CHANGING DYNAMIC OF INDIA’S FOREIGN POLICY
By: Amb (Retd.) Anil Trigunayat
Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management (IIITM), Gwalior
Date: September 26, 2016
It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be here today and to be able to interact with the young minds on the contours and directions of the Indian foreign policy. Foreign policy of any country is a reflection and extension of its domestic policies and agenda so that aspirations of its people are fulfilled in the best possible and peaceful manner. Thank you for the invitation.
2014 was a watershed year in the content, conduct and style of the foreign policy of India with the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Contours became visible even before the new government was formed and a Minister of External Affairs appointed. It was decided for the first time to invite the Heads of State or Heads of Government from the SAARC countries to the oath taking ceremony of newly elected Mr Modi as Prime Minister of India. This was the first peek into the shape of things to come. Subsequently visits to important countries , starting with the neighbourhood ,entailing extensive engagement by the Prime Minister himself and the Hon’ble President and Vice President as well as External Affairs Minister Mrs Sushma Swaraj and other cabinet members and large number of incoming visits both at bilateral and multilateral level ensured the exceptional diplomatic outreach in a short span of little over two years. Recently EAM stated that "In the last two years, in addition to the very vigorous efforts of the Prime Minister personally, my Cabinet colleagues and I have been to more than 140 countries. I have myself met almost 170 of my counterparts, Heads of State/Government and other dignitaries in this period. The impact this has had on the world’s perception of India cannot be overstated. In addition to these bilateral engagements, we have also broken new ground in terms of multilateral gatherings. The Indian Africa Summit was expanded from the earlier 17 nations to its full complement of 54. For the first time, a summit of Pacific Island states with India was held, not just in that region but in India as well.
" The high level visits were also able to bridge the interactive deficit at the highest level of leadership that is so very essential for any important country especially that seeks to play a regional and global role. In our case some of these countries were not visited for decades and hence the interactive possibility provided the requisite impetus and importance to the individual relationship be it with the Middle east, Africa, Europe, US, East Asia, Latin America or small pacific islands apart from resounding articulation of India’s priorities and aspirations, efforts and expectations at the UN or other multilateral fora. The fundamental objective of foreign policy discourse is to serve the national interest in all its dimensions while undertaking the international responsibilities befitting of an emerging power -the dictum so aptly propounded by PM Modi himself as " India First’ that concretized the import and direction of the diplomatic effort. In his interview to Arnab Goswami he further added " Today we are building relations with countries across the world. The amount of respect with which I engage Saudi Arabia, I engage Iran with the same amount of respect. The amount of respect with which I speak to America, I speak to Russia with the same amount of respect. So we need to understand this. We also need to understand that we shouldn’t consider smaller countries insignificant. I abide by this principle’'
In the post- independence era to unshackle the colonial baggage and bondage was essential and a trust deficit of super powers existed since the world was faced with a delicate balance due to cold war rivalry. The astute Indian leadership did not want to be enveloped by the bloc competition and hence founded and led the Non-alignment Movement (NAM) from the front maintaining equi-distance from the two blocs. This approach did serve the national developmental interest significantly in the early decades by securing absolutely necessary assistance, technology, food aid and investment . India also championed the cause of freedom for many countries around the world especially in Africa and the Middle East. South-South cooperation became the developmental theme. India was able to maintain good relations and benefitted from both sides in the cold war while retaining a respectable international profile. India also followed the Panchsheel that propounded the universal principles of coexistence and opposed the power and military interventionist policies in the international discourse. This inter-alia entailed mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression ; non-interference in domestic affairs ;equality and mutual benefits and peaceful coexistence .
In the 1990s when eventually due to external and domestic compulsions India embarked on the path of extensive economic reforms that encompassed liberalization, privatization and globalization the foreign policy was shifted into a higher gear of economic diplomacy as attracting foreign direct and portfolio investment and appropriate technologies and projection of India’s economic and growth potential became the primary task for the diplomatic effort. This yielded significant results . However arguably India had embarked on much needed economic reforms somewhat later than the writing on the wall indicated. Nonetheless India reached the horizons of the MNC boardrooms.
