The Z Factor: India’s foreign policy tightrope is fraying

Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly says that he wants global leadership for India. His wish has now been granted – and on the biggest stage of them all, no less. Starting this month, India will chair the Executive Board of the World Health Organization (WHO) – the decision-making body of the WHO.

But international politics is a lot like life; all crowns come with thorns. This is the sort of story that novels are made of: India will preside over the world’s largest healthcare organisation, in the midst of the biggest pandemic in a century, while the two most powerful countries are at each other’s throats.

Already, India is being yanked from both ends of the tug-of-war between China and the United States. In one corner is Donald Trump: He wants the WHO to hold China accountable for its mishandling of the pandemic early on – for cover-ups and misinformation. He also wants to snub the Chinese by inviting Taiwan to the World Health Assembly (the WHO’s governing body, composed of all member states). In the other corner is Xi Jinping: He has unleashed a vicious social media counterattack against the US over the past several weeks. This week, Xi even began exploring “punishment” against American politicians who are pushing “anti-China legislation.”

India has just entered the arena – and it has been frenetic. Over just three days this past week, India found itself having tea and snacks (albeit virtually) with both sides of the conflict. On Monday, India was invited to a 7-nation team huddle by the US and its close allies. Two days later, India went to a meeting convened by China and Russia, ostensibly to talk about the pushback. What will India now do with its god-sent opportunity at the WHO?

In many ways, this dilemma is a classic representation of India’s foreign policy practice. In years past, whenever India found itself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, it walked a tightrope between them. On foreign trips, the Prime Minister acted like an apolitical businessman, signing MoUs and agreements. When asked sensitive questions, India simply turned the other way. As a result, India’s foreign policy history is now replete with umpteen unresolved questions – and oftentimes, flip-flops. For instance, should India speak up for democracy in other countries (such as the Maldives), or should it not? Should it recognise Taiwan? Should it levy sanctions on Iran? Should Israel be held accountable for illegal settlements in Palestine?

As a middle power, with neither global military presence nor strong political positions, India has often gotten away with no serious answer to any of these questions. India’s opinions are neither asked for, nor offered.

But a growing power with vishwaguru aspirations cannot get off the hook so easily – and the tightrope is now starting to fray. In Washington, Donald Trump seems determined to build a grand anti-China coalition. The fact that India was invited to an exclusive meeting of only seven countries is quite significant: It means that Trump wants India to behave like a core member of the US alliance. Meanwhile, China is determined not to take things lying down either: In this same eventful week, China and India began yet another round of their unending border feud in the Himalayas (and coincidentally, Chinese air force planes were landing in Kathmandu).

Shortly after he came to power in 2014, Modi told senior diplomats that he no longer wants India to play a “balancing role”. Time has come to act on those words; India must make difficult decisions on burning global issues. The stage is set at the WHO.

(c) 2020, Deccan Herald