Growing, Yes, but India Has Reasons to Worry
Accompanying Graphic: Looking Outward at Trouble on Many Sides
PONDICHERRY, India — During President Obama’s recent visit to China, many in India speculated that an emerging “G2” would leave their nation out in the cold.
“Obama’s China (credit) card casts shadow on PM’s US visit,” ran a headline on The Times of India’s Web site shortly before India’s prime minister left for America and his own meeting last week with Mr. Obama — highlighted by the president’s first state dinner.
The country’s prickly response points to the lingering distrust with which India, which often leaned toward Moscow during the cold war, still views the United States. It is a reminder, also, of the many sensitivities that drive Indian foreign policy — sensitivities that are not always recognized in America.
For all the talk of a new era of Indo-American collaboration, Americans tend to view India through the narrow prisms of two shared concerns — a battle against Islamic extremists, and the benefits of international trade. But India is a complicated country in a complex part of the world — buffeted by internal insurgencies, surrounded by hostile neighbors, marginalized until recently as underdeveloped.
In the last decade, four of India’s neighbors (Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka) have dealt with rebellions that, to varying degrees, have filtered into India. Since independence in 1947, India has been involved in armed conflicts in at least five nearby lands (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, the Maldives); it has also become a nuclear power.
Pakistan is the most intense flashpoint, and was on many minds in a week that marked the first anniversary of attacks by Muslim extremists, traced by India to Pakistan, that left 163 people dead in Mumbai. But it is only one potential flashpoint.
Another is China, which humiliated India in a border war in 1962. Last summer, after reports surfaced in the Indian media about increased border incursions by China’s army, India began moving aircraft and soldiers closer to China. In October, an editorial in The People’s Daily, a Chinese Communist Party publication, accused India of “recklessness and arrogance.” For Indians, the verbal and military jousting that followed has stirred deep anxiety, now heightened by suspicions that America is playing up to China. When Presidents Obama and Hu issued a joint statement that appeared to open the door to Chinese involvement in South Asia, the Indian press and political establishment responded with fury, born out of a sense of betrayal.
In adddition to its regional challenges, India is entangled in a host of complicated global negotiations — on climate change, trade, nuclear proliferation, intellectual property rights. As the country emerges onto the world stage, it has often had a hard time balancing its parochial interests with its desire to play the role of a responsible global power.
India’s response to all these challenges is complicated by its own difficulty in articulating an overarching strategic doctrine.
Writing in 1992, the late American political scientist George Tanham drew attention to the lack of a broad cohesive vision. Indian foreign policy, he argued, was fragmented; he pointed, for example, to the very different threat perceptions in northern India, which tends to worry about Pakistan and China, and in the south, which is more focused on northern dominance and seaward threats.
It hasn’t always been this way. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, envisioned his nation as a force for global peace and justice. He committed India to policies of nonproliferation and anti-imperialism, and professed nonalignment in the cold war. Arguably, India’s moral high ground was always somewhat shaky; the country has rarely hesitated to use force to protect its interests. (After Indian troops marched into the then-Portuguese colony of Goa in 1961, President John Kennedy was reported to have remarked that maybe now he could be spared India’s lectures about a moral foreign policy.) Nonetheless, India’s expression of a moral foreign policy did provide an element of cohesiveness that has frayed in recent decades.
Today, as India tries to define its role as an emerging superpower, the search for a cohesive foreign policy that could articulate a response to the myriad challenges confronting the country continues.Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an Indian political scientist, says a big question for India is how to handle its new status, and in particular whether it wants to adhere to the notion of a moral foreign policy. “Now that we have in a sense arrived, what do we do?” he asked. “Do we participate in the standard great-power exceptionalism, or do we leverage our power to create a rule-bound system?”
Just as for any great power, that would be an easier question for India to answer were it not for problems in its own backyard. Indeed, Mr. Mehta argues that India is in a sense caught in a “defensive crouch” — tied to its neighbors, forced to react to regional security threats, and held back in its aspirations as a global superpower by the volatility of its neighborhood.