IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

The shifting trajectory of India’s foreign policy

2nd November, 2020 Editorial

Context: New Delhi’s diplomatic skills will be tested now that the country is effectively a part of the U.S.’s security architecture

  • The Third India-U.S. 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministers of India and the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defence took place.
  • US declared “India will be the most consequential partner for the US in the Indo-Pacific this Century”.

The strategic focus

  • The center piece of the dialogue was the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geo-Spatial Cooperation.
  • It marked India’s entry as a full member into the select category of nations entitled to receive highly classified U.S. defence and intelligence information.
  • It also discussed steps to take existing bilateral cooperation, including ‘military to military cooperation, secure communication systems and information sharing, defence trade and industrial issues’, to a new level.
  • With the signing of BECA, India is now a signatory to all U.S.-related foundational military agreements. By appending its signature to BECA, India is in a position to specifically receive sensitive geo-spatial intelligence.
    • India had signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), in 2016, and
    • the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), in 2018.

An advantage, but at a price

  • Access to this kind of highly classified information is an advantage.
  • But this information comes with a ‘price tag’ which would not be inconsiderable.
  • Built into the agreements are provisions for a two-way exchange of information and, with the signing of these agreements, India’s claims of maintaining strategic autonomy will sound hollow.
  • The U.S. primary push for getting India to sign the foundational agreements was the threat posed by China, by signing this India became the part of the wider anti-China ‘coalition of the willing’.
  • By signing BECA, India has effectively jettisoned its previous policy of neutrality, and of maintaining its equi-distance from power blocs.
  • New policy is essentially a pragmatic one, in keeping with the current state of global disorder, this ideologically agnostic attitude is better suited to the prevailing circumstances of today.
  • The danger is that it could equally be viewed as highly opportunistic.

Impact on China, regional ties

  • After having distanced itself from the Quad for years, on account of its security and military connotations and anti-China bias, India has more recently waived its objections.
  • The invitation to Australia to participate in the Malabar Naval Exercises this year, further confirms this impression.
  • China-India relations have never been easy. Since 1988, India has pursued, despite occasional problems, a policy which put a premium on an avoidance of conflicts with China.
  • Even after Doklam in 2017, India saw virtue in the Wuhan and Mamallapuram discourses, to maintain better relations.
  • This will now become increasingly problematic as India gravitates towards the U.S. sphere of influence.
  • India’s willingness to sign foundational military agreements with the U.S., to obtain high grade intelligence and other sensitive information, would suggest that India has made its choice, which can exacerbate deteriorating China-India relations.
  • It may pay India better dividends if policy planners were to pay greater attention at this time to offset its loss of influence and momentum in its immediate neighbourhood (in South Asia), and in its extended neighbourhood (in West Asia).
  • Several of India’s neighbours (Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh), normally perceived to be within India’s sphere of influence, currently seem to be out of step with India’s approach on many issues.
  • Both China and the U.S. separately, seem to be making inroads and enlarging their influence here.
  • The Maldives, for instance, has chosen to enter into a military pact with the U.S. to counter Chinese expansionism in the Indian Ocean region.
  • India has been complacent about improved relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it needs to ensure, through deft diplomatic handling, that the latest UAE-Israel linkage does not adversely impact India’s interests in the region.
  • India must also not rest content with the kind of relations it has with Israel, as Tel Aviv has its own distinct agenda in West Asia.
  • India needs to devote greater attention to try and restore India-Iran ties which have definitely frayed in recent years.

Afghanistan and also NAM

  • India must decide on how best to try and play a role in Afghanistan without getting sucked into the Afghan quagmire.
  • India had subscribed to an anti-Taliban policy and was supportive of the Northern Alliance (prior to 2001).
  • The new policy finds India is not unwilling to meet the Taliban more than half way.
  • India must decide how a shift in policy at this time would serve India’s objectives in Afghanistan, considering the tremendous investment it has made in recent decades to shore up democracy in that country.
  • India, will need to try and square the circle when it comes to its membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), considering its new relationship with the U.S.
  • India currently has a detached outlook, vis-à-vis the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and has increasingly distanced itself from the African and Latin American group.

The Russian link

  • Impact of India signing on to U.S.-related foundational military agreements, can impact India-Russia relations, which has been a staple of India’s foreign policy for more than half a century.
  • India-Russia relations in recent years have not been as robust as in the pre-2014 period.
  • It is difficult to see how this can be sustained, if India is seen increasingly going into the U.S. embrace.
  • Russia-China relations have vastly expanded and a strategic congruence exists between the two countries.