Dr. C Raja Mohan spoke with SAV Managing Editor Akriti Vasudeva and Deputy Editor Brigitta Schuchert about various issues related to Indian foreign policy, discussing the India-China-United States strategic triangle, regional implications of the U.S.-Taliban deal, and the effect of domestic turmoil on India’s foreign relations. Dr. Mohan is the Director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Previously, he was a Professor of South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has been affiliated with a number of think tanks in New Delhi, including the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, the Centre for Policy Research, and the Observer Research Foundation. He was also the founding director of Carnegie India. He is one of India’s leading commentators on strategic affairs and foreign policy. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
Indian Foreign Policy: The Benefits and Pitfalls of Multialignment
The problem with multialignment as a descriptor is that we’re still trapped in that alignment, nonalignment business. It’s an ideological lens that has always prevented us from seeing India’s engagement in more realistic terms. Having that constantly come up delays us from seeing the practical evolution of Indian foreign policy in the last seven decades. I think the most important thing that has changed is that India has shifted closer to the United States. That is a more operational descriptor than multialignment. India now has USD $160 billion in two-way goods and services trade with the United States and barely USD $10 billion with Russia. India also has a large volume of goods trade with China that currently stands at about USD $90 billion, according to 2019 estimates. This economic differentiation in India’s relations with major powers is qualitatively different from the one India had with the United States, Russia, and China during the Cold War.
Further, India has a trade surplus of USD $23 billion with the United States but a massive deficit of nearly USD $57 billion with China. The surplus with the United States and the deficit with China are both problems but the latter is far more consequential. The idea that India had to maintain equal distance in its relationships dominated the foreign policy discourse centered around nonalignment. In the real world though, they were never equidistant and even more important, varied across space and time even during the Cold War. Balances of power are a prime consideration for every country, including India. Looking through the lens of balance of power and that of core national interests may offer better insights into India’s conduct of external relations rather than the prism of nonalignment.
The United States has done all the heavy lifting for India in terms of supporting its reintegration into the global nuclear order, whereas China tried to block it. It is the United States that keeps the squeeze on Pakistan when it comes to the Pakistan army’s support for crossborder terrorism. China, from the Indian perspective, protects Pakistan. So, in terms of all of its core interests, India sees the United States as a valuable partner.
India wants to benefit from a relationship with all the major powers, but on several issues, the United States has stood out as the most important for it in the last decade and more. Consider for example, the nuclear issue and terrorism. The United States has done all the heavy lifting for India in terms of supporting its reintegration into the global nuclear order, whereas China tried to block it. It is the United States that keeps the squeeze on Pakistan when it comes to the Pakistan army’s support for crossborder terrorism. China, from the Indian perspective, protects Pakistan. So, in terms of all of its core interests, India sees the United States as a valuable partner. In the past, that credit belonged to Soviet Russia, which gave India unstinting support on the question of Kashmir at a time when the Anglo-American powers were pressing it to compromise with Pakistan on Kashmir. But now Russia, because of its relationship with China, is more hesitant. Moscow also doesn’t bring too many other important nations to India’s side the way Washington has opened the door for Delhi’s engagement with U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. But the expanded engagement with the West as a whole does not mean India has to abandon its relationship with Russia or forget the importance of prudently managing its relationship with China.
China as the Underlying Rationale for Indo-U.S. Ties?
Large countries can never build a relationship with each other on the foundation of a single issue. Framing the question as “is China the only piece holding the Indo-U.S. relationship together?” does not capture either the growing trade relationship or the impact of the nearly four-million-strong Indian diaspora in the United States. Delhi and Washington now have a broad-based relationship.
But the China question is providing the basis for a strategic convergence. Structurally, both India and the United States today face a challenge from China that is far more severe than either side had anticipated in the 1990s. India was talking about promoting multipolarity (a code for constraining the United States) and until 2008, the United States would refer to China as its most important partner. But the environment has changed since then because the nature of China’s behavior has changed. And that automatically compels countries to adapt, to manage, and to regulate their other relationships, which is what is happening. This is an important binding factor that has brought India and the United States together.
United States-India Relations: Discourse versus Reality
There is an argument in Washington that the Indo-U.S. relationship has not lived up to its strongest potential. The argument is that the Indo-U.S. relationship was sold to us as the greatest thing since sliced bread and that India would be our strongest partner in fighting China but that has not happened. Different people use different yardsticks to measure progress in the bilateral relationship. Many in Washington had hoped that India would become like other American allies in Europe and Asia. That certainly has not happened. But the fact remains that the United States and India have moved far closer over the past 20 years. They have never been as close as they are today. India and China may pretend to be friends and talk about a multipolar world, but the relationship has not operationally become closer over the last few decades. India’s relationship with Russia was once its most important but it isn’t any longer. If we’re using the metric of “where were we 20 years ago,” the United States is the best relationship India currently has. For Washington, which has entered a turbulent period with its allies, the steady advances in the partnership with India have a value of their own.
