India reaps rewards of rise up diplomatic rankings

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

When the leaders of 106 Asian and African countries chose Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, to speak on their behalf in Bandung in Indonesia over the weekend, the honour capped a gratifying month for his country's diplomats.

In the 50 years since the Bandung Conference paved the way for the Non-Aligned Movement, India has probably never held as many high-ranking diplomatic cards as it does today.

Measured in terms of high-profile visits, there has never been a period like it. Since the second half of March, the flow of foreign dignitaries seeking to announce “strategic partnerships” with New Delhi or upgrade existing ones has been relentless.

This week's visitors to India include Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister of Japan, and Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations.

They follow hard on the heels of Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, Wen Jiabao, China's premier, and Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president. Hosts of other leaders are lining up.

“India is basking in the sunshine,” says Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “Its size, its growing economy and its strategic clout are all helping it gain a higher profile internationally.”

If the Non-Aligned Movement is dormant politically, its underlying principles remain useful to a strategic elite in India convinced the country's best hope of achieving great power status is to work with, rather than against, the main powers of the day.

“There are growing US concerns about Chinese power and there are growing Chinese concerns about the US and Japan getting together,” says G. Parthasarthy, a strategic analyst and former Indian diplomat.

“This means that India, which has not been part of balance of power politics and which is emerging as a very important force for stability and economic integration in the region, is in a position to seek its own place and pursue its own interests.”

The fruits of this strategy have been obvious over the past month.

In the days following Ms Rice's visit in March, Washington gave its clearest support yet for New Delhi's ambitions to become a leading power by offering to sell it jet fighters, share civilian nuclear technology, and co- operate with energy policy.

During Mr Wen's visit a fortnight ago, Beijing signed a strategic partnership built around promises to resolve a decades-old border dispute and lift bilateral trade, which stood at $13.6bn (€10.5bn, £7.1bn) last year, to $30bn by 2010.

And by making progress towards normalising relations with Pakistan with the announcement of measures to create “soft borders” across the disputed territory of Kashmir India is shifting perceptions of south Asia as a nuclear flashpoint.

“If you look at the visits we've had and the results we've had, it's been a hugely important period,” says Navtej Sarna, joint secretary of India's Ministry of External Affairs. “It's a recognition that India is on its way to being a major power.”

Yet not quite everything has gone right. The one prize that India's frenetic diplomacy has yet to secure is categorical US and Chinese support for its bid for a permanent United Nations Security Council seat one of its most important foreign policy objectives.

Mr Singh's comment that the Non-Aligned Movement remained “a valid and effective instrument to ensure that the architecture of international institutions is democratised and made more representative” may reflect wishful thinking.

“For China, the prospect of its two Asian peers becoming permanent Security Council members is a nightmare that will upset its strategic goal of dominating the region,” says Mr Chellaney.

India says it will use Mr Annan's visit, which comes at a critical juncture ahead of a summit due to be held in New York in September, to discuss his recent report on UN reform.

Under one of the two models proposed in the report, India and Japan would gain permanent member status. Last year the two countries agreed to support each other's candidacy for seats.

Analysts now expect India and Japan's shared sense of mounting frustration to lead to attempts to strengthen relations between the two countries. Ties have been slow to recover from India's 1998 nuclear tests.

According to the Confederation of Indian Industry, Japan's share of Indian exports has halved to 2.68 per cent in 2003-2004 from 6 per cent in 1996-1997.

Mr Chellaney adds: “There is a profound change in Tokyo and they are clearly signalling that they are ready to partner India. As Japan is still the second-largest economy in the world, it is a tremendous opportunity for India.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.