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India’s foreign policy crossed the Rubicon for unsure gains

M.K. Bhadrakumar January 4, 2017 3:00 AM (UTC+8)
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India’s foreign-policy community has begun agonizing over the era of Donald Trump in world politics. A host of assumptions anchoring India’s policies, dating back to the nineties, appear to be getting invalidated.

As the nineties ended, the task was well under way to reshape India’s foreign policy options in the wake of the sudden disbandment of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This prompted India to ‘cross the Rubicon’, as it were.

India embraced the ‘Washington Consensus,’ which was regarded as strategically important for launching major economic reforms.

There was a twin foreign-policy dimension to it. The Indian estimation was that Russia had become a shell of the former Soviet Union would never recover its influence as a global power.

The Indian elites concluded that being the lone superpower, US hegemony was inevitable for well into another century. This facile intellectual construct, based on flawed notions of history and the contemporary world situation, led to the decision that India should cross the Rubicon and draw closer to the United States.

A second underlying assumption — again, highly contentious — which was linked to the above, was that the US considered it in its self-interest to help India’s transformation as a modern economy and in its rise as a world-class power, because pitting India as a counterweight to China was going to be a principal focus of the American strategy in the coming century.

Simply put, Indian elites saw the US as a ‘natural ally.’ India’s then-National Security Advisor (1999-2004) Brajesh Mishra, in fact, proclaimed at a public function in Delhi in 2003 that the principal challenge facing India’s foreign policy and diplomacy in the coming decades lay in doing what it took to get Washington to pay sustained attention to India and ensure that things stayed that way.

To cut a long story short, Indian foreign policies crossed the Rubicon with gusto. The neo-liberalist outlook in economic policies, abandonment of non-alignment, debunk of India’s accent on ‘strategic autonomy’, harmony with the US’ regional policies and strategies, benign neglect of the relationship with Russia, advancement of India-US ‘defining partnership’, and many a little, nameless act of contributing to the US’ containment strategy against China — these were key templates in India’s post-Cold War foreign policy.

Of course, the US helpful to prompt and mentor those processes, even obtrusively at times. Nonetheless, the journey was never without hiccups and the American side still remains a discontented partner.

The heart of the matter is that Indian nationalism keeps mutating in a way that outsiders find exasperating.

The Indians have been eagerly looking forward to the journey ahead under Hillary Clinton’s presidency. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s ascendancy and his election victory came as a rude shock.

There was an element of wishful thinking here. Hillary’s world view (if there was one) meshed nicely with New Delhi’s. She particularly delighted the Indians with her authorship of the US’ pivot strategy in Asia.

Her ‘toughness’ toward China and Pakistan raised hopes that her presidency would give pivotal importance to the US’ relations with India.

New Delhi was not in the least perturbed that she compared Russia’s President Vladimir Putin with Adolf Hitler or that she was unabashedly an interventionist who would have seriously undermined world peace by triggering new wars.

On the contrary, Trump unnerves Indians. A foreign policy wonk of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu organization that mentors the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wrote recently about Trump presidency,

“India needs to be watchful about US moves with at least four important countries — Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan… India needs to do a tightrope walk… What we need is some out-of-the-box thinking in our diplomatic objectives and goals. Right now that is missing.”

Things look dismal, don’t they? Indeed, crossing the Rubicon came easy for India twenty years ago. The river was shallow, like the one Julius Caesar crossed.

But the power dynamic has dramatically changed today. Russia is back on the world stage and Trump looks forward to engaging with it. So, indeed, Trump will have to negotiate with China, if he is serious at all about his doctrine of ‘America First’.

Simply put, the US’ containment strategy has unraveled. India needs to reboot its strategic autonomy and reinvent its own bilateral tracks with Russia and China.

And it will be doing so from a position of disadvantage. Russia has come through baptism under fire and India was of hardly any help as a ‘time-tested friend’ during the difficult times.

Russia now has varied options in the pursuit of its regional strategies and some of them — such as the thaw in relations with Pakistan — tread on Indian sensitivities.

But then, Russia never made demands on India’s prerogative to forge its ‘defining partnership’ with the US, when the Kremlin was fighting off the Obama administration’s containment policies.

Again, India’s tilt toward the US’ pivot strategy in Asia has annoyed China, which will now put India in its place. India touched raw nerves — South China Sea, Tibet, etc. — and it won’t be forgotten easily.

Trump can be expected to be indifferent to regional conflicts that do not threaten US interests. Plainly put, he may not have the interest to wage the open-ended war in Afghanistan or to take sides in India’s problematic ties with China and Pakistan.

Trump’s commitment to the US’ alliance systems in Asia remains to be seen. On the other hand, indications are that China is carefully fostering a new regional security format with Russia, Pakistan and Iran, where India stands excluded.

In sum, sans Hillary, India finds itself without a ‘natural ally.’ Life on the other side of the Rubicon used to be self-contained and far more predictable.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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