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Shyam Saran: Through a foggy crystal ball

Shyam Saran 

The world in 2012 will provide many opportunities for India’s foreign policy. But a fractious polity could slow the country’s responses

If 2011 was the Year of the Unexpected, 2012 will almost certainly be the Year of Uncertainty. 2011 had begun on an optimistic note for India. The country seemed to have emerged from the global financial and economic crisis with its growth prospects largely intact. Its international stock was high. Towards the end of 2010, Delhi played host, in serial order, to leaders of each of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. India began its two-year term as a non-permanent member of the Council by winning a record 187 out of 192 votes. There were positive trends in the country’s relations with its South Asian neighbours, including Pakistan. And Sino-Indian relations remained stable, though testy at times. But within 12 months, the India story has soured. Self-confidence and optimism have given way to a mood of pervasive anxiety and apprehension.

The worsening global economic environment in 2011 played its part in this changed scenario. An increasingly globalised Indian economy picked up negative cues from a faltering US economy and a worsening debt crisis in the euro zone. But it was domestic economic mismanagement and governance failures that compounded the adverse external situation. India finds itself shunned by domestic and foreign investors alike, who doubt whether its currently dysfunctional polity is capable of raising India’s game to the standards of the big league. With the global economy decelerating, if not slipping into recession next year, India will face even greater political and economic challenges.

Dealing with a rapidly transforming international landscape with a weak hand will be problematic enough. But the year gone by has unleashed powerful but unexpected forces, which require well-considered policy responses. The eruption of the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Gulf began with a strong populist and democratic impulse, which democratic India could not but welcome. However, it is now apparent that the movement runs the risk of being overlaid with more ancient and enduring sectarian, tribal and ethnic divides, further complicated by external intervention. The eventual denouement of these complex political dynamics is not at all clear.

India will need to be far more engaged with this strategic part of the world because its interests are so patently obvious. Six million Indians are living and working in countries already roiled by political turbulence, while others confront similar prospects. Evacuating even a fraction of this number would be a logistical and financial nightmare. Seventy per cent of India’s oil comes from this region, with Saudi Arabia and Iran being the main sources of supply. Any disruption of these supplies would deal a debilitating blow to an already vulnerable Indian economy.

We are also witnessing a much sharper Shia-Sunni divide emerge in this neighbourhood. This will have domestic consequences. After Iran, it is India that has the largest Shia population.

India will need to draw up contingency plans to deal with a possible worsening of turmoil in this region. It must diversify energy supplies away from traditional sources. To forestall conflict, growing sectarianism and likely prolonged instability, which benefit no one, India should leverage its presence in the UN Security Council, its membership of both IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India And China), and its good relations with both the West and Iran.

On May 2, 2011, US Special Forces killed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, who was in hiding in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad — undoubtedly under the protection of Pakistani army and intelligence. This has triggered a rapid deterioration in US-Pakistan relations. The killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in Mohmand by a US-Afghan raiding party last month, and Pakistan’s angry response, probably marks the end of even the pretence of alliance between them. China may well respond by increasing its political, economic and military support to Pakistan, but would be unable to replace the US in its role as Pakistan’s chief benefactor.

Pakistani may be more amenable to improving relations with India to keep its eastern flank tranquil. Even if this opening is tactical, India should leverage it to promote cross-border linkages, confidence-building measures and dialogue on Afghanistan, even while keeping up insistent pressure on the terrorism issue. A decline in Pakistani meddling creates an opportunity to pursue peace and reconciliation in Kashmir.

India should also be ready to respond to developments in Pakistan where open confrontation between the Pakistan Peoples Party-led government and the Pakistan army will almost certainly lead to a fluid political situation in the country, with the possibility of another military takeover.

In managing its subcontinental neighbourhood, India must ensure that the Teesta controversy does not reverse the recent real gains in Indo-Bangladesh relations. In Sri Lanka a careful balancing is necessary between upholding the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community and consolidating the overall bilateral partnership. The recent positive trends in Nepal must be encouraged through engagement with all competing political forces. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should visit Nepal and Sri Lanka in 2012.

The world had to deal with a much more assertive and self-confident China in the year gone by. India, too, felt the consequences of this, both on its borders as well as in the larger Indo-Pacific theatre. The US has played upon the apprehensions over Chinese behaviour to “pivot” itself into Asia, strengthening existing alliances and also establishing security arrangements with new partners including Vietnam. Hillary Clinton’s recent dramatic visit to Myanmar brought with it the prospect of diminishing China’s dominance there.

How China and the US handle the leadership transition in North Korea will also be critical. The Korean Peninsula is the only region where the interests of China, Japan, South Korea, the US and Russia intersect. If North Korea descends into instability, the risks of military confrontation will rise.

The broad-based but loosely structured countervailing arrangements emerging in the Asia-Pacific region, including but at the same time constraining China, are to India’s advantage. For now, China is on the back foot. With a sensitive leadership transition looming large in 2012, China may continue to adopt a cautious approach in its external relations. China’s posture towards India has always been sensitive to shifts in regional and global balance of power. The more options India has, the more amenable China will be to meeting Indian concerns. The coming year could be a good time to give Sino-Indian relations a positive direction.

The year 2012 will indeed be a world in uncertain and often dangerous transition, but there are opportunities, too, for India to leverage. But for that, India needs a more focused government and a less fractious polity.

The writer, a former foreign secretary, is chairman of RIS and senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

First Published: Sat, December 31 2011. 00:54 IST