India’s foreign policy must continue to move past the parochial

Indo Pakistan BorderOver the past year, India’s foreign policy has reflected pragmatic realpolitik while maintaining deliberative continuity. Our strategy remains rhetorically threefold: improving India’s relationships in South Asia, attracting significant foreign direct investment (FDI) in infrastructure, and positioning India as agreat power. India needs to flesh out this pursuit, deepening democracy and maintaining strategic autonomy through a conducive and realistic foreign policy.

This government has put economics first, seeking better connections with countries hosting India’s capital and skills-rich diaspora, like Australia and the US, promoting its ‘Make in India’ programme for seeking investment in India’s infrastructure. East Asia has been courted to build infrastructure corridors and factories, while South Asia has been encouraged to boost connectivity and economic ties.

India’s military modernisation has been speeded up, concluding negotiations on long-pending acquisitions, such as France’s Rafale fighter, while a series of strategic partnerships with Australia, the US and Japan have been signed up. However, much still remains. Rhetorical promises aside, FDI investment needs a quantum shift to have a necessary impact on our infrastructure needs. Our defence acquisition policy should reflect our indigenisation needs too, in addition to faster clearance of prolonged acquisitions. This government needs to expand in four areas: consolidating India’s South Asian relationships, diversifying India’s energy imports, defining a China strategy, and solving intractable regional problems.

Neighbouring partnerships: Convincing Saarc members that India’s over-familial relationships are better long-term than bilateral transactions with China remains a hard task. But ethnic bonds remain strong. Despite the Indian media, India’s relationship with Nepal is gradually transforming from big-brotherly interference to one based on strategic interest and mutual respect. India’s disaster diplomacy, ably led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj — and the ministry of external affairs’ impressive Twitter-based rescue centre — has helped change India’s regional reputation, from a bully to a caring neighbour with logistical muscle. This relationship requires less patronising statements and more investments in Nepal’s railways, highways, power, commercial forestry and tourism sectors. With another quake on Tuesday adding to the woes of a quake-damaged country, we must help Nepal back on its feet. Down south, a new Maldives government has grown intransigent about democratic norms. Seychelles and Mauritius are increasingly signing up to China’s initiative of the Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Our blue-water naval expansion requires the refuelling and strategic support of such island nations. Attention, with longterm strategic commitment, must be given to such states.

Energy dynamics: India’s energy crunch requires significant foreign investment. Unravelling the geopolitical and financial dynamics of the Iran-Pakistan-India and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipelines, long given up for dead, could help provide succour to India’s industrial sector while integrating the regional economy. India, the US and Europe have a shared interest in further developing carbon capture and sequestration technology, addressing the external costs to India’s growing coal usage.

And with declining Iranian tensions, greater investments in the Middle Furat oilfields in central Iraq and Farzad B gasfields in Iran, along with Chabahar Port in southeast Iran, can be considered. With low oil prices, it is time to strike long-term liquefied natural gas (LNG) deals from Africa and West Asia.

Coping with China: Potential incursions aside, the Prime Minister’s trip to China this week holds great promise. China’s rise is good for Asia, mostly.

While the MSR’s expansion is metaphorically containing India, integrating it with our Project Mausam — plans to reestablish an ‘Indian Ocean world’ from East Africa, along the Arabian Peninsula, to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia — could help develop Indian Ocean trade. A pragmatic border resolution would restore some confidence to the relationship.

Dam construction in Tibet has been increasingly stepped up, with concomitant impact on the Brahmaputra. India is extremely dependent on water flowing down from Tibet (about 30% of our annual supply). We must work out ways to share hydrological data and cooperate on electricity production. A riparian pact between India, Bangladesh and China is eminently feasible.

More realistically, improving connectivity options from Sinkiang to Imphal, along with bolstering aviation links, would offer greater benefit. Chinese solar panel firms can be encouraged to set up factories in India, while ONGC Videsh and the China National Petroleum Corp can cooperate on oil and gas block bidding. A visa-on-arrival policy for both sides, with some regional restrictions, could bolster trade significantly. We will not be allies or ‘natural partners’ anytime soon, but a normalised India-China relationship is possible and practical.

Solving the intractable: The NDA government must be praised for its political courage in guiding the recent passage of the Land Boundary Agreement Bill, helping to rehabilitate the India-Bangladesh relationship. Teesta aside, a common Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna regional river basin regime can be acknowledged. Such a regime would adopt a holistic approach to water-sharing, considering environmental, hydrological and local cultural and tribal factors. Energy trading across the Siliguri corridor can help build an integrated regional economy. Other intractable issues await: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Maldives.

Economic growth can be stabilised only though close economic, political and cultural linkages, and a welldefined strategic view. We must continue to move past the parochial. (Times of India)

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