By Zoha Waseem:
As Narendra Modi prepares to depart for the 6th summit of BRICS during what will be the Indian Prime Minister’s first international appearance since being voted into office in May this year, many will observe closely to dissect his meetings with his Brazilian, Russian, Chinese and South African counterparts. Modi’s foreign policy, a matter that has been the subject of much speculation, was also the subject of the Chairman of the Indian National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran’s talk at King’s College London, ‘Indian Foreign Policy under Prime Minister Modi: An early assessment’, on Friday, July 11. On the domestic front, Mr. Modi has been blatantly vocal and articulate about his goals for India, but his intentions towards the Asian neighbourhood have been less transparent. Mr. Saran, who holds a commendable record as a respected Indian diplomat for four decades now, attempted to break these down.
After acknowledging the positive developments between India’s relations with Bhutan and Bangladesh, Mr. Saran turned his focus to her dynamics with Washington. The negative legacy of this relationship, and a certain amount of bitterness that lingers on between the two countries, was worsened by the decade-long visa restriction irritant (which was quickly reversed following Modi’s victory). Despite this, Mr. Saran observed, the United States is bound to remain a preferred partner for India, although Modi’s visit to the US later this year will reveal more on this account.
This brings us to another key question: how will India deal with China? In Modi’s views, previous Indian governments have taken a weak posture towards China, which needs to be changed. Under Modi, India is likely to have a more robust stance that will safeguard Indian interests first but, according to Saran, will be balanced with a stronger economic relationship as the Prime Minister has long been fascinated by the Chinese economic model, which could be an area he would likely want to expand upon
Mr. Saran argued that to strengthen the defence policy vis-à-vis China, India is likely to build closer relations with the US and Japan. There is thus a possibility of stronger security ties with Tokyo, coupled with a furtherance of shared defence interests, while maintaining the slowly developing industrial relations ahead.
The possibility of regional cooperation with China is also going to be influenced by the Pakistan factor. By Mr. Saran’s analysis, although the Chinese have been previously unwilling to speak about Pakistan with India, this attitude is gradually changing. While Mr. Saran did not specify to what extent this is going to be discussed between the two neighbours, it can be assumed that Chinese grievances with Pakistan for not taking stronger action against the Uyghur militants affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), on the territory bordering China, is likely to be a common ground for discussions between New Delhi and Beijing.
Despite Mr. Saran’s optimism, Modi should not be quick in expecting a frank cooperation from China as the latter’s relationship with Islamabad – fair-weathered as it may be on security matters – is unlikely to be strained on economic and energy fronts.
While Modi’s policies vis-à-vis East Asia will be moulded long-term, Afghanistan is likely to be a critical and immediate issue in the foreseeable future, which will naturally influence the Indo-Pak relationship ahead.
On the non-military foundations of this relationship, Islamabad has requested for the supply of power and petroleum from India. This request, as per Saran, made by the civilian government may not be something the Pakistani army is particularly happy about. Regardless, ties between the two governments are going to remain a subject of apprehension ahead of the uncertainty surrounding what might happen in Afghanistan.
Concerning military assistance to Kabul, Mr. Saran maintained that while India is going to continue providing aid and training to the Afghan military and police forces, boots on ground is not an option New Delhi is likely to pursue.
Coming to the pressing question of the terrorist threat from Pakistan, Mr. Saran referred to previous statements from Delhi that have recognised that Pakistan’s internal threat of terrorism is far greater than otherwise understood abroad. But while there are efforts on the part of the Pakistani army to fight non-state actors in North Waziristan, India – like many within Pakistan – is concerned about the lack of efforts being made to target groups that have particular agendas against her.
Coincidentally, Saran’s concerns on this regard were voiced at King’s soon after a seminar was held at the Lahore High Court by Hafiz Saeed in which the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief, while praising Operation Zarb-e-Azb (the on-going Pakistani military’s operation against terrorists in North Waziristan, FATA), said that the United States and NATO are ‘bound to be defeated in this region’. This was Saeed’s second address to the Lahore High Court this year. In May, he was invited as a chief guest at the Lahore High Court Bar Association. One month later, the US blacklisted JuD as a foreign terrorist organisation and a charity front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Mr. Saran warned that despite a willingness in India to push ahead with the peace dialogue with Pakistan, should there be another Mumbai-style attack on its soil, orchestrated by any group in Pakistan, the ability to take the Indo-Pak friendship forward would be stalled once again and the forbearance shown by the Indian Congress – the previous administration – may not be likely anymore. The Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) government has already made clear its intentions towards taking a robust response to any terrorist attack. Whether this is pure political rhetoric or a strategy that will be practised, are theories that can only be tested should New Delhi be confronted with the repeat of such an event. Only then will Modi’s threshold be truly gauged.
Moving on to the Gulf, Mr. Saran analysed that the region is important to India for two reasons. First, the obvious remittance factor, and second, most importantly, the threat of sectarian conflicts spilling over to India. The risk of the latter is being realised by a couple of recent developments in Iraq: the abduction of 46 Indian nurses by ISIS in Tikrit (released last week) and the kidnapping of 39 Indian construction workers near Mosul in June.
The growing sectarian divide in the Gulf region (coupled with that in Pakistan), according to Mr. Saran, poses risks for an otherwise peacefully co-existing Sunni-Shia population of India (its peaceful coexistence has by no means been an absolute condition and should be read here in relation to and in comparison with that in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the broader Middle East). While there have been no major recent sectarian struggles in India, there have been a few sporadic clashes erupting. This is likely to be further aggravated by the fact that recent news now reveals that at least 18 Indian citizens have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight as ‘jihadis’.
Asked if Modi’s lack of experience on the international stage could hamper India’s foreign relations, Mr. Saran assured that even during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi had made several visits to China, Japan and other countries. Besides Nehru, not many Indian prime ministers have had foreign exposure prior to being voted into office, but they have been assisted by selected advisors. Moreover, as was demonstrated by his invitation to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony, Mr. Saran insisted that Narendra Modi has ‘a creative mind’, implying that Modi’s lack of past presence in Delhi and abroad should not be taken for granted.
Mr. Shyam Saran was hosted at King’s College London by the Department of War Studies and King’s India Institute.
Zoha Waseem is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and Associate Editor at Strife. You can follower her on Twitter @ZohaWaseem.