Book Review | Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy

 By Mehul Singh Gill
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Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy by Rajiv Sikri

A large number of educated Indians, feel that 21st century India should play a more active role in international affairs, and with the world’s 5th largest GDP and 4th largest armed forces, it has the ability to do so. The author, a retired diplomat, feels that an essential pre-requisite for the same would be for both policy makers and the public to show more interest and be better informed about foreign affairs.

It is in order to achieve this pre-requisite that Rajiv Sikri, an IFS official, who spent 36 years in the realm of diplomacy, where he was responsible for India’s economic relations with the world, and served as the Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, decided to write a book with the aim of spreading awareness of the foreign policy challenges faced by India in the 21st century. This, he hopes, will stimulate an informed debate regarding India’s foreign policy options amongst the populace, enabling India to take better decisions in the International Arena.

Instead of following the norm of analyzing the effects of specific events, Sikri has focused on trends, and his writings are not focused on individual countries, rather he has grouped areas with similar characteristics together. He has also focused mostly on the challenges that would be faced by India in dealing with these countries, and has suggested methods to deal with the aforementioned challenges.

He starts with giving an Introduction to the 21st century world, where he compares the current global scenario to that of 18th century Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution. He also notes that the Unipolar world dominated by the US is now soon turning into a multipolar world, fueled by the fact that countries are not prepared to accept permanent US dominance. One important observation he makes is that the current global scenario is radically different from that of the mid-20th century in the aftermath of the Second World War. However, the systems developed in that era have not evolved and adapted to the changing realities, with a classic example being the UNSC (United Nations Security Council), which reflects the balance of power in the 1950s, and has failed to accept major countries such as Germany, Brazil and India, which rose to prominence later on. This results in these organizations being absolutely ineffective in discharging their functions.

He now proceeds to address the issues between India and South Asia, claiming that South Asia has a distinctive personality and an intertwined history arising out of its relatively insulated geographic features. He now lists all the challenges India faces in dealing with its neighbors, chief amongst which is India’s massive size and power, both economic and military vis-à-vis its small neighbors. Sikri also makes an interesting observation, that while these countries see India as a threat to their independent identities, all of them (other than Pakistan and Bangladesh) also see India as the guarantor of their own security. Sikri also makes the case for India to encourage economic growth in the Neighboring countries, in order to prevent mass migration from these countries which puts a strain on India’s resources.

With regards to China and Tibet, Sikri advocates a new Tibet policy, where India could state that it considers ‘The territory of Tibet as an autonomous region, as part of the PRC’, meaning that it would only recognize Tibet as a part of China if it was autonomous. He also advocates the speeding up of infrastructure projects along the border, and the settling of these areas with residents to prevent Chinese activities. He has also elaborated upon the Act East policy, which encompasses India’s relations with ASEAN countries. He claims that India has had an unprecedented level of relations with ASEAN and that it can effectively compete with china in the region.

He then goes on to talk about the gulf region, first mentioning the historical bonds between India and the middle East, after which he explores India’s relations with the countries of the region. He then goes on to explain India’s economic ties with the gulf, noting that today there are around 5 million Indians working in the gulf, who went there as a result of the oil boom in the 1970s. He has also noted that India trades significantly with the gulf countries. He has also described the manner of functioning of the OIC (Organization of Islamic countries). He notes that this is a region with extremely complicated and delicate balance of power, and that India cannot afford to behave like the US  in the region, because of the fact that India, unlike the US, has to look out for the 5 million Indians in the region.

He then traces the roots of India’s special relationship with Russia, tracing it to the days of the freedom struggle when leaders of the INC visited the USSR and were deeply impressed by the soviet experiment, and decided to adopt socialism as the basis of independent India’s economy. He notes how the breakup of the USSR affected the India’s relationship with Russia, and Russia’s new foreign policy objectives. He then goes on to note that relations between Russia and India got back on track, mostly motivated by Russian fears of losing the vast Indian weapons market, which it had traditionally dominated. India and Russia have further cooperated on other sectors such as energy production etc. He notes that one weakness of this cooperation is that the people of these countries do not really root for each other, and their perceptions of each other are mostly shaped by the west. He then declares some imperatives that India must achieve in order to gain influence in the Central Asian Republics, noting the rise of these republics and the scramble by foreign countries to gain more influence their as the 21st century adaptation of the 19th century Great game, that took place in the same region.

The author notes that despite Nehru’s attempts to get close the U.S, the US remained relatively cold to India, only taking it seriously after the Nuclear tests conducted at Pokhran in 1998. He then describes the evolution of Indo-US relations, noting that India, despite US pressure, refused to join the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, and also refused to send troops to Iraq. He then describes the intricacies of the Indo-US nuclear deal. While noting the possibility of an Indo-American strategic partnership, he feels that it would be very tough for both sides to come at a mutual agreement, and he personally advocates that India retain its strategic autonomy, and not bow down to US pressure.

Sikri then goes on to describe what Energy security is, and how vital it is for India, which is rapidly industrializing and urbanizing, to ensure the supply of the same, in order to ensure its rise continues. He then writes about India’s potential to harness hydropower, which is the most significant source of Renewable energy by today’s technology levels. He then goes on to explain the role that nuclear energy would play in facilitating India’s rise. He also notes that fossil fuels are still critically important for India. He then elaborates upon Gas pipeline projects, and gives options for regions from where these pipelines could pass, the challenges that would be faces while doing so, and how to resolve them.

India’s dealings with most neighbors, other than those in the immediate vicinity, are mostly for economic reasons. The author notes that India was a protectionist economy before 1991, when economic reforms took place and India started to adjust to a new world. In the search for new partnerships, India also started to actively take part in international forums. It was only in the 21st century that India began to fully integrate itself to the world economy. He now proceeds to describe India’s relationship with the WTO, and then proceeds to explain what regional trading agreements India is a part of. He then explains who India’s major economic partners are, and the Foreign assistance programmes India runs, most notably in Nepal and Africa. He also mentions what economic diplomacy is, and describes the organisations and forums where this takes place, such as WTO, World Bank, and IMF.

Sikri then describes the role played by Military power and diplomacy in interstate relations, noting that military power is the principal instrument of a sovereign state to defend its interests. He notes that India, historically has not been an aggressor, but has faced aggressions from the northwest, which usually ran out of steam reaching the mainland and got assimilated into the culture. The people of the northwest developed the kind of culture necessary to fight back invasions. This however did not work with the British invasion, which was from the sea, which was only used by India for trade and therefore could not compete with British Naval technology, and from the east, where people were not used to invasions and could not judge British intentions. He notes that this defensive mindset continued after Independence, and that it is only recently that India has begun to effectively use its military to project its interests.

Noting that while the Indian civilization is millennia old, the modern Indian nation is just 75 years old, Sikri goes on to explain the institutions of Modern India, the Influence of Nehru and Gandhi on foreign policy matters, the post Nehru evolution of India’s foreign affairs, after which he explains the structures and influences on foreign policy formation. He also describes the Ministry of External affairs, its objectives and structure. He then proceeds to list down India’s strategic options, where he advocates for a more nonaligned and Nehruvian approach to keep India’s options open. He also feels that if India were to become a permanent member of the UNSC it wouldn’t happen because the P5 want it there, it would happen because of the Third World, who would want India there to represent its interest.

The book is written in clear and simple language, and is not loaded with jargon. It clearly explains each and every concept related to International relations from the ground up, and brilliantly serves its purpose of educating the public about the intricacies of international politics. This book is a must read for anyone who wishes to study and work in this field, or is just interested about the subject. This book builds a solid base of information that would help its readers to make informed decisions regarding international affairs.