Msgr. Thomas Nedumkallel Memorial Lecture 2010
Indian Foreign Policy—Challenges and Opportunities
Ladies and gentlemen,
I pay a tribute to the revered memory of Msgr Thomas Nedumkallel, which has brought us together today. From what I have heard and read about him, I know that Msgr. Nedumkallel was a multifaceted genius, who was an outstanding educationist, a gifted orator and a brilliant writer. Nirmala College is a living testimony to his foresight and organizational skills. It is appropriate that we honour his memory with these annual lectures. Truly eminent persons have delivered these lectures in the past and I am honoured and grateful that I have been invited to join that galaxy today.
Two weeks ago, the most powerful President in the world delivered his State of the Union address to the most powerful legislature in the world. He said: “Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations aren’t standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place……Well I do not accept second-place for the United States of America.”
This was an inspirational address by a beleaguered President, urging his people to struggle to retain the first place in the world for the United States. But among the role models, indeed the rivals, in his perception are China, Germany and India. In the old days, American mothers would tell their children at the dinner table not to waste food, reminding them of the millions of children in India, who would go hungry that night. Today, they are telling them not to waste food, reminding them that they have to compete with the children of India in the school and later in the work place. President Bush reminded his people not long ago about the improved eating habits of the Indians and the Chinese. India must have done something right to change the image of the average Indian, who was once an emasculated astrologer. Today he is a laptop wizard. Ten years ago, no American president would have thought of India as a rival.
We now have the opportunity to compete with the best in the world. India plays a role in every international issue, whether it is terrorism, energy, environment or disarmament. India’s voice is heard, its experience valued and its counsel accepted.
Twenty years ago, India pointed to the growing menace of terrorism and asked the United Nations to develop a strategy to combat it. India began developing nuclear technology for peaceful uses soon after independence as it anticipated the looming energy crisis. Sustainable development was the way of life in India for centuries. The nuclear weapon free world or the “global zero” of today was India’s cherished goal right from the beginning. India has the opportunity to pursue these goals vigorously, now that the world has acknowledged the validity of our position.
As a member of the G 20, India today is on the “Executive Board” of the Globe. We played a role in tackling global economic crisis and maintained its own pace of growth. We are poised to maintain a growth rate around 10 percent per annum. The developed world longingly looks at the prosperous middle class in India as a potential market for them. Three hundred million consumers of luxury goods do not exist in any of their countries.
Independence of judgment and freedom of action, the hallmark of India’s nonaligned policy is still intact. Whether it is a bipolar, unipolar, or multipolar world, we have followed our own lights in determining our position on global issues. In the emerging multipolar world with half a dozen countries determining the future of the globe, India will certainly be a pole.
Indian democracy has stood the test of time and peaceful transition has become commonplace. International observers do not knock on our doors when we hold elections except to marvel at the orderly counting and voting in India.
Amidst these great opportunities on the global scene, India faces many challenges, which demand a dynamic foreign policy. Ours is a tough neighbourhood to cope with. As the largest country in the region, the bully image haunts us everywhere. No amount of unilateral concessions will generate the goodwill that we seek. We cannot resolve the problems of our neighbours. Nor can we insulate ourselves from the fallout of their faults. India as an external enemy seems to provide the bond for their people to stick together.
The SAARC experiment is only partly successful as India is considered a target rather than as a partner by some of our neighbours. They expect unilateral concessions from us without reciprocal commitments. Comparable prosperity and lifestyle are necessary to foster regional cooperation. The European model is a distant dream and ASEAN is much ahead.
Pakistan, born of the same womb as India, remains hostile and recalcitrant, shaping new tools to inflict a thousand cuts on the Indian body politic. Terrorism is an instrument of foreign policy for Pakistan even when it is in the forefront of the war on terror. The threat of internal terrorism in Pakistan is being equated with cross border terrorism they inflict on India. Its existential threat arises from its own contradictions, including the primacy of the armed forces. Pakistan has a vested interest in maintaining hostility towards India because it gives them the possibility to pose as an equal. Much of the world gives attention to Pakistan essentially because of its conflict with India. It, therefore, will perpetuate rather than resolve disputes. Animosity towards India is essential for any Government in Pakistan to survive.
