India finds itself in an increasingly dangerous world, one that is fragmenting and slowing down economically. It is a world in transition, one in which India’s adversaries — state or non-state, or both as in Pakistan’s case — are becoming increasingly powerful. If the external world is becoming more unpredictable and uncertain, so are internal politics and security in most of the powers. These are challenges that traditional institutions and state structures are not well-equipped to handle, mitigate, or solve.
In this changing world, what are some of the basic and long-term drivers of India’s foreign policy which determine the overarching goal? What is India’s strategy to achieve those goals? What should India be doing?
The task of India’s foreign policy is to protect and secure India’s integrity, citizens, values and assets, and to enable the development and transformation of India into a modern nation in which every Indian can achieve his or her full potential. The task of foreign policy professionals is to enable the transformation of India and to create an environment for that transformation.
Some in India think that this is too defensive a goal, that it should make it clear that it wishes to be a great power or a superpower. Frankly, being a great power will follow, not precede, India’s success in building a strong, prosperous, and modern India. And there is not much point being a great power with miserable people. India has a long way to go, despite all that it has achieved since independence.
This task does not limit India’s calculus to its own territory but also demands that it has an active engagement with the world. It determines what sort of engagement India seeks. It excludes ideas such as exporting democracy, protecting the ideological frontiers of India, creating global public goods, seeking status, seeking revenge, undoing Partition, and other such pursuits, except if they contribute to the security of India’s citizens and assets and to India’s development and transformation.
India’s goal therefore is sufficient security, not absolute security. Why? Because absolute security for any one state in the system would mean absolute insecurity for all the other states. By this criterion, with a few exceptions, India’s leadership has successfully managed to provide their country with sufficient security to enable it to change and grow faster after independence than ever before in its long history.
Looking at the world as a whole
All rising powers in history have chosen to keep their head down while building their own strength, rather than inviting resistance to their rise to great power status by proclaiming their power and its uses. Those that followed the path of flaunting their ambition and their growing power too early, like Wilhelmine Germany and Japan in the 1930s, were frustrated in their rise and paid a heavy price.
No matter how powerful, a rising power needs to set up a hierarchy of tasks and work with others. No state can handle or achieve everything that it wishes to simultaneously and alone. India’s tasks should be prioritised on the basis of how situations and actions affect India’s ability to transform. Those that most affect the transformation of India are the most important.
We are living in a time when there is a deep sense of strategic confusion, not just in India but in some of the most powerful states in the world. In India’s case, that confusion extends not just as to the ultimate goal India’s foreign policy should pursue, but also to the best means to achieve them. Indians seem to mistake controlling the narrative with creating outcomes, which is the real task of foreign and security policy. Prime Minister Modi has declared a goal of India to be a Vishwaguru, or world teacher, which is still a long way away when it is an importer of knowledge and technology. Nor is it clear that this status will actually contribute to transforming the lives of India’s citizens, though it might satisfy the ego. Besides, this is also a time of fundamental phase transformation in the international system due to the effects of technology.
While the world around India has changed in fundamental ways, it is still doing what was good some years ago. It may be frittering its energies away on status and prestige goals rather than India’s hard interests. In other words, India has not adjusted its policies to the new realities.
What India can do
It is important for India to remain optimistic. It has a moment of double opportunity if it changes its ways and stops wasting time on peripheral issues. Tactically, China-US contention — which is structural and therefore likely to continue for some time with a paradigm shift away from cooperation to increasing contention, despite temporary deals and “victories” declared by one or both — opens up opportunities and space for other powers. Both China and the United States will look to put other conflicts and tensions on the back burner while they deal with their primary concern, the other. This effect is already perceptible in the Wuhan meeting between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi in early 2018, and the apparent truce and dialing back of rhetoric by both India and China, even though this does not extend to a new strategic framework or understanding or to a settlement of outstanding issues.
Strategically speaking, there is again an opportunity for India’s transformation. Despite dim prospects for the global economy as a whole, the United Nations forecasts that if China grows at 3%, India at 4% and the US at 1.5%, by 2050 China’s per capita GDP would be 42% of U.S. levels, and India’s at 26%, where China is now. China would be the world’s largest economy (in PPP terms), India the second, and the U.S. the third. By that time, both China and India will be overwhelmingly urban societies.
Higher expectations from India
Of course, history, like life, is not a linear extrapolation from the past. But given the recent record of India growing at near 7% for over 30 years and China at around 10% for the same period, the lower estimates suggested by the U.N. appear a reasonable guess. Both India and China have much the same ratio of trade to GDP, show a hesitation in wholeheartedly embracing the private sector, display widening income inequality and distribution failures, and show limited state capacity, particularly in health and education. But rapid growth has given them the means and access to technologies to deal with these problems, if they can manage rising geopolitical risk and avoid costly entanglements abroad.
India’s expectations of the state and of the world are much higher than they ever were. And this is so at a time when the world itself is much more uncertain than it ever has been since World War II — politically, economically, and in terms of the pace of change in technology and lifestyles.
As a result of seventy years of development, by most metrics of power, India has improved her relative position vis-à-vis every other country except China. This is particularly true since reforms began in 1991. And yet, today India is more dependent on the outside world than ever before. It relies on the world for energy, technology, essential goods like fertiliser and coal, commodities, access to markets, and capital.
Consequently, India cannot think of securing itself without considering energy security, food security, and other issues that can derail India’s quest to transform India, such as climate change and cyber security. It also cannot think of securing India without trying to shape the external environment along with its partners. When you add the new security agenda and the contested global commons in outer and cyber space and the high seas, to India’s traditional state-centred security concerns such as claims on India’s territory, nuclear proliferation, state-sponsored cross-border terrorism, etc., you can see why there is greater worry or a sense of insecurity.
Business as usual won’t work
India risks missing the bus to becoming a developed country if it continues business and politics as usual, or tries to imitate China’s experience in the last forty years, does not adapt, and does not manage its internal social and political churn better. Avoiding war and attaining one’s goals is the highest form of strategy by any tradition or book — whether Kautilya, Sun Tzu or Machiavelli. And if India’s record over seventy years of independence is to be examined, it has not done badly in moving towards its main goal of transforming India.
That requires the national security calculus to consider broader questions — from technology issues, like atomic energy and cyber security, to resource issues like energy security, while building the strength to deal with traditional hard security issues. India has weathered several storms and performed its basic functions in the past. But it is certain that what it will face now will not be more of the same. The last and most important improvement that India needs to make concerns its national security structures and their work — introducing flexibility into India’s thinking and India’s structures. For change is the only certainty in life.
Ultimately what should guide India is the quest to make itself a great power with a difference, namely, in a way which enables it to achieve Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of ‘wiping the tear from the eye of every Indian.’ That would be in keeping with India’s core values and national interest. That is the right objective for a great country like India.
Shivshankar Menon is a Distinguished Fellow at Brookings India. Menon served as the National Security Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister from January 2010 to May 2014. Views are personal.
The article has been extracted from a report titled India’s Foreign Affairs Strategy, first published on the Brookings India website.