Currently the Government has enhanced the effort with special emphasis and renewed vigour to attract greater investments from abroad for its signature programs like " Make in India” , "Digital India " " Skill India” " Stand-up India " " Start- up India ", " Clean India” and to develop the infrastructure through more economic reforms and making India the most attractive destination. Results endorse the effort. This year despite a global down turn India attracted the unprecedented quantum of FDI and became the most attractive investment destination. As for diplomacy the major task for Ambassadors has become the economic and public diplomacy. A change in governance and focus on implementation is really the top down approach that has brought about a qualitative difference in the way things are done today.
Now I would like to dwell on some of the key dimensions of the foreign policy during the last over two years;
Neighbourhood First: You can not chose your neighbours as far as geographic national entities are concerned. You are endowed with them. You have to live with them and grow. India has always striven and believed that in order for her to grow it is important that our neighbours are stable and develop economically for a win-win situation to sustain. Hence our developmental assistance mostly goes to our neighbours . We have also followed an asymmetric collaborative effort where reciprocity has not been expected from our partners. Peace in the region is a pre requisite for our own progress and development. However apart from Pakistan and China ,who inflicted wars on us in the past, relations with most other countries remained sound and friendly . It is a fact that our neighbours suffer from the proverbial " Big brother syndrome” given India’s sub continental proportions and huge size of the economy, growth and population. These are misplaced reservations that can only be addressed though greater consideration of their concerns and sensitivities and still greater economic assistance. Some reciprocity with regard to our own sensitivities and security from them is a given too.
PM Modi by inviting the leaders of SAARC countries for his swearing in ceremony conveyed the regard and priority he attached to the neighbours and the regional development and provided a unique interactive opportunity at the highest level that set the tone barring some usual exceptions. He also made it a point to visit the neighbouring countries on priority that indicated the strengthening of the bilateral track with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka ( after 28 years) and Afghanistan. His out of the box approach to drop in Lahore to wish PM Nawaz Sharif was indeed a masterly diplomatic stroke that did provide an edge even though relationship with Pakistan has continued to slide despite initial positive expectations since Pakistan continues to harbor terrorists and extremist designs against India. Although at the SAARC meet in Kathmandu ( visit after 17 years ) PM Modi announced the launch of a SAARC satellite and Centre for Good Governance some other major connectivity issues were halted due to Pakistani intransigence and trust deficit. Hence sub regional cooperation through North East i.e. BIMSTEC etc. has become a via media of achieving strategic developmental objectives. India also rose to the assistance of her neighbors in disaster management and the speed of assistance availability to Nepal during the devastating earthquake is well acknowledged. Only last week Nepalese PM visited India and several important agreements including for a substantial aid package were signed .
Pakistan remains the nemesis for India that is also dampening the regional integration. Pakistan’s foreign policy is India –centric with several competing power centres i.e. weak political establishment ; hawkish and all powerful military and ISI elites whose sole objective is to destabilize India through perpetrating cross border terrorism for decades now . 26/11 Mumbai attacks, Pathankot or Gurdaspur earlier in the year and Uri attack on army base only last week have left deep scars in our psyche and perhaps embedded permanent mis-trust of the Pakistani regime. Pakistan is the rogue nation that follows an official policy sponsoring and training terrorist outfits and has become the safe haven for terrorists . It is indulging in a hara-kiri of sorts that will decimate it despite the blind Chinese support to its mis-adventures since Pakistan is their special strategic partner and benefits economically, militarily as well as in the nuclearization of its arsenal that emboldens its posturing. Besides $ 46 bn One Belt One Road initiative and China- Pakistan Economic Corridor and development of Gwadar port and extensive rail and road connectivity plans have become significant irritants for India . Consequently India has changed its way of dealing with Pakistan firstly by internationally exposing and isolating it secondly focusing the global attention on their nefarious designs. This year from the ramparts of Red fort on Independence Day PM Modi empathized with the Baloch movement and their plight while asking Pakistan to vacate Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and not only talk about J&K. This was a strategic move in departure from the conciliatory approach on a festering issue for last 70 years. Presently due to this month’s attack on base camp at Uri by Pakistani trained and facilitated terrorists and their continued intransigence bilateral relations will remain volatile and could remain frozen in the near future.
