Foreign policy navigates a new flux

Foreign policy navigates a new flux

Pushing Indo-US strategic partnership to a new height to lead the democratic world against shared threats of terrorism, ‘radicalisation’ and dictatorship, and in the Indian context, countering the Sino-Pak axis which represented an alliance of a Marxist state with a fundamentalist regime, have been the two major planks of India’s foreign policy.

India’s three-fold strategy of handling international relations by opting for bilateral and even multilateral friendships designed to bring in mutual security and economic benefits without prejudice to world peace, asserting the country’s position as a major power influencing matters of global security and economic betterment and developing India as a self-reliant nation capable of building its own economic strength as well as defence, has worked to the country’s great advantage so far.

However, the current geopolitical developments highlighting the injection of religion in international politics, the advent of a new Cold War between the US and China-Russia axis, and the sudden preoccupation of the Joe Biden administration in the US with ‘measures to counter Islamophobia’ in the environ resulting from Israel-Hamas conflict, have added to the task of policymakers here in keeping India on top of the issues of foreign relations.

Pushing Indo-US strategic partnership to a new height to lead the democratic world against shared threats of terrorism, ‘radicalisation’ and dictatorship, and in the Indian context, countering the Sino-Pak axis which represented an alliance of a Marxist state with a fundamentalist regime, have been the two major planks of India’s foreign policy.

India believed that both the US and this country were on the same side of the fence on global commons. On both the Ukraine-Russia military confrontation and the Israel-Hamas conflict, India took an independent stand favouring cessation of hostilities and talks for settlement -- in one case on the plea that security concerns of both sides should be understood and in the other, on the acceptance of a two-state solution in Palestine. India’s stand was acknowledged as an unbiased policy by the international community and this enhanced the stature of this country as a world power whose voice mattered on global issues.

The political divide between the US-led West on one side and the China-Russia combine on the other that was still ideological -- though economic rivalry also mattered a great deal -- is getting impacted now by faith-based conflicts that were playing out across the world -- particularly in the Middle East. This was compelling the US to temper its foreign policy with the domestic compulsion of not alienating its Muslim population following the killing of over 30,000 Palestinians by Israel – mostly women and children – in the ongoing conflict.

India, on its part, has to watch out for the consequences of the new-found initiative of the White House to roll out steps against ‘Islamophobia’ and be more assertive about rebutting any attempts by international lobbies to run down this country on matters of internal freedom and treatment of the minorities.

The Islamic radical forces represented by the Taliban-Al Qaeda axis and ISIS attack US interests because of political animosity and go after Shiite Iran, the Alawite regimes of Syria and Iraq and the Iranian proxies like Hezbollah active in the Middle East, on account of religious hatred.

The attack of ISIS on a hugely attended concert on the outskirts of Moscow on March 22 – barely 20 kilometres from the Kremlin – as a result of which 143 persons were killed and more than 300 injured, was attributed by the radical Islamic outfit, to the Russian support for the Syrian President – who belonged to the Alawite sect of Shiism – and also to the “atrocities” of Vladimir Putin’s Russia on Chechenian Muslims who are Sunnis. ISIS – and also the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine – carry the historical legacy of the anti-West Wahhabi ‘revolt’ of the 19th century and the ‘revivalist’ memory of animosity towards Shiites.

The faith-based motivation of ISIS thus can be said to have led it to target Russia keeping the latter at par with the US-led West – political opposition in this case also accruing directly from religious antagonism.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is a Sunni extremist state but as a close US ally in the Muslim world, it was inclined towards accepting the Abrahamic accord of UAE with Israel.

In the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict that broke out with the terror attack of Hamas on Israel on October 7 last year, Saudi Arabia – like India – emphasised the need for a pause in Israel’s military attack on Gaza to minimise civilian casualties there. Iran and its armed proxy, Hezbollah, have sided with the Sunni Hamas because of their political antipathy towards Israel.

Israel and Iran happened to be the major contenders for power in the Middle East and the political rivalry between them guided their responses. Iran would also, to a certain degree, share concern on the broader Islamic issue of Israeli encroachment on Al Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem -- the third holiest centre for Muslims of the world.

India is rightly pursuing a foreign policy that best suits a multi-polar world order and allows for a non-aligned approach that serves the best national interests in the spheres of both security and economic development. Notwithstanding the concerns of the Biden administration over the fallout of the Israel-Hamas conflict, Indo-US friendship has to be pushed deeper for the most important reason that China in strategic alliance with Pakistan, posed a major threat to India’s national security.

While India was strengthening its role in Quad led by the US because there was convergence on threat perception relating to China between the US and India, this country would be justifiably concerned over any attempt by the Biden administration to keep Pakistan on the side of the US at the cost of India’s national interests. There are fresh indications that the US and Saudi Arabia – two countries that mattered to Pakistan the most – wanted India to pick up the thread of talks with Pakistan.

A priority for India’s security is to have the capabilities of dealing with both China and Pakistan on the borders, on the sea and in the air. At the same time, India has to continue raising its voice against global threats of terrorism, radicalisation and drug trade from all multinational platforms.

In a nutshell, India’s handling of international relations has to reckon with a shifting geopolitics where potential friends and adversaries have to be taken stock of, from time to time.

The danger of faith-based conflicts may get deeper as Iran had already carried out a military offensive against Israel and Yemen’s Houthi movement with its Shiite origins, was coming out in support of Iran. The recent attacks of ISIS from Moscow to Syria further point to the induction of religion into international politics in no uncertain terms.

The democratic world order led by the US and India must wake up to this new danger and work together to defuse it.

(The writer is former Director of the Intelligence Bureau. Views are personal)

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