Putting national interest first
– NISCHAL Dhungel* and ABIJIT SHARMA
Dhungel is a non-resident fellow at NIPoRe. The opinion piece originally appeared in The Kathmandu Post on 18 January 2023. Please read the original article here.
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, foreign relations trembled among major economic powers. While condemning Russia’s aggression and barraging the country with a series of sanctions, the West expected India to follow suit. However, New Delhi adopted studied public neutrality and abstained from successive votes condemning the Russian move in the UN Security Council, General Assembly, and Human Rights Council. Just like India, China maintained relative neutrality, with a solid foreign policy stance in response to the conflict. Despite its closeness with Russia, Beijing stopped short of supporting it in the war. It also stopped short of calling Russia the aggressor and abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote denouncing the ‘invasion’. Beijing and New Delhi had made their decision loud and clear. And they were not going to listen to anybody.
Assertive New Delhi
Speaking at the Globsec 2022 forum in Slovakia, Minister of External Affairs of India, Dr S Jaishankar laid clear India’s increasingly confident foreign policy. “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems,” Jaishankar said. He criticised the West for hoarding vaccines, which impacted the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). It is crucial to understand how India came to this position, which was unimaginable until a few years ago.
India’s political, social and economic fabric had been damaged after 200 years of colonialism. Its foreign policy could not remain untouched. Following independence, New Delhi slowly started to chart its own path, pursuing different strategic approaches from 1946 to 2013. Nehruvian influence persisted from 1946 to 62, an era of strategic non-alignment amidst US-Soviet Union rivalry. From 1962 to 1971, considered the decade of realism and recovery, India made pragmatic choices in national security and political challenges despite a lack of resources. The country went through a complex phase from 1971 to 1991 as the US-China-Pakistan axis came up. From 1991 to 1999, it had challenges in retaining its strategic autonomy in a unipolar world, whereas from 2000 to 2013, India focused on balancing power.
But since assuming office in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made an unprecedented transformation of Indian foreign policy. Modi has put India as an emerging superpower on the map and sought to engage rather than remain ‘non-aligned actively’. New Delhi now understands that it deals with multiple global complexities, making decisions based on calculated risk-taking. As a result, India is slowly standing out, drifting away from strategic ambiguity to strategic freedom and taking a solid foreign policy stance on international fora. This is a significant departure from the older ‘non-alignment’ tenet that had long established India’s typical social values and norms, at least in foreign relations.
India’s central foreign policy tenet under Modi is seen to be guided by the Eastern principle of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, which translates to “the world is one family”. This was evident during the Covid-19 pandemic when New Delhi delivered more than 100 million doses to countries in Asia and Africa. While Modi has spearheaded this new brand of foreign policy, his bureaucrats and ministers have helped implement it. In 2015, just two days before his retirement, the Narendra Modi government appointed a highly agile foreign service officer, a foreign ambassador to the US and China, to the position of foreign secretary. Jaishankar has been the flag bearer of Modi’s foreign policy ever since Modi’s second term in office. Jaishankar openly admits India’s shortcomings and stays committed to securing its national interest with/without taking any sides.
‘Wolf-warrior’ in Beijing
Coinciding with India’s assertive stance in global politics is China’s equally aggressive stance, especially against the West. The Chinese foreign policy has been so assertive and aggressive in recent years that it has earned a new name: ‘Wolf-warrior’. While aggressive Chinese rhetoric might appear quite normal now, it is a shift from China’s earlier foreign policy. And the man to bring about this shift is none other than Xi Jinping. At heart, Xi’s diplomacy calls for a more active role for China as a great power on the world stage, including reforming the Western-dominated international order and creating what China calls “true multilateralism”.
When the architect of China’s economic reform, Deng Xiaoping, came to power following Mao Zedong’s death in the late 1970s, he prescribed a foreign policy which was subtle and cooperative. His approach focused on “biding one’s time without revealing one’s strength”. As a result, in the 1980s and 90s, Beijing was focused on “securing position, coping with affairs calmly and hiding capacities”. The leaders who came to power after Deng continued the policy.
But Xi’s ascendance since 2012 has slowly changed things in Beijing. Far from “biding time and hiding strengths”, it is now focused on making its stance clear on the global stage. Most importantly, it is open to show its strength. Take, for instance, its recent response to the Taiwan issue. Just before the then US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in August last year, the Chinese President issued a stern warning to his American counterpart, allegedly saying that “… those who play with fire would perish by it”. When its alarm went unheeded, the Chinese military launched targeted military exercises.
Xi’s ambitions to help China regain its glory of the Middle Kingdom years have been evident since he took office. Upon gaining power in 2012, he immediately identified “national rejuvenation” as his primary goal. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced a year later. At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi stated that China would no longer shy away from world leadership and efforts shaping the international order. The BRI is an important example of how China has pursued its foreign policy interest. The initiative has 147 signatories and includes US allies and partners such as Saudi Arabia, Greece and UAE.
Quite naturally, the West has been critical of this stance, often saying that it might invite dangerous confrontations between China and the West. But Beijing has maintained that it is not the real aggressor but simply responding to Western threats. Defending China’s aggressive foreign policy, the then-Chinese Foreign Vice Minister Le Yucheng said last year that Beijing “had no choice but to fight back against constant ‘nagging’ and ‘insults’ from foreign critics”. Interestingly China has many flag bearers of this new assertive foreign policy, most notably the foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. Zhao has had public spats with US diplomats and has been a vocal critic of the West.
If there is any lesson that Nepal should learn from its neighbours, it is that we need to pursue an independent foreign policy, especially in light of the geo-political games often played in the country.