India’s fraying ties on the global stage

Anita Inder Singh 

Economically, socially and politically India must put its house in order if it wants to enhance its regional and world standing in 2020.  Two domestic developments that are quite different from one another— India’s economic decline and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)—have adversely affected its Asian and global stature. They have raised questions about its ties even with friendly countries including the US, Japan, Asean nations, Bangladesh, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even the European Parliament.

India and its mercurial American strategic superpower partner are challenged by their ascending rival, China.  Simultaneously, India must advance progress to improve the life chances of its citizens. The CAA, which would make religion a test for Indian citizenship,  will not empower India to cope with a technologically advancing world, if only because the Act highlights   the extent to which New Delhi is marching backwards into its own atavistic version of the  past to create a  Hindu-majoritarian state  in the 21st century.

For some years after 2004, India was one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Today, it is not even one of the top 40. And it is unable to modernise its armed forces and defend its position in the Indian Ocean without the help of the US.

In the 21st century, maritime power is a determinant of “great power”.  China’s economically and strategically important Belt- and- Road Initiative displays its increased naval presence in the international waters of the Indian Ocean and has received the support of Russia and Iran. They are countries that New Delhi views as India’s friends. But both have far stronger trade and investment ties with China than with India.

The foreign policies of countries are shaped by complex factors and the strategic partnership between China and Russia reflects their wish to challenge global primacy of the US. That is why they are expanding their presence in the Indian Ocean. In November 2019, Russia held naval exercises with China and South Africa off the strategically important Cape of Good Hope. On 27 December, it conducted naval drills with China and Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil is transported. Sanctions-hit Iran can now claim that it has two powerful suitors in the Indian Ocean; Russia can play the lead actor in West Asia; China can show off its global naval power.

Meanwhile, India’s last-minute decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — after taking part in several years of negotiations — did not burnish its image in Southeast and East Asia. Absent from Asia’s multilateral trade agreements, how much will India contribute to the region’s economic future?  And with its sinking economy, always straggling behind that of Asean, Japan and South Korea, India can hardly be perceived as the Asian counterpoise to rising China.

The CAA has also had a bearing on India’s ties with friendly countries. In December, the outbreak of violence in northeast India that followed the passing of the CAA prompted Shinzo Abe, the India-friendly Japanese premier, to cancel his annual summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India’s neighbour, Bangladesh, is offended by the CAA. New Delhi’s reference to immigrants from Bangladesh as “termites” could only strain their ties. Bangladesh’s foreign and home ministers recently cancelled their official trips to India. Foreign Minister A. K. Abdul Momen opined that the CAA “weakens India’s historic character as a secular nation” and any “uncertainty” there could affect its neighbours.

Other friendly Muslim-majority countries are not backing India through thick and thin.  Last autumn, New Delhi hailed Saudi Arabia as “a valued friend” for showing an interest in investing $ 100 billion in India’s energy sector. Now Riyadh has agreed to Islamabad’s request to hold a special foreign ministers’ meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to discuss Kashmir.

The US remains India’s most important strategic partner. But with the declining Indian economy  unable to sustain the modernisation of India’s military  and with trade ties bogged down by what Washington brands  as India’s protectionist tariffs, a new take-off in Indo-US relationship seems unlikely. The official snub to Amazon’s offer of investment has not enhanced India’s reputation as business-friendly country. Additionally, India’s stance on Kashmir and the CAA has adversely affected its image as a modern secular democracy among American and European lawmakers.

Generally, the practice of international power politics shows that talk of non-interference in domestic affairs is futile. Questions raised in the US Congress about India’s democracy cannot be lightly dismissed. Congressmen can block arms sales to India, or pursue sanctions because India will buy the S-400 missile system from Russia. International history also reveals that a country’s economic weakness and socio-political strife are exploited by foreign states.

India’s eroding economic cachet and polarised society will lead the US, Japan and Asean countries to question its capacity to become a major Asian power.  A government enjoying a political majority is doing little to revive the economy and stabilise the socio-political situation. The backward-looking, strife-provoking CAA is simultaneously displeasing India’s democratic friends like the US and Japan, while failing to win the support of authoritarian Saudi Arabia. Both democratic and autocratic friends are of economic import to India – the democratic US the most.  The European Parliament’s critique of the CAA will cast its shadow over the EU-India summit in March. Are New Delhi’s economic ineptitude and socio-political truculence risking India’s good ties with practically all of its friends?

Anita Inder Singh is a Founding Professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi.


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