Sunday, March 25, 2012

India’s foreign policy in the Asian Century

The 21st-century Asian order has entered a long interregnum between the hub-and-spokes security bilateralism of the US-engineered San Francisco system and the re-emergence of East Asia’s pre-modern international system.

To harmonise the interests of individual states with the requirements of the system at large in the decades ahead, the foremost challenge in the Asian Century will be to nudge the region’s geo-politics toward cooperation — perhaps even a loose concert of powers — as opposed to competition, conflict and division.

India’s role and strategic orientation within this 21st-century order presents something of a conundrum. It was a non-participant within the San Francisco system and bears only dim familiarity with the earlier workings of the East Asian international system. Yet without the rise of India, on course to become the world’s third-largest economy by 2025, the Asian Century will not progress very far. Yet India’s rise and its participation in the Asian Century are hardly self-evident.

There are four broad choices, each relating to its foreign policy, that India must confront in order to positively contribute to this new order.

First, as a strategic protagonist in the prospective geo-politics of Asia, will India seek to diplomatically forge a broad set of strategic partnerships, while maximising its leverage by not aligning with any particular state or group of states? Or will it develop a preferred partnership with a select power or set of powers?

Second, as a recent entrant to the East Asian equilibrium, will India seek to serve as its ‘external’ balancer? Or will it, with a Machiavellian realism, contrive to lend its decisive weight to the winning side of the immediate regional challenge of the day, and in so doing periodically shift between strategic partners?

Third, will India seek to forge a ‘natural alliance’ of democratic states along the Indo-Pacific rimland, framed in conscious distinction to China and its regional interests? Or will it seek to articulate an alternate, pan-Asian model of international relations that is keyed to regional tradition and historical circumstance and driven at its core by shared Sino–Indian interests?

And fourth, inheriting the strategic compass of its colonial masters, will India aspire to impose a liberal-minded primacy in its Indian Ocean backyard? Or will it affix its strategic identity to a set of shared values that might tolerate coercive strategies of intervention by necessity, but never admit to them as a generalised principle?

India’s leaders have displayed a consistent grasp of the country’s strategic purpose despite the breadth of these questions. Barely four months after India’s nuclear tests of 1998, then foreign minister Jaswant Singh — in a Foreign Affairs article titled ‘Against Nuclear Apartheid’ — noted that India had ‘acted in a timely fashion to correct an imbalance and fill a potentially dangerous vacuum’ in the emerging Asian balance of power. Peering far beyond what his contemporaries could barely glimpse, he presciently projected India as a major stabilising force within the Indian Ocean region and in Asia writ large.

India’s National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, sketched out India’s enduring principles of order for the emerging Asian Century a little under a decade and a half later. Such an order, he noted, ought to be inclusive, comprising all powers — regional and extra-regional — relevant to the practice of Asia’s security. Its geographic scope ought to be extensive, extending from the Suez to the Pacific and seamlessly enfolding the maritime periphery with the rising continental core. Its security structure ought to be plural and open-ended, having learnt its lesson from past collective security failures. Finally, its institutional mechanisms ought to be consultative and non-prescriptive, respectful of the region’s preference for consensus-based approaches to problem solving, and centred in that crossroads of Asian inter-civilisational interaction, Southeast Asia.

The sweep of Menon’s vision and the resolve of Singh’s words outline India’s basic foreign policy strategies in the Asian Century, providing a clue as to the likely nature of India’s future contributions.

India will be an enabling power, seeking to establish a loose understanding of principles and practices related to the core issues of the region’s international relations, such that power is exercised in a spirit of self-restraint by its dominant entities. India will also be an engaged power, and will hope to frame its rise in consonance with the greater Asian region as a whole. India will be a pluralistic power, facilitating the involvement of the widest spectrum of participants in the region’s endeavours, and eschewing exclusivist multilateral constructs (particularly in the area of non-traditional security). Finally, India will, in certain circumstances, be a stabilising power, prepared to use its considerable security capabilities to help resist revisionism and maintain a more stable equilibrium — a key national interest.

Yet even as India gradually grows into this role over the next decade or more, economic modernisation — and the creation of an environment to facilitate this agenda — will remain an overriding imperative during the Asian Century. For the sake of one-sixth of humanity, and in the interest of Asia’s peace, prosperity and stability, it is important that India succeeds in these tasks.

By Sourabh Gupta Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Washington, DC.This post is part of the series on the Asian Century which feeds into the Australian government White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century.East Asis Forum

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