The Third Eye: Munich tests India's foreign policy

New Delhi: In the background of India's clear stand on the Hamas-Israel conflict denouncing the "terror" attack of Hamas on Israel on October 7 last year and endorsing the support of the US for the initial Israeli response to the same, and the country's independent line on the much older Ukraine-Russia military confrontation which led India to even abstain from voting on the anti-Soviet resolution moved early on by the US in the UNGA, it was no surprise that at the Munich Security Conference held from February 16 to 18, External Affairs Minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar faced some searching questions on India's foreign policy, in one of the interactive sessions.

The EAM did extremely well in detailing India's policy approach in clear convincing terms, which is a tribute to his grip on India's international relations as much as it is a confirmation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's successful stand that India's foreign policy essentially rested on bilateral -- and even multilateral -- bonds meant to serve mutual security and economic interests without prejudicing the cause of world peace and global advancement of human development.

S. Jaishankar chose the words "smart policies" to describe India's handling of international relations in this light and in reply to a reference to "non-alignment" made by the convener of the session, explaining that the global security environment is not "static" and that ideologically "fixed positions" could only come in the way of evolving a pathway of progress towards solution-finding for complex geopolitical and geoeconomic problems of today.

He indicated that being "smart" is being "positive" about serving the country’s national interests without hurting anybody else's and embracing transparency in policy formulation.

Munich Security Conference is the world's largest gathering of its kind debating pressing security concerns of the times under its mission of 'Peace through Dialogue'.

This time it brought together heads of state and government of a large number of countries, foreign and defence ministers, security experts, military leaders besides defence industry captains and provided a venue for important diplomatic initiatives and interactions. Its membership cuts across BRICS and G7, and includes representatives of NATO and EU countries.

S. Jaishankar, in a brilliant exposition, explained that India was not "anti-West but non-West" and affirmed that India's relationship with the US and Europe was getting strengthened constantly.

He highlighted the positive role of India in BRICS and the country's contribution towards the expansion of G7 into G20 -- all through the process of discussions and meetings -- and succeeded in presenting India as a major independent power helping the cause of world peace and economic development.

He interacted with the Chinese Foreign Minister on the sidelines and had a separate extensive discussion with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to review the situation in West Asia, Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific.

The Munich Security Conference confirmed that India's participation was acknowledged by the world as being of crucial importance and that it helped to evolve shared perspectives for leveraging the collaborative effort of India and the US to address common challenges and harness mutual benefits.

In today's unsafe world environment and an uneven trajectory of the global economy, India is registering rapid growth, moving towards self-reliance in various spheres including defence and security and pushing up a sense of nationalism among Indians based on India’s civilisational strength that unites rather than divides the people.

India and the US, the two largest tested democracies of the world, recognise the importance of working together to save the 'rules-based order' at a time when forces of Marxist dictatorship and 'fundamentalist' dispensations were joining hands to destabilise the world.

The strategic alliance between China and Pakistan now developed to the point where these two adversaries are collaborating in conducting covert operations against India, particularly in the border states of J&K and Punjab, which is a prime security threat for India and validates India's policy of strengthening Indo-US relations generally and stepping up its association with the Quad.

Terrorism resulting from the spread of radicalisation in the Islamic world is another common concern that binds India and the US together in leading the democratic world against this new global threat.

An important task before India is to get policymakers of the US to see Pakistan without tinted glasses and overcome the legacy of the Pentagon’s commitment to the Pak generals.

It would do them good to recall that Pakistan was a reluctant partner of the US in the 'war on terror' and that it managed to keep an equation with Al Qaeda, Taliban and ISIS.

Pakistan helped the installation of the Taliban Emirate at Kabul in 1996 and ensured the subsequent return of Taliban rule to Afghanistan in 2021 on the conclusion of Doha peace talks that were held to facilitate the withdrawal of American troops from the messy Afghan territory.

Pakistan had pretended to be a mediator in these talks but was in fact advancing its duplicitous policy of remaining on the right side of the US without giving up on its faith-based commitment to sustaining Islamic radical outfits.

The US is hopefully coming out of the flawed old policy of trying to create a balancing interface between Indo-US and US-Pakistan relationships.

Pakistan has made the Pak-Afghan belt a home ground for Islamic radical forces and supported China’s ingress into Afghanistan through the latter’s Belt& Road Initiative (BRI).

It had already allowed the China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC) to pass through the Northern Areas of POK against strong protestation by India.

The Sino-Pak axis is influencing the current geopolitics in a major way and the American administration must take a call on this as a shared concern of India and the US.

In the recent election in Pakistan, the Army came in the way of Imran Khan who had consistently condemned the US and who was compelled to fight the election from prison without availing of any party symbol.

This, however, should bring no comfort to America because in the uncertain political scene in Pakistan that prevailed through the polls, 'radicalism' in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-Afghanistan region did become stronger.

Both the US and India realise that the Israel-Hamas conflict sparked off by the planned attack of radicalised Hamas on Israel on October 7, 2023, drew attention to a worrying new factor in the Middle East - the constant advance made by Islamic radical forces wedded to 'faith-based' terror, in the Muslim world.

The old 'political' dispute between Israel and Palestine is now overtaken by a confrontation driven by 'religion and Jehad' -- this should cause serious concern to the world at large.

India under Prime Minister Modi has been exceptionally successful in countering this trend by pushing up economic development in West Asia to the top of the regional agenda and pitching on the "connectivity" of the Middle East with the rest of the world as a means of furthering that project.

Again, India’s initiatives in this regard rest on the fundamental policy of forging bilateral bonds for mutual security and economic benefits.

As a consequence of this, there is now a dividing line between close US friends like Saudi Arabia and UAE with their approach of moderation towards Israel and the radical states like Yemen, Syria and Qatar who supported Hamas' stand of refusing to recognise the very existence of the Israel state.

There is also a new level of Shia-Sunni conflict in West Asia because the fundamentalist regime of Ayatollahs in Iran with its total antipathy towards the US and Israel was actively encouraging its 'proxies' in the region to fight for Hamas and against Israel.

India has done the right thing in denouncing the terror attack of Hamas on Israel and calling for caution on the part of Israel so that in its pursuit of Hamas, civilian casualties of the Palestinian population did not throw up a 'human' crisis.

India also made it clear that it favoured the "two-state solution" in Palestine.

India has joined hands with the US and Europe to launch the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor to promote the cause of global economic growth and check the spread of Islamic radical forces in the region.

India understands the US anxiety about the release of hostages captured by Hamas for using them as a "weapon" against Israel and hopes that with the mediation of a country like Egypt, a pause in the military drive of Israel would strengthen the prospect of the release of hostages.

India has taken an independent-looking stand on the Middle East just as it had shown an upright response to the Ukraine-Russia military conflict, with Prime Minister Modi declaring at the beginning of that confrontation itself that "this is not an era of war" and calling for a cessation of hostilities in favour of talks for peace in which security concerns of both sides would be given due attention.

The stand of India has been understood by the world at large. At the Munich Security Conference, S. Jaishankar convincingly reiterated how India's responses to the Ukraine-Russia and the Israel-Hamas conflicts best served the cause of global peace without letting the old political constructs of "alignment" come in the way.

For India, the priority was to constantly seek the betterment of its people through the pursuit of bilaterally useful economic benefits that did not hurt anybody else.

Munich has helped -- because of the interventions of S. Jaishankar -- to project India's foreign policy as the voice of sanity in today's conflict-prone global scenario.

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



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