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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

Why India is sleeping on foreign policy

August 07, 2007

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The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's summit meeting is scheduled to take place in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek on August 16.

This is becoming a veritable annual nightmare for the United Progressive Alliance government. Whenever it hears the term SCO, Delhi faces an existential dilemma -- of its own making.

The UPA government seemed to have been in some confusion last year in estimating what the SCO was all about. The mandarins in Delhi probably took it to be a gathering of statesmen who shamelessly traded in oil and natural gas.

True, the SCO brings together some of the most important energy-producing and energy-consuming countries. But anyone who knows the SCO's pedigree and history will have little difficulty in recognising that it is, fundamentally, a regional security organisation.

Besides, last year's SCO summit in Shanghai was an exceptional gathering. The SCO was celebrating its 5th anniversary. The Chinese leadership took legitimate pride that the single most important regional initiative by Beijing [Images] in its post-Cold War foreign policy was turning out to be a success story.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's [Images] presence at the Shanghai summit would have been a thoughtful expression of Indian goodwill toward China, apart from being the due recognition of the SCO's huge significance for India's foreign policy.

At the summit in Shanghai last year, India was the only country among the SCO's member and observer countries that was not represented at the head of State/government level.

Delhi, even if unwittingly, sent a political message right across Asia -- and all the way to Washington.

The United States never wished the SCO well and would have loved to throttle the organisation in its cradle. The US must have been mightily pleased that India was placing itself on the American 'side' of the Asian divide.

The SCO summit coming up in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, stands against a dramatic backdrop. As the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote recently, the international system is undergoing a period of transformation that is unprecedented in the past 100 years, and, yet, the world community seems to be only at the very outset of a long period of adjustment.

It is curious that Kissinger, a master-practitioner of the theory of 'balance of forces' in world politics, should be treading softly and wearily. That offers a salutary moral to those within Delhi's strategic community who fancy that India is already a 'balancer' in the international system, thanks to its Diaspora in North America and its mushrooming call centres.

How could we possibly be a balancer in an international system that is still in the womb of time?

Nothing brings out more graphically the fluidity of the international system than the proximity developing between China and the Non-Aligned Movement. China realises that instead of pretending to be even half a superpower, it is expedient to use the present interregnum to build diverse bridges that might prove useful for all seasons.

China has no mental blocks regarding NAM. After all, wisdom lies in making use of what is readily available. China is right in estimating that there is a world community beyond the US, Russia [Images], the European Union or Japan [Images] and Australia.

Thus, India is only one among many in the world community that faces choices of ideology, path of development and diplomatic strategy. At a minimum, this calls for an open, inclusive approach on India's part.

Why is the SCO important? First and foremost, it is a security organisation that focuses on regional stability. Fighting terrorism, religious extremism and political separatism forms the core of the SCO's agenda. In this sphere, India has shared concerns with the SCO member countries.

Second, the SCO space is obviously of great strategic importance to India. It is simply useful to be part of the regional cooperation.

Third, the SCO is a comfortably large enough tent for a country of India's size and girth to take its due place. There is no single overbearing presence within the tent. Also, the SCO is overtly keen that India contributes to its vitality.

Fourth, the SCO supplements India's Look East policy of engaging the South-East Asian region. At the forthcoming summit in Bishkek, in fact, the SCO is entering into institutional linkages with the ASEAN.

Fifth, the SCO's dynamics are agreeable. It is not intrusive; it works on the basis of consensus; it respects national sovereignty. In fact, it attributes primacy to national sovereignty, firmly rejecting interventionism of any kind or pretext.

Sixth, the SCO offers vast scope for economic cooperation. It is gearing up for regional projects in infrastructure development, energy and communications. In the not-too-distant future, it is bound to develop a common market.

Finally, with the right degree of creativity, Indian diplomacy can aspire to utilise the SCO forum for tempering India's bilateral relations with the organisation's member countries and observers. Much more productive diplomacy is possible within the SCO rather than via any grandiose Asian conclaves.

An SCO summit meeting may not be lit up like the Congress of Vienna with 16,000 candles and 32 chandeliers. The SCO transacts business modestly. It eschews the heady mixture of power and appetite. But it will be a good forum to learn to be a team player alongside one's neighbours with whom one must ultimately live.

India might have cold-shouldered the idea of participating in the SCO's military exercises currently underway in the Volga region in Russia.

Instead, India seems to prefer consorting with the Anglo-Saxon naval armadas coming to the Bay of Bengal in September. Maybe that's the right thing to do in the 150th anniversary year of the Indian War of Independence.

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