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    South Asia
     Jul 11, 2009


India's quest for autonomy
Challenge and Strategy. Rethinking India's Foreign Policy by Rajiv Sikri

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

In a dog-eat-dog world, autonomy to follow one's own preferences is a scarce commodity that has to be earned by sovereign states. India's foreign policy since independence has been an arduous trek of carving space to defend its choices against pressure from great powers. In the 21st century, steady accumulation of power has opened an opportunity for an India that is self-determining and not a reed bent by stronger external winds. Former Indian career diplomat Rajiv Sikri's new book features a bunch of ideas towards realizing this ideal.

The author opens the book with a broad-brush survey of the present moment, in which American global domination is a bygone. The US's influence has reached a plateau with military fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the economic side, "the US dollar is at risk of losing its status as the world's reserve currency as Asian countries quietly diversify their enormous foreign exchange holdings, international transactions and currency pegs". (p 7) 

At the same time, China's export-driven and raw material-dependent economic growth is no longer sustainable. Russia has regained momentum as a global player, but it is plagued by a demographic decline and fluctuation in world oil and gas prices. India has a chance to catch up in this nebulous period, but that possibility is predicated, inter alia, on "whether China manages to sustain its economic growth, and the inter-relationship between the two giants". (p 12)

The first few chapters of Sikri's book analyze India's relations with its contiguous countries. Political elites in South Asia promote exclusivist identity-based politics of religion or ethnicity to divide the region. Sikri suggests that India should grant duty-free access to the least-developed countries in its vicinity to show that it is a true regional leader and not the neighborhood bully. The cost of not doing so, he says, is to leave open the door for "China, the US, the UK as well as smaller donors, whose economic influence in these countries gets translated into political influence". (p25)

In the same vein, he reminds readers, "India-Pakistan tensions probably suit Pakistan's principal foreign backers, namely the US, China and Saudi Arabia." (p 46)

To rein in Islamist terrorism from Pakistan, Sikri proposes that India should fully utilize the waters of the three eastern rivers of the Indus - Sutlej, Beas and Ravi - and also withhold the western rivers - Jhelum and Chenab - from flowing into Pakistan. As a solution to New Delhi and Islamabad's competition for influence in Afghanistan, Sikri dangles the quid pro quo of India shutting down its consulate in Jalalabad or Kandahar if Pakistan stops undermining India's role in Afghan reconstruction.

Bangladesh has been obstructing India's need of transit to its own northeast region, a ploy the author ascribes to the "Pakistani mindset" and Islamized identity of Bangladeshi ruling elites. Unimaginatively, Sikri repeats platitudes about India's closeness to Myanmar's military rulers as having "borne good results". (p 68)
He ignores the facts that the junta continues to harbor terrorist groups active in India's northeast and primarily serves China's strategic interests. On Sri Lanka too, Sikri treads the beaten track of approving India's military cooperation with a chauvinistic state without acknowledging that such aid was one of the fillips for a devastating war in the island country.

The author is more convincing in reprimanding India for insensitivity toward Nepal's pride by treating it like a province of India and prioritizing developmental projects that serve Indian needs rather than those of the Himalayan kingdom-turned-republic. Bhutan, on the other hand, has been handled by India with sensitivity to its independent personality, thereby preventing it from courting China.

Sikri is an advocate of India "reopening the whole question of the legitimacy of China's claim to Tibet" in response to Beijing's "controlled border aggression". (p 104) He looks askance at "rose-tinted views about China that find excessive prominence in India's public discourse". (p 109)

In Southeast Asia, India's warmest ties are with Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. But its relations with Malaysia are marked by tension and mistrust due to the latter's pro-Pakistan and pro-China orientation and its religious discrimination against two million Hindus of Indian origin. Sikri calls for rapid improvement of India's relations with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan so that New Delhi has foreign policy "options" vis-a-vis Beijing.

In the Middle East, American interests have dictated India's recent views on Iran's nuclear program. Sikri labels New Delhi's relations with Tehran a "litmus test of India's willingness and ability to follow an independent foreign policy". (p 141) Another challenge in this region that the author singles out is for Delhi to sustain its beneficial relationship with Israel without succumbing to narrow religious domestic constituencies within India.

On the all-important question of India-Russia relations, Sikri warns that a "strategic alliance" between Delhi and Washington would weaken India's bonds with Moscow. Interestingly, he also adds that Moscow limits Delhi's freedom of maneuver in Central Asia. For instance, Russia opposes the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline proposal. The long-term Indian goal in Central Asia, says Sikri, is to be "a player on an equal footing with the US, Russia and China". (p 172)

The author portrays incompatibility between the American objective of maintaining a unipolar world order and India's desire to be one of the poles of a fresh multipolar system. Washington expects Delhi's foreign policies to be "congruent" with its interests, but this is not feasible in every region, since the two countries have numerous divergent goals. Sikri correctly rues Indian policymakers' "outdated assumption that the US is destined to continue its overall global domination and therefore, India has no option but to get closer to it". (p 197)

On energy security, Sikri calls for an "understanding" with China for a north-south corridor from Eurasia to the Indian Ocean that would traverse Indian-administered Kashmir and Xinjiang. Such a scheme could materialize only if Russia, a major energy producer, "develops a strategic understanding with India and China, both major energy consumers". (p 217)

On maritime security, Sikri highlights the presence of extra-territorial naval powers (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and China) in the Indian Ocean as a major concern for Delhi. While India has regular naval exercises with Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia - countries seeking an alternative to Chinese hegemony - it lacks a significant naval outreach on the western flank, where the American navy rules the waves up to the Persian Gulf. Citing the maxim of counting state capabilities, not intentions, Sikri asks "whether India could become a country of concern to the US, as China is today" if it continues to log high economic growth for the next decade. (p 255) Unfortunately, India's Byzantine foreign policy bureaucracy lacks a policy planning division to engage in such long-term strategic thinking and forecasting.

Sikri concludes the book with some hedging strategies for a "wannabe great power like India", including restrictions on military purchases from the US if it keeps supplying weapons to Pakistan, and "diversifying India's foreign exchange holdings away from the dollar". (p 279) Simultaneously, he reiterates that India must "eschew its current defensive and timid approach in dealing with China". (p 283)

Sikri's core message is that piggybacking as a junior partner of other great powers will take India nowhere in its quest for global recognition and clout. Instead of groveling before the US or China, India has to construct its own center of gravity around which it can gather like-minded smaller states and pursue economic growth and security without interference. This book is in the tradition of strategic thought that values freedom of diplomatic action and exhorts self-belief so that India does not become anyone's valet.

Challenge and Strategy. Rethinking India's Foreign Policy by Rajiv Sikri. SAGE Publications, New Delhi, April 2009. ISBN: 9788132100805. Price: US$15, 317 pages.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, India.

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