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INTERNATIONAL NEWS: Despite Obama, India's Global Ambitions Modest


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By Alistair Scrutton and C.J. Kuncheria

NEW DELHI, Nov 11 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama's support for a U.N. Security Council seat for India may have given the economic giant its global coming-out party, but it still is far from wielding the diplomatic clout of powerhouses like China.

India is expected to be one of the five largest economies in the world by 2020, growing at near double-digit rates, but the main focus of policymakers will be to try and lift millions out of poverty, rather than being an outspoken diplomatic voice.

"As Deng Xiaoping said of China 20 years ago, it's better to lay low and bide your time," Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, said. "India is a poor country. There is a lot more to be done internally."

India is proud of its soft power, its quiet diplomatic achievements, but careful of over-extending its reach. Take Afghanistan, where it has been happy to pour in $1.3 billion in aid but reluctant to do more, like training the police or army.

"India does not have the recent global outspokenness of China. There is a very strong sense that China knows its time has come and is cashing its cheques in. Not so in India," Raghavan said.

At the G20 talks, it has so far stood back from the fray, taking more cautious stands than countries like Germany, China or the United States on issues like the yuan and global imbalances.

"Indian aspirations are more modest than the U.S. or China," said Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor at Hindu newspaper in Delhi. "But I think it has pitched its global role about right."


Obama's promise of a permanent U.N. Security Council seat has been a demand of India's to reflect what it sees as its rightful place. The makeup of the five members -- U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China -- is criticised as a Cold War relic.

It is also a pledge that could take a decade to realize.

Delhi rarely put its eggs in one basket and it is telling that after Obama's visit, the leaders of China, France and Russia will visit this year, hungry for a slice of India's $1 trillion dollar economy, from nuclear power to arms contracts.

A global crunch has helped push emerging market giants to diplomatic and economic prominence as the West struggles with debt. India, with its history of non-alignment and behind-the-scenes diplomacy, is at the forefront of the winners.

It has quietly built up its global clout as its private businesses expanded, whether it is Bharti Airtel buying African mobile businesses for $9 billion, or the bid for Premier League football club Blackburn by Indian conglomerate Venkys.

"I don't think any policymaker has spoken of India as a superpower," said Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary. "But the business community, that's going global, buying companies here and there and are full of cash, they're the one's who're talking about the superpower status."

In the absence of a Doha deal, India has focused on negotiating trade deals with the likes of the European Union and, in a mark of economic power moving from west to east, the ASEAN bloc of Southeast Asian nations, Japan and Malaysia.

India has also done this without making many enemies, unlike the United States or China.

"India does not want to have to make stark choices," Raghavan said "It wants to have multiple diplomatic avenues. India will not be assertive on the world stage."

Raghavan said that can change when India feels its economy is directly threatened -- hence its tough stand on issues like Doha where the government wants to protect its political support base of millions of farmers from globalisation.


But with nearly half its $1.2 billion people living below $1.25 a day, and malnutrition rates in some states worse than sub-Saharan Africa, India has huge hurdles at home while much of its foreign policy is focused on one unruly neighbour, Pakistan.

India has always had global ambitions. Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru ran India after 1947 independence, tellingly as both prime minister and foreign minister, India was a global player that emerged as non-aligned movement leader.

Still, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may fly around the world stage as an elder statesman, some Indian foreign ministry officials privately say they spend most of their hours focused on dealing with close-to-home threats like Pakistan.

On its disputed border with China, there is a sense that New Delhi is playing catch-up with Beijing after years of Chinese investment in infrastructure like roads and airports in the remote region has sparked fears India has lost the initiative.

India is often criticised for not being aggressive enough in competing with China in its own backyard of the India Ocean, where Beijing is building ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

"It has, following the Obama visit, become an apprentice big power," Manoj Joshi wrote in the Mail Today.

At the G20, it was telling that while Singh may speak of global imbalances, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao reminded reporters on Tuesday that India may actually benefit in part from the undervalued yuan because of cheap imports like steel.

"India gets into issues that directly affect it but you often don't see too much strategic vision," said Raghavan.


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