India’s Foreign Policy challenges today


I want to begin by thanking the IIT, Ropar to invite me to speak under the Ministry of External Affairs’ Distinguished Lecture Series. I also want to thank the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry to ask me to deliver the lecture under this Programme.

The cross-disciplinary nature of the challenges arising as the world progresses in the 21st century on the back of the dizzying pace of technology’s march is evident to all observers. These challenges create more complex tasks for India’s foreign policy establishment – as, indeed, the countries all over the world. So, I am glad about the opportunity to engage with some of our brightest young minds pursuing higher technological studies and research here at Ropar.

INDIA’S FOREIGN POLICY CONSTRUCT

The aim of any foreign policy – or, a government’s external activity – is to assist the government’s domestic agenda of promoting the welfare and progress of the people by maximising their opportunities and minimising the risks originating from outside its borders. Manifestly, the pursuit of the welfare of the people is anchored in the values dear to them and the lifestyle they take for granted.

And, our values and lifestyle are rooted in our ancient civilisation and which were congealed during our unique freedom struggle; this legacy endures and is widely acknowledged as a reason for India’s success today. Our values of democracy, freedom of expression and belief, cultural eclecticism, social inclusion and equality of opportunity lent to our polity a robust vibrancy and institutional resilience. India’s development model worked, successfully, without the leadership seeking external support for its domestic legitimacy which has, on the other hand, enabled it to project a benign foreign image with which all major countries feel comfortable for developing relations.

These defining characteristics of our national life continue to underpin our foreign policy ever since the independence in 1947. An independent, non-aligned foreign policy, eschewing superpower bloc politics and polarisation of the Cold War period, helped India overcome the technological and industrial backwardness of the colonial era, improve our social indicators, create a significant technological and knowledge base and a high degree of nation-wide economic integration; most importantly – a point not recognised adequately in the public discourse today – the successful growth model, with its emphasis on grassroots’ empowerment, has put India amongst the least socio-economically unequal societies, as measured by the World Bank’s Gini Index, and in favourable comparison with both the developing countries, such as China, and the developed countries, such as the US.

INDIA’S FOREIGN POLICY CHALENGES POST-COLD WAR

Most critically, this foreign policy construct, by keeping India away from excessive interference by the great powers in its domestic affairs, has contributed to our resilient state institutions and economy, and has helped the country cope with the geo-political and geo-economic earthquake, coinciding with the IT revolution, caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of the US as a sole superpower in the world. It helped in taking advantage of the opportunities created by the onset of globalisation, the tone and content of which were determined by the US. It also helped in overcoming India’s own difficulties and anxieties at that inflection point in our history due to the uncertainties from short-lived governments at the centre, an empty treasury, disappearance of a friend and a source of weapons in the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s triumphalism following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and spike in militant-led disturbances in Jammu and Kashmir.

Where does the country stand today? The world, in the era of globalisation, is profoundly interconnected due to technology, economic linkages, the movement of people in ever larger numbers to ever larger number of countries and the determined efforts by the countries to tap resources and economic opportunities outside their shores. The circumstances provide opportunities for India to pursue its national objective of socio-economic progress due to its own strengths in its large and quite sophisticated economy, large and young workforce, high level of technological education, strong defence forces with an ever widening geographical reach, and, no less important, its enduring tradition of cultural eclecticism – without, of course, forgetting the command over English language. All of these factors make India an attractive economic and political partner to diverse set of countries which are pursuing, often, contradictory interests. India’s military reach, with its future potential, helps – and can even further – affect the balance of power in the regions of its interest. For the above reasons, India’s flexibility of options in building relations with one power or the other is an important foreign policy and diplomatic leverage due to its credibility in the global affairs today. It is for these reasons that Prime Minister Modi advised the Indian ambassadors recently, in his first address to them, that India’s role, in future, is to be that of a leading power rather of than a balancing power.

CHALLENGES OF GLOBALISATION

As India has had the institutional agility to take advantage of the processes and forces of globalisation, it needs to be kept in mind that the prevailing circumstances are much more complex than of the period preceding it. And, this realisation must drive efforts towards wide-ranging institutional capacity-building, including diplomatic, since several countries have suffered catastrophically due to their incapacity on this count. The globalisation period is characterised by considerable uncertainty and unpredictability both in terms of the processes as well as in terms of the inadequacy of international institutional capacity. Technology has empowered individuals – both well-disposed and ill-disposed – vis-a-vis the state which has lost its monopoly on information and on destructive power. The surge in global trade and production-linkages, across national boundaries, difficult of regulation due to inadequate multilateral institutional capacity, has made global economic crises more frequent and unpredictable leaving no country unaffected; this lack of capacity has not only affected, profoundly, all countries but also the balance of global power as witnessed in the diminution of the influence of the US and the accelerated rise of China.

The phenomenon of failed/failing states, although not unique in the current globalisation era, is more widely witnessed today these days in different parts the world, including our own. Partly caused by the end of domestic involvement of the superpowers in 1991, the process of state failure has been aggravated by the technology aiding the emergence of groups of individuals believing in extremist ideologies and in terrorism; this has also led to the phase of “irregular” or “urban” warfare against the states in nominal control of the territories in a milieu of societal breakdown. The failing states, in combination with the inadequate capacity of the multilateral global institutions, aggravate multifold the existing – and newer – security threats. These inadequate state capacities negatively impact on availability of food, water and energy and on the complexity of their inter-relationships.

Because of global connectivity and technology, what would be considered inconsequential, in the past, has become a matter of global concern – such as the rapid spread of global pandemics like SARS or Ebola. Even more serious is the prospect of catastrophic climate change which can even be, potentially, an existential threat but even at present, the increasing frequency of severe weather events, such as cyclones and droughts, have serious implications for political and economic stability of states.

