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India's foreign policy running aground

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October 31, 2007 18:52 IST

The world knows Henry Kissinger as a grey eminence of international diplomacy. He tirelessly lobbies for American interests abroad. Last week in Delhi he augmented his fame.

Kissinger waded into India's treacherous party politics. He tried mediation between Congress and the Bhartiya Janata Party.

When Kissinger walked into the home of BJP leader L K Advani on Monday and was received with a big bouquet of red carnations, Central Delhi held breath. Conceivably, the moment was as suspenseful as in 1757, exactly 250 years ago, when India was as much a divided house – until in a mangrove of thick foliage near Calcutta, dripping with monsoon rain, the tension was eased, thanks to Robert Clive's effective intervention.

Clive took just about an hour – same as the great American diplomatist took with Advani. But how far Kissinger succeeded, time will tell.

Meanwhile, what is clear is that in the marshlands of the nuclear deal, Indian diplomacy is getting stuck. In the process, are we beginning to miss out on warning signals from other theatres of regional politics no less important than 6,000 MW of nuclear energy?

Silence of the lambs

Our obsessive preoccupation with the nuclear deal is beginning to take its toll.

Among major regional capitals, New Delhi must be alone in keeping mum about the tensions building up in its neighbourhood involving the United States and Iran. The UPA government wouldn't want to annoy the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, which is clamouring for regime change in Iran. On balance sheet, therefore, the government shrewdly estimates relations with Tehran are inconsequential in comparison with what the nuclear deal has to offer.

To speak has become dangerous business. But how is it that the Pakistanis get away with murder? Their diplomacy navigates with manifestly better skill. The very survival of the Pervez Musharraf regime depends on US goodwill. The UPA government is certainly nowhere near as vulnerable to US pressure. Yet, Pakistani spokesman made two firm statements on Monday in Islamabad.

First, Pakistan opposes the latest US sanctions against Iran, as "we believe that sanctions are not a solution to any problem". Someone in South Block could have easily said this much -- just about 11 words. Second, the Pakistani spokesman said: "We are committed to the Iran-Pakistan-India [gas pipeline] project and we will be going ahead with this project. This is the requirement of Pakistan and we will take decisions in our national interest".

If skilful diplomacy is all about negotiating the country's way through narrow corridors of time and space, how well are we doing? It is about time we ask plainly, without getting into the political exotica of "independent foreign policy".

Raking up Kashmir issue

On Monday, Pakistan held a well-attended public function in Tehran marking the 60th anniversary of the "entry into Kashmir by the Indian army". Of course, in deference to Indian sensitivities no Iranian functionary took part, but the salience remains that Pakistani ambassador to Iran would estimate at all he would have a conducive surrounding for making an open call for United Nations and Organisation of Islamic States intervention in Jammu & Kashmir.

Iran is a major regional power. The latest sign is Turkey -- which practises militant secularism of a variety that secular India would have problems in emulating -- seeking Iran's support in the crisis over northern Iraq. That brings out the increasingly complex alignments to India's west. Ignoring them can only remain an incomprehensible blunder.

But, last week also signalled that the UPA government has some serious thinking to do on yet another crucial foreign policy front. There have been profoundly disturbing signs of contradictions appearing in the regional policies of India and Russia. They come atop the stunning news from Moscow that the Russian leadership had scheduling difficulty receiving India's external affairs minister or defence minister.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lashed out last week at some of the core areas of the UPA government's "Look East" policy. Lavrov targeted Japan, but he underscored in the process that Russia harbours misgivings over the UPA government's Asia Pacific policy.

Russia distances itself

What must arrest UPA government on its track is that Lavrov, a gifted professional diplomat, spoke just as he was setting out from Moscow en route to Harbin, the sub-provincial city in far northeast China, where Beijing hosted the third round of the "stand alone" foreign minister level consultations of Russia, China and India within the framework of their trilateral format.

Lavrov stressed Russia's shared concerns with China over the missile defence programme. He said, "We are opposed to the construction of missile defence systems aimed at securing military superiority. Deploying this kind of systems may spur an arms race on a regional and global scale. The foundations of strategic stability are thus undermined, leading to a growth of unpredictability in this hugely important sphere of maintaining global equilibrium".

He questioned the "real aim" of Japan and the US: "Many experts suggest that such a missile defence system, being an element of the American global missile shield, could as well be used against Russian and Chinese strategic arms".

Later, at a joint press conference in Harbin with his Russian and Indian counterparts, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi similarly criticised the US plans of deployment of the missile defence system.

Revisiting the 'Look East' policy

Second, Lavrov took strong exception to the decision by Washington and Tokyo to broaden the scope of their bilateral military alliance to cover regional and global security. He warned it may "entail adverse consequences for regional stability" and would evoke an appropriate Russian response.

Again, Lavrov questioned the rationale of the new "military-political triangle" in the Asia-Pacific region involving the US, Japan and Australia. (Not surprisingly, he left out any direct reference to India.)

He said such a "closed format" in the Asia-Pacific region (Indian strategic analysts whimsically label it as "quadripartite alliance" or "Asian NATO") couldn't be conducive to regional stability.

Lavrov said: "A closed format for military and political alliances raises questions among neighbouring countries not party to them as to what these alliances are actually being created for and against whom".

In essence, he echoed the Chinese diplomatic demarche a few months ago at Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and New Delhi about the raison d'etre of their so-called "quadripartite" strategic dialogue.

Lavrov went on to rubbish the new alliance format in the Asia-Pacific as "a counter-productive approach, which will not be able to increase trust in the region, and most likely will bring about results that are opposite to the expectations of the participants in such schemes".

He roundly criticised Japan for its concept of an "arc of freedom and prosperity" in Asia-Pacific (an idea that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe robustly expounded while addressing the Indian Parliament in August). He advised Tokyo to "take a rest from ideology and concentrate instead on understandable, real-life interests".

Ties with Russia stagnating

What merits attention is that Lavrov hit out even as the UPA government is getting ready for a fourth round of "quadripartite" strategic dialogue. Conceivably, Moscow has lately begun wondering whether India is not genuinely embarking on a path of becoming America's strategic ally.

The UPA government has compounded this by allowing Russian-Indian relations to lapse into a state of masterly inactivity. Economic relations remain stagnant. People-to-people relations have atrophied. Political exchanges lack fizz. On the sides of the G-8 summit in July, there wasn't even a Russian-Indian bilateral. Military cooperation has run into problems.

A genuinely non-aligned India forging close ties with the US in its national interests in the present era of globalisation -- that is something that Russia would live with. Russia itself aspires for such an equation with the US in a multipolar world.

But the idea of India under compulsion harmonising its foreign policy with the US global strategies -- it militates. Which is why Iran becomes a test case. The world watches us, and it takes us seriously. We shouldn't appear as one-dimensional men.

M K Bhadrakumar