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A rising India must engage with all global powers, steer clear of security alliances—Narendra Taneja

What are India's options to meet its energy requirement as Taliban and Pak-backed non-state actors wreak havoc in the region?

In navigating its way forward, a democratic India must positively engage with all major global powers, without entering into a security alliance with any one of them, says Narendra Taneja, a top New Delhi based energy and geopolitical expert.

In a wide-ranging interview with Atul Aneja, Editor India narrative ,on shaping India’s strategic orientation in a rapidly changing world, Taneja hit all the right buttons. From managing relations with China and the Indo-Pacific to  ensuring India’s long-term energy security, Taneja illuminated a clear path that would  ensure India’s rise as a benign and inclusive global power.

The energy expert stressed that India must not shed the doctrine of “strategic autonomy” as the template for its sustained growth and rise as a great power.

“We should be working actually only on that strategy (of exercising strategic autonomy). But along the way, they are going to be challenges….For instance…from China today. It is going to be some other country in the Indian Ocean tomorrow or it can be something else. So, we need to basically work our response, you know, depending on the situation of the day.”

Taneja stressed that a rising India riding on its strategic autonomy must be ready for making “tactical adjustments, tactical response on the way”.

Pointing to China’s ambition to “make Asia subservient to it,” Taneja spotlighted  that India must bond with the world’s democracies, without striking a permanent strategic alliance with them. 

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“…Let's not forget one thing, the tremendous strength that we have (as a) democracy, (as) democracies of Asia, democracies of the world. We need to work together eventually and democracies are going to win.”

While India was not there to “preach democracy, but it helps when you are able to build bridges with democracies like Japan, like Australia, like South Korea or Indonesia and others”.

Asked to comment on the Indo-Pacific QUAD, comprising India, Japan, Australia and the United States, Taneja advocated a robust engagement with the quartet, without burning bridges with China.

“…In the Pacific, we should be strengthening our ties with the Pacific countries… But at the same time, we must stay engaged with China, with Russia, and we should not …perceive them as an enemy and we should not let them perceive us (as one).” India’s ties with the Indo-pacific are driven by India’s interests and not with any other objective.

Simultaneously, India must remain engaged with the Shanghai based New Development Bank of the BRICS as well as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), where China is a major player, Taneja observed. 

The energy expert pointed out that India has the gravitas to ride on its own steam with the self-assurance of a rising global power, in engagement with all. “We need to be one of the top leaders of the world. We should not be following any. We are too big, too important and too large an economy. Trust me. Don't go by the GDP number of three trillion (dollars economy). We are actually eight trillion dollars on PPP terms…The world needs us for its own growth, for its own prosperity.”

In ensuring its rise, India must forge closer ties with Africa, a continent of the future.

“Africa is a very important continent, not only for India, (but) for the whole world. I mean, I have also said that, you know, this century people keep saying that this is (an) Asian century. And I always argue this is Africa’s century… because by 2050 India, China, all of these countries will peak and they will need Africa, the market in order to sustain their growth and prosperity.” 

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Taneja pointed out that India should be looking at Africa from three different angles. First, India should leverage its historic and direct relationship with Africa. Second, India should partner with some Middle East countries to more deeply engage with certain parts of Africa. Third, India should also bond with European countries which had once colonised Africa and retain their influence there.

Finally, India should invest more not only in Africa’s oil and gas sector, but  also in the solar power sector.  With the Solar Alliance already in place, “we should try to become a leader, (a)  global leader in solar power and help African countries in terms of technology, in terms of training, expertise, setting up solar power plants and building these kinds of joint ventures, you know, together with Europeans, together with Arab countries, together with others such as  Japan and Korea.”

For the purpose of energy security, India needs to further leverage its strategic ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

With Saudi Arabia, we are “much closer than ever before in history,” Taneja observed.

He added: “The same goes for the United Arab Emirates. We are very, very close to them. We are working in different sectors, including energy.”

Homing on to the  reliance on the Gulf, Taneja pointed out that the region was a vital source of remittances and entrepreneurship.

“…We have close to nine million Indians living there who send roughly sixty to  sixty-five billion dollars every year in remittances. And we have got some very enterprising Indians sitting there… We need to take our relationship (with the Gulf) to a new era,” he observed.

Taneja  pointed out the India should not worry too much about China’s inroads in the Gulf. “ China, to my sense, they don't understand Islam as well as we, and they don't understand religion as well as we do…so … we should not worry too much about China.”

He stressed that India’s relationship with the Gulf should be kept separated from New Delhi’s ties with Iran.  “Iran  becomes a very important country for two reasons. One is, of course, that it is in itself..huge. And secondly, it's a transit route which is linking Chabahar (port)” with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Iran is also a major player in India’s energy security matrix.

“And so, we really want to engage with Iran using energy as a kind of the mainstay of the backbone of our relationship. But I must share with you at the same time that the experience of the last three, four years has not been very, very encouraging.”

In seeking access to oil and gas in Central Asia, a region with which India shares deep cultural relationships, the turbulence in Afghanistan can become a major impediment. Taneja pointed out that the Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI), gas pipeline, already on life-support, can go up in smoke in case the Taliban takes over Afghanistan.

Given the plethora of challenges to India’s energy security Taneja lauded the choice of Hardeep Singh Puri, a veteran diplomat, as India’s new minister of Petroleum and Natural gas.

“And if I may just focus on the energy sector… when we import, you know, 86 percent of our total requirement of oil, 54 percent total requirement of natural gas. And we are also importing a bit of coal. We import uranium and we also import 90 percent of the equipment that we use for producing solar power in this country… (the) Prime Minister bringing in Mr. Puri, veteran diplomat, former Indian UN representative … is very, very significant.”

He added: “ You know, this is a time that we need we need to build bridges with organisations such as OPEC, such as the International Energy Forum, International Energy Agency, and at the same time that the other big oil and gas and energy consumers such as China and Japan and Korea, Indonesia, and, of course, you know, all the smaller countries, but nevertheless very significant. So, to bring in a veteran diplomat with his vast experience both at the U.N. and outside the UN, I think that is a message… to the international community, energy community.”