INDIA’S CURRENT FOREIGN POLICY CHALLENGES

As the global trends become difficult to predict, the global balance of power is shifting. Rising countries, such as China and India, feel that the global governance structures do not adequately represent their interests – and the current managers of these governance structures grapple with the issue of the “co- option” of these rising powers within the structures.

Throughout the post-Cold War period, during its various phases, India has aimed to resist pressure of the superpower to impose political and economic agenda and by preserving its freedom of action, countering the entire range of political, military and para-military subversion activities, maintaining defence preparedness and by safeguarding our potentialities for technological self-reliance and inclusive socio-economic growth.

India’s relations the US have improved considerably, in contrast to its unease in 1991, because the latter sees India as a stabilising power and also seeks to leverage it against China with which its relations have worsened considerably of late. As the shifting balance of power towards the East brings China, with which India has a complex relationship, in the centre of things and brings India in close proximity to the global geo-political vortex.

India’s security environment remains complex, not the least, due to factors which are not within the control of individual countries. The unsettled borders with China and Pakistan remain tense on a daily basis. Afghanistan faces uncertainty following the withdrawal of international troops. Nepal remains politically unsettled too and the turbulence in the Maldives is growing. Sri Lanka has had a decisive presidential election victory with a friendly President in office but the Tamil issue is still unsettled. Bangladesh is locked in an internal political confrontation almost on a continuing basis. Myanmar is still having an uncertain and uneasy transition from the military to the democratic form of government. On the maritime side, India’s growing reach means that once geographically distant problems, now, appear closer home – be they the northern Arabian Sea, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Pacific whilst the Indian Ocean, potentially, is entering a period of tension. Indian diaspora, extended throughout the globe but, especially in the Middle East which is also a source of vital energy supplies, makes it imperative for the foreign policy makers to follow the developments the world over closely.

At the multilateral level, India has campaigned for reform of global institutions, such as the UN, World Bank and IMF and is actively engaged in multilateral and regional organisations such as SAARC, IBSA, BRICS, G 20 et cetera. Its current multilateral challenges include issues such as WMD proliferation, space, cyber, maritime, climate change, global trade regime, IPR et cetera.

The complexity of foreign policy challenges before India spans the entire spectrum of the challenges as they obtain the world over. Whilst India does not face the prospect of a full-fledged war, two of its neighbours, with whom it has a complex relationship, are nuclear-armed with one of them, namely Pakistan, pursuing cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy; the sheer complexity of a lot of “moving parts”, driving the global situation, do create the real spectre for India of things quickly getting out of control. All of the challenges discussed above exist in some form or the other in India’s neighbourhood. Institutional resilience and the guiding principles of India’s foreign policy since independence have stood the country in good stead and are the reason for India’s acknowledged success in today’s fluid and uncertain times. But, the fluidity and the unpredictability of the evolving circumstances being such that India’s foreign policy establishment needs to stay ahead of the curve constantly and avoid the pitfalls of groupthink induced by powerful opinion-making circles outside India in this age of information saturation.

IMPERATIVES FOR FOREIGN POLICY

As part of capacity-building, India needs to cater to both the ‘traditional’ and the ‘non-traditional’ security challenges. The ‘traditional’ security challenges require managing India’s external relations based on hard power, especially military, and managing externally organised terrorism within the country. The ‘non-traditional’ security challenges arise from political instability and fragmentation in the countries in the neighbourhood, climate change, global economic shocks, trans-national crime, technology leveraged destabilisation of state authority, including through social media, by malevolent individuals or groups of individuals. The foreign policy challenges generated by these – ‘non-traditional’ – phenomena require different kind of diplomatic effort and capacity which is premised on a non-adversarial approach to even unfriendly governments; an example is the common approach towards disaster relief and rehabilitation or trans-border river basin management in a situation of emerging acute water stress.

The institutional capacities for meeting these different sets of challenges are different and even contradictory and require the agility to adjust to both effortlessly. This capacity-building requires command over cost-cutting issues as they arise and constant exercise of scenario-building. In these areas, it is expertise like that possessed by my audience today which becomes highly relevant.

FOREIGN POLICY APPROACH OF THE NEW GOVERNMENT

The new government, led by Prime Minister Modi, has done well by placing emphasis on economic diplomacy to implement its priority of ‘Make in India’. Its reaching out to the neighbours, as one of its first diplomatic initiatives, is based on sound, pragmatic thinking. It is also not averse to project power, as the recent ‘Sagar Yatra’ of the Prime Minister demonstrates, in underlining India’s profound maritime interests. The hectic diplomatic engagement, pursued by the new leadership, with the major global powers, is affirmation of thinking that, in this age of globalisation, India’s national interests can only be enhanced through leveraging its international prestige and influence. These initiatives, however, are not easy to sustain given that the countries pursuing their own agendas vis-a-vis India are in bitter rivalry with one another. India’s leadership will have to, thus, combine institutional agility and diplomatic savvy maintaining at the same time its credibility in the eyes of its interlocutors. Introduction of the ‘non-traditional’ security threats mitigation agenda in its international engagement, especially with its neighbours, would help in focusing on addressing the common security threats would easing relationships and even manage the hard core security challenged faced by the country; India’s capacity, in this regard, is considerable and can be finessed even further.

I must thank you for your patience and attention and would welcome questions from the audience!

(Yogendra Kumar is a retired Indian diplomat. His lecture was copied from the Official Website of Indian Ministry of External Affairs)

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