What the UPA’s election win means for foreign policy

Regaining lost ground on China, re-engaging the United States

Mint’s Samar Srivastava & Tanmaya Kumar Nanda have an opinion round-up on the prospects for India’s foreign affairs under the second UPA government. They find that the “UPA win (is) good for foreign policy, but (there are) clouds ahead”, and that the biggest of those clouds is China.

Most experts agreed that one of India’s largest challenges would come not from its west but east: China.

“China is recalcitrant. Forget magnanimity, things are becoming frozen. China is signalling its unwillingness to accommodate India, that is more worrying,” said Amitabh Mattoo, professor of International Politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

Kapur added India would have to take steps to increase its bargaining power. “China’s approach is to speak softly but carry a big stick. India’s approach is to speak loudly and carry a small stick…. We haven’t even cultivated Taiwan or backed the Dalai Lama. As a country, we are apprehensive and insecure about China.”

Nitin Pai, editor of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review magazine, agreed, saying India has done the worst in five years with regard to China. “India needs to (sit) bilaterally with key players like Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Vietnam.” [Mint]

The point I made is that while the UPA government did generally well with respect to relations with the United States and was so-so with respect to Pakistan, it lost the plot with respect to China. Whether this was due to the presence of the Leftists or a strategic naivete-cum-pusillanimity within the Congress Party’s own senior leadership, the objective fact is that India failed to even mitigate the rise of Chinese power in East Asia. Such was the neglect that even the band-aid, in the form of approval for infrastructure development along the India-China border, was applied after the elections started. The single biggest task—in the medium term—is to draw out a vision of India’s geopolitical role in the 21st century, and begin to take purposeful steps to get there. (From the way the article is written, it might appear that I agreed with Dr Kapur on Taiwan and the Dalai Lama. I didn’t mention them at all)

The UPA government and the Obama administration will have to work with each other at least for the next four years. Here, far from a sense of defensiveness over Washington’s vaunted/troubled Af-Pak strategy, the UPA government must understand that President Obama’s success or failure in Afghanistan & Pakistan (and second term in office) is to a significant extent contingent on New Delhi’s support. This doesn’t mean grandstanding: quite the opposite, it means a confident and constructive partnership. It means allowing and ensuring that the United States ends up doing the necessary—confronting the Pakistani military-jihadi complex—sooner rather than later.

What about nuclear weapons? It’s good to see President Obama agree with the age-old Indian position that the world ought to be free of nuclear weapons. As K Subrahmanyam—by no means an anti-nuclear weapons ideologue says—the first step is to delegitimise their use: non-use against non-nuclear states, no first use against nuclear states, and, for those with thousands of warheads, a reduction in their number. That said—there will be disagreement on the NPT and CTBT—where a change in the Indian position can only come after a substantial change in the structure of the treaties. Can Dr Singh not persuade Mr Obama that an unprecedented change in US position over nuclear weapons requires jettisoning Cold War era dogmas? Or should the world await a global nuclear crisis—like the economic one—before concluding that the G7 needs to expand into a G20?

None of this is incompatible with retaining a minimum credible deterrent in the meantime. Dr Singh should know better than anyone else that ‘operationalising’ the India-US nuclear deal and the NSG waiver is the key to ensuring that the size of the deterrent is appropriate.

Tall order this, so it’s important to start right: can Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first appoint a good external affairs minister, a good defence minister and a good national security advisor?

10 thoughts on “What the UPA’s election win means for foreign policy”

  1. Do you guys seriously think that any other nuclear power is so woolly-eyed that it would willingly give up nuclear weapons? With a decaying military, Russia is more likely than ever to cling to them. And the chinese, who have broken virtually every promise they’ve made to the international community (NPT–gee I wonder who they might have proliferated to…) are all set to increase theirs. India’s paltry arsenal, which may now be capped, rolled back, and eliminated thanks to MMS, has to face off against china’s 400–mostly pointed at India. K.Subramanyam is a poor excuse for a strategic expert (he advocated signing the ctbt in 1996). Brahma Chellaney (here) and Bharat Karnad are far more credible. How can you guys say MMS was principled on the deal (he cut the Atomic energy dept budget by 40% while saying nuclear was the future and the CAG said MMS was wrong and that india has enough nuclear fuel for the next half century)? Read Chellaney…

  2. @chanakya (amazing how many people use this handle. It’s the second most popular one, after anonymous)

    Dude, KSub is far more thoughtful, insightful and influential than Chellaney and Karnad put together. I’d hesitate to dismiss that old fox as you have done. You should be the one to actually read beyond Chellaney…because no person has a monopoly over being right.

  3. @chanakya

    If the CAG report was accurate perhaps the CAG also will explain why the reactors are running at dangerously low load factors…low enough to run the risk of having to shut down?

    It doesn’t gel, Hercules!

