Published March 01, 2012 · Estimated reading time: 5 minutes · Filed under , , , ,

Last week was McGill’s reading break, though to be quite frank, I got less reading done than catching up on Bollywood (for uh… educational purposes?). So with India in mind, this evening I attended a talk by Dr. David Malone, a renowned diplomat, international security scholar and the current president of IDRC. He was previously Canada’s High Commissioner to India and based on his experiences and academic interests has written a book titled Does the Elephant Dance? looking at the contemporary foreign policy in India.

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It’s always a good thing when you hear a speaker so clear and compelling that you immediately want to pick up their book. I’d like to outline some of the things I picked up from the talk, perhaps as a useful reference.

In the talk, Malone identified three salient elements that shape any contemporary foreign policy: first, the history of a nation; second, the geography; and third, the capability (which include military capability, economic capability, quality of leadership, natural and human resources endowment [1]).

I found the historical part of the talk particularly insightful with respect to the background reading I’ve done so I’ll describe it in a little more detail than other parts. During a discussion one of my friends described India as a ‘nation of many nations’, and it’s completely true. The country, perhaps more than any other nation, has had a long history of cultural and religious plurality. However, Malone pointed out that India’s long term sociocultural trajectory has generally been affected by Western influxes (Afghan and Persian influence, Islam and Christianity), whereas Indian influence has generally gone Eastwards (Buddhism).

Another interesting historical point Malone made was the economic outcomes of the British Raj in India. There is a prevalent romantic portrayal of the Raj as a colonial rule that despite some—mishaps—advanced the people of India. Malone countered this perspective by describing economic research that shows that before the British Raj India had 17-20% economic output of the world, but by the time the British left the output had been reduced to 2% and the country’s prominent industries had been decimated.

As well, during the rule of the British Raj, India had several major famines, the last of which was during World War II in Bengal and killed between 1.5-4 million people. After Indian independence, despite hunger and poverty, there has not been widespread famine in the country—indicative of, and perhaps reinforcing, successes of democracy in the country. The failures of colonialism and successes of democracy have shaped Indian policies to be distinctly anti-imperialist. This was one of the factors Malone mentioned may have contributed to the country’s preference to take a neutral non-aligned stance in international standoffs. He described divergence from this policy (allying with the USSR) to have been an outcome of autocratic rule by, for example, Indira Gandhi.

The second motif Malone highlighted was geography. Many of the practices in Indian foreign policy emerge directly out of India’s massive border with China on the one hand, and Afghanistan/Pakistan on the other side and its troubled relationship with these neighbors. One interesting point Malone made was that China, which has 3 times the economic output of India, appears to have replaced Pakistan as the primary Indian concern/obsession (well, to be honest, everybody seems a little obsessed with China at this point), while Pakistan continues to be concerned about India’s economic growth while its own economy stagnates. Another point was that despite the China-India rivalry, traditional alliances around India are also changing. While Pakistan’s alliance with China strengthened during the Chinese-Indian war of 1962, in recent years China has not shown unequivocal support of Pakistan. This relationship may have soured in part because of the rise of Wahhabist insurgency in Pakistan and associated insurgencies in China.

With regards to capability, Malone described India as a country with a lot of potential which may or may not be fulfilled. The country’s military strengths, he said, are limited largely to its nuclear arsenal and an effective navy, though economic development and an increasingly middle-class population/tax base may contribute to a more advanced military. However, he mentioned that internal turmoil, primarily the extensive Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in one-fourth of the country (the eastern Red Corridor) may hinder efforts to increase governance capability. Finally, Malone described the economic development that has taken place in India since economic liberalization in the 1990s. In particular the development of various free-trade agreements that are currently in process and their implication for relationship with China, US, Europe and Canada.

Based on his work, Malone laid out three principle drivers in Indian foreign policy emerging from history, geography and capability that he elaborates in his book:

(1) A quest for autonomy – Stemming from the country’s historical experience, and evident in, for example, in disagreements with the West on its Iranian policy. (A rate acute observation Malone made here was that perhaps the West could, instead of being baffled by Indian foreign policy, ask and learn from a country that probably has better understanding of its Asian neighbors).

(2) Strategic restraint — Favoring development over militaristic capacity, and other examples including the country’s hesitation to engage in aggressive response to various insurgencies originating in Pakistan (although not having read the book I do wonder if this is related to a more politically-coherent country maintaining mutually assured destruction (MAD) policy).

(3) Focus on economic progress, but not necessarily a desire to become a ‘dominating world power’.

After hearing this talk, I think it will be really interesting to see whether India will continue to show the foreign policy traits characterized above, or if economic growth will mean a shift in the country’s policies to less ‘autonomous’ and less ‘restrained’. Also in light of (somewhat alarming) conjecture by foreign policy experts about increasing tension between Western and Eastern powers, I do wonder about the alliances that India as a rising power will choose to form and how they will shape history.

[1] Adeyemi-Suenu, W., Inokoba, P.K.(2010). Commitment Capability and Nigeria’s Strategic Interest in West Africa: Lessons for Statesmen. J Soc Sci, 22:3. P. 179-184.

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