Indian foreign policy should not be on autopilot, says Jaishankar

NEW DELHI: Chinese power is a fact of life, said former foreign secretary S Jaishankar, but Indian foreign policy should not be on autopilot, but be more nimble and leverage its various relationships to increase its global bargaining power. India, he said, can take advantage of the “loosening” of the traditional global architecture.

Delivering a lecture in Mumbai this week, Jaishankar said India cannot afford the “complacency of the past that oversaw the Hambantota project or ballooning trade deficits. Nor should we take comfort in the rhetoric of combativeness. Chinese power is a fact of life. In a world of uncertainty and positioning, the two nations have a shared interest in building a stable relationship. That was the logic which drove the Wuhan meeting between their leaders this April.” As China builds on its connectivity-driven empire building projects across Asia, including South Asia, India has to respond more swiftly, with greater credibility. Jaishankar was also being critical of India’s earlier approach that China’s evolving “string of pearls” was not a threat to India.

With the US, India’s relations, he said, have taken on a very different hue, and needs to be both nurtured and leveraged. “There was admittedly a time when American policies were to the detriment of India’s national security and political ambitions. Conceivably, this could still persist on issues to the west of India. However, unless we are completely blind to larger global developments that have so radically upturned world politics, we cannot continue on autopilot.”

Talking up the India-US relationship weeks before the first high level “2+2” dialogue, Jaishankar said the structural basis for the relationship has “never been stronger.” “It has been driven by numerous factors, among them our growing economic and technology relationship, new geo-politics arising from the rise of China, and some commonality of interest on terrorism.”

In its immediate neighbourhood, India will be judged on how swiftly and credibly it delivers on its promises because New Delhi’s actions will inevitably be measured against China’s increasing presence here. “This requires an initiative of a very different order, where India is prepared to invest generously and non-reciprocally in the growth of its neighbours. … Investing in South Asian connectivity is today the smartest move we can make. This is not just an issue of intent; it is, even more, one of delivery. For good measure, that will be compared with the performance of China. Retaking the initiative to shape the larger region should rank foremost among our priorities.”

Pakistan, he says, remains a “unique challenge due to its belief that India’s willpower can be broken.” But if India introduces a certain amount of unpredictability in its playbook, Pakistan’s script can be successfully disrupted. “It (Pakistan) has long pursued a strategy of cross-border terrorism, presenting that as legitimate statecraft. Underlying this approach is an assumption of predictable Indian responses. Previous history was of periodic talks on outstanding issues interrupted by terrorist attacks. The confidence in Pakistan that it can game India starts to erode when the initiative is no longer with them. To the extent that Indian behaviour is unpredictable, that costs are imposed for provocations and we carry world opinion regarding our intent, this scenario will not be maintainable.”

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