Rapidly unfolding developments to our east and west — the unexpected détente between the United States and Iran and the growing confrontation between China and Japan — demand that New Delhi discard its traditional impulse to view Asia through the anti-Western prism. The idea of Asian solidarity against the West, developed during the colonial era, has long been presumed to be a fundamental principle of India's foreign policy.
Despite repeated challenges to this proposition from the real world, Delhi pretends that nothing has changed. Unlike in the past, India's reluctance to confront the sources of Asian geopolitics will involve many costs. A globalised Indian economy today is very sensitive to regional developments, and ideological posturing meant for domestic politics could complicate the pursuit of India's national interests in Asia.
At the same time, given its size and the relative increase in its regional weight, India is in a good position to shape regional outcomes. But only if Delhi is ready to shed some of its foreign policy shibboleths. India must come to terms with the fact that some of the major certitudes that guided global politics since the end of the Cold War are beginning to fade way. Post-Cold War triumphalism in America gave birth to extraordinary hubris. Both the left and right in America believed that U.S. power is inexhaustible and can be deployed to change the world. This delusion translated into profound tragedies in the greater Middle East. The hope that America can promote democracy, rebuild failed states and roll back the spread of advanced technologies across the developing world has come a cropper in the Middle East.
After two exhausting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. President Barack Obama has become the biggest champion of a restrained foreign policy for America. In avoiding a military involvement in Syria and actively seeking a modus vivendi with Iran, Obama has invited the wrath of American foreign policy hawks. But his decision to put America on a less adventurous path in the Middle East and focus on nation-building at home has much popular support. Many people in the world, including in India, who agonised about unrestrained American power, must now come to terms with an America that is ready to downsize its global role.
Obama's realism was not enough to produce the interim nuclear accord with Iran; it needed pragmatism in Tehran. President Hassan Rouhani, backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has challenged the powerful domestic proponents of a permanent confrontation with the U.S. While the effort by Rouhani and Obama might yet fall apart, there is no denying that anti-Americanism is no longer politically chic in Asia. Few countries in the world have had so many real reasons to be anti-American than the Islamic Republic of Iran — from the CIA coup against an elected leader in 1954, to support for an authoritarian monarchy that lasted many decades, to an intense hostility to Tehran since the revolution of 1979. In seeking political accommodation with the U.S., which has been long demonised in Iran, and offering significant nuclear concessions, Rouhani and Khamenei have buried the logic of anti-Americanism in the Middle East.
If the relative decline of America has begun to induce some political realism into U.S. foreign policy, the clamour for American support is rapidly rising in East Asia. Stunned by Beijing's assertion of power and its muscular approach to territorial disputes, many of China's Asian neighbours are seeking more intensive defence and security cooperation with Washington. Communist Vietnam, which fought against America in the 1960s and 1970s, is now eager to sustain U.S. military presence in the region. Manila, which threw America out of its naval and air bases at the end of the 1980s, now wants the US military to return and prevent China from nibbling away at the territory of the Philippines.
It is only in India, it seems, ideological considerations take precedence over national security considerations. Keeping some distance from the U.S. in East and West Asia has long been a major theme of Indian diplomacy. While a large nation like India cannot ever align with the U.S., seeking deliberate distance from Washington for presumed ideological reasons has had a corrosive effect on India's worldview. Recall the debate in 2005, when many foreign policy pundits in Delhi denounced India for voting with the U.S. on the Iran issue at the IAEA. They were asking India to sacrifice its own interests, such as ending its long nuclear isolation, for preserving what was called Delhi's "principled" foreign policy.
In East Asia too, the idea of maintaining distance from the U.S. is now considered important for the preservation of India's strategic autonomy. For many in Asia, in contrast, it is the rise of China that constrains their strategic autonomy. Acknowledging that fact, however, goes against political correctness in the UPA government.
Finally, India's obsession with non-alignment and anti-Western solidarity often prevents it from seeing the multiple contradictions within East and West Asia. In the Middle East, it is not just the U.S. and other great powers that are shaping the region's destiny. The growing contradiction between the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia and the mounting sectarian tension between the Shia and Sunni are perhaps as consequential today as the role of great powers. In East Asia, China's conflicts with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are as critical as the uncertainty in the relations between Beijing and Washington.
Managing these regional contradictions will be a major challenge for India's Asia policy in the coming years. Non-alignment, strategic autonomy and Asian solidarity might be attractive slogans for some, but offer no guidance for the conduct of India's foreign policy in East Asia and the Middle East. To cope with the new geopolitical imperatives, India must learn to deal with Asia on its own terms and stop imposing its ideological preferences on the region.