Widening Horizons - The new government and foreign relations
The Barack Obama administration has made its interest quite apparent by sending three of its high ranking Cabinet members to meet the leadership in New Delhi.
Clearly, they see a breakthrough after a five-year hiatus in the bilateral relationship. This revival has to be in US interest too. It would now be up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his administration to decide how to react to the possibility of enhancing a relationship that is needed for India as well.
The furtherance of the larger common interest in achieving substantive goals would naturally be the guiding principle rather than the largely symbolic gesture like addressing the US Congress.
Apart from the US, which remains the Essential Power for any country seeking economic and technological progress, there has been a spurt in India's interaction with China, Japan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, apart from other SAARC nations.
The British, French and Germans have come calling. Perhaps curiosity about the new leadership and the hope that years of inaction will now cease, has encouraged this movement.
Modi is undoubtedly a hero to a large section of Indians even as he is PM to all. He is not an American hero and will not be unless he does something 'heroic' for the US.
In the present context, this could mean deals on trade issues, defence purchases, nuclear insurance policies, and, aligning policies on a number of international issues like China, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
After many years, the US is now prepared and even keen that India buys defence equipment and weapons from them. There have been significant purchases already.
However, Indian hesitation about US caveats to the use of these weapon systems and doubts about continued supply of the systems and transfer of technology remain.
One of the major global security threats to democracies is the manner in which Sunni extremism represented by the brutal ISIS, in West Asia, Europe and even the Americas has surfaced in recent months.
Meanwhile, Hamas and Hezbollah along with Al Qaeda remain active in Israel and West Asia. Al Qaeda has continued to operate in parts of Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Closer home, the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the Taliban and similar outfits in Afghanistan and Pakistan are threatening Afghanistan and India. No country can fight these battles alone, not even the United States.
The threat is very real and imminent extending from our western borders all the way across to Israeli borders and beyond into Europe and the Americas. It is imperative that India, for its own security, seek a stronger partnership with the US and Israel on this issue and be seen to be active in confronting and defeating this threat.
Relations with China need special care. The US-China or the Japan-China models where the economic and trade relationships have remained strong despite continuing deep political differences.
China-India relations could develop on similar lines. India would need to take care that we are not caught in the kind of China-US financial-economic gridlock where paradoxically China is the adversary the US needs for its economic well being and global supremacy.
Doubtless the political content of the relationship is wanting but a sustained engagement can be fruitful for the future. We need Chinese cooperation, investments and expertise for our economic development.
We also need to strengthen our relations with our neighbours, strengthen our infrastructure in our Himalayan states and modernise our defence capabilities to be mobile and adequate for the possibility of having to take on two fronts simultaneously.
President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit India as soon as the dates are finalised. This will be an important visit for both but we must remember China is a hard country and it has global ambitions. It is also our neighbour. Any long term planner would have to take this into account.
Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to visit Japan beginning August 30, which will also be an opportunity for both Prime Ministers Abe and Modi to renew their friendship established when Modi met Abe in 2012 in Tokyo.
For far too long both countries have been lukewarm to a potentially and mutually beneficial relationship. India could do nicely with Japanese investments and expertise in infrastructure development, technological skills and transfers.
At present India-Japan trade is a pathetic 19 billion US dollars compared to Japan-China trade (312 billion US dollars) or the Japan-US trade of (204 US billion dollars). A Japan India relationship could also result in a civilian nuclear deal, and agreement on sale and production of defence equipment.
More important, India could hopefully import Japanese business and work ethics. Japan needs our resources and markets. Ideally a Japan visit by Prime Minister Modi should be about India and Japan but it would be difficult to ignore the shadow of both the US and China. These will come into play automatically.
It is essential for any nation to have good and stable relations with its neighbours, at least as much as possible for it to find a place in global relations. Prime Minister Modi's moves to re-engage with Nepal and Bhutan after a hiatus have been well thought out in the larger strategic context. Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have been on the list for active renewed engagements and, surely, the Maldives and Iran will follow. Our security interests will always mean that our relationship with Russia and Israel should remain strong and unapologetically so.
There are two issues that many see as being regressive in our process of liberalisation and will cast doubts in the West about our intentions. There have been fears that we will annoy the West and lose out our place on the high table because of our stand on the WTO.
Approbation by the West is an important ingredient of some beliefs in our country. But we need to remember that the WTO is as much about strategic control as much about control of trade in the name of liberalising it.
With the US led TransPacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in operation for transpacific and transatlantic trade, the WTO is going to be more an empty shell anyway.
Besides we join international arrangements to further and protect Indian interests not merely to look good. If that is not attainable then we need to rethink. The strategic aspects of any international trade agreement cannot be overlooked. Free markets and free trade do not mean letting Wal-Mart sell cheap Chinese goods in India, knock out our small manufacturer, and let China and the US keep the profits for a few thousand jobs here.
There has been considerable inspired snigger at the decision to reevaluate the decision regarding Genetically Modified (GM) foods. The rethink is scoffed at as the handiwork of some ultra nationalists with little knowledge of modern science and technology.
Maybe the research in India is inadequate but there has been years of research in the West. Mountains of data about GM foods, GM seeds and special toxic pesticides used in the production of GM foods reveal that GM foods, seeds and pesticides are not unmitigated bonanzas.
Issues of health, effect on environment, farming practices and even political and social threats need to be revisited. Major seed suppliers patent the GM seed that cannot be reproduced and has to be purchased from mega corporations like Monsanto or Carlyle every year.
This cost is prohibitive for the farmer and the use of toxic pesticides is hazardous to the farmer. These are real issues and the tendency to fob these objections off as the result of some backward nationalistic thought or merely left wing ideological battles by some NGOs, is dangerous logic.
(Posted on 28-08-2014)