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The Asian side of the world - II

Jean-François Sabouret

Part One. Regional dynamics and globalization

The regional challenge of an emerging India

Olivier Blarel

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1June 2013

2June: “Can India become a great power?” asks the influential British weekly newspaper, The Economist (30 March 2013). This question puts into perspective the overall impression that economic growth in India has not extended into the field of diplomacy. India’s identity internationally is the subject of lively debate and its diplomacy provokes confusion, multiplying the great differences and apparent contradictions. The difference between, on the one hand its great status in southern Asia (all the states of the Indian subcontinent) and the other, the role of a peripheral player at international level, particularly illustrates India’s difficulty in reconciling diverging interests from its foreign policy.

Origins of India’s troublesome relation with its periphery

3The tense relations between India and its direct neighbours stems from the colonial era. British India had secured the defence of the subcontinent by controlling more or less the peripheral territories directly. From Iran to Burma, via Afghanistan and Tibet, an arch of buffer states served as a line of defence against external threats. After independence in 1947, the new leaders of India, including the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, took an opposing stance to the imperialist foreign policy of its predecessors, advocating for and defending non-interventionism, the Third World and non-alignment in terms of the two Blocs. “Asiatism” (or Afro-Asiatism) was promoted in order to forge ties between the former colonial states that wished to reform an international system that was considered unequal and discriminate.

4Since its creation, however, India has been confronted with a tense regional security situation. Conflict broke out with Pakistan over Kashmir and the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, forcing New Delhi to apply a similar regional policy to that that of its British predecessor. New Delhi attempted to exclude extra-regional influence from its neighbours, wielding the role of hegemonic power in the subcontinent. India’s foreign policy was thus openly contradictory; it criticised internationally that which it practised in its region. The researcher, Mohammed Ayoob, diagnoses this pathology, common to former colonial states, as the “schizophrenia of the Third World state”. In the decades after independence, the difference between regional and international politics continued to grow until reaching its peak in 1979 during the Soviet military invention in Afghanistan. Regional and international policies surfacing at this moment in time collided with and paralysed Indian diplomacy; New Delhi was incapable of preventing the invasion of Afghanistan, a country that is a friend, neighbour and non-aligned (regional partner), and illustrated that it itself was also incapable of criticising the Soviet military intervention for fear of losing crucial military and economic assistance from the USSR. By the time Soviet troops finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, India had lost all credibility among the non-aligned nations for not having denounced the invasion of one of the fellow nations, and for not preventing the creation of the Pakistani-American axis alongside the Afghan Mujahedeen, which incidentally allowed Islamabad to rearm itself and use this leverage to break up the regional status quo that New Delhi had nurtured. As the Cold War was winding down, India’s leadership in the region was being deeply challenged from within and at international level, its diplomacy was inaudible and marginalised. The Indian model inherited from the Nehruvian era was struggling to keep up with a changing world. Overall reforms were needed and not just in foreign policy.

From crisis to the “rediscovery of Asia”

5During the 1990’s, India bore the brunt of the upheavals that shook world order. Its Soviet partner had disappeared, leaving Delhi isolated on the international arena, even more so than at the end of the Cold war, which was a fatal blow to the non-aligned movement, of which India was the historical leader. At the same time, India was threatened by bankruptcy in 1991, which revealed the extent of the sclerosis of its authoritative (state-led) and self-centred economic model that it inherited from the Nehruvian era. The Rao Government was forced to engage in liberalising reforms and gradually open up the Indian market to foreign competition. This new policy required novel diplomatic practices to foster this new outward-oriented economic paradigm. In this perspective, India (re-) discovered its ‘extended neighbourhood’. In seeking to participate in the “Asian miracle”, India brought itself closer to Asia and the Pacific, and notably to South-East Asia. Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, East African seashore and their natural resources, which attracted Indian investors. Isabelle Saint-Mézard interprets this as “a subtle return to Asia”, which was perceived as that which would “ensure prosperity”. Drawn by its newfound economic ambitions, New Delhi opened up its regional outreach beyond the Indian subcontinent.

6It is worth questioning the impact that this new policy had on South Asia: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the direct neighbours of India. Being some of the world’s poorest nations, they did not have the same (power) attraction as the “extended neighbourhood”. Does the rediscovery of a larger Asia come at the price of neglecting southern Asia?

India’s difficult odyssey in Asian regionalism

7India’s new economically-driven foreign policy in the 1990’s intended to integrate the country into the flourishing Asian regionalism. This eastward push was in sharp contrast with the few efforts made to regionally integrate the country into southern Asia. India occupies a prominent place through its military, economic, cultural and demographic weight and geographical centrality. New Delhi is showing little will to promote a meaningful multilateral dialogue, which would destroy India’s natural influence in its bilateral relations with its neighbours. Despite the fact that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was born from a Bangladeshi initiative, India is still reluctant to strengthen this Association, restricting it to a simple dialogue forum, as explained by Jérôme Grimaud.

