India’s new dalliance with China gets seriously under way on Wednesday when, on the banks of the ancient Sabarmati river in Gujarat, Narendra Modi greets Chinese president Xi Jinping. The leaders meet at a figurative bend in a river, where expectations that India’s foreign policy will continue to flow America’s way are drying up as India follows the real money. Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
What draws Modi to China
M K Bhadrakumar Asia Times Online Hong Kong September 16, 2014
What readily comes to mind are the lyrics of the famous Frank Sinatra song. Watching the “falling leaves drift by the window … I see your lips, the summer kisses/The sunburned hands I used to hold …”
These wistful lines of infinite longing tinged by nostalgia would characterize the American feelings as India’s dalliance with China gets seriously under way on Wednesday afternoon on the banks of the ancient Sabarmati river in the western state of Gujarat where Chinese president Xi Jinping arrives and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is at hand to receive him personally.
Wednesday also happens to be Modi’s birthday and Gujarat is his home state and the symbolism of what Xi is doing cannot be lost on the American mind.
The widespread expectation in India and abroad had been that the government led by Modi would maintain “continuity” in India’s foreign policy.
That was expected to be in the direction of galvanizing further India’s tilt toward the United States through the past decade of rule under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s leadership, who was acclaimed to be the most “pro-American” leader India ever had since it became independent 67 years ago.
As recently as end-July, the new External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj affirmed, “We think that foreign policy is in continuity. Foreign policy does not change with the change in the government.”
Indeed, India’s political culture seldom admits abrupt policy shifts. Maturity and sobriety are synonymous with continuity in the Indian culture, imbued with respect for the past.
However, one hundred days into the Modi government, it is becoming impossible to maintain the façade.
Navigating through three high-level exchanges in rapid succession through September – with Japan, China and the United States – Modi is casting away rather summarily the lingering pretensions as if dead leaves in an autumnal month.
All this certainly needs some explanation.
The heart of the matter is that there had been a pronounced ‘militarization’ of India’s strategic outlook through the past 10-15 years, which was a period of high growth in the economy that seemed to last forever.
In those halcyon days, geopolitics took over strategic discourses and pundits reveled in notions of India’s joint responsibility with the United States, the sole superpower, to secure the global commons and the ‘Indo-Pacific’.
The underlying sense of rivalry with China – couched in ‘cooperation-cum-competition’, a diplomatic idiom borrowed from the Americans – was barely hidden.
Then came the financial crisis and the Great Recession of 2008 that exposed real weaknesses in the Western economic and political models and cast misgivings about their long-term potentials.
Indeed, not only did the financial crisis showcase that China and other emerging economies could weather the storm better than western developed economies but were actually thriving.
The emerging market economies such as India, Brazil or Indonesia began to look at China with renewed interest, tinged with an element of envy.
Suffice to say, there has been an erosion of confidence in the Western economic system and the Washington Consensus that attracted Manmohan Singh.
From a security-standpoint, this slowed down the India-US ‘strategic partnership’. The blame for stagnation has been unfairly put on the shoulders of a “distracted” and dispirited Barack Obama administration and a ‘timid’ and unimaginative Manmohan Singh government.
Whereas, what happened was something long-term – the ideology prevalent in India during much of the United Progressive Alliance rule, namely, that the Western style institutions and governments are the key to development in emerging economies, itself got fundamentally tarnished.
What we in India overlook is that the 2008 financial crisis has also been a crisis of Western-style democracy. There has been a breakdown of faith in the Western economic and political models.
In the Indian context, the growing dysfunction of governance, widening disparity in income and the rising youth employment combined to create a sense of gloom and drift as to what democracy can offer and it in turn galvanized the demand for change.
Curiously, through all this, it became evident that the mixed economies and ‘non-democratic’ political systems, especially China, weathered the storm far better. Indeed, Modi visited China no less than four times during this period.
Thus, through a corridor of time spanning a decade or two at any rate, the development agenda should get unquestioned primacy. This is where Modi is far-sighted in reorienting India’s foreign policy.
A big question remains: Will Modi be allowed to get away with his road map for India? The history of the modern world is replete with instances of predatory capitalism by the Western world interfering, if need be, to enforce course correction in developing countries that show signs of deviation.
India, again, is a very big fish in the pond and cannot be allowed to get way easily.