A month back, Indian hyper sensationalized news media was jingoistically pointing out how much Indian government is correct in not taking part in the OBOR initiative, while every serious political commentator with half a brain was saying, how terrible a mistake that was. From boycotting a summit on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in May, to being hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) summit it looks like a total 180 turn for Indian foreign policy.
This is not baffling. Here’s what is happening.
First of all, this is an age old foreign policy debate in Indian establishment, to be closer to China, or to balance China. It’s nothing new, and quite natural. Indian and Chinese growth in the last couple of decades has fed into this narrative of a grand Asian resurgence in global arena. And that in itself divided Indian foreign policy establishment. One group thinks it will automatically lead to a chance of a rivalry, in Asia. India and China will probably not go to war, or come to conflict, but will inevitably have a greater rivalry and differing spheres of influence. The other side of the divide are policy makers who think that the Western influence on economic and global monetary policies have eroded, and it is inevitable that India and China will take the leadership in the coming century. This side understands that it is for the benefit of both the nations that they don’t have a rivalry, and atleast maintain a tactical alignment.
Indian foreign policy behaviour shows sings of this polarization. On one hand, India rails against China in OBOR, on the other hand India joins the SCO. On one hand, India trains Vietnam military, on the other hand, India refuses Australia to join Japan and India in naval exercise, showing concerns that China might be offended.
One can assume that finally Modi has realized, that it cannot have a antagonistic relation with China in the long term. That is not geopolitically feasible. India needs Chinese assistance for simple matters of national interest, like being a member of NSG, or UNSC seats, as well as keeping Islamist militancy in Pakistan border under control. Chinese expectation is that India will not exploit Chinese matters in Tibet and respect “core concerns” like Dalai Lama. Indian hostility with China will severely jeopardise such areas of interest. The approach towards China must therefore thoroughly change.
Secondly India realized that it is on the wrong side, as far as BRI is concerned, with only US and Japan opposing it. India shares common interest with China, with regards to CPEC, as well as India Myanmar and Bangladesh China corridor. India and China also faces major concern with increased Islamism from Bangladesh to Philippines. It is in India’s interest to build up infrastructure, and interest sharing and cooperation to stem the tide of jihadism spreading in South East Asia. That region is the major trading route, and neither India nor China is individually capable of policing the region, without a significant drain on their resources. In fact that gives both the powers a glorious opportunity to start a joint chain of command or structure to work on a common threat. Finally, as Financial Times pointed out, India and China has a golden opportunity to provide leadership with regards to climate change.
It is however, still unclear in which direction Indian foreign policy will go, and knowing history, Indian bureacucratic class is deeply naturally agnostic about forming a lobby or joining alliances. India would still maintain equidistant from both China and United States, and would not be an active participant in any balancing game in Asia. In a way that’s good. It would lead to practical alignments and cooperations with both the superpowers. Modi’s newfound pragmatism points to that direction.