Diplomacy and India’s Foreign Policy Challenges today

-8587535934108061314By Sudhir Vyas–

National Interest

Overriding purpose of our foreign policy: transformation of India into a modern, prosperous and secure nation — an enabling external environment with this objective.

Diplomacy thus an extension of the national endeavor; intrinsic link with domestic policy.

Should national interest alone drive diplomacy? For a diplomat, policy choices important – prioritize national objectives v/s objective realities. Like politics, diplomacy is art of the possible.

Our diplomatic ethos must therefore be informed, innovative and adaptive enough to position itself to meet our best national interest – and to this end, moderated by our own values. Requires clear articulation of our interests and priorities. Not dictated by external exhortations to “step up to the plate”, be a “responsible player” etc.

National Power In Diplomacy Concept of national power is a central one in international relations: ability to influence outcomes to advance national interests, not the power to dominate.

Security and diplomacy go hand in hand. Non-diplomatic tools part of a State’s diplomatic armoury: sanctions, trade – saam, daam, dand, bhed.??- tools of leverage. State support crucial.

Explore national power: a composite concept, sum of the capacities that a country brings to the table.

  • “Weight”
  • “Influence” – soft power, exercised or manifest? Instruments – diaspora lobbies?
  • “Power” as understood traditionally – valuable capacity in exercise of national power.

Necessary, but not sufficient. Crucially, a strategic outlook, a global vision to propagate, intellectual weight to do so. Will dictate how a nation uses its capacities in support of its national interest.

New entities challenging establishment power. Or supporting it? Power of public opinion, civil society, international NGOs, MNCs, technology, media [non-state actors?]. Can be put to positive as well as negative use. Power could be exercised in very different ways tomorrow.

A Changing International Environment

Major changes underway in the international order. Expanded space for diplomacy to look at new options, agile ambitious foreign policy to push national interest.

What has changed? The capacities that India brings to the table. [example of Indo-US nuclear deal]

Defining Challenges of the 21st Century

To visualise our place in the 21st century, we need to get out of a 20th century mind set.

Given its weight, India will be centre-stage in dealing with practically every global policy challenge of the 21st Century — Climate change and environment, resource security and water and their implications for economic and social development; poverty alleviation, public health or global terrorism; the strategic shifts to, and in, Asia with their paradigm-changing impacts on India; securing the commons – digital, nuclear, cyber or maritime security.

Cannot afford to be defensive or reactive; in each, India’s robust leadership can be globally transformative. Even with low per capita indices, India has strengths that enable it to play a role in development of concepts and technologies that advance both its national goals and the global political economy.

Goals politico-strategic. Diplomacy with such global vision would require a clear political mandate, political support and defined red lines that give it flexibility and confidence. But beyond this, diplomacy calls for professional skills exercised with patience, away from spotlight. Role of political leadership is also crucial in management of political and public perceptions.

But all this must be premised on India’s sustained development in the fullest sense of the term – and this in an increasingly resource constrained, climate challenged world. Complexities growing.

Bilateral relationships remain the building blocks of diplomatic strategy. But beyond this, an overall policy vision that can integrate and deliver on multiple, cross-cutting objectives.

Explore our extended neighbourhood of Asia. Practically every dimension of geo-political engagement is manifest here, offering diplomatic policy choices that are crucial to Asia’s and our own future.

Changing Geo-politics of Asia – Our Extended Neighbourhood

Change over last two decades striking. Simultaneous emergence of powers, assertive politics, has drawn global strategic interest. Centre of gravity of the global economy shifting to Asia-Pacific.

Accumulation of military capacity fuelled by rapid economic growth. Mismatch with development of political and strategic architecture in Asia? Is polarisation emerging, as at times alleged – Pak/China all-weather friendship, a US/India strategic partnership with US teaming with India in playing a pivotal role in the Asian balance? Limits to full convergence of interests and objectives.

USA, Russia, China in Asia

US retains its global reach, but China is increasingly positioning itself as a strategic competitor, attempting to reshape post WWII order. Russian-Chinese competition blurred, as Western sanctions over Crimea bite, and with falling resource prices, Moscow has had to adjust options. Yet Russia is no pushover; back in West Asia.

Russia remains our primary strategic partner. But wary of growing US – India defence cooperation, some shift in its relations with Pakistan, with Russia lifting its self-imposed arms embargo against Pak.

China has been making inroads in Europe too, taking advantage of the continent’s continuing financial crisis. [economic integration across Eurasia, OBOR, acquisition of logistics facilities, infrastructure across Europe.] President Xi in UK. Trade dependencies.


Working relationship critical to Asia. Economics as a driver of political relations; cooperation and competition – yet, need to manage contradictions to take a working relationship forward. India’s economic rise has led China to seek cooperation but on its terms, also to blunt any US initiative to draw India into strategic containment.

