Alliance of India
If India were to colour its best international friends on a map, who would they be? Based on conversations with dozens of Indian officials over a dozen years, I am penning a preliminary list. Some of the countries would probably surprise average Anils in India.
First, let me say I discount all the great powers. The biggies don’t have permanent friends, only permanent interests. They sign up with other biggies if those interests coincide and float away when they don’t.
Which is why I role my eyes when older Indians get teary-eyed about our friendship with the Soviet Union. The Soviets weren’t in it for love, they were in it because of hate – of the Chinese. So Indo-Soviet friendship peaked when the Sino-Soviet relationship was at its worst – roughly the Sixties to the Eighties. The same goes for the United States. We’ve had bouts of bonhomie with the US before – 1958 to 1965 for example. And the buddy-buddy stuff faded when interests led the two to drift apart.
Second, what Indian diplomats talk of “friends” they are normally talking of medium-sized countries in specific regions of the world who have developed strong interests, both security and economic-related, in India that have withstood the test of at least a few decades.
In the Persian Gulf area, the country that has maintained a steady and sturdy relationship with India is Oman. “Oman has been India’s most consistent advocate in the region,” I remember one diplomat with many years of experience in the Gulf telling me. And this has been echoed by others.
Qatar is another country with which India has a firm economic link, but it is not yet a warm one.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore is probably the country which India trusts to uphold its interests the most. Mind you, Singapore has helped define these interests because it was that island country’s persistent urging that led to both the creation and implementation of India’s “Look East” policy.
On the Indian periphery, Bhutan – which lets its foreign policy be handled by New Delhi – is the obvious friend. However, the “Bhutan model” has over the years been adopted by Mauritius and the Maldives. They have also surrendered a portion of their sovereignty to India in return for economic benefits and security guarantees.
Central Asia is a part of the world India would like to have a larger footprint in , but is limited by geography. However, India is one of the few countries that leased a military base in Tajikistan. India denies it’s a base, calling it only a hospital – with an airstrip and soldiers. But given that in no other country has India established a military outpost, this ‘stan enjoys a higher profile than others in New Delhi.
In Africa, there are a few countries which are closer to India than others on this continent. These ties are largely built on economics, but some of them have also seen India as a source of education, investment and so on that is more benign than either the West or China. Senegal is arguably our closest economic partner, unknown to most Indians. On a good year, India can supplant France as the West African country’s biggest trading partner. Ethiopia is in the second bracket when it comes to India.
After this, I would argue, India has countries with which it has good and often productive relations. But they are either of recent vintage or too unidimensional to be seen as being special. Strictly speaking, India has no alliances – in other words, other than the likes of Bhutan and the Maldives, it is hard to see India waging war on behalf of anyone else.
Thus India has a decent relationship with Israel – its number one arms supplier as of last year, with South Korea – one of its key sources of foreign investment, with Vietnam, with Australia, and arguably with a number of European countries. But these relations are dwarfed by the bilateral engagement those countries have with other big countries.
India’s friends have become so only partly because of pro-active diplomacy by New Delhi. Often, it has been the wooed rather than the wooee. Other times, the flag has followed Indian corporations. It is not also clear that India leverages these in a sensible manner. But that’s another story.