ACT East Policy: Prime Minister Nehru being fully conscious of the geographical importance of India In March 1950, in a speech in the Indian Parliament, observed, ”We are in a strategic part of Asia, set in the centre of Indian Ocean, with intimate past and present connection with West Asia, South-East Asia and Far Eastern Asia. Even if we could we would not want to ignore this fact.” But we precisely did that. I recall listening to PM of Singapore at a CII Conference in 1997 when he lamented that India started looking at East Asia only now and hitherto was always looking towards the West – means the real west .
To engage with the Asia-Pacific region, India adopted a policy of Look East in the 1990s,. In the beginning we aimed at integrating our economy with capital, markets, and technologies from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), that also became essential due to loss of support from the former Soviet Union which disintegrated in 1991 . Later efforts were made to expand the cooperation from purely economic to strategic involving military and geopolitical collaborations. This was further expanded to include countries from the entire Asia-Pacific region including Mongolia and South Korea. Our engagement with ASEAN has expanded from observer status to Full Dialogue partner to ASEAN+6 etc. and currently we have a robust partnership with the dynamic countries of the region including regular participation in the East Asia Summits last one being at Laos only last month. Several agreements and memorandums were signed with the aim of promoting defense cooperation, creating security architecture for the Indian Ocean, and strengthening information sharing. Furthermore, in 2015, India hosted the Second Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation. During the summit, the prime minister pledged to intensify aid to South Pacific island nations, to build information technology laboratories in each Pacific island state, and to enhance maritime security cooperation.
India is being looked at as a viable partner for providing and ensuring the region's security in future. Several of the ASEAN countries expect India to counter the Chinese narrative and aggression in the South China Sea dispute since maritime lanes and free navigation across the seas is the necessity and incumbent according the international Law and conventions. This is not to the liking of China which wants India to not mess in and stay out. This is an opportunity to diplomatically level it out with China that spares no efforts to degrade our areas of influence.
Apart from political , economic and connectivity linkages cultural dimension of the centuries old relationship has been underscored. Finally the Nalanda University project has been underway. PM Modi’s emphasis on great heritage of Buddha has struck a positive chord with the countries of the region. During his trips to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia he made it a point to visit monasteries underscoring the theme that "without Buddha this century cannot be the Asian century” . It also resonated well in our neighbourhood in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Look East policy has been transformed into Act East policy and Act fast that has been visible in the high octane visits of PM to the region last being to Vietnam and Laos . In addition a Link West policy was devised with an emphasis on Central Asia and nations around the Indian Ocean Rim- through his visits to five Central Asian countries i.e. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in July last year. Efforts are also on to expedite the North south Transport Corridor to have effective and faster linkages and to ensure India’s energy and physical security through strengthening cooperation in military domain as well in counter terrorism efforts with the Asian region.
China : India and China are the two fastest growing major powers in Asia with global ambitions. Hence competition and cooperation will go hand in hand .Relations with China over decades have remained ambivalent due to apparent Chinese desire and efforts to equate India with Pakistan which is their special strategic partner and would like to see India confined to the South Asian strategic space . Chinese efforts are to contain Indian influence be it in Sri Lanka , Nepal, Maldives or Myanmar . In the bilateral relationship there are several issues including the boundary dispute and its presence in the PoK . Its String of Pearls strategy and One Belt One Road initiative ,which can be termed as its 21st century Silk Road, could be unhelpful and inimical to the interests of India unless a collaborative paradigm matrix is devised that addresses Indian security and economic concerns . Whether China will pay heed to it is a moot question. In the mean time China continues to thwart India’s efforts to gain membership of UNSC or NSG. Even in the SCO it predicated India’s entry to that of inclusion of Pakistan. On terrorism although it condemns it but then would block the listing of Masood Azhar and LeT, JeM etc. at the UN and looks the otherway where Pakistan is