India Stays Cool in Volatile Arena ; A String of Events in the Past Three Months Shows More Cautious, Tolerant Foreign Policy

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For a nation that has aspirations of being a regional player in the rough-and-tumble game of international relations, India has been showing a lot of restraint recently.

When the royal family of Nepal was massacred and riots broke out on the streets of Kathmandu in June, and Maoist insurgents alleged it was all part of an Indian conspiracy, India's leaders mostly stayed mum.

When Bangladeshi forces shot their way briefly into the Indian state of Meghalaya in May, India's leaders calmed their constituents, saying it was all a misunderstanding.

And when ethnic Tamil militants attacked Sri Lanka's main airport last month, cutting off the entire nation for days, India simply offered words of concern for its southern neighbor.

Is this any way for a growing regional and nuclear power to act? It wasn't too many prime ministers ago that India would have responded to such provocative events with an economicblockade, offers of armed intervention, or at least a firm rattling of sabers.

The homeland of Indira Gandhi and Ashok the Great is not exactly beating its swords - or nuclear weapons - into plowshares. But India's approach to foreign policy - whether chastened by past conflicts or motivated to focus energies where they can do the most good - has taken a more cautious and tolerant turn. It's a dramatic change that, for better or worse, will affect the prospects for peace in one of the most unstable regions of the world today.

"We have to show restraint, because India is bigger than all its neighbors combined," says S.K. Singh, who served as foreign secretary in the early 1970s. "We are very careful about throwing our weight around, because our weight is so considerable."

India's new cautious tone comes at a crucial time, as strategic partnerships are being formed and traded. Since the end of the cold war a decade ago, India has worked hard to prove its relevance and worth to the United States and to other nations with whom it shares common interests of trade, development, and regional stability.

While much of the world's attention tends to focus on India's nuclear-weapons capability, demonstrated by 1998 underground nuclear tests, India's true strength may rest in its blue-water Navy, capable of patrolling sea lanes from the coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca and beyond.

Christina Rocca, on her first tour of India as new US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, noted this expanded role in a speech last month in New Delhi. "As the largest country in the region, India has a role and a responsibility to play in helping secure stable, peaceful conditions in South Asia and beyond."

If India is becoming more cautious as its prominence grows, it could well be because the world's largest democracy has seen that exerting power has costs. India's intervention allowed ethnic Bengalis to break away from Pakistan in 1971, creating Bangladesh. …