Foreign policy debates in Russia, India and China

How do the domestic policy debates within rising powers such as Russia, India and China help us understand current political developments and foreign policy behaviors of these countries?

As part of an ongoing outreach to the policy and media communities, the Rising Powers Initiative held a briefing on March 2 to present expert analysis of domestic debates and recent policy developments in Russia, India and China. The event took place at the Elliot School of International Affairs, and was sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation.

To understand the foreign policy behaviors of major countries in Asia and Eurasia, the main approach of the Rising Powers Initiative has been to focus on the domestic debates taking place within these countries. These debates reflect a certain intellectual orientation in a country, or its “intellectual DNA,” which is then reflected in that country’s foreign policy, explained Henry R. Nau, who moderated the panel as co-director of the Rising Powers Initiative and Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at The George Washington University.

Moreover, domestic debates matter most when the external geopolitical environment is relatively stable, said Nau. For the past twenty years, international relations have been characterized by the unipolarity of the United States, and any shift in the international order is gradual. This brings into focus the domestic interpretations of such shifts, and how those interpretations shape the overall direction of a country’s foreign policy.

In Russia, the predominant intellectual orientation has seen a “a lot of volatility” in the past twenty years, said Andrew Kuchins, Director and Senior Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Beginning with the short-lived “Liberal Westernizers” of 1991-92, Russia’s political landscape then shifted to “Great Power Balancers / Realists” in the 1990s and early 2000s, who were disappointed in the West and believed in a more balanced, multi-vector foreign policy. Today we see the growing influence of the “Nationalists” in domestic debates, who emphasize Russian exceptionalism, centralized economic development, and a more militarized, anti-Western foreign policy. The Nationalists, however, have never been in power, and the Great Power Balancers are still expected to dominate the political scene, noted Kuchins.

Russia’s reactions to current developments in the Middle East also reveal some major tendencies in the Russian outlook. With regard to democracy, Kuchins pointed out that Russia has a long tradition of skepticism, and an even stronger skepticism of democracy in Islamic countries. There has also been a tendency to overestimate the role of the United States in encouraging or enabling uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries in the region. What all this actually reveals, said Kuchins, is a deep sensitivity about Russia’s own vulnerability.

India, in contrast, presents a story of marginal shifts in its policy orientation. Deepa Ollapally, co-director of the Rising Powers Initiative and Associate Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, explained that Indian foreign policy is characterized by three main aspects: incrementalism, or a slow pace of change; a continuing commitment to strategic autonomy; and a lingering distrust of the United States. On the last point, the distrust stems from an uncertainty about US reliability on issues ranging from Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, China, and defense trade, said Ollapally. It is within this context that the following main schools of thought are shaping the domestic debates in India: Traditional, Neo-, and Hyper-Nationalists who are wary of the United States and cautiously guard India’s sovereignty; the Great Power Realists, who are akin to the Great Power Balancers in Russia and believe that close relations with the US provides a platform for projecting Indian interests; and the Liberal Globalists, who emphasize international economic power and favor a multilateral approach.

Although the Neo-Nationalists and Hyper-Nationalists are declining in influence, the recent political stalemate over civilian nuclear trade with the United States underscores the pull of various ideological camps in India’s democratic politics, said Ollapally. The deal is supported by Great Power Realists and Liberal Globalists, who comprise the bulk of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition, and cautiously supported by the Traditional Nationalists. However, the Neo- and Hyper-Nationalists are strongly opposed to a deal that would require the signing of a “Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement,” as required by US domestic law. The CISMOA would allow US access to Indian information and communication systems, which these nationalist schools believe would be a severe blow to India’s strategic autonomy.

In China, the spectrum of thought ranges from Nativists and Realists to Multilateralists and Globalists, with the schools of Major Powers, Asia First, Global South falling in between the two ends, according to David Shambaugh, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the China Policy Program at the George Washington University (for more detail, see Shambaugh’s recent article in the Washington Quarterly). Understanding the domestic “debates” in China, however, is not as straightforward as it might be in other countries. On the one hand, where schools of thought are identified primarily with non-governmental actors, it is difficult to link their ideas to actual policy. On the other hand, these ideas are coming out of universities and think tanks that are all affiliated with the government. The point to keep in mind is that the schools of thought are not mutually exclusive, emphasized Shambaugh.

Officially, the Chinese government has outlined four main pillars in its foreign policy platform: relations with major powers are key; the surrounding areas are a first priority; developing countries are the foundation; and multilateral organizations are an important stage. These are all complementary, explained Shambaugh, and the key question is, which pillar is emphasized?

In the past four months, the Chinese have made a visible effort to repair its relations with the rest of the world, after a series of aggressive behaviors in 2009-2010 resulted in what Shambaugh characterized as arguably “the worst year in Chinese foreign relations in a decade.” There clearly is some “recalibration” taking place in China’s foreign policy, as demonstrated by President Hu Jintao’s recent state visit to the US, as well as other bilateral visits between China and major European countries, and the China-ASEAN Summit in October. Just last week, China voted in favor of UN sanctions against Libya. Nevertheless, these actions are more telling of the pragmatic strand of thinking in the Chinese leadership, rather than any major shift in the intellectual orientation of Chinese foreign policymaking, said Shambaugh. For the most part, the Nativist and Realist schools are still predominant.

In all, what emerges from the domestic debates in each country is the intellectual “center of gravity” of that country’s foreign policymaking, concluded Henry R. Nau. That “center” is both the reflection and the basis of a country’s policy style and orientation, and shifts in the center may be indicative of some vulnerability or uncertainty in a country’s position. The shifting intellectual landscape in India, for instance, may indicate that India is somewhat outside its “comfort zone” of strategic autonomy. Realist and nationalist sentiments, on the other hand, remain strong in Russia and China. The shape of these debates is an ongoing research focus of the Rising Powers Initiative, which will present its findings in greater depth at an upcoming conference on April 25. Comments from the public are welcome.


About risingpowers
Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs The George Washington University

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