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India@75: Focus on China, G20, I2U2, How Our Foreign Policy Has Evolved Post Independence

By: Kanwal Sibal

Last Updated: August 15, 2022, 13:33 IST

New Delhi, India

Today, India is a significant player on the global stage by virtue of its own strength as a rising power. It is a member of the G20, is invited to the G7 meetings and is a lead player in climate change negotiations by virtue of its own initiatives in this area. (File Photo: Twitter/PMO)

Today, India is a significant player on the global stage by virtue of its own strength as a rising power. It is a member of the G20, is invited to the G7 meetings and is a lead player in climate change negotiations by virtue of its own initiatives in this area. (File Photo: Twitter/PMO)

An Indian Prime Minister holding a joint meeting with the Prime Ministers of Nordic countries as a group, the Central Asian states, the Caribbean Forum and Pacific Island States Forum shows how much India’s stature has grown as an interlocutor

India’s foreign policy in the 75th year of its Independence has evolved with the changes in the international situation with some continuities dictated by permanent interests: managing our neighbourhood, protecting our frontiers, maintaining sovereignty in decision-making and securing the economic well-being of its people. Over-arching all this is India’s resolve to play a role in world affairs that reflects its size, human resources, economic potential and its civilisational assets.

After Independence, India actively supported the process of decolonisation, opposed apartheid in South Africa rooted in racism, promoted Afro-Asian solidarity to resist the historical domination of the West and campaigned for the elimination of nuclear weapons that threatened the survival of humanity. To remain in control of its foreign policy choices, India refused to take sides in the Cold War and along with some like-minded leaders founded the non-aligned movement. India’s foreign policy was seen as too moralistic because of some of these positions.

Some of the old battles India fought have emerged in new forms. Decolonisation may have been achieved but the global system is still dominated by the West. India seeks a reform of the global political and financial institutions established by the West after the end of the World War II, but without much success so far. India seeks permanent membership of the UN Security Council so that it can participate in decision-making on issues of global concern, especially peace and security. Minister Jaishankar has aptly pointed out that excluding India that will in time be the most populous state in the world and the third largest economy would call into question the representative nature of the UNSC. India has now become a nuclear power as it was left with no choice but to act pragmatically in a world where hard power still is the most effective diplomatic currency.

The nonaligned movement has lost its earlier relevance with the end of the Cold War and India no longer refers to nonalignment as the basis of its foreign policy. In the new context, we now speak of India pursuing a policy of multi-alignment or issue based alignment. This explains the transformations of our ties with the US that includes signing of various foundational defence agreements and substantial defence purchases, designation as Major Defence Partner, elaborate military exercises as well as membership of the Quad and a commitment to the Indo-Pacific concept. This explains also our membership of BRICS, the SCO and the continuation of the Russia-India-China dialogue. In other words, we are pursuing our interests in all forums without either exclusivity or entering into alliances with any set of countries.

This ability to be part of groups, which may be strategically opposed to each other, and within those groups to have ties of varying strength with constituent members, could be described as India retaining its strategic autonomy amidst the power shifts occurring at the international level. When India was relatively weak, its leadership of the nonaligned world gave it room for manoeuvre in foreign policy. Today, India is a significant player on the global stage by virtue of its own strength as a rising power. It is a member of the G20, is invited to the G7 meetings and is a lead player in Climate Change negotiations by virtue of its own initiatives in this area. It has a powerful voice on global health issues by the manner in which it relied on its own resources to combat the Covid-19 pandemic more efficiently than some advanced countries could, and supplied vaccines not only to developing countries in need but also anti-Covid 19 drugs to the developed countries too.

India has begun to progressively shed its lack of confidence in dealing with China. The policy of engaging China despite its aggressive conduct towards us has not been abandoned but there is more clarity that China will remain our adversary and India needs to stand up to it on its own as also forge partnerships with others to curb its expansionism. India stood up to China at Doklam and is now face to face with it militarily in Ladakh.

