This week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made headlines by breaking protocol and welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Palam airport in New Delhi. Meanwhile, Nepal has chosen to reduce its reliance on telecom bandwidth from India, essentially ending India’s monopoly of internet services in the country, by collaborating with China Telecom Global to provide connectivity to its citizens. A juxtaposition of these developments warrants a reflection on the trajectory of foreign policy in India.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA initiated strategic ties with Israel and the US and nurtured those relationships, which were further strengthened by Manmohan Singh. However, both governments also ensured that ties with traditional allies such as Russia, the Middle East, or GCC countries, weren’t neglected, and were simultaneously deepened as well. In doing so, both Vajpayee’s NDA as well as UPA 1 and UPA 2, in a sense, were practising Nehruvian foreign policy and its principle of non-alignment.
I personally welcome and support India developing stronger ties with Israel, particularly because we collaborate on a host of policy issues – including strategic areas such as counterterrorism and intelligence sharing, trade, cultural exchanges, and economic cooperation in technology and innovation. I believe it is essential for us to enrich our relationship with the US as well, for much of the same reasons and a whole lot more, such as our mutual commitment to democratic values.
Having said that, I also believe that India cannot and should not neglect its immediate and close neighbours. India imports about 60 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East, a large percentage of which comes from GCC countries. An estimated seven million Indians live and work across the Middle East. China, with whom we share a border, is India’s largest trading partner. The Economic Times reported in December 2017 that trade between India and China jumped 13.56 percent year-on-year totalling $6.33 billion while Indian exports to China jumped over 53 percent year-on-year.
With countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, not only does India share commercial and economic engagements, but also strong historical, linguistic and cultural ties, with large diaspora communities running both ways. It is therefore paramount that India continues to nurture and enrich its relationships with these countries as well.
This is all the more pertinent in light of Nepal’s distancing from India in the telecom space. It chose, instead, to partner with China in providing internet services to its citizens.
Our general demeanour towards China has been one of steady disengagement, and we’re only hurting the country and the economy in the process. For instance, after the resolution of the Doka La standoff, China has practically taken over North Doka La with about 1,600-1,800 troops permanently stationed there. The situation may have resolved so to speak, but China has clearly established itself as a force to reckon with.
My friend Sudheendra Kulkarni at Observer Research Foundation argues very convincingly that if China and India can collaborate on assuaging India’s sovereignty concerns stemming from CPEC, then India must, in its own interest, partner with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). He argues that nothing like this has ever been conceptualised or implemented in the modern world, and the scale of connectivity that it envisages is unprecedented. Based on this connectivity, we can hope to usher in a new paradigm of economic cooperation and integration. China has also emphasised that the objectives of BRI are not simply economic in nature, they’re also cultural and civilizational. In that sense, it envisions a revival of the Silk Route that facilitated mutual discovery and interaction as well as cross-border exchanges of knowledge and culture.
In that context, Kulkarni believes that India’s hard-line position on BRI is myopic. He believes that there is no reason for India to lose out on an economic and cultural renaissance if it can find a way to turn this into an opportunity where all parties stand to benefit. He proposes renaming CPEC to the China-India-Pakistan corridor to assuage sovereignty concerns and postulates India-China cooperation on bringing in a corridor from Kashgar in Western China to Gwadar in Baluchistan, through Jammu and Kashmir and North India. This would open up land access from India to China which today does not exist. Furthermore, he proposes that India should establish land access through Pakistan to Afghanistan, which would open up new opportunities in India-Pakistan trade and cooperation, ushering in prosperity for both countries.
Even though we have the Chabahar port in Iran, he argues, it is much more economically viable and efficient for us to go through Afghanistan, instead of all the way around through Chabahar, to get access to Central Asia.
I believe that since tensions have cooled off between China and India, it might be a good time to sit across the table with China and discuss the possibility of being re-plugged into the modern-day Silk Route. India is an important aspect of BRI’s success, and we must strive to work with it in our own interest. Projects such as CPEC, Nepal’s partnership with China Telecom Global, the take-over of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port on a 99-year lease by China, and the recent China-Maldives FTA might lead to disengagement and isolation for India and is a lesson in why we must not neglect our traditional allies and immediate neighbours.
In the light of all the political grandstanding and jingoism that accompanies anti-Pakistan and anti-China rhetoric, while we must continue to put pressure on Pakistan to further our counterterrorism efforts, I believe that we also need to introspect and assess whether we are forfeiting larger long-term economic and strategic benefits in a region where we could potentially be in position to hold all the cards.
The author is a former member of Parliament and has served as minister for communication and IT, and shipping and ports.
Updated Date: Jan 19, 2018 21:50 PM