Policy of boxing contentious issues has helped maintain peace and tranquillity on border; but China reluctant to move on border issue even as we seek clarification of LAC. Strategic holding back.

Cooperation with China to keep other realities in mind too – assertive doctrines, role in Pakistan, reports of interference in our North-East? China’s continued modernization of military, space and cyber warfare capacities at a scorching pace.

And globally, shaping its own order: NDB, AIIB, OBOR, MSR, BCIM, RMB as international currency.

Trans-border rivers: opacity pf Chinese intentions. 2013 MoU, but absence of bilateral instrument makes verification impossible. Do we reformulate our positions on Himalayan rivers? A basin-wide approach – Include China factor in water agreements with neighbours? Problematic.

China cultivating India’s neighbours with aid, apparently benign initiatives OBOR, MSR, SAARC, IOR. Seeking strategic maritime space in West Pacific, pushing “institution building” and “regional dialogue” in IOR. These are politico-strategic objectives, not economic.

Japan’s emerging identity as a state willing to adopt military role is a challenge for China. Offsetting Coalitions? Japan, Vietnam, Philippines engaging US on maritime security. Our military exercises with US, Japan; defence cooperation with Vietnam; maritime ties with Australia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Seychelles, UAE. Yet each also has its own cooperative relationship with China.

Assertiveness of China to be managed, to attempt to anchor its rise in a stable Asian order. Engagement? Initiatives of our own? Hedging strategies?

South-East Asia

‘Look East’ to ‘Act East Policy’: now perhaps most dynamic direction of India’s foreign economic engagement – FTAs, CEPAs; MGC; tackling physical connectivity. Act East Policy dovetails with security structures in Asia-Pacific. “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean”, enunciated by PM Modi and Pres. Obama is a logical corollary. Opportunities for issue-based cooperation, even as both India and US drive their respective policy options in line with their interests.

Geo-strategic context – Chinese assertiveness in SCS; uncomfortable with growing ASEAN chorus, seeking to sow divisions in ASEAN positions. Separate US and Chinese initiatives to woo ASEAN: US ‘rebalancing’ and TPP; Chinese OBOR, MSR, BCIM and the AIIB.

But ASEAN will keep larger Asian picture will be kept in mind – including how India handles its relationships with US, China and Japan, which impact on the geo-politics of the region.

Our Neighbourhood – Indian Subcontinent

Subcontinent (and immediate terrestrial and maritime neighbourhood) represents a geopolitical unit, though politically fragmented. Unless we and our neighbours can build upon their inter-connected destinies, piggy-back on each other’s strengths, we collectively weaken our own capacities.

Reality that no nation of subcontinent can isolate itself from another’s influence. Yet, SAARC remains ‘least integrated region’, trade exchanges among members only 7% of their global trade.

India is interested in its neighbours – because geography does not permit India the option of being indifferent. No other power has the position or understanding to anchor the subcontinent.

PM Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy: visits in first year of office, all important political statements – but need detailing, vision and clearer roadmap. If our neighbours see net benefit of relations with India to be unfair, it will be difficult to get their cooperation. Prescriptive?

India’s immense power in subcontinent cannot be denied. How should Delhi define its interests? Normative and prescriptive? Build dependencies, economic integration, leading to greater mutual acceptance? Too many channels of (mis)communication?


Sea change in Indian perceptions reflected in bipartisan consensus in Parliament on LBA; problems remain, Illegal migration, yet BD has transcended image as being a haven for anti-India activities.

Lesson in managing relationships in Subcontinent – both sides have stepped forward to bridge trust deficit. Subcontinental relations cannot be one-sided; have to be a joint effort.

Needs continued attention. Future of this geo-strategic relationship will require deft and creative diplomatic engagement: (1) connectivity schemes that integrate Bangladesh with India’s North-East for mutual benefit and outreach into the Subcontinent’s eastern neighbourhood; and (2) water issues.


Another lesson in successful management of relations between two very different subcontinental neighbours. Understanding and readiness to accommodate each other’s interests (including on internal security issues) draws from enlightened leaderships and mutual confidence, mutually beneficial economic integration, leading to acceptance of – and making the best use of – their shared geo-political interests and destinies.

Sri Lanka

Several valuable lessons here, both positive and negative, on relations management between two subcontinental States. With Sirisena – Wickremesinghe government, a fresh direction in relationship that must be consolidated and built upon.

Knotty matters remain, that must be handled sensitively, again with both sides needing to appreciate the benefits of their resolution: the various Tamil issues and fishing rights, for which a negotiated solution needs to be found accommodating both sides’ interests.


Yet another strategically positioned neighbour, been quietly helpful in dealing with North-east insurgency. Bilateral economic cooperation and connectivity projects being taken forward.

