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Indian Foreign Policy and the Indo-US Strategic Partnership

Even going by the world of "realism", it is necessary that India follows an independent foreign policy. The criticism that India is working against her own interests by "bandwagoning" with the US, as in the nuclear deal, is very valid.

Indian Foreign Policyand the Indo-US StrategicPartnership

Even going by the world of “realism”, it is necessary that India follows an independent foreign policy. The criticism that India is working against her own interests by “bandwagoning” with the US, as in the nuclear deal, is very valid.


he debate on the nuclear deal with the United States (US) has brought foreign policy into the maelstrom of public contestation in India. While it is debatable as to how many are really interested in the nitty gritty details of the 123 Agreement, which is the next to penultimate step in the culmination of the deal, the fact that the agreement has upped the political ante, with the ruling coalition sticking to this deal while others in opposition and in outside support opposing the same, has made this issue a point of discussion among many in the public space. The left parties oppose the deal on the basis that the features of the agreement as well as the overall context, suggest a paradigm shift in India’s independent foreign policy toward bandwagoning with American hegemonic interests. It is this argument that shall be studied in detail in this essay.

While non-alignment is termed by many as having a moral basis that derived from a normative perspective of the world, the truth is that it was very much moored in realism. India, as a fledgling developing state, made it a point to inform the world that it was not ready to be caught in the battle of systems that the world was involved in. The idea was to keep development as the primary ideology with redistribution a constitutional imperative. As for foreign policy, the fledgling postcolonial state adopted a mixture of utilitarian and normative approaches. What was affirmed in the latter approach was to uphold the right to sovereignty of third world nationalities which were trying to escape the last few clutches of territorial colonialism.

This foreign policy yielded significant dividends and at the same time got dialectically interspersed with the dynamics of the cold war. Thus while the US helped India rejuvenate its food production with support for the country’s green revolution, there also developed a wedge between these countries when the US extended its influence to the south Asian region by expanding its alliance with India’s neighbours through the South and East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO), which was ostensibly aimed at balancing growing Soviet interests in the region. India’s strategic closeness to the Soviet Union was cemented with the 1971 friendship treaty signed with the Soviets. Yet, the story of power relations in the world took a significant turn with the relentless degradation and withering away of the Sino-Soviet partnership and China drawing itself closer to the US. The policy of containment of the Soviet Union and the later tacit tie-up with China by the US eventually saw the destruction of the “second world”, which culminated with the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Since 1991, however, the ground realities in the world have changed. The end of the cold war has not seen the dismantling of cold war alliance groups such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The project for American hegemony has been reinstated with a vigour that has been taken to new heights by the current neoconservative George Bush presidency. While NATO has been used to extend American geopolitical interests in eastern Europe, a drive for controlling energy-rich regions of west Asia and central Asia, Latin America and eastern Africa was launched through several incursions, the latest being the invasion of Iraq. Apart from this aggressive foreign policy zeal, there has also been a longstanding attempt to dictate developmental paradigms to the developing country societies. Through the aegis of the Bretton Woods institutions the emphasis has been to reduce the state orientation of economic policy in these nations, while increasing the scope for the market and prospective investment from the developed world in these regions.

Intriguingly though, globalisation has also entailed a intertwining relationship between powers such as China and the US into a mutual complex framework. China holds large amount of American currency in the form of bonds which are used to fund the huge US deficit. This intricate relationship has resulted in a nuantic policy of the US toward China, which involves at one level engagement over several issues, such as the denuclearisation of North Korea and seeing it as a long-term strategic threat on the other.

India’s Adaptation

It is in this context that India’s chan ges both in broad economic policy as well as foreign policy since the beginning of the aforementioned period need detailed explanation. Since 1991, India’s econo mic policy has been a story of adoption of neoliberalism through the means of liberalisation, privatisation and engagement with globalisation, while gradually reducing government intervention in redistri bution and welfare schemes. On the foreign policy front, India’s primary choices had been to create thaws in the hostile neighbourhood by gradual reduction of tension and hostility with Pakistan and China. The nuclear tests of 1998 and Pakistan’s incursions into the Kargil sector in Kashmir were flashpoints that highlighted the discomfort between these countries. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government specifically mentioned the presence of a nuclear power (China) as a threat which compelled India to go for overt nuclear weaponisation. Following this test onwards, the NDA government tried its best to hitch onto the American bandwagon in world politics (remember, India was the only nation to support the National Missile Defence programme of the US). In essence, the NDA regime clearly tried to project India unilaterally as an avowed ally of the US.

The terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, signalled another

Economic and Political Weekly September 22, 2007

opportunity for the NDA regime to get closer to the Americans, when the regime offered facilities for the Americans to act against obscurantist terrorist elements in Afghanistan. The NDA regime then provided hints to help the American endea vour in Iraq (clearly a denouement of the neoconservative policy framework in the George Bush regime) but was prevented from doing so by overwhelming opposition in the country.

However after several crisis points during these years, the relations with the neighbours, Pakistan and China began to be mended. Border talks and affirmations of stronger economic ties with China, along with a comprehensive dialogue with Pakistan on various issues (including Kashmir) signalled a thaw in the long-term hostile relationships with these nations. On the world arena, buoyed by the new emphasis on market-led growth, India ventured into reaffirming new partnerships and liaisons with several countries in central Asia, Africa and Latin America to boost ties based on compulsions of energy security and finding new markets. This brought India into competition with China, which had also embarked on a similar trajectory. Interestingly, the thaw in bilateral relations created an environment where increasing cooperation could be noticed in projects such as exploration for oil. The proposed pipeline between Iran and India, through Pakistan also promised to establish a new strategic endeavour between these countries to forge economic ties to help energy requirements as well as creating a chance to overcome political troubles through the sheer force of economic rationality.

Indo-US Strategic Partnership

In essence, since the end of the cold war, the broad contours of Indian foreign policy have been propelled by the same realist interests that existed before albeit with updated priorities. Development as an ideology has been retained. However, this has been redefined in the terms of market-led growth and subsequently has delineated relations with other developing countries. Yet, even as this paradigm was playing itself out, a new turn occurred with the offering of a strategic partnership relationship from the US. From the signing of a defence framework agreement to American affirmations to help India become a “global superpower”, the working of a deal for civilian nuclear energy transfer; these events trigger a new shift from India’s studied disengagement from aligning strategically with the superpower. Two kinds of arguments are heard from those who defend this shift; one which emphasises that such a bandwagoning is mandated by the changed nature of the world and to balance rising China that is still seen as a competitive power, and the second that argues that this strategic tie-up with the US does not reduce foreign policy manoeuvrability, as autonomy of decision-making is still retained even as benefits are accrued from the ties.

The first argument is futile as the balance of power, i e, taking a confronting position against China would undercut the growing bilateral relationship and would further fuel instability in India’s environs. Also, if at all a balancing is mandated in this predominantly unipolar world, it must be done at the global level. The global balance of power (through soft power and bargaining, not confrontation) by emphasising a multipolar world could help prevent disasters such as the US invasion of Iraq or at least mitigate the ill-effects of unila teral action by the hegemon. The role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (a strategic tie-up between Russia, China and a host of central Asian nations) in articulating energy tie-ups between these powers and in collaborating against menaces such as terrorism, is to be seen in this regard. India has been invited as an observer to this forum of nations, who affirm that the formation is not a military front against the US but a strategic tie-up concerned with issues particular to the Asian region. Such a position is understandable in light of the individual nations’ trading and economic relations with the US. The bandwagoning argument runs into problems for such a position is considerate only of the fact that China’s policies are driven by realpolitik alone. It is true that China privileges nationalist interest, but the energies of the current Chinese regime is devoted primarily to sustain their growing economy. Conversely, the balancing game is bound to run into problems, considering India’s own internal difficulties in the northeast region.

The second argument is also on flimsy ground. While it is argued that the growing economic clout of India (despite dark internal problems such as inequality and sustained poverty) ensures that a modicum of autonomy can be retained in a strategic partnership with the US, the actions of the Indian government in recent inter national fora suggest the opposite. Despite claims by Indian officials to the contrary, it has made clear by an ex-US official that India’s votes against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency issue were “coerced”. Even the economic ties with the US, attached as they are with strings that constrain the role of the state in orchestrating pro-poor development policies in the country, are to be strictly regulated.

The defence agreement, formation of a regional grouping in conducting naval exercises, the affirmed joint plan to “spread democracy”, and the nuclear deal fall into a pattern that militates against the upgraded foreign policy paradigm of independent India. The twin realist and idealist notions of non-alignment and third world solidarity, which heralded newly independent India’s foreign policy, have gravitated to regional harmony, multipolarity and robust economic relationships with other developing countries in a changed world. Strategic alignment with the US will lessen the benefits of this studied gravitation. Essentially, it does not make sense to put all the eggs in the American basket alone.

The nuclear deal between India and the US, as cited by many, is not a stand-alone bilateral deal, but is a move that has to be seen in the context of the changed world that we inhabit in as well as the priorities that have been advanced by both nations. Even from a realist perspective that sees national interest as one whole without considering internal class divides, one could argue that an independent foreign policy governed by affirmations toward multipolarity is best suited for the Indian nation. Any switch from this in favour of a strategic alliance with an unipolar hegemon will be at the expense of stability in India’s environs and will hurt India’s bouquet of choices.



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Economic and Political Weekly September 22, 2007

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