Today, there is much greater focus on national security in policy making. Defence sector reforms, emphasis on creating indigenous manufacturing capacity in defence manufacturing, involving the private sector to achieve that objective, boosting defence exports to solidify partnerships with key countries rapid improvement in military infrastructure in border areas are all part of this new outlook.

This outlook encompasses much greater attention to issues of maritime security, especially in the Indian Ocean, not the least because of China’s maritime strategy in our region. SAGAR, the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, and the earlier Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, are concepts India has launched to position itself more visibly and effectively on issues of maritime security. India has set up an Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean in Gurugram to further maritime safety and security. A strong maritime partnership has been forged with France. Nearer home, at the NSA-level maritime security cooperation has been established between India, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

All Indian governments give priority to stable and friendly relationships with neighbours, even if this objective has never been achieved to the extent desired. Pakistan is, of course, a case apart. Our neighbours have always sought to balance India’s Influence and power in various ways, be it playing the China card against us or sowing suspicions domestically about India’s desire to dominate and its interference in their internal affairs. This will continue and we will have to live with this reality. Today, however, a major effort is underway to bind our neighbours to us in positive ways, especially through connectivity initiatives. Relations with Bangladesh have greatly improved. Nepal remains difficult to handle despite a lot of effort to draw it closer to us. Frequent visits to these countries at Prime Minister’s level has become a norm, as also leveraging religious and cultural links to promote ties with them, unlike in the past.

With Pakistan, the terms of engagement have been radically altered with the revision of Articles 370 of the Indian Constitution, separating Ladakh from J&K and forming them into two new Union Territories. This was a bold decision given the international profile the Kashmir issue had acquired since our Independence, western pressures on us on issues of human rights and our internal political management of the situation in J&K, pressures that continue but without the same impact as before either on our policies or even international public opinion in general. India has removed the Kashmir issue from any restored dialogue with Pakistan, which India has made firmly conditional on Pakistan abjuring jihadi terrorism against us. India has now reached out to the Taliban in Afghanistan to pragmatically protect its longer term stakes there and outflank Pakistan by sending a message of friendship to the Afghan people.

A big change that helps on Kashmir and terrorism is the vast change that has occurred in our ties with the conservative Gulf monarchies who have distanced themselves from Islamic extremism in a bid to modernise and prepare themselves for a post-oil world. We now receive cooperation on counterterrorism issues from them, apart from opening up of prospects of security cooperation. We have succeeded in forging close ties with Israel without it affecting our relations with the Arab world or Iran, with which we have kept the channels of communication open. The recent meeting at summit level of I2U2 (India, Israel, UAE and US) demonstrates the new creativity of Indian foreign policy. Turkey has become a thorn in our flesh, however, prodded by its Islamised leanings under President Erdogan.

The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated India’s capacity to assert its strategic autonomy in refusing to condemn Russia despite pressure from the West. We have not wanted to jeopardise our longstanding friendly ties with Russia on an issue for which US/NATO policies also bear responsibility. By supplying wheat to needy countries following the shortages created by the Ukraine conflict, India has burnished its international image as a country that can provide food aid internationally when needed, besides providing millions of its own countrymen with food aid during the social stress created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

India’s foreign policy is looking at all possible ways to enhance its standing in the world. Putting Yoga and Ayurveda on the global map is part of this, as is the intensified engagement with our diaspora. That an Indian Prime Minister can hold a joint meeting with the Prime Ministers of Nordic countries as a group, the Central Asian states, the Caribbean Forum and Pacific Island States Forum shows how much India’s stature has grown as an interlocutor. The IMF or the OECD projections see India as having the highest growth rates in the coming years amongst the large economies and India becoming the third largest economy possibly by 2030. This enlarges the room for a more confident and effective Indian diplomacy on the international stage despite all the challenges that India still faces. This is a great change in Indian foreign policy 75 years after Independence.

Kanwal Sibal is former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:August 15, 2022, 13:32 IST
last updated:August 15, 2022, 13:33 IST