Chinese footprint has been, and is, formidable, consolidated during isolation. Some Chinese unease over gradual distancing by Myanmar in recent years – public opinion also turning against China’s plundering of natural wealth and exploiting ethnic minority resentments and insurgencies.

This month’s Parliamentary elections – Suu Kyi’s impressive win – opportunities to develop the relationship and strengthen Suu Kyi’s diplomatic hand.


On negative side, relationship with Nepal has slid, and both sides should introspect. Examples of Bangladesh and Bhutan before us, BBIN – will sponsorship of anti-Indian sentiments, with India distancing itself as a result, promote Nepal’s interests or benefit the eastern subcontinent?

Nepal chasing imaginary demons? Smaller neighbours can be touchy about ‘sovereignty’, but is the India-Nepal relationship too close for comfort, with mutual exploitation of ethnic, cultural and political links across the open border? Is it seen as threatening for the Nepali establishment? Divisive internal politics, India becomes a scapegoat.

Nepal’s PM Oli has shown political opportunism, bolstering self-interest at cost of fuelling ethnic tensions, has compromised on the progressive guarantees of 2007 Interim Constitution. Madhesi demands for equal opportunity in modern Nepal born of long years of repression and suspicion.

India maintains good relations with all sections of Nepali population. Narrative of India advocating on Madhesi behalf (“our Nepalis” v/s “theirs”) is risky and needs to be debunked. Such an impression will be counterproductive, only serving to entrench the divisions in Nepal, engender long-lasting resentments, work against Indian interests. Risks of radicalisation and violence by disaffected groups.

There is another lesson here too: with our smaller subcontinental neighbours, it is preferable to engage out of the spotlight rather than grandstand publicly.


Facing internal crisis – vulnerable, security remains primary concern against Taliban violence. Managed exit for US troops now difficult, delayed till end-2016. Ashraf Ghani’s disillusionment with Pakistani role now becoming clearer – Kunduz wake-up call. No willingness on Pakistan’s part to let ‘Afghan owned, Afghan led’ process of political settlement move forward without interference.

Initial lack of enthusiasm towards engaging India (under Pakistani and US direction) now seemingly being rectified. Visits of Afghan NSA Hanif Atmar and Dy. FM Hekmat Khalil Karzai to India pointers, with latter now pressing for operationalizing Strategic Partnership Agreement of 2011. India seen as non-interfering partner with commonalities of interest in regional stability and Afghan development.


No one can resolve its internal contradictions but itself. We have tried extending a hand of friendship, to no effect.

We have tried to replicate our approach with China of sidestepping contentious issues to provide space for movement in promoting commonalities for mutual benefit and developing cooperative relations in other fields. With two mature, confident countries as India and China, this has been possible; with Pakistan, with all its obsessions, complexes and contradictions, it has not.

Entrenched use of religiously instigated cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy for political ends is unacceptable under any circumstances.

Adding complexity is the hostile Sino-Pakistan strategic alliance, including its serious nuclear weapons and missile development dimension, and the new China-Pak Economic Corridor, through illegally occupied Indian territory. Nor will US South Asia policy overlook Pakistan’s value as a regional strategic player in the Afghan context. India should have no illusions about this.

Central Asia

Security, energy, trade, development cooperation issues. Strategic roadmap ‘Connect Central Asia’; very much in India’s zone of interest; cultural linkages.

Indian geo-political interests intersect with Central Asia’s, with crucial stakes as well as opportunities to work together in the evolving Afghanistan context.

Strategic competition with China on energy matters, China far ahead with contracts, import infrastructure, while TAPI lags – AfPak concerns. India-China bilateral contact on CARs useful.

On trade, the North-South Trade corridor, strategic infrastructure development at Chahbahar Port, with rail and road links that integrate both Iran and Afghanistan as hubs for Central Asian trade.

West Asia

Another strategically important region. We know the Gulf well. Close links, but complex fault lines.

  • Energy and maritime security now major concern. Demand for Indian involvement in this field.
  • Reduced Western oil demand. Reduced strategic relevance of Gulf oil? US regime change agendas have opened space for extremism, sectarian divides, power games.
  • Our internal security has been increasingly linked to West Asian developments and cooperation.
  • Iran as gateway to Central Asia and Afghanistan.
  • Indian workers in the Gulf – their well-being and security.

India needs to be more closely involved, working with its many assets in the Gulf and West Asian region. There is a great deal that can be done to raise India’s profile and engagement with the region to mutual benefit, and not only in the economic, commercial or cultural fields. A composite policy, with different strands that engage each of our partners (Iran, Israel, the Sunni heartlands) without getting embroiled in region’s politics and faultlines.

Syrian question – calls for a separate detailed discussion. Western regime change policies, divergent agendas of the countries of the region, deeply entrenched sectarian divisions and the region’s power politics, a segmented approach to combating terror, have all served to complicate the issue – cocktail of misplaced policies that has led to the emergence of ISIS as a monster that is now sought to be tackled by coordinated global action.