  4. Guys, it’s easy to make blanket statements. How bout some facts? I have read K.Subramanyam. He is an advocate of existential deterrence–meaning, just by virtue of declaring you have a nuclear deterrent or have test that’s good enough. Meaning you don’t even have to have an assembled arsenal. Gee, I wonder why the status quo nuclear powers went to the trouble of developing hair trigger second strike capability…hmmm… Existential deterrence is an antiquated doctrine that has no place in this era of spy satellites and ELECTINT–and especially when you have abasketcase neighbor that almost used nuclear weapons on you twice. Then what? Your bluff is called. Will you then ask the old fox to sit down and think up another brilliant strategy on the spot? Yes exceedingly thoughtful thinker you have there. If his policies were implemented there wouldn’t even have been a pokhran ii and india would be bound by the CTBT in name, not just in fact like it is now. I don’t think either of you have read chellaney or karnad, or their counterparts in atomic research like A.N. Prasad. But why stop with Indians who actually take the time to research a deal’s implications. Even Ashley Tellis said that as per the deals provisions, India would no longer be able to test physically (and computer testing requires a significant sample of data (tens or hundreds of tests) not a paltry 6 over 40 years). I’d suggest you go back and take a detailed look at Chellaney’s work instead of just tom toming subramanyam…

    As for the CAG report. do some research, hercules. The real question you should be asking is why, if the load factors were so low, MMS did not order mining in discovered uranium fields in mizo and nalgonda (AP)? Fuel supplies would have been rolling in less than 18 mos (less time than it took to force a deal through without parliamentary debate). Chellaney wrote the most detailed and analytical account of the deal and its provisions. I would have hoped that those who proclaimed to defend the national interest would have at least taken the time to research opposing viewpoints to understand rather than to just cover up. Facts gentleman, let’s discuss facts…

  5. Chanakya & Udayan,

    Let’s not get into the debate over the nuclear deal all over again. You are welcome to go through the archives, and all these things have already been discussed threadbare. The agony of going through it again is unbearable and unnecessary.

  6. Forgot to add: I’ll be happy to listen to fresh ideas on dealing with China.

  7. Nitin, fair enough. Sorry, but since your post here included the nuclear deal, I did feel that it was important to call it out. As for China, unfortunately, the deal has a bearing on that as well because a moth eaten/rolled back deterrent will only encourage china (whose several recently modernized himalayan divisions could come barrelling down into delhi–esp if the UPA seriously compromises on Kashmir and considers giving part of it up like it almost did with siachen; according to shourie only pranabda prevented this at the 11th hour, and of course, his patriotism was rewarded by denying him the title of interim PM. If you have a UPA policy of emasculating a military that is already underequipped and underfunded, what will deter China from that–or more likely–a quick military action to capture Tawang or Arunachal–as its IR experts/Military Brass have been threatening in state media? The military gap (both nuclear and conventional) has only grown qualitatively and quantitatively, and I believe you guys have already covered “the string of pearls”, etc. Accordingly, Agni iii testing has been postponed indefinitely. Had it been prioritized, it, along with the akula class submarines, would have completed india’s triad charted out by the BJP and ensured strong deterrence vis a vis china. Sorry guys, but with a Sonia led upa in power, i see no reason to be confident in anything this bunch does…

    As for what needs to be done, i think we all know that india needs strong relations with japan and vietnam and better strategic cooperation across the board. Nepal is obv a big UPA blunder which may only get worse. Accordingly, Narasimha Rao’s look east policy has been languishing–ASEAN cooperation is key. India cannot afford to ignore that. Infrastructure is something that AK Antony already conceded–the question is weather or not we’ll see a qualitative difference on the frontier–china has railroads (qinghai) and India has pack mule trails. From what I’ve read, seems like there’s only been talk and planning but little implementation. Lastly, the bulk of indian exports to china has been raw materials (80% I believe and 50% of the total being iron ore alone), I don’t see how that is a particularly wise policy for obvious reasons. More than anything else, I think Parag Khanna was on the money. I was initially irked by his dismissal of india from his “The Second World” and still don’t really agree with it, but he wrote a follow up column on India that summed it up well: India lacks strategic appetite. Although under (I begrudgingly say her name) Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee, it did have it to some extent, it is completely lacking in the UPA–and the External Affairs netas certainly have no clue. the MMS doctrine has done Gujral one better. From disproportionate reciprocity it has become disproportionate acquiescence…strength respects strength guys, after all, it is matsya nyaya out there…

  8. Sorry to elongate, but on that point about strategic thinking, I think it’s something thoroughly absent in most of India’s intellectuals (with rare exception). In an interview, Ramachandra Guha was asked about Indian strategic thinking (we already know about the rand study declaring india had no strategic culture), and Guha said, “EH, I don’t do strategic thinking, I am a historian”. And i think that’s the prob. The whole point of studying history is to learn from strategies that worked and didn’t. I hate to say this considering the election results, but many of the “pseudo” intellectuals have harmed india’s political prioritizing. How many of them have read the arthashastra, or since they think india has little to offer, then the art of war or on war? I think the netas and babus need to hit the books if they want to develop strong policy like a 21st century military (Cyberdefenses? hello? anyone?). An IT Superpower indeed…

  9. China is the biggest clouds on everyone’s radar, but no one seems to be doing anything about it, except just trying to appease them. Sarkozy met with Dalai Lama and the Chinese cold snubbed him in international venues … Geithner spoke of Chinese currency being undervalued and all hell broke loose.
    In this context, there is a tough chance that India would be accommodated by China in anything. Nor is it feasible to have 400 nuclear tipped missiles pointing at them. I am not saying these are not needed, but a few aimed at major urban centers ought to be deterrent enough.
    The wars of the future will most likely be surreptitious and probably of a cyber nature. I am not sure India, despite claiming to be an IT superpower, is well versed in these.

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