The peace process with Pakistan in the form of the composite dialogue remains suspended because Pakistan has been dragging its feet in bringing the criminals of 26/11 to book. Pakistan cannot have war and peace at the same time. In any event, Pakistan has too many domestic problems to do anything positive in the dialogue. The dialogue will be used by it for posturing and to reduce pressure on it to take action against the murderers of Mumbai. The peace process must await more congenial conditions. Another Mumbai style attack will bring about grave consequences.
China will be the biggest challenge to Indian foreign policy in the next decade and beyond. China claims that its rise is peaceful, but there is no doubt that it has an evil eye on India. Even as the two countries collaborate in the international arena on issues such as trade and environment, China continues to create tension on the border and presses ahead with its encirclement of India. China-Pakistan friendship is clearly directed against India. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal owes its origin to China. China still occupies vast chunks of Indian territory and claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh as its own. By keeping the border unsettled, China creates instability and poses a constant threat. India does not provoke China in any way and tries to build a pragmatic relationship, but we have to remain vigilant and prepared to meet eventualities. China still harps on its 1962 thesis of teaching India a lesson.
Sri Lanka presents a different challenge. The triumphant Sri Lankan Government, which has eliminated the LTTE leadership, is not inclined to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict in that unhappy island. Massive efforts are necessary to rehabilitate the displaced Tamils. India also has a role to play in persuading the Sri Lankan Government to grant autonomy to the Tamil regions. The growing influence of China and Pakistan in Sri Lanka is also a matter of concern.
The emergence of the Maoists in Nepal presents its own challenges to India. India has a special relationship with Nepal, involving special facilities of trade and transit to that landlocked nation. But Nepal has traditionally tried to be equidistant from India and China.
Myanmar is a challenge in itself because it has virtually become a client state of China. While doing business with the military junta, we have to keep our principled support to the democratic forces.
Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives are relatively warm towards India, but management of relations with these countries too needs delicate handling. The emergence of terrorist threat from Bangladesh is of particular concern.
Our relations with the United States are on centre stage. From being estranged democracies for many years, we are now engaged democracies. The nuclear deal removed a major irritant in relations, but the US side still has reservations on its full implementation. India and the US have many areas of cooperation, including defence, space, education, agriculture, science and technology. The powerful and influential Indian American community has been a catalyst for better relations. China is a higher priority for the US on account of the international financial crisis and Pakistan is an ally of long standing and now a partner in the war on terror. These factors inevitably have an impact on the growth of India-US relations. But the progress made in the Bush era will need to be sustained by intense diplomatic efforts. India and the US have many more areas of convergence than divergence.
Russia is often characterized as a “permanent friend” because of the old linkages with the Soviet Union. But many of the areas of past relationship are tapering off. But the greater involvement of Russia in nuclear issues has given a new impulse to these relations. Russia is gradually emerging on the global scene as a challenge to the US and in this context India will have to tread carefully in building its relations with Russia. An India-Russia-China partnership initiative is still in its infancy.
The European Union, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, the Arab world and Africa demand our attention and efforts. China is emerging as a rival in all these regions. Astute diplomacy and major investments are necessary to sustain the tempo of our relations with these regions.
Getting international recognition commensurate with our political and economic strength is a serious challenge. While India is recognized as a major global player and a member of G-20, India’s membership of the Security Council is still a distant dream. India is not a member of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) as yet. India’s positions on non-proliferation, disarmament, trade and environmental issues are often cited as militating against India playing its legitimate role on the world stage.
India has the vision of a multipolar world with India as one of the poles with half a dozen other major powers. Greater economic growth, improvement of relations with neighbours and harmonization of positions with the global community will be required to attain this objective. The opportunities are plentiful, but the challenges too are formidable.