the concern that Chinese physical infrastructure will also determine the rules of the game. As with others in the region, India too is conscious of another Great Power stepping into the void so created: Modi at the International Fleet Review last month suggested that maritime stability can no longer be the “preserve of a single nation”.  But the Asian Century is not defined by Chinese engagement with the region, which allows for other actors to create their own political and strategic links.

The foreign ministry’s interventions indicate Indian diplomacy is conscious of this fact, but it should be careful not to wade into a regional contest with China. Indian diplomats are often required to posture domestically on Chinese projects in South Asia. But it is also true that New Delhi has tended to see bilateral relations, most recently with Sri Lanka, through the Chinese prism. As South Block’s statements indicate, India is comfortable talking up its shared values and traditional links with South, Central and East Asia, whereas China sees itself limited by history. Internal democratic processes allow New Delhi to appeal for “Asian norms”, because it has a freer hand than Beijing to sell these to the Indian public.  And where connectivity projects are overtly strategic – as with the satellite imaging centre in Vietnam, the port in Chabahar or the North-South Transport Corridor – India has shed its reluctance to see them through. The Iran relationship, in particular, is critical, and New Delhi is making amends after disastrously hitching its wagon to the Bush administration’s manoeuvring on the nuclear question.

After having done the legwork, India now needs to take ownership of these ideas, and articulate them cogently. Like the NAM conference of 1981 or the ARC, this geopolitical challenge requires India’s sustained attention.  India’s renewed enthusiasm for the SAARC project and Asian connectivity are therefore welcome. India’s blueprint for the Asian Century need not be dogmatic but it ought to make it clear to regional partners that it is not vying for influence against China or other powerful actors.  The growth of a great power in Asia, be it Japan, China or Korea has largely been exclusive, shrinking the space available for smaller players to prosper. India can set the record right, offering strategic partners the confidence that it will offer governance architectures that are inclusive.

Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.