Tuesday, 10 April 2012

PAST AND PRESENT - India is in a crucial transitional moment in international affairs Ronen Sen


- India is in a crucial transitional moment in international affairs
Ronen Sen
YB. Chavan, whose birth centenary is being marked this year, had emphasized the need for "attention all the time to the changing political and economic contours of the world" while framing our policies. The international situation has changed over the years. So has India. Yet, it is remarkable how much our thinking remains frozen not only in the policies of the past, but even in prevalent presumptions of past events. A defining moment of our remarkably resilient relations with the Soviet Union, for instance, was the memorable declaration by Krushchev, in 1955 in Srinagar, that Jammu & Kashmir is an integral part of India. This was, however, never reaffirmed by any of his Soviet successors. Nonalignment was the basis of our foreign policy. However, just the year after the first nonaligned summit in Belgrade, virtually all its leaders, with the exception of Tunku Abdul Rahman, were, in effect, nonaligned between India and China after the 1962 conflict.
The nonaligned movement lost its sense of purpose and direction even before the end of the Cold War. This was evident during the nonaligned summit in Belgrade in 1989. The principal focus of deliberations in Belgrade was the venue of the next summit. This had led Rajiv Gandhi to try to set up a compact and cohesive group to focus on global economic issues. When this expanded to a Group of 15, he knew that it would not serve its intended purpose. BRICS is more manageable as a group of influential emerging economies. As was evident during its recent summit in Delhi, the group is still at a very early formative stage. Its geopolitical pronouncements reflected no new initiative.
In economic terms, China accounts for around 80 per cent of the current intra-BRICS trade turnover of $230 billion. In perspective, China's exports of goods to the United States of America were $365 billion in 2010. For all five countries the single most important relationship remains that with the US. The international community is also not exactly holding its breath in anticipation of Iran taking over the chairmanship of the nonaligned movement from Egypt in the coming months.
It has always taken strong leadership to bring about changes in Indian policies. Despite a hostile US-Pakistan-China axis at that time, there was no quid pro quo during negotiations leading to the Indo- Soviet treaty of 1971. It is not widely known that moves to normalize Indo-US relations, thereafter, started with Henry Kissinger's meeting with Y.B. Chavan in October, 1974. At that time Kissinger had agreed to resume US nuclear fuel supplies suspended a few months earlier after the Pokhran-I test.
Internal resistance to the normalization of our relations with China was evident both prior to the resumption of ambassadorial representation in both capitals in 1976 and before Rajiv Gandhi's historic visit to China in 1988. Proponents of status quo were also disoriented by initiatives of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi to improve India-US relations. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it took almost a decade after the end of the Cold War to open a new chapter in India-US relations. One positive foreign policy initiative during that period was the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel. This had been envisaged by Rajiv Gandhi. Close strategic ties were forged thereafter by successive governments in Delhi and Tel Aviv. The initiation of economic reforms at that time by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh contributed significantly to the enhancement of our global profile.
Our past preoccupations with domestic developments or short-term political considerations had prevented us from grasping the implications of major transitional phases in international relations. The political reaction to refuelling stops by US aircraft during the first Gulf War had reflected incomprehension of the changing dynamics in super-power equations prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a dramatic U-turn in our stance a decade later when US-led Nato and allied forces toppled the Taliban regime in Kabul. The left-right opposition to the removal of the nuclear apartheid regime aimed at India, however, marked the first open breakdown of foreign policy consensus in our country.
We are now again in another crucial transitional moment in international affairs. The situation is in a flux with growing tensions in west and southwest Asia, an imminent generational transition in Chinese leadership, forthcoming elections in the US in the midst of modest but notable recovery in that country, and economic stagnation and fragility in the Eurozone. Some view complex problems in a simplistic perspective of the US and the West versus the Rest. Others advocate our steering clear of problems outside our immediate neighbourhood or seek refuge in familiar formulations of marginal contemporary relevance. None of the emerging challenges lend themselves to easy solutions or predictable outcomes. Yet we have to make choices though some of the consequent decisions may well be considered inadvisable in hindsight. There can, however, be nothing worse than procrastination and inaction.
In our own neighbourhood, we took a number of major and far reaching initiatives in recent years, including in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. Yet, we have tended to be unduly cautious by trying to act in conformity to norms that we have been recently advocating multilaterally, and also excessively concerned about our losing further ground to China. Whatever we say today about armed intervention on humanitarian grounds, we acted rightly in using decisive military force to ensure success of the liberation movement in Bangladesh in the wake of the massive pogrom unleashed on its people. We also did not hesitate in intervening militarily in Sri Lanka with the aim of reordering its society and ensuring a constitutional amendment for addressing the legitimate rights of its Tamil citizens.
I can now reveal that the classic military rescue operations in the Maldives, in 1988, were personally supervised by Rajiv Gandhi through the night and till their successful completion in the early morning. This involved his assuming personal responsibility in reversing a Cabinet decision on the operations, approving placement of boats for our landing forces and denying access to these by the militants, working out an all-clear password by the Maldivian air traffic control, and other measures.
This hands-on leadership of Rajiv Gandhi ensured the success of the military mission, which enhanced India's international prestige and the morale of our armed forces. His decisions also resulted in the saving of lives, which would otherwise have been lost, of a number of our armed forces personnel and of Maldivian civilians. The policy of regional pre-eminence of the 1970s and 80s perhaps needed to be reviewed in the current environment. But we need not have swung to another extreme. Our decision on voting in favour of the resolution on Sri Lanka by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, after securing suitable amendments, was most welcome. But the perceived circumstances in which the decision was taken conveyed an undesirable impression.
Ultimately, India will hopefully emerge as the world's third largest economy, after neighbouring China and the US. We know that China does not recognize India, or for that matter any country except the US, as its equal. The US, long used to dealing with allies or adversaries, has yet to learn to engage with India as a partner that can be relied upon for mutually beneficial cooperation, but will not permit its policies to be determined in any foreign capital. Neither confrontation nor collusion between the US and China suits us. Independence in determining our policies should certainly not imply our inability to make choices of acting in concert with our partners of choice in order to protect our national interests. It is time we felt less insecure as an emerging power and less defensive of our natural affinities with fellow democracies.
The author is the former ambassador to the US