Critics point to continuing differences on a number of issues. Yet, it is easy to forget that Delhi and Washington have learnt to manage their differences on specific issues, while strengthening the overall partnership. The differences on India’s purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia or on how to deal with Iran have not stopped them from moving increasingly close and doing more things together. That is the trajectory, but the discourse is always the same—is India being friendly enough, or is India defying the United States? In Delhi’s discourse too, there is perennial anxiety about ceding too much to the United States and standing up for India’s independent foreign policy. It’s important not to get bogged down in the dominant discourse of the day because India’s foreign policy today is more pragmatic than ever before.
Future Trajectory of the India-China Relationship
It’s a matter of managing differences, which have become sharper. The boundary dispute is nowhere near settlement. In the context of the Doklam standoff as well as Chinese military modernization and India’s inadequate attempts to catch up, the border has actually become far more contentious in a military sense. In the past, India’s frontier with China was politically disputed but militarily tranquil. The trade deficit has dramatically increased, and India can’t find a solution. India has said it walked out of RCEP because of the China problem. But you cannot close the door on China—you still have to deal with them on the trade and the economic issues. With regard to Pakistan, Beijing is even more aggressive in its support of Islamabad today, be it on the change of the status quo in Kashmir and getting a discussion on the cards at the UN Security Council, or whether it is on the issue of Masood Azhar’s designation as a terrorist at the UN, where China was the principal obstacle. So, all issues between India and China have become more complex and intractable. The question for Delhi is how to manage the relationship with a giant that has risen next door.
U.S.-Taliban Deal and Potential Indian Military Engagement in Afghanistan
The question for India is how to do more in Afghanistan—give more money, do more diplomacy, build a coalition, or do we consider putting boots-on-the-ground? My personal view is that there are a range of options that exist between doing nothing, which is not viable, to replacing American troops with Indian troops.
The operational question for India is: with the United States pulling back from Afghanistan, how does it respond to this new situation in the region? President Trump has taken a very different line than previous U.S. administrations on Indian involvement in Afghanistan. Where previous administrations advised New Delhi to stay away in a military sense due to Pakistan’s sensitivities and to stick to economic aid, Trump has essentially said “you’re next door, why aren’t you doing more?” So, the question for India is how to do more in Afghanistan—give more money, do more diplomacy, build a coalition, or do we consider putting boots-on-the-ground? My personal view is that there are a range of options that exist between doing nothing, which is not viable, to replacing American troops with Indian troops.
There are two schools of thought in Delhi on this question of boots-on-the-ground, and it is reminiscent of the Iraq debate in 2003. At that time, one side argued that we should go into Iraq because Bush asked India to do so and that it opened the door for a transformation of the political relations with the United States. But the other side, which ultimately prevailed, stressed political caution by pointing to the dangers of being dragged into Iraq’s domestic conflict. Today, India will have to debate the Afghan question on its own merit and assess the costs and benefits of different options.
The option of boots on the ground appears unlikely since India doesn’t have the capability for force protection of that kind. India’s military presence will be utterly vulnerable to direct or indirect targeting by Pakistan or militant groups in Afghanistan. The United States can bring 100,000 troops into Afghanistan, but India cannot. But are there other things India can do? Give more arms, more training, more equipment, do intelligence sharing? It’s an interesting debate. Let’s see where and how far it goes.
Impact of Indian Domestic Politics on Foreign Policy
The subcontinent has struggled to cope with the after effects of the tragedy of Partition such as mass movement of people across new borders, and the distribution of religious groups since 1947. The past several years have accentuated these issues—be it the Kashmir question, continuing movement of people from Bengal to Assam, or sharing the water resources of the Indus and the Ganges. You take what was a single, politically reasonably-coherent space under the Raj and you break it up (Punjab and Bengal were the largest provinces of undivided India) along religious lines and you’re left with a massive and complex set of problems that India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are trying to resolve.
I think the present government in Delhi is taking a different approach than its predecessors in dealing with the bitter legacies of Partition. This has divided the Indian elite and is raising concern among friends of India. Some of this will have a bearing on India’s international relations, but how much, how deep, that remains to be seen. In today’s interconnected world, Delhi will find it hard to separate the internal, regional, and international. As the costs become apparent, Delhi might have to recalibrate some of its policies. We have not heard the last word from Delhi on these issues.
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