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Opinion: Why India Remains Strangely Absent

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When we discuss international crises such as the one taking place in Syria, we talk about China’s stance, the American position, the EU’s response. Why is India never on the scene?

India: One of nine nuclear armed states, listed among the world’s top 10 largest economies, and the second most populous nation on the planet. Yet, India has limited its official statements on the Syrian Civil War to carefully worded balancing acts, in spite of the increasing multipolarity of the situation. So why is such an important geopolitical player strangely mum on what is arguably today’s most significant international conflict?

India’s stance remains unclear despite the USA’s recent decision to launch a missile assault as retaliation for alleged Assad-led chemical attacks upon the Syrian populace. Russia called the move “an act of aggression,” and predictably vetoed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution condemning the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. These moves have inspired a multitude of responses from various nations—some supportive, some disapproving, others openly hostile. India is not one of these nations, and its ambiguous stance is the result of a multitude of opposing forces: A more pragmatic foreign policy and vested interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, amongst other things.

Seventy years on from India’s independence, the tone that underscores Indian foreign policy has undertaken a drastic change. In the 1950s, India’s “moral authority” dictated its well-defined (albeit inconsequential) involvement in international issues. However, Prime Minister Modi’s administration’s promotion of the “Neighbourhood First” policy signals a shift in priorities.

The promise to focus primarily on India’s immediate neighbours (in decisions concerning international affairs) came as the response to growing nationalistic sentiment among certain voter demographics during the 2014 general election. It is a softer version of President Trump’s “America First” platform, but its impact is clear—especially in India’s response to the Syrian conflict.

In India’s statement on Thursday, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay asserted that “it has been [India’s] consistent position  that the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere under any circumstances should not happen,” and that “any perpetrator of such an act should be held accountable.” Baglay’s statement reiterated India’s ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and deliberately avoided throwing its weight behind any of the major players in the conflict.

The more curious thing, however, is the statement’s similarity to the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement on the previous Friday. Hua Chunying announced that “[China] condemn[s] the recent chemical attack in Syria,” and supports an investigation into “the use or suspected use of chemical weapons.” The statement did not assign responsibility for the chemical attack, nor did it directly mention the U.S. missile strikes. Furthermore, China abstained from voting on the UNSC draft resolution, a departure from its usual accompaniment of the Russian veto on prior Syria-related resolutions.

The clear parallel in China and India’s stance is no coincidence. In fact, the stance of the BRICS nations (excluding Russia) has been, as a whole, extremely cautious. India’s (and China’s) motivation to maintain this position is clear: Beijing and New Delhi have historically viewed the Middle East as a region of vital importance for energy security. India’s “Link West” platform—referring to “West Asia,” India’s term for the Middle East—makes this abundantly clear. China has also been involved in oil investments in the area in recent years, demonstrating their own interests in the region.

Moreover, historically strained Sino-Indian relations have worsened in recent months. Border disputes, the Dalai Lama, and the improving China-Pakistan relations have all factored into the growing tension between the two Asian powerhouses. Ultimately, however, it comes down to both nations viewing the Middle East as an area of future strategic competition for their emerging economies. By mirroring stances, both countries are keeping their options open as the future of the Syrian Arab Republic (and indeed, the stability of the Middle East) remains unclear.  

As a whole, India’s options are limited. Due to its own ongoing territorial dispute (between India and Pakistan) in the Jammu and Kashmir region, India has a strong aversion to foreign military involvement. A failed proposition to create a BRICS-led fund for Syria’s reconstruction has also ruled out developmental work (unilateral aid is out of the question). Consequently, India has two viable courses of action. If it wishes to remain uninvolved (in order to avoid drawing attention to its own domestic disputes), India can continue to distance itself from the conflict. However, in order to achieve its self-proclaimed ambitions of attaining superpower status, India will need to increase its engagement in international dialogue surrounding the matter, in order to both improve its visibility in global forums and to be seen leading discussion on the matter.

At present, however, India’s position is, by and large, ambiguous. With no condemnation of any of the parties involved, discourse on the topic is limited to social media rather than decision-making platforms. India’s intense rivalry with China, and the Modi administration’s locally-focused public image all factor into India’s inaction. The moral voice that dictated its earlier foreign policy has been replaced by realpolitik. In the eyes of New Delhi, that is what currently best serves the national interest. For a nation that is, of late, campaigning for a permanent seat at the UNSC, the decision to maintain its middle-ground position is a perplexing one. However, while “West Asia” remains a breeding ground for uncertainty and chaos, it is far more prudent to remain uninvolved. India remains chained by its inertia.

Parthav Shergill lives in Bangalore, India and writes about Indian politics. 

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