Put them on hold: India should hit the snooze button on Afghanistan and Central Asia, focus on oceanic region
The foreign policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term was characterised by incredible energy and effort, but it lacked coherence. New Delhi strove mightily in multiple directions – reaching out to neighbours, islands in the Indian Ocean, and even the South Pacific, wooing the diaspora, the big powers and Gulf sheikhdoms. Did our foreign policy achieve what it was meant to, that is, enhance our security and prosperity? An honest answer would be, no, not quite.
The message for the second term appears to be retrenchment, a process already begun in taking a couple of steps back from the somewhat unsustainable effort to corner Beijing. Stuck between a rock and a hard place with Pakistan, India’s neighbourhood policy has been modified to look eastward. Leaders of the Bimstec grouping – Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan – were the invitees to the PM’s swearing in ceremony last month. Recall in 2014, the invite had gone out to the leaders of Saarc.
There has been a certain caution in dealing with the US; recall Modi redefining the Indo-Pacific in geographic terms in his speech at the Shangrila Dialogue last June. Note, too, that he has not met with the leader of the Free World since November 2017. This is all for the good. India needs to be more pragmatic and focus on what is doable and concern itself less about taking a full-spectrum approach aimed at competing with China.
Our big problem remains our neighbourhood. As Ashley Tellis pointed out recently, we still lack “the requisite power to shape their strategic choices.” Neither our economic nor our military power by itself can influence our neighbours’ foreign policy choices. This has been exacerbated by the rise of China which has emerged as both an economic and military player in South Asia.
The failure with Pakistan is manifest. After a brief flirtation with the carrot, India doubled down on the stick. This has yielded considerable electoral dividends, but whether or not it has helped modify or change Islamabad’s behaviour remains open to question.
Pakistan already extracts a large price from India, in particular the huge national security expenditures we incur on account of its continuing proxy war against us. There is a larger opportunity cost that we pay because of its hostility.
It has refused normal trade and intercourse with India. Worse, it maintains an effective blockade between us and central and west Asia. Because of this, we are unable to establish any worthwhile rail, road or pipelines to trade with the region. India has sought to remedy the situation through the Chabahar project and the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC).
But now, when we’re on the verge of some success, the US has blockaded Iran. At present India doesn’t have the kind of clout that would enable it to challenge the Americans, so no one is going to rush to put more money in Chabahar or INSTC till the issues between Iran and the US are settled.
You may be familiar with the ‘snooze’ function in Gmail. It enables you to hide a message and have it reappear when you need it – a handy device to confront issues only when you are ready to deal with them, or have the capacity to do so.
Something like this is now needed in handling certain areas, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. True, this is India’s near abroad, but New Delhi will be better off by putting its Eurasian ambitions on hold for a while and focusing its limited resources and effort on its immediate neighbourhood, and exploiting the opportunities presented by the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean communities. And, like it or not, it must find ways and means of dealing with Pakistan. There’s no snooze button for a neighbour like that. And neither is it a good idea to pull up the drawbridge and hope that you can sit safely in your castle till things work out.