One of the great successes of India's foreign policy, even per the critics, is New Delhi's ability to be everybody's friend. India has stood out for its ability to navigate treacherous waters between geopolitical rivals. It somehow maintains cordial bilateral relationships with both sides locked in a dispute, without hurting either side. To this day, India is able to import oil from both Iran and Saudi Arabia, for instance, and arms from both Russia and the United States—sworn enemies pouncing at each other's throats.
What is India's secret sauce? The answer: fence-sitting.
India's traditional approach to foreign policy, since after Jawaharlal Nehru, has been to limit its discourse to bilateral transactions, steering clear of regional geopolitical complications and sensitive political issues. It takes no stance on burning international conflicts in faraway lands, especially during bilateral state visits and high-profile ministerial meetings. From Yemen and Syria to Korea and China, India refuses to offer visions for a solution, or support one side or another in a dispute. It does not involve itself in Saudi Arabia's disputes with Iran, or Qatar's worsening relations with the rest of the Gulf, or power struggles in Venezuela. Africa's civil wars are a planet away. When India does offer its opinion, it mostly presents vague protestations on preserving peace and state sovereignty—words borrowed from Nehru's days as a global peacemaker.
The most glaring example of India's fence-sitting in recent times comes in South East Asia—ironically, the region that received the most interest in New Delhi while Prime Minister Narasimha Rao was seeking to break out of India's neighbourhood obsession. In seeking to further expand India's foreign policy activity outside the subcontinent, Prime Minister Modi rebranded Rao's initiatives from 'Look East' to 'Act East', and since 2014, India has signalled its intent to act as an important regional power in South East Asia. In 2015, Modi issued a joint declaration on the region with visiting US President Obama, explicitly referencing the conflict in the South China Sea and calling upon all parties (read, China) to resolve disputes amicably under international law. In light of India's traditional reticence, Modi's candid talk on the South China Sea was a landmark departure from time-honoured customs—and a welcome paradigm shift in the eyes of many.
Yet, when the time came to move from 'looking East' to 'acting East', India found that old habits die hard. The following year, an international tribunal ruled against China in its territorial dispute with the Philippines, in accordance with international law. When China refused to abide by the ruling, India departed from its earlier joint statement with the US and chose not to pass comment—even as Beijing openly disparaged the very international treaty that it had itself chosen to be a party to. In 2016, when America approached India with a proposal for joint patrols in the South China Sea, New Delhi once again developed cold feet.
It was not until 2019 that India finally joined the US, Japan and the Philippines in a multilateral naval exercise in the South China Sea; but it has always been cautious to balance these out by participating in initiatives with the Chinese as well. The Indian warships which participated in this 2019 exercise, for instance, had also taken part only a few days earlier in a fleet review with—no irony lost—the Chinese. Meanwhile, India continues to be caught in a web of incongruent alliances in the region, having lunch with the Quad (which is America's coalition) and then dinner with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (which is promoted by America's rivals—China and Russia).
Forging partnerships with all players in a dispute sounds like a good thing—intuitively. This approach is a key reason for India's ability to steer clear of enemies. But this lack of action is also responsible for a lack of influence. Influence is gained by a rising power when it credibly represents—and fulfils—the core interests of various nations, communities, or people. In the absence of such credibility, a rising power will fail to build strategic influence in other countries or secure their cooperation on issues of national interest. With that in mind, think about what happens if a country takes part in military exercises with both sides in a dispute: Neither side can trust that country any longer. At best, that country is no more influential than a bystander in a street fight; at worst, it is seen by both sides as an unreliable partner—a risk of sabotage.
Some would argue that India's neutrality and silence on sensitive issues allow it the advantage of functioning as an interlocutor, using goodwill on both sides. This was India's greatest trump card in the Nehru days; Nehru's non-alignment during the Cold War often allowed New Delhi to mediate between the two warring sides in various places—most notably in Korea and Vietnam. And India's role as a mediator in various conflicts helped boost its influence around the world—despite its material limitations—by making India an important voice in deciding issues of international security.
But that era is long gone. India is now too large and too powerful to step in the middle of a geopolitical see-saw without making either side wary of its presence. As one senior Indian diplomat put to me at the United Nations, 'India is no Norway.' If India were to mediate in a dispute, it would inevitably hold more sway than a smaller country, and if it mediated without a clear policy stance on the conflict beforehand, both warring parties would doubt its intentions and credibility.
Larger powers mediate more effectively when their policies are clear, coherent and well-known. Think of the United States between Israel, Palestine and the Arab states. For decades, America has been a staunch and indispensable ally of Israel, as well as its largest sponsor by far. Its policies on Palestinian statehood, Arab balance of power and other geopolitical issues in the region are consistent and well-documented. It is hardly what one would call a neutral (or silent) on-looker. Yet, through the 1970s, '80s and '90s, most peace accords in the region came under America's shadow. In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger helped forge ceasefire agreements between Israel, Egypt and Jordan. In the years that followed, President Jimmy Carter's Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt ended a war and produced three Nobel Peace Prizes. In 1993, the Oslo accords were finally operationalized with a landmark handshake between the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine's Yasser Arafat. But the picture could not be completed without Bill Clinton looming in the background.
I once asked a Middle East expert why Palestine has traditionally agreed to American mediation, despite Washington's obvious favouritism and biased interests in the region. The answer, he said, is simple: Palestine knows that only America has sufficient leverage over Israel to make it abide by a treaty.
India's best bet at becoming a credible and effective international mediator today would lie in rebranding New Delhi into what diplomats call a 'problem-solving mediator'—a large and influential power that offers practical solutions to conflicts and uses its weight and leverage to push the peace process forward. The first prerequisite for such a role is a credible policy stance: both parties should know that India represents a set of clear and coherent interests, with a clear and coherent opinion on the debate, and a proven commitment to the pursuit of mutual peace. Unlike America, India's limited geopolitical interests in different parts of the world today would prove to be an asset by allowing New Delhi to function as an objective and impartial facilitator of peace processes. But that means India needs to take a stance on issues that might matter more to others than to itself.
This article is extracted with permission from Flying Blind: India's Quest for Global Leadership by Mohamed Zeeshan, published by Penguin Random House.