A Restrictive foreign policy: Is India inviting trouble?


M. K. Bhadrakumar |

When diplomacy becomes brittle, foreign policies become sub-optimal. India’s diplomacy toward China and Pakistan testifies to it. Dialogue with Pakistan is inevitable, especially in Kashmir where the Indian state has all but lost control. But we revel in muscular diplomacy and slam the door shut on dialogue. Nothing is lost by exploring the potentials of the Belt and Road conference in Beijing. But, again, our “nyet” men have the final word.

India’s restrictive policies… Solution?

Alas, we live in an era where engagement across divides is the norm and when we refuse to engage, we are actually punishing ourselves. Take two developments in the past week, which celebrate the power and the glory of engagement – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Russia and the Turkish-Russian agreement on S-400 air defense system.

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Abe has made one more trip to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin last week with a persistence that is simply breath-taking. This was his seventeenth meeting with Putin. Abe knows fully well that there isn’t the ghost of a chance of Moscow giving up its sovereignty over the disputed Kuril Islands. Abe’s tactic has been to sway Putin over joint development of the islands. So far, Abe has received next to nothing for his efforts.

“Since the Japanese leader cannot be dismissed as some love-struck naif, what then explains his relentless efforts to woo the Russian leader?” — asks a top specialist on Russia-Japanese relations, Prof. James Brown at the Temple University in Tokyo. The expert explains:

First, Abe is an optimist when it comes to the territorial dispute. He fully understands that the return of the four islands is impossible, yet he believes that a deal involving shared sovereignty remains a possibility… The joint economic activities are viewed by Abe as a step toward a condominium arrangement…

Second, Abe is motivated by fundamental security considerations. Faced with security threats from North Korea and China as well as a perennial fear of U.S. abandonment, Japan is prioritizing closer relations with other regional powers. This primarily involves security ties with India, Australia, and South Korea. But this also entails seeking to neutralize the danger of China and Russia forging a close political and military relationship that would be hostile to Japan.

Russo-Turk relations

A second development in the weekend is simply stunning. The Russian state news agency TASS reported quoting the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that Ankara and Moscow have agreed in principle on the delivery of Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system to Turkey. The proposed deal includes co-production and meets Turkey’s aspiration to develop its own defense industry.

The S-400 Triumf is the most advanced long-range anti-aircraft missile system that Russia has developed and it can engage targets at a distance of 400 km and at an altitude of up to 30 km. In practice, if the deal comes through, Russia will be equipping Turkey with an air defense system that gives the latter the wherewithal to dominate the air space in its surrounding regions. Yet, it also includes regions where Russia and Turkey have historically competed for dominance. Are Russians out of their mind?

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On the contrary, it highlights the extent to which Moscow travels to engage with Turkey, despite that country being Russia’s historical adversary. Russia considers it to be in self-interest to strengthen Turkey’s strategic autonomy vis-a-vis the West and is making a careful distinction between short-term risks and potential medium and long term gains. Indeed, if Turkey opts for S-400 to be the foundation for building its own missile defense system, it gives Russia a strategic toehold as the technology provider for a major NATO power. The NATO has opted for the US missile defense system, whereas Turkey will be opting for the Russian system, disregarding the reality that the system will not be “inter-operable” with that of its allies. Of course, the strategic implications need no elaboration.

If other NATO countries follow Turkey’s lead, the hairline fracture in the alliance system may widen into a crack. Even if that doesn’t happen, Turkey’s “defection” disrupts the US’ game plan to encircle Russia with its ABM system. The bottom line is that profound defense cooperation can qualitatively uplift Russian-Turkish relations, which is bound to affect the geopolitics of Eurasia, Black Sea, and the Middle East.

Enter Chanakya — India’s truly radical Machiavelli. What brings Japan’s Abe, Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan on the same page is their realism and their seamless quest for geopolitical space to further their national interests. Chanakya would have understood what they are attempting to do. But not our pundits associated with the RSS-sponsored think tanks. Their tunnel vision severely restricts India’s strategic options.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.  This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.


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