Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

India struggles to steer its own course on foreign policy

India and U.S. are ‘partners’ whose interests often diverge

26 January 2007
International Herald Tribune

News Analysis: India struggles to steer its own course on foreign policy
India and U.S. are ‘partners’ whose interests often diverge

By Siddharth Varadarajan

NEW DELHI: Last week, the Indian external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, became the first senior leader from a major democracy to visit Naypyitaw, the vast and forbiddingly empty city that Myanmar’s military rulers named as their country’s new capital in 2006.

At a time when the United States is trying to exert pressure on the Burmese regime, India demonstrably broke ranks with its new “strategic partner”— as both Washington and New Delhi refer to their relationship — as Mukherjee declared that the issue of democracy and human rights in Myanmar was that country’s internal affair.

Less than a year ago, President George W. Bush told a gathering of elite Indians at the Old Fort, in the heart of New Delhi, that “India has an historic duty to support democracy around the world.” Among the countries he identified as violators of freedom were several with which India had good relations, such as Iran, Syria, Cuba, Zimbabwe and Burma.

But India, which is one of strongest backers of the United Nations democracy fund, is wary of democratic messianism.

“We have to deal with governments as they exist,” Mukherjee told a group of reporters accompanying him on a three-day official tour of Myanmar. India is a democracy and wants democracy to flourish everywhere, the minister said. “We are not interested in exporting our own ideology,” he said, adding, “This is for every country to decide for itself.”

More than the symbolism of the highly publicized visit, however, it was the business Mukherjee transacted that is likely to raise eyebrows in the West. Among the items on his agenda: an offer to sell military hardware to the Myanmar military. India, whose national oil and gas companies own a stake in a couple of lucrative offshore gas fields off the Rakhine coast of Burma, also wants to construct a 2,000-kilometer, or 1,250-mile, pipeline to feed the energy needs of its eastern states.

India is not alone in wooing the Myanmar junta, or in eyeing its hydrocarbon potential. Chinese companies have a major presence in the offshore fields, and China is keen to construct an oil and gas terminal at the port of Sittwe along with a pipeline through Myanmar and up into its Yunnan Province.

On the day Mukherjee was in Naypyitaw, the local authorities had already started putting up signs welcoming their next important foreign visitor: Li Tieying, deputy chairman of the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress.

Mukherjee denies that India and China are competing with each other. “This is not the Cold War, when relationships were meant to be exclusive,” he said. “Just like we have a presence in Myanmar, so do the Chinese. Why should either of us be worried about the other?”

The minister’s nonchalance was not just a posture. At least in the hydrocarbon sector, India and China have managed to avoid the rivalry Western analysts had predicted by seeking to pool their resources in third countries as far afield as Sudan, Syria and Brazil.

And though the two countries do not have joint operations in Iran, Chinese and Indian companies present there provide political cover for each other at a time when the Islamic Republic is facing the heat of international sanctions.

Officials at the Indian Foreign Ministry bristle at the suggestion that there is anything cynical in India’s attitude toward Myanmar or other countries that the West in general, and the United States in particular, prefer not to do business with. “Even after the Cold War, the U.S. has continued to rely heavily on dictatorships or undemocratic regimes of one kind or another,” said one senior official who asked not to be identified.

To be sure, Indian officials are not alone in believing that the Bush administration’s ‘freedom agenda’ is a cover for the pursuit of geopolitical interests by other means. Nor do they necessarily have moral objections to this kind of strategic subterfuge.

What is remarkable, however, is the implication that in virtually all of the countries targeted by Washington, the geopolitical interests of the United States and India do not seem to overlap.

This lack of strategic congruence between two “strategic partners” in many of the principal international battlegrounds underlines a key problem for the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the diplomatic front: how to reap the benefits of a friendship with the United States without compromising the independence of the country’s foreign policy.

This dilemma, which has been present ever since the two countries began drawing closer together in the final years of the presidency of Bill Clinton, became more acute after India and the United States signed a series of landmark agreements on defense and nuclear cooperation in 2005.

Those agreements raised the prospect of Indian troops accompanying U.S. soldiers on multinational operations — a heretical idea in a country wedded to the notion that only UN-run military missions are legitimate — as well as of Indian participation in a range of U.S.-led initiatives from nuclear counterproliferation to the promotion of democracy.

Even though both countries deny that the purpose of their partnership was to contain or isolate Beijing in any way, it is clear that the rise of China as a world power was a major factor in American calculations. Building on the quadrilateral naval relief exercise it led in the wake of the December 2004 Asian tsunami, Washington is now eager to start a formal security dialogue between the United States, India, Australia and Japan as major regional democracies.

