With the dismantling of trade barriers and the exponential increase of cross-border economic activity, the nature of the global economy has changed. This reality has necessitated nations to reorient the thrust of their foreign policy objectives.
The rise of an assertive China, the new Czar on the horizon, has to be reckoned with globally. In this context, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to India on October 24, 2017, assumes significance. A week before this visit, Tillerson had described the Indo–US strategic relationship as “bookends of stability on either side of the globe”. Shared values, commitment to the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade are the four pillars of this evolving bilateral narrative.
China’s emerging status is also reflected in the first meeting of a quadrilateral dialogue on the sidelines of ASEAN summit in Manila on November 12, embracing India, Australia, US and Japan to protect global commerce by espousing a rule-based approach to the commons and freedom to navigate in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean across to Africa. This was an idea that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had earlier floated in 2007. Both US and Japan believe that the time has come to respond not just to Beijing’s assertive behaviour, but also to counteract its OBOR — One Belt One Road initiative.
It would, however, be naïve of India to think that the US will be willing to directly involve itself in the Asia Pacific region. The US, under Trump, would rather prefer New Delhi to counterbalance Beijing rather than involve itself directly in the region. The $309 billion US trade deficit with China in 2016 in the context of $648 US goods & services trade makes for economic interdependence, which might override other considerations. Besides, the US requires Chinese influence in containing North Korea along with other issues of global concern and significance wherein both the US and China need to collaborate. In the circumstances, it will be difficult for the US to involve itself in the Asia Pacific region in any substantial way. Yet, the increasing proximity between Pakistan and China in building the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) requires US to further build on its strategic partnership with India, expecting India to become a significant player in Afghanistan and a key partner in its outreach to the Asia Pacific region. At the same time, US troops in Afghanistan rely on Pakistan for logistical support, transit and Islamabad’s influence with the Taliban and its affiliated Haqqani network. On the other hand, during talks with President Xi Jinping on the fringes of the G20 Summit in Hamburg in July, 2017, Shinzo Abe expressed Japan’s intention to participate in China’s OBOR initiative. Japanese $270 billion bilateral trade volume with China is not insignificant apart from investments of 20,000 Japanese firms in China.
In the currents and crosscurrents of political imperatives and economic realities, India has to tread very carefully. The recent standoff at Doklam, our decision not to participate in China’s Belt and Road initiative, the lack of any perceptive movement in resolving our boundary dispute with China and its increasing proximity with Pakistan, apart from the fact that China, through investments, is making inroads in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and has the economic clout to benefit Nepal, are matters of great concern. At the same time, Chinese investments in India are on the rise. The Chinese are targeting key sectors of the economy including power, telecom, engineering, and infrastructure. Washington’s new South Asia policy has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese, who believe the US intends to turn New Delhi into a stronghold to counterbalance Beijing. The Chinese are not willing to swallow anything that undermines their interests.
New Delhi must, therefore, be careful in openly aligning itself in any quadrilateral partnership. It needs to continuously engage with China to resolve bilateral issues. Any attempt to openly align itself with any anti-China alliance will only exacerbate our relations which we can ill-afford, considering our skewed bilateral trade balance. Additionally, our economy is yet to achieve the robust rate of economic growth, which alone will give us the self-confidence to deal with issues that are likely to confront us in the future.
We need to deepen our bilateral relations with Japan as well as the US, and leverage that relationship consistent with our national interest. Our confluence of interest with the US can help ensure constructive initiatives in the Asia Pacific region and help us in deepening our relationship with Afghanistan. We must recognise that despite the warm ties between India and the US, no significant benefits have ensued in terms of our becoming a permanent member of the Security Council or the US pressurising Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used as a springboard for terrorist activities in India. The growing proximity of Russia and China, as well as Russia’s developing economic involvement in the area of energy and defence in Pakistan, is evidence that in foreign policy, it’s the confluence of interests in a given time frame that matter.
India, today, does not have the luxury to be part of any alliance but needs to leverage its relationships both with the democratic world and in and around our neighbourhood to protect our self-interest.
The author is a member of the Rajya Sabha, and a senior Indian National Congress leader. Views expressed are personal.