To say that the Indian response to the unilateral American declaration recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was pusillanimous is to be polite. What the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs said was a non sequitur: “India’s position on Palestine is independent and consistent. It is shaped by our views and interests, and not determined by any third country.”
But just what this position is was not spelt out, nor the fact that howsoever independent and consistent one’s position may be, it most certainly is affected by a third country – especially when that country happens to be the mighty United States.
Most countries, even friends and allies of the US and Israel, have issued more categorical statements. Singapore, for example, made it clear that any unilateral action would impede progress for a peaceful resolution of the Middle East and Palestinian problem. It reiterated its support for the two-state solution and added that “the future of Jerusalem should be decided through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”
As for the European Union, it said its position remained unchanged: “The aspirations of both parties must be fulfilled and a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.”
The Chinese spokesman bluntly outlined Beijing’s support for a negotiated settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute which would benefit regional peace and stability and be based on a “full sovereignty” Palestinian state “with East Jerusalem as its capital.” This was in line with what President Xi Jinping declared in a major speech to the Arab League in Cairo in January 2016.
There was a time in the 1950s when India played a larger than life role in world affairs. It was not a matter of our military power; it had none. Nor of its economic clout, since we were among the poorest countries in the world. It was about leadership and ideas and that somewhat undefinable thing called integrity. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s advocacy of non-alignment gave the developing world an alternative to the binary of the US-Soviet contest and ensured that we did not get involved in their proxy bush wars. Its ultimate success was in the near-universal adherence it gained from most developing countries in the world. Nehruvian non-alignment was also pragmatic –India secured massive quantities of US economic aid to assist its development, even while equipping its military with weaponry from the Eastern Bloc obtained at “friendship prices.” It also required courage, such as in developing nuclear capacity and refusing to be herded into regimes like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the face of multiple sanctions by the US.
Also read: With Trump’s Jerusalem Move Setting Off Violent Ripples, Palestine Looks to India for Stronger Statement
Non-alignment meandered away from relevance in the 1980s and lost its raison d’etre the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, but it provided India with a framework policy which served us well.
The framework of the Modi-era foreign policy is not very clear. There is certainly great energy in the prime minister who has toured most of the world. But just what India, which looms far larger in terms of its economic and military standing, represents today is not clear. The BJP may have an ideological preference for Israel, but that should not trump national interests. Who will deny that peace and stability in the Middle East is, perhaps, the most important imperative of Indian foreign policy, and that it will be adversely affected by the dynamics that Trump’s policies will unleash?
Some 70% of our oil comes from the region, seven million of our citizens work there. Four times in recent history, India has had to evacuate its nationals from the region; in 1990 from Kuwait, Lebanon in 2006, Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. The US decision, against international consensus, could well stoke off further instability in the volatile region and lead to yet another bout of Islamist radicalism – all matters of direct concern for India.
Elsewhere too, the drift is evident
That Indian policy is faltering because of the lack of a coherent structure is evident also from the happenings in Myanmar. We are of course, familiar with our waffling on the Rohingya issue. Again, something that concerns us directly because it has the ability to destabilise our neighbourhood via Bangladesh. As Suhasini Haidar wrote in the Hindu, India has dithered on the issue even while the US, European Union and Singapore have sought to find a way out of the crisis. Once again, the BJP’s ideological position viz. its attitude towards Muslims, seems to have dictated its policy, rather than national interests which would demand an active role by New Delhi to reverse the flow of refugees who could affect India and undermine the stability of our neighbour.
Ironically, as Haidar points out, the Chinese have taken the lead in trying to resolve the crisis. Following a visit by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to Naypidaw and Dhaka, Myanmar and Bangladesh reached an agreement to repatriate refugees back to the Rakhine state. Of course, China has also defended the Myanmar government and helped in watering down UN pressure. China is working along its national interests. It has substantial economic interests in the Rakhine State where it has developed the Kyaukpyu port and from where it transports gas and oil to its Yunan province. It is set to enhance its investments in the region and so, it is seeking stability there. Whether China’s activism works or not, only time will show, but what is clear is that India is marked by its absence in a crisis which can have direct effects on its security.
In line with the perspective of stabilising a neighbouring region, in the past year, China has sought to play a mediatory role in Myanmar to resolve conflicts between the state and its ethnic minorities. In March 2017, its representatives set up meetings with the United Wa State Army, the largest armed ethnic group in Myanmar, as well as with the Northern Alliance comprising of a slew of groups like the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Kachin Independence Army.
The decision to play a mediatory role is a new phase in Chinese policy which otherwise famously avoids getting involved in internal issues of its interlocutor countries. But with its new Belt and Road Initiative, China has realised that non-involvement is a luxury it may not be able to afford for too long. If there were important economic and strategic interests in a region, Beijing no longer has the option of standing by as a crisis develops.
To come back to the Modi era. The prime minister began with a strong commitment to anchor India’s foreign policy to strong ties with our neighbours in South Asia. Today as we do the sums we find that the Pakistan and China parts of the ledger are in the red. We are missing in action in Myanmar and Bangladesh and neither here nor there in Sri Lanka. As for Maldives, the recent Chinese free trade agreement points to India’s impotence. That leaves Nepal. The victory of the alliance led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) is a major setback which will have serious implications for India-Nepal relations.
All this is an ironical consequence of a government in New Delhi that sought to move away from the past and promised a new era in foreign policy. In part this is a result of pursuing ideological goals, rather than national interests, and in part because Modi simply lacks a strategic framework upon which to build policy. Bandwagoning with the US is no substitute for a working policy in our own region and near abroad.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.