8The launch of a new approach to regionalism in the wider Asian region was perceived by some to be a game-changer. The importance of the economy and the scale of an enlarged Asia, the intermediary between South Asia and the international system, had a potential to break away from India’s traditional foreign policy that was divided between regional and global spheres. This new strategy has increased the growth of political and commercial interaction between India and its outer region. Raja Mohan believes that India, with its newfound confidence, “is crossing the Rubicon” and is ready to re-establish its dominance in southern Asia, as did British India before 1947. Nevertheless, as of today, India has yet to play its leading role. In Central Asia, India is only welcomed as an observer and not a fully-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In South-East Asia, India is a marginal actor in ASEAN, when compared to China, Japan and South Korea. In the Persian Gulf, India is a passive observer, keeping a balance between Iran and its Arab rivals. India’s ambition to play a stronger political role in its extended neighbourhood has been hampered by its inability to establish itself as a natural leader. New Delhi’s all-out diplomacy in all directions since the 1990’s has blurred India’s aspiration and its positioning in international affairs, making the country look like a maverick with no clear plans or declared goals. Perceived as unreliable and unpredictable, New Delhi has only obtained a second-ranking partnership.

India’s rise and South Asia: stepping stone or stumbling block?

9One of the main factors inducing India’s quizzical international identity is its inability to act as a meaningful and acknowledged leader within southern Asia. Despite enviable economic performances, as well as increased international acknowledgement, New Delhi has had what it perceived to be as natural leadership challenged by its regional partners. This was specifically the case for Pakistan, which constantly tried to counterbalance India’s supremacy by supporting external powers such as the United States of America and China in affairs relating to South Asia. During the 1990’s, the “Gujral doctrine” tried to promote cooperation in southern Asia, aiming to break the regional deadlock. India proposed unilateral concessions (mostly trade oriented) to its SAARC partners (except Pakistan) so as to build trust in the region. The initiative was taken up by successive governments, but safety measures have hampered the efforts that have already been made. However, it seems clear to New Delhi that the threat is coming from its neighbours, not from their force, but from their inherent weakness.

10In power since 2004, Manmohan Singh’s government has tried to breathe new life into “regional connectivity”. India wished to share its country’s economic growth with its neighbours in exchange for national borders to be relaxed, so as to allow a greater flow of trade and social contact. Borders are difficult to redraw, “but they can be made insignificant”, explained the Indian Prime Minister. Like his predecessors, Manmohan Singh is having to face diplomatic bureaucracy, and inherit the British Indian tradition, which is deeply ingrained in many practices that are determined to maintain the country’s prerogatives in regional affairs. Furthermore, this stance has been coldly received from the other SAARC members, fearful of India’s growing economic influence. Intra-regional trade represents 5% of global trade, an increase of 4% since 1990. India’s inability to trade with its neighbours impedes its capability to trade beyond southern Asia. Trade with Burma is severely dampened by Bangladesh’s opposition to allow transit through its territory, jeopardising a potential corridor towards South-East Asia. The same goes for trade activities to the West; Pakistan’s obstinate refusal to allow for transit through the country closes any meaningful prospect of establishing a trade route with Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia and beyond. Without its economic tool, Indian diplomacy in this outer region can only remain marginal. Since 2001, India has tried to develop a strong economic and political presence in post-Taliban Afghanistan by actively participating in reconstructing the country. This move was denounced by Islamabad, which criticised India for its supposed willingness to help Afghanistan, using this opportunity rather as a ploy to influence and destabilise Pakistan, giving credence to its refusal to allow transit through its territory. India is therefore developing an expensive and much longer alternate route via Iran to reach Afghanistan. The Afghan example illustrates India’s willingness to bypass the regional constraints. India’s growing economic influence and importance on the international arena do not signify a stronger leverage within its region, but instead heighten the tensions among its neighbours. In 2007, Manmohan Singh shared that he dreams that “one day, we can all have breakfast Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul, whilst maintaining our national identities”. Yet, during his term as Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has been to Kabul twice and has yet to go to Pakistan. In forgetting southern Asia and projecting itself beyond the region, India risks playing only a peripheral role in Asia, as it does on the international arena.


Bibliographical indications

Grimaud, Jérôme, Le régionalisme en Asie du Sud : l’expérience de la SAARC, 1985-1997, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1998.

Mohan, C. Raja, Crossing the Rubicon: The Shaping of India’s New Foreign Policy, New Delhi, Viking, 2004.

Saint-Mézard, Isabelle, « Le “regard vers l’Est” de l’Inde : un subtil retour en Asie », in Jaffrelot, Christophe (dir.), New Delhi et le monde : une puissance émergente entre realpolitik et soft power, Paris, Autrement, 2008.


PhD candidate (CERI, Institut d’études politiques de Paris)

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