Among the topics the four powers would presumably discuss, China will figure quite prominently.

While defending themselves against the charge by domestic critics of drawing too close to U.S. policies, government officials have argued that India could leverage the American willingness to cut a deal on civilian nuclear energy into stronger ties with all global power centers and into a more effective foreign policy in general.

When the process of congressional certification of the nuclear deal began, however, the burden of Washington’s expectations began to weigh heavily on New Delhi.

At the September 2005 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors in Vienna, India surprised the world by joining the United States and its allies in voting to send Iran’s nuclear file to the UN Security Council.

India repeated that vote in February 2006. It also began to rein in its foreign policy in a number of ways.

For example, it grounded the prime minister’s special envoy to the Middle East, Chinmaya Gharekhan, for several months lest his meetings with regional players like Hamas or Syria send the wrong signals to the United States.

And knowing Washington’s opposition to Asian regional groupings that exclude the United States, India also avoided any high-level participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which it joined as an observer along with Iran and Pakistan in July 2005 just days before Bush made his offer of nuclear cooperation.

When a senior Indian official was presented with these examples at an off-the-record briefing late last year, on the eve of a key congressional vote, and asked whether India was deliberately pulling its punches, he replied, “Just let the nuclear bill be passed by Congress. Then you will see.”

Alyssa Ayres, a scholar at the Center for Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, has argued that India is likely to play the role of a “France in Asia,” allied to Washington in general but unwilling to go along with every U.S. policy goal. American policy makers, she says, need to understand and plan for this kind of relationship and not harbor unrealistic expectations that would never be met.

In reality, there is both a little of France and a little of Britain lurking below the surface of Indian foreign policy.

As the process of Asian integration deepens and India slowly rises in economic and strategic significance, the United States hopes that India will reprise in Asia the role Britain plays in Europe of being in and out at the same time. The United States needs India as an Asian power so that it can influence the design of the emerging Asian strategic architecture in such a way that vital U.S. interests are not affected. But it does not want India to become so “Asian” as to join hands with those who believe Asia can go it alone.

To the extent that balance-of-power notions dominate official thinking, India is likely to play the role of a Britain. Though relations with Beijing have improved dramatically in recent years, sections of the Indian establishment believe India needs the United States to preserve the balance.

At the same time, India’s democratic polity and its own sense of where the national interest lies will not allow the country to enter into the kind of commitments that being a “Britain” in Asia would imply. Shades of “France” were visible in 2003 when India refused to send troops to Iraq, for example, or when it engaged Myanmar. Or when it insisted, as it did last month after the Security Council sanctioned Iran, that the Iranians had the right to pursue their “nuclear program for peaceful civilian use.”

But analysts believe the challenge for Indian diplomacy really lies in being neither France nor Britain but a country with a capacity to help resolve problems that are currently threatening the stability of Asia.

From the Palestinian territories and Lebanon in the west to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea in the east, Asia is home to virtually all of the world’s most serious conflicts. Despite its status as an emergent power in Asia, India is not involved in the process of finding solutions to any of these problems.

In private, Indian leaders and officials acknowledge that America’s policies in all these theaters are tending to aggravate the problems there, and that a country of India’s size and importance cannot afford to limit its foreign policy to saying “Yes” or “Non.” Yet there is little appetite to play a bigger diplomatic role.

Many countries in Asia, not to speak of Africa and Latin America, are waiting for the Indian elephant to stir the grass up a bit. But as of now, it seems, the gentle giant is content to wait at the crossroads a little longer.

Siddharth Varadarajan is Associate Editor of The Hindu newspaper.
Note: Paras in grey typeface above were edited out for space reasons but am including them here for completeness.

One comment on “India struggles to steer its own course on foreign policy

  1. gary
    January 27, 2007

    “India is a democracy and wants democracy to flourish everywhere, the minister said. “We are not interested in exporting our own ideology,” he said, adding, “This is for every country to decide for itself.”

    This error in this statement is that, if Mukherjee’s referring to the people as the ‘country’, it’s not actually the people who decide anything in dictatorships. You don’t vote in dictatorships. I would say that this is short sited and that it’s in India’s best interest to push democracy whenever possible. Just don’t do it as poorly as the US.

    Speaking of democracy, it’s also outrageous that India is a second class citizen in the United Nations. The UN needs to be completely redesigned such that power doesn’t rest in the hands of a few elite nations. France has a population that ranks 20th in the world, yet it has a permanent seat on the Security Council. India is the 2nd most populous nation, yet has no such position. I defy anyone to justify this situation in modern term.

    Here’s how I feel we should reform the UN…


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This entry was posted on January 26, 2007 by in Indian Foreign Policy, Myanmar.



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