Written by Susan Dass.

India’s foray into foreign aid is fuelled by a perception of itself as a “rising power”. A combination of economic development, military strength and domestic beliefs have solidified this foreign policy behaviour. To further understand India’s distribution of aid,  and its relevance as a barometer of  power, I use its relationship with Afghanistan as a case study.

Afghanistan therefore (is) a test case for India’s foreign aid policy, as well as a test of its own ambition.

As a perceived rising power, India wants its presence to be felt in Afghanistan, and has adopted a proactive role in the region by extending economic, military and institutional aid. Rising powers in the international system will try to change the status quo and establish new institutions and arrangements that more accurately reflect their own conception of their place in the world. These feelings have encouraged India to use a multi-pronged strategy in Afghanistan.

India’s foreign aid in Afghanistan started shortly after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It extended political, economic and military assistance as a way to embellish its own foreign policy. Furthermore, India actively participated in the Bonn Conference and in 2001, pledged $750 million towards reconstruction in Afghanistan. The aid was unconditional; intended to further develop Afghanistan’s humanitarian efforts and infrastructure. It was also to assist health and rural development while simultaneously helping to train diplomats and government officials. In 2016, India pledged $1 billion in economic aid.

India emerged as one of the top six donors after having spent $500 million in aid packages and has steadily increased the amount of aid over the years. India also committed to provide one million tons of wheat to aid Afghanistan in 2016. Particularly, it has converted the wheat into high protein biscuits for a school program as part of an initiative by the World Food Program. India has also been instrumental in making Afghanistan a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). India initiated this to promote the free flow of goods across borders in the region. This would make Afghanistan a lucrative trade route that would benefit its economy and indirectly the entire region.

While India’s aid to Afghanistan appears altruistic, it is also self-interested. Afghanistan is viewed as a gateway to the Central Asian region where India hopes to expand its influence. Central Asia is crucial, not only due to its oil and gas reserves (that India wishes to tap for its energy security), but also because other major powers such as the United States, Russia and China have already started competing for influence in the region.

India values dominance in the region as a central goal. India’s base in Ayni in Tajikistan is symbolic of its efforts to promote regional stability in the area, and enhance its ability to counteract Islamic terrorism in South Asia and Central Asia. While other influential actors view Afghanistan as being a source of instability in the region, India has stepped forward to combat this instability, thereby showing the rest of the world it can contain plausible threats and shoulder responsibility.

As the geopolitical importance of Central Asia has increased in recent years, many major powers have tried to expand their influence in the region. India is no exception. It shares many interests with the United States, Russia and China vis-à-vis Central Asia, including access to energy resources, controlling the spread of radical Islam, ensuring political stability and strengthening regional economics. India is mainly concerned with Central Asia because of the strategic capabilities possessed by China. India as a “rising power” means that its foreign policy in Central Asia has to bypass China’s influence in the region. Therefore, its attempt to control Afghanistan is in its interest to garner support in the entire region of Central Asia.

Though India is seeking portray itself as a global power, it is still struggling to reshape the region’s interests to align with its own. Afghanistan therefore seems to be a test case for India’s foreign aid policy, as well as a test of its own ambition. It has been well documented, however, that post-2002 India lacks belief in its foreign policy.  India is currently competing with nations who truly believe in their foreign policy. Miller’s research shows that senior foreign policy officials at the government, and private think tank experts in New Delhi, have little faith in India’s capabilities as a rising power.

Currently, India is not able to translate its hard power into strength. In reality, India has never had much money to invest in foreign aid.  In relative terms, even large swathes of money will fail to match the budgets of the United States or China. In this sense, India is not ready to engage the world in the same way that other superpowers can. It lacks the capability and, perhaps most crucially, the will.

Susan Dass is a Master’s student at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. She studies Global Development Policy with a focus in political economy and governance. Photo Credit: CC by TravelBusy/Flickr.

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