The domain of international affairs is now passing through an interesting time. While 2017 had been pivotal in terms of asserting major transitions in international relations, on the hindsight this has opened up fresh perspectives for Indian foreign policy. In a world that is increasingly buffeted by the protectionist, isolationist interests of the US combined with revanchist tendencies of illiberal powers like China, Russia among others, it is important for India to apprise its association with old partners. In this regard, the Commonwealth provides a pragmatic opportunity.
Although the India foreign policy had not been formulated following any official document that spells out its strategic intentions, but it won’t be hard for any foreign policy geek to gauge that the present foreign policy management stands today much transformed . Where the ‘non-alignment principle ‘ or the notion of strategic restraint dominated most of India’s foreign policy approach towards both its allies and adversaries alike in the erstwhile years, the rise in India’s diplomatic profile entails that the regrettable strategic deficits that dictated much of previous foreign policy formulations stands erased. Through concepts and policies like ‘neighbourhood first’ and ‘act east’ simultaneously , India at present is ready to leverage its international partnerships to achieve its domestic imperative and ensure a balanced and stable Indo-Pacific region.
Even though much of India’s foreign policy stemmed from a moralistic notion of global politics, its present engagements shows that India is pragmatic enough to recognise its material interests and assert its influence as a rising power in international politics. To buttress this aspiration, India’s Commonwealth association warrants a much needed attention.
Despite the fact that the Commonwealth as an association has been perceived mostly in a form of non-functional entity devoid of any contemporary relevance that had long dominated the minds of many Indian foreign policy thinkers owing due to its formation in the history , today’s geopolitics requires thinkers to consider it in a different light . Although the Commonwealth was primarily forged in sync with Nehru’s vision of values-based approach towards global politics, one often tends to overlook the strategic benefits that was reaped by India in its association with the forum. To illustrate, firstly it provided India with the material resources, primarily its trade with the UK which was crucial for its domestic development during its initial years of independence and secondly it enhanced its diplomatic reach in the global spectrum. The Commonwealth in this context aided in expanding India ‘s influence in the organisation by positioning itself as the leader of the Third world nations who had the choice to exercise their autonomy without aligning itself with any of the major power blocks that dominated the Cold War phase.
In this aspect, India’s Commonwealth membership in 1949 was significant for two major factors, one the Commonwealth no longer adhered to the imperial image that formed the crux of its formation and secondly it allowed India to rise in terms of stature in the then geopolitical calculus of powers. This was evident in Macdonald’s statement, the then British High Commissioner who had asserted that ‘while Britain gave the original inspiration for the Commonwealth, Indians gave the grand conception a tremendous new impetus’. Such thought essentialises the importance of India in the forum whose presence and action led to the formation of the ‘New’ or ‘Modern Commonwealth’ where India had utilised its membership to make the forum a bulwark against concerns like racism, colonialism among others.
Ensuing the above positive imagery of India within the Commonwealth in the past, the forum would adequately supplement its present stature in the paradigm off global affairs. Where the rise of China has compounded challenges both for India’s foreign policy motivations in the Indo-Pacific region along with destabilising the regional balance of power, India would find that the Commonwealth partnership useful. While India had already established its sphere of influence in the Indian ocean region as a predominant naval power through its strong presence in multilateral forums like ASEAN, IOR-ARC among others, the Commonwealth would extend its reach to the Pacific islands region. As Admiral (retired) Arun Prakash, the then Chief of Naval staff, remarked back in 2004 that ‘it is imperative for India to retain a strong maritime capability in order to maintain a balance of maritime power in the Indian Ocean as well as in the wider Asia-Pacific region’ the Commonwealth in this regard would be commensurate with its position as a benevolent power seeking to ensure peace and stability in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
A second notable instance that allows the Commonwealth to fit in coherently with India’s foreign policy posture would be the unique nature of the organisation. Although it had been criticised as being an informal organisation bereft of any political legitimacy it presents India with a substantive platform to assert its influence. As a nation that is perhaps one of the worst affected by the steady fracturing of the liberal core brought about by the US retreat from Asia and China’s ascendency in that aspect, India recognises that it has to substantively contribute towards preserving the liberal order.
In this respect India’s position as an advocate of the liberal order had been notable where its foreign policy orientation has been consistent with a rules-based international order underpinned by liberal, democratic values . This is manifested in its stance concerning measure like the responsibility to protect (R2P) preventing human rights violation, advocating the notion of collective security which lays out the Indian republic’s subscription to liberal international norms. However, a crucial component of the liberal order is the attribute of contributing towards global goods or services. A quintessential instance includes the American provision of global goods and services including security protection, support of free and open markets which enabled it to maintain its unipolarity and preserve the liberal order.
A prescient suggestion for India would be in this regard to render global goods that would enhance its image as a defender of the liberal order. Where the Commonwealth Secretary on her latest visit to India lauded India’s approach in regards to’ combating climate change, urbanisation and sustainable development ‘ its position to contribute towards the same in the Commonwealth would enhance its strategic heft considerably. This would complement India’s position in the trajectory of the liberal order which was captured succinctly by former Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon way back in 2010 where he mentioned that ‘New Delhi is willing and capable of contributing to global public goods in terms of security, growth and stability that Asia would require’.
This necessitates the reinvigoration of the India-Pacific Forum for Islands Cooperation (FIPIC) which was formed way back in 2014 but has been rendered obsolete in the present moment due to India’s reticence in engaging with the Commonwealth nations. Where China’s integration into the Pacific has been massively visible through its act of providing major aid and developmental assistance to the Pacific littorals in terms of health, renewable energy, infrastructure and climate change adaptation, India’s attention is greatly desired in this aspect.
Another fundamental factor that would aid India in leveraging the Commonwealth partnership in preserving the liberal order and ensuring the regional balance and stability both for its own imperative and supplement its quest for regional leadership is the institutional prominence accorded to India within the Commonwealth. As the largest member nation in the Commonwealth along with being the ‘fourth largest contributor to the commonwealth budgets and programmes’ where it extends assistance to developing countries after the UK, India’s role in the Commonwealth is crucial. This was demonstrated in Prince Charles statement to PM Modi during his visit earlier in 2017 where he has mentioned that ‘as the world’s largest democracy, India’s role in this (Commonwealth) could not be more crucial, nor her contribution to the Commonwealth more essential.
Thus the upcoming 2018 CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting ) under its theme ‘Towards A Common Future’ encompassing four crucial goals including prosperity, security, fairness and sustainability presents an opportune moment for India to resuscitate both the Commonwealth forum and its partnership with the association. It would thus benefit Delhi to recognise the potential of both the organisation and its affiliation with it, as Ingram in 1999 had aptly observed that ‘if there is no awareness of the potential, then nothing can happen’.
(The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).