India has considerable experience in fighting terror sponsored externally and has argued consistently for a clear global consensus on dealing with the menace. CCIT.

Securing the Commons

Maritime Security

Rapid economic growth in AP and IOR, energy and resource security, driving links with Gulf and Africa; wider geo-strategic interest in maintaining stability and security of this crucial maritime domain.

India’s immediate and pressing concerns – unsettled sovereignty and resources management issues can lead to misunderstandings, while piracy, unsustainable fishing, disasters, environmental risk all highlight the primacy of developing a maritime governance architecture.

Indo-Pacific composite region – our interests not limited to IOR, extend seamlessly into South China Sea. China aims to project its influence in IOR as security provider and economic partner. India emphasises freedom of navigation in international waters, right of passage and overflight, commerce and access to resources in line with international law.

Cyber Issues

Cyber technologies creating a geopolitical space of its own, with influence and power which operate independent of established political structures in an unregulated, anarchic space.

Governance regimes to regulate the domain proved elusive.

Economic Issues

The WTO universal, multilateral trading regime that served us well over the last couple of decades is now faltering as new plurilateral trade blocs – TPP, TTIP – get closer to finalisation and operationalisation. TPP, signed by 12 countries of Pacific Rim in October, covers 40% of global trade (excl. China Korea, though may join, and India). Will introduce a “new normal” in trade architecture, labour, environmental standards and IPR.

‘Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership’ RCEP, 16 countries includes India, ASEAN plus Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and NZ. India’s segmented approach? Too defensive?

What are our diplomatic options? BTIA with EU now on hold. Join TPP? Push for FTAs with more TPP States? Accelerate RECP, adopt more ambitious positions? Should we be less defensive, adopt more pragmatic approaches? Calls for deeper debate.

The bottom line, as so often is the case, lies in domestic policies – improve the ecosystem for investment, industry, manufacturing, education…

Climate Change

Very much a foreign policy issue, and a crucial one at that. Apart from our active participation in the UNFCCC multilateral forum, we should not overlook the fact that we are an ecologically deficit country – our ecological footprint, the impact on the environment of our development effort, is larger than the bio-capacity of India, the capacity to absorb the impact. The result is diminished resource stocks, waste accumulating faster than it can be absorbed or recycled, e.g. carbon emissions.

While biocapacity can be enhanced – by enhancing health of ecosystems, energy- and water-efficient technological and agricultural practices. But sustainable development will become even more challenging as demands increase and climate change takes its toll, and we will have to depend on biocapacity of other eco-surplus countries, with all its attendant foreign policy implications. We are already witnessing the growing global competition for energy and mineral resources needed for development.

For India, the dilemma is to safeguard its development prospects without having to accept, prematurely, any constraint on its energy choices. Yet there is no room for complacency, India will be one of the worst affected by climate change, and we have a vested interest in this matter.

Of the limited options available to India, reduction in emissions intensity, enhancement in energy efficiency and expansion of clean energy sources offer the greatest potential for transitioning to a climate resilient and low carbon economy. Finance and technology thus hold the key for India at Paris, a positive, forward-looking approach rather than a defensive one.

Concluding observations

What is our vision for India? What kind of leadership role do we envisage for ourselves? A 19th century power, driven by the industrial revolution and the colonial experience, living of the wealth of others? A 20th century power, depleting and damaging global resources, drawing its supremacy from oil, military and nuclear power? Or a 21st century power, a leadership and transformative role in dealing with the emerging challenges of the 21st century?

The neighbourhood is a criticality in our foreign policy outreach, a diplomatic strategy that can provide an underpinning to our role in Asia. Essentially adversarial relations with the China – Pakistan axis pose a challenge; likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Our objective should be to manage these relationships to prevent misunderstandings, and seek forward movement wherever possible.

The northern border along the Himalaya draws together our relationships with Nepal, Bhutan and China and our diplomatic outreach should take a broader perspective view of our interests here. The Himalaya provide strategic security services, both geo-political and ecological (including climate, water and energy), of extraordinarily high value. A geography that provides such critical inputs for our development calls for the highest levels of attention and protection, in every sense of the term.

Secondly, focus on securing the commons, particularly climate matters and the maritime domain of the Indian Ocean region, and a favourable international trading regime are all crucial aspects of our diplomatic outreach, which we would neglect – or take for granted – at our peril.

If India can move forward convincingly on a development path – in the fullest sense of the term – and sustain a high economic growth trajectory for next two decades without sacrificing ecological sustainability that is today a pre-requisite for growth, it can become a leading power of the 21st century.

Sudhir Vyas is a former India diplomat.

(Source: Ministry of External Affairs, India, Public Diplomacy: Distinguished Lecture Series)

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