In Asia's Future, a Higher Profile for India

In Washington on Oct. 7, 2010, Admiral Raja Menon addresses India's rising strategic importance in Asia. (Asia Society Washington Center)
In Washington on Oct. 7, 2010, Admiral Raja Menon addresses India's rising strategic importance in Asia. (Asia Society Washington Center)

WASHINGTON, October 7, 2010 - In the coming years, international diplomacy will have to focus on cooperation on global problems, rather than regions, according to Admiral Raja Menon, who retired from the Indian Navy in 1994 as an Assistant Chief of Naval Staff.

Menon spoke with Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, Director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategicand International Studies, and Dr. Deepa M. Ollapally, Associate Director at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at an Asia Society Washington Center panel discussion focusing on India’s strategic role in Asia.

"Management of foreign policy across nations will undergo a drastic change in the coming years, where the focus will shift from regions to issues," said Menon. 

Menon emphasized that for India, making a mark on the global economy in the twenty-first century will have to go hand-in-hand with close attention to its internal security concerns.

Schaffer argued that India has definitely come a long way since 20 or 30 years ago, when its diplomacy was primarily inward-looking, with an avowed non-alignment policy which meant the nation allied itself with neither the NATO-led West nor the Soviet Union.

Now, however, India aims to be an economic power, not only to improve its internal standard of living, but also to leave its footprint on the rest of the world. Schaffer pointed out several factors needed to transform India from an "emerging" global powerto a global power, period. Among these factors were the continued expansion of the economy and political coherence, as reflected in the capacity for political decision-making within its democratic structure. The most important factor Schaffer posited was coalition-building with other powerful nations such as the United States, rather than strategic autonomy.

Schaffer added that countries' increasingly coming together on the basis of issues, as Menon argued, was in fact the other side of the same coin. A commitment to dealing with crucial issues can be followed effectively when India decides whom it wants to work with, how its interests coincide with other nations', and how those interests can be advanced.

Ollapally took a more critical approach to India’s current position. She said that while most of the world sees the rise of India as benign, the country still lacks adequate institutional capabilities to make a comprehensive foreign policy. Similarly, perceptions of India throughout Southeast Asia are also somewhat negative.

While India forged ties with East and Southeast Asian countries during the 1990s and joined many of those regions' institutions, it hasn’t made much substantial progress since then. Looking ahead, Ollapally was of the opinion that a "soft balancing" will emerge where the two competing powers – India and China – will decide whether to cooperate strictly on an "issue-by-issue" basis.

Reported by Mitali Pradhan, Asia Society Washington