‘The recent debate about the RCEP offers lessons in foreign policy as much as in the trade domain’
So what does the past teach us? Seven decades of foreign policy certainly offer a lot of lessons, especially if we contemplate a challenging road ahead. They span a broad spectrum, both in time and in outcomes. A dispassionate assessment of our performance would note that while we ourselves have done well in many respects, many competitors have done much better. Overcoming many challenges, India consolidated its national unity and integrity. That was not a given, noting that some other diverse societies like USSR and Yugoslavia did not make it in the same period. A modern economy with industrial capacities was developed over time, even as our reliance on nature was mitigated in agriculture. Defence preparedness was improved and one of the key accomplishments of diplomacy was to enable access to multiple sources of equipment and technology. However, the fact remains that even after seven decades of independence, many of our borders remain unsettled. In the economic sphere, we may look good when benchmarked against our own past. It seems a little different when compared to China or South East Asia. So what really matters is to develop a sharp awareness about our own performance. And the lessons of that exercise can be captured in five baskets of issues.
The first relates to the need for greater realism in policy. Swami Vivekananda perceptively described the world as a gymnasium where nations come to make themselves strong. Particularly in the phase of optimistic non-alignment, perhaps even later, our focus on diplomatic visibility sometimes led to overlooking the harsher realities of hard security. The early misreading of Pakistan’s intentions can perhaps be explained away by lack of experience. But the reluctance to attach overriding priority to securing borders even a decade later is much more difficult to justify. It was not just that the challenges of 1962 were unanticipated. It was more that a diplomacy focused on world politics did not give it the primacy it deserved. Somewhere, there was an implicit but deeply entrenched belief that India’s high standing in world affairs was protection enough against global turbulence and competitive politics. It was, therefore, at some cost that we discovered that outcomes can be decided as much on the field as at conferences. This is a relevant takeaway even now, despite having entered a more constrained world. Interestingly, it is not that India always shrank from the applications of force when required. But having so strongly built up an image of a reluctant power, we also ended up influenced by our own narrative.
Due to that, we rarely prepared for security situations with the sense of mission that many of our competitors displayed. Discomfort with hard power was reflected in lack of adequate consultation with the military, most notably during the 1962 conflict. The creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff half-a-century later shows a very different mindset. Judgments of the past that overlooked security implications are also worth studying. An overemphasis on diplomacy also led to a lack of understanding of the behaviour of other polities. The Cold War was seen more as an argumentation, when the reality was a ruthless exercise of power. There was also little awareness in the 1950s that we were dealing with a battle-hardened neighbor to the North. Or indeed of the strategic significance of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. This approach to world affairs continued even thereafter. Thus, in 1972 at Simla, India chose to bet on an optimistic outlook on Pakistan. At the end of the day, it resulted in both a revanchist Pakistan and a continuing problem in Jammu & Kashmir. That it has taken us so long to link talks with Pakistan to cessation of terrorism speaks for itself.
The economic counterpart of these concerns constitute a second basket. If one considers all the major growth stories since 1945, a common feature was the extraordinary focus that they put on leveraging the global environment. China did that with great effect, initially with the USSR and then with the US and the West. The Asian ‘tiger economies’ practiced it as well, using Japan, the US and now China successively to build themselves. That is how India too approached its various relationships over the last seven decades, but not always with the same single-mindedness. Nevertheless, much of India’s industrialization and capacities in other domains were direct achievements of collaborations enabled by diplomacy. Steel, nuclear industry, higher education and computing are some examples. This held true even more for the post-1991 reform period and the shift eastwards of India’s economic centre of gravity. The interconnection between diplomacy, strategy and economic capabilities is, however, not self-evident. As in security, it is important to distinguish between cause and effect. The economy drives diplomacy; not the other way around. Few would argue that the reforms of the 1990s and greater openness have served us well. But as we then extrapolated it onto free trade agreements with South-East and East Asia, the proposition has become more challengeable. Blame it on structural rigidities, limited competitiveness, inadequate exploitation of opportunities or just plain unfair practices: the growing deficit numbers are a stark reality. More importantly, their negative impact on industry at home is impossible to deny. And China, of course, poses a special trade challenge even without an FTA.
In this background, the recent debate about the RCEP offers lessons in foreign policy as much as in the trade domain. On the one hand, we should not go back to the old dogmas of economic autarky and import substitution. But at the same time, embracing the new dogma of globalization without a cost-benefit analysis is equally dangerous. What we saw in Bangkok recently was a clear-eyed calculation of the gains and costs of entering a new arrangement. We negotiated till the very end, as indeed we should. Then, knowing what was on offer, we took a call. And that call was that no agreement at this time was better than a bad agreement. It is also important to recognize what the RCEP is not. It is not about stepping back from the Act East policy. Even in trade, India already has FTAs with 12 out of the 15 RCEP partners. Nor is there really a connection with our Indo-Pacific approach, as that goes well beyond the RCEP membership. There can be a legitimate debate on the merits of joining RCEP or any other FTA for that matter. Just don’t confuse it for grand strategy.
Edited excerpt from the Ramnath Goenka memorial lecture by Minister of External Affairs, S Jaishankar on November 14 at New Delhi