Trends in India’s Foreign Policy

All the changes that we are seeing in the world today — the rise of China, events in the US and Middle East and India’s growing influence — are all part of a process. Hence, it is important to always keep context in mind. The present international system can be traced back to the breakup of the Soviet Union, the so-called “triumph” of the Western world followed by the rise of Asia and the growth of political Islam. These events created a flatter world, eroding traditional camps and making decision making a much harder process. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how relevant and adequate non alignment and strategic autonomy are when India itself seeks to be a fixed point and as the world becomes truly multipolar.

For the neighbourhood we generally use the term “Neighbourhood First”. The term means we give our neighbourhood a priority, a degree of attention, care, consideration, resources and energy. None of this should be confused with optimism. This kind of attention has not been given by previous policy makers. For instance, in Bangladesh alone our commitments increased from around USD 800 million in 2011 to around USD 8 billion today. The second aspect of Neighbourhood First is regionalism. We have not always approached regionalism confidently in the past but today, we are big, secure and confident enough to develop regionalism non-reciprocally. It is in our interest that our neighbours share and grow with the prosperity of India. The third feature is the impact of China. If China is to become a global power it is only natural that it will exert its influence and it will be strongest in the region closest to China. Therefore, we should not be alarmed by the fact that China’s influence in South Asia is increasing. Instead we should focus on whether the influence is good or bad and how to respond to it. We need to work with powers with whom we have converging interests.

Our next policy angle is the shift from Look East to Act East. The two big new elements in our eastern policy are stronger emphasis on physical connectivity and security. If roadways, shipping lanes and rail lines open up towards Vietnam, the entire politics, economics and sociology of that region will change. We have for years allowed our status quo to prevail even rationalising it to somehow be good for India’s security. We often joke that the first step of “Look East” is New Delhi having to look east to other parts of India! Unfortunately, the Centre has not adequetely done this. However, this is changing and today we are actively thinking about how to promote the Northeast and make them a fulcrum of Act East policy. In fact, Bangladesh can play an important role — its infrastructure can be used to service eastern India’s economy — which is why we have put a lot of effort to modernise railways, power connectivity and waterway usage through Bangladesh. The next aspect is security. If you look at the ferment in the Islamic world, that ferment comesupto the Punjab but abruptly stops at the “wall” called India. This wall insulates the entire ferment that is coming from Nigeria all the way up to Pakistan’s Punjab. If there are today Islamic societies like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei that have relatively been sheltered from the disturbances of the Middle East and beyond, it is in large part because India has absorbed those pressures. For us, security cooperation, both military and intelligence cooperation, is a very important feature of our relationship with Southeast Asian countries. In fact, hosting all the ten ASEAN heads of state itself is a recog-nition of the fact that ASEAN itself is graduating into a different level of cooperation with us.

As for the West, there has been a very strong emphasis on the Gulf. Countries like UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia with whom our relations were good, but were not fully reflective of the interests of those countries or India’s potential. This is something that has changed. Here, the challenge for us is that it is very much a region in ferment, but a region with which we have high economic and energy dependency. Bear in mind that the remittances we receive from the Gulf is roughly the size of the services trade with America. Therefore, just looking at the quantitative aspect it should become clear of how important the Gulf is and should be. For us stability in the Gulf is very important and managing a policy with multiple pulls and pressures is of our greatest concern. When we were a smaller power we could afford to stay away from difficult regions but that option is no longer available to us.

As for Afghanistan and Pakistan, it remains a key security challenge. Looking back, people have underestimated the progress and a part of the reason is very bad handling of these countries by the previous American administration supplemented by NATO powers. The fact remains that there were serious misreadings of the situation. Yet, the reality is that people in Afghanistan welcome the change and India remains a very popular country. It is popular because our image in Afghanistan is of a developmental partner — a country that has largely listened to the Afghans and contributed to a more stable life. For us today, stabilising Afghanistan is of paramount importance. The reality today is that there isn’t an Afghan problem but an Af-Pak problem. The heart of the problem lies in Pakistan and there is more recognition of this aspect in parts of the Western world.

The rise of China has been the biggest development in our lifetime and their footprint has increased. We have to recognise that we have as a neighbour, a major influencer and with whom we have a very complex history and differences in interests but one that is also our second largest trade partner and fastest growing investor. It is however not smart analysis to be in denial of or demonise China. The rise of a global power is accompanied by the creation of new institutions. China is, in a departure from the past, suggesting itself as a model. Its viability is an open question. We traditionally thought of China as a power to our North but we must also begin to look at China’s maritime presence in the Indian Ocean.

There has been a sharper sense of maritime spaces in our foreign policy. The fact is the Indian Ocean has historically been a community, the people of the region have an interpenetrative culture, it is the largest English speaking lake in the world and much of it is democratic. There is a need to grow the Indian Ocean into something more substantive than it is today.

As for the United States, its decline has been repeatedly foretold but they continue to surprise the world with its ability to reinvent itself and find new sources of strength. In my opinion, the US is still the only global power and will remain for a certain number of years. The US derives its strength from being the greatest centre of innovation and technology. Therefore, the protection of Intellectual Property Rights has become extremely central to American policy. Moreover, the US is now conveying to its allies that its terms are different and has become more demanding. It has also become more pressing of its adversaries and this is visible in its National Security Strategy document. For a country like India, this change in American policy works fine as we have neither been an ally that has disappointed nor have we been an adversary that has offended. In fact the more America becomes bilateral, the more it will fit into India’s preferred way of dealing with them.

As for Russia, we have witnessed a reversal of roles between China and Russia. In the old days, in Eurasia, China was the swing power —  when China went towards the West it strategically damaged the Soviet Union — but today, Russia is the swing power. From our point of view, the events of the last few years have not been helpful as our interests do not dictate the kind of pressure that America is putting on Russia.

However, the India - Russia relationship remains one of the dependable factors of our foreign policy. The other power that merits mention is Japan. We have seen a big change in terms of political closeness and Japanese investments and presence going up very sharply. However, impending systemic changes are still unfolding in Japan.

Despite bilateral relations becoming more popular, we should not underestimate the power of multilateralism. The coalition of support that we saw in the International Court of Justice elections was a result of multilateralism and can easily be termed as an election of the old order versus the new order. In the foreign policy business there are two attributes that should be prized more than anything else — between people to people it is chemistry, between nation to nation it is credibility. To be a power, leaders must build the chemistry and the country must have credibility. Moreover, we should continue to be ethical and follow international norms and rules - when others think of us, these attributes must come out clearly.

(This article is a summary of the valedictory address delivered by Dr. S. Jaishankar,
former Foreign Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India on 1
st February, 2018 at
New Delhi at the Workshop on India’s Foreign Policy organised by India Foundation in
partnership with Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of March April 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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