20.04.2018 Author: Vladimir Terehov

India in Search for an Optimal Foreign Policy


As the Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye (NVO, Russian weekly newspaper supplement to Nezavisimaya Gazeta dedicated to military posture) noted more than once, India is already one of the key global players and the question of its foreign policy vector becomes increasingly important for the other key global players, such as the US, China, Russia and Japan.

Today the main and the most important temptation for New Delhi lies in the Washington DC plans to include India in the anti-China Big 4 and the Indian foreign policy line fluctuations around this prospect deserve constant attention.

The Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sushma Swaraj’s 3-day visit (March 28-30) to Tokyo, during which she had negotiations with her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a notable Indian foreign policy event. At the joint press conference with her Japanese counterpart, Sushma Swaraj outlined an impressive image of the comprehensive bilateral relations development.

The Indian Foreign Office Minister’s visit to Japan was conducted under the auspices of the regular (9th by count) round of the Indian-Japanese Strategic Dialogue, which started in 2007. The Dialogue is one of the several platforms created over the previous decade aimed at the comprehensive bilateral relations development. Later this year, it will go on the top level.

In September 2014 (during the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan) the format of these relations was defined as Special Strategic and Global Partnership. It reflects one of the most notable contemporary global geopolitical game phenomena caused by the rapprochement of the two of its most important players. Which is in fact a kind of “defense reaction” to China’s becoming the second global superpower.

In relation to Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Japan, the Global Times Chinese newspaper criticizes this reaction. Acknowledging the presence of political and economic factors motivating the Japanese-Indian rapprochement, it is noted that it might very well be combined with establishing constructive relations with China by both these countries. The newspaper expresses its puzzlement about the Indian doubt in response to Beijing’s repeated invitation to take part in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and a bigger project, Eurasian Land Bridge.

The long-term tension in the Chinese-Indian relations originates from competing for greater influence on the neighboring countries. Nepal has been about the main place of the conflict of interests of the two Asian giants over the recent months.

In late 2017 (for the first time in 20 years), this country saw parliamentary elections won by the pro-Chinese left-wing forces, which India received with concern.

New Delhi was especially badly hurt by this electoral failure, given the fact that India remains its main foreign trade partner. However, Beijing has increased its activities in Nepal over the recent years, investing mainly in the transport infrastructure development, which is critical to the country, 80% of whose territory is in the Himalayas.

Some Indian experts see a connection between the recent months failures in competing for greater influence on the neighboring countries (apart from Nepal, the Maldivian political crisis is mentioned) and the lack of tolerance and respect by New Delhi for its “smaller” partners. That is, the lack of the qualities that China has shown for the same neighboring countries over the recent years. Commenting on the early April negotiations of the Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, the experts advise the latter to pursue a mutual benefit strategy, rather than an “India first” one.

However, China considers the Nepalese parliamentary election results by no means an Indian political failure. It believes that this is a good chance for India to join the Eurasian Land Bridge project, in which Nepal will act as one of the many intermediaries.

The system of the Chinese-Indian relations is greatly affected by the results of the 2017 border standoff on the Doklam plateau, which is said to have ended last autumn. Let us remind you that the immediate cause for the dangerous Chinese-Indian standoff on the small piece of land in the Himalayas was the Chinese military building the road to the so-called “Chicken’s Neck”.

This is another name for the Siliguri Corridor, which is around 50 km wide and connects 7 North-Eastern Indian states to the country’s main territory. One of them, Arunachal Pradesh, is the object of a territorial claim by China, where it is called South Tibet. According to the Indian Express newspaper’s information received in late March from an unnamed source in the Defense Ministry, after the conflict ended, China did not continue the roadworks on the Doklam plateau.

In early February, the Kingdom of Bhutan (in the vicinity of which the roadworks took place) was “secretly” visited by a group of high-ranking Indian statesmen led by the land forces General Bipin Rawat and the Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale. The goal of this visit was to probe into the viewpoint of the Kingdom regarding both the Doklam plateau situation and the two Asian giants on the whole.

China’s expected negative reaction followed the Indian annual navy maneuvers (on March 7-13) called Milan and including battleships and observers from 23 countries of the Indian Ocean region. The naval exercise took place in the close vicinity of the western entry to the Strait of Malacca, through which the largest sea trade route goes.

This traffic control problem is strategically important to all the key players in the region. The Chinese newspaper Global Times comments in connection with the naval exercise that, acting this way, India “expands the conflict zone from the land into the sea”.

Against a great number of negative reactions generated by the complex system of the Chinese-Indian relations, some positive ones arise as well. Their immediate source is the aforementioned Vijay Keshav Gokhale with assumed office as the Foreign Secretary just on February 1 this year. Before that, he served for 2 years as the Ambassador to China, where his new appointment to the high rank was received positively. The appointment took place on the eve of the event which could critically endanger the bilateral relations. The event was likely to exceed even the Doklam plateau standoff in its negative impact.

It was the event that the “Tibetan Government in exile” scheduled to conduct in late March in connection with the 60-year anniversary of the XIV Dalai Lama’s staying on the Indian soil. They planned to celebrate this date in an especially fancy way with high-ranking Indian officials present. Meanwhile, Beijing’s strong negative attitude to the incumbent Dalai Lama is no secret.

However, according to the press leaks, on February 22, Vijay Keshav Gokhale is his address to the Indian government recommended “even the slightly important officials“ to refrain from attending the event.

Another “key indicator” of the Chinese-Indian relations as they are can be the coming June summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the Chinese city of Qingdao, where the leaders of both countries are likely to meet.

It is impossible to argue with the Global Times that the “World needs stable and predictable Sino-Indian relations.” But achieving this goal will require very serious work to be done, because the factors pushing these two Asian giants to compete for better positioning are here to stay.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.” 

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