Excess focus on bilateralism is leaving India isolated in its larger neighbourhood
Picture this: China is steadily increasing its geostrategic presence in South, Central and West Asia; there is a China-Russia-Pakistan axis on the rise in Southern Asia; China and Russia are revelling in a new-found rapprochement and aim to fill the geopolitical vacuum bound to be created by the U.S. withdrawal from the region; and, a retired Pakistan army chief is all set to take over as the first Commander-in-Chief of the Saudi-backed Islamic Military Alliance (IMA). Now ask yourself: Which regional power has been missing from these significant developments on the regional geopolitical landscape?
New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment and its national security team are either clueless about what is happening in its broader neighbourhood or seem to lack the wherewithal to anticipate, engage and shape geostrategic outcomes in the region and beyond. Or are they simply disinterested? Either way, New Delhi is increasingly looking like a grumpy old man constantly whining about age-old fears, stubbornly unwilling to explore new opportunities and face new challenges.
Alliances are natural to international politics and friend-enemy binaries and historical hesitations are often cast aside when such alliances take shape. While China and Pakistan have been allies since the 1960s, China and the Soviet Union weren’t the best of friends during the Cold War, nor did they have a great relationship in the post-Soviet days. Pakistan and the Soviet Union were Cold War rivals, and Russia did not, until recently, share a close relationship with Pakistan. All that is changing now, with them ganging up to undo American dominance in the region, among other things.
The Afghan reconciliation process is a major focus of this new partnership. In a December 2016 meeting in Moscow, they highlighted the importance of seeking a “flexible approach” to dealing with the Afghan Taliban. This is over and above their ongoing individual engagements with the various parties to the Afghan conflict.
Clearly, this new axis of a resurgent Russia, ambitious China and opportunistic Pakistan, in combination with other related developments, will not only diminish U.S. power in the region but could also potentially constrain Indian influence. Sino-Russian relations, through joint military exercises and the Russian sale of advanced weaponry to China, for instance, could hurt India’s strategic options globally.
Beijing has traditionally been a reluctant dealmaker, preferring to stick to business instead. Of late, it has overcome this pragmatic inhibition, first by joining the Afghan peace process and now increasingly focussing on West Asia. In a sense, its engagement in regional conflicts is a logical extension of its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. Having committed huge sums to the project, Beijing realises that some of its inherent political risks should be reduced by engaging in regional conflict resolution processes, a lesson well learnt from the playbook of great power diplomacy.
Both China and Russia have been active in the West Asian theatre. Having vetoed U.S.-sponsored sanctions against Syria, they believe that it is necessary to nudge the warring Syrian factions to negotiate. Beijing has also been reaching out to and balancing the various adversaries in the region such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and even Iran, and increasingly talking the language of reconciliation. Also, recall while New Delhi buckled under pressure from Washington to take sides on Iran, Beijing refused to do so.
Compared to the thornier West Asia, engaging South Asia is easier for China given that the smaller countries in the region see it as an infrastructure provider, with deep pockets and without the usual moral science lessons. Bangladesh, one of India’s close allies in the region, is likely to attend the OBOR summit in May and may even sign up for it. Chinese interest in Afghan reconciliation stems not only from a security/terrorism angle but also more significantly to ensure the sustainability of OBOR given its importance in providing access to Central Asia.
Make no mistake, Russia is looking beyond a reluctant India in South Asia: President Vladimir Putin has no time for diplomatic subtleties and tales about the long history of Indo-Russian relations. Ignoring Indian sensitivities, Moscow has gone ahead with forging strategic ties with Islamabad: from lifting the arms embargo, selling weaponry, discussing the future of Afghanistan, to joint military exercises.
When Russia formally joins OBOR, it will have indirectly taken a position on Kashmir which is not necessarily in keeping with the Indian stand on the issue. If the Russian envoy’s remarks at the Heart of Asia conference in December are anything to go by, Moscow is also taking a pragmatic stand on terrorism in South Asia.
The Pakistan pivot
The ‘global outcast’, Pakistan is today an inevitable lynchpin of Southern Asian geopolitics. In a world of realpolitik, norm regress and opportunistic bandwagoning, Pakistan is the new regional favourite. Whether we like it or not, now that Pakistan’s generals have waited out the Americans and NATO from Afghanistan, the outcomes of the Afghan conflict will largely be determined by Rawalpindi. This fits well with the Chinese and Russian regional grand strategies. Gone are the days when Islamabad was currying favour with Washington; today, Moscow and Beijing are actively courting it. Normative considerations apart, it is this sense of the big picture that prevents Beijing from acting against Pakistan-based terror groups; irritating India is a side benefit.
For sure, Pakistan has consistently used terrorism as a tool of statecraft, and yet there is a recognition today that it is a pivotal state in addressing terror. Moreover, while the IMA is still in its infancy, we need to look closely at its potential. Will it emerge, even though it is at a moment an overwhelmingly Sunni sectarian force, as a potent regional military alliance in the years to come? What role would Pakistan play in this ‘Islamic NATO’? What implications would it have for India?
Amidst such geopolitical reshaping of the region, New Delhi has done precious little to counter them or to propose a collective regional future. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which should have been the central plank of India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, is in doldrums today. Having jettisoned SAARC and unwilling to promote other regional initiatives, institutional or issue-based, India continues to prefer unilateralism towards neighbours. The shortcomings of bilateralism in a world hungry for institutions and structures should be evident to us.
The External Affairs Ministry’s reactive diplomacy — its unfailing institutional hallmark — is unable to see the wood for the trees in its relations with Beijing. How does, for instance, designating Masood Azhar a terrorist become India’s core interest vis-à-vis China? Should we allow a terror-monger to determine our relationship with one of our biggest trading partners?
While it is true that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will pass through Pakistan-controlled territory that India has claimed, we should find a via media with China on the issue rather than publicly dismiss the initiative. Given that OBOR is a futuristic mega-project, its benefits as well as cross-national and inter-continental linkages, all of which would eventually bypass India, will only become clearer in the years to come. To base our analysis on current cost-benefit calculations in terms of immediate returns and short-term sustainability is missing the big picture. Moreover, our ability to create regional infrastructural arrangements, excluding China and Pakistan, remains limited. In short then, a few decades down the line, India could end up far more isolated: the logical conclusion of an inward-looking political class.
It’s time New Delhi focussed on the big picture and avoided puritanical positions while addressing the emerging fault lines on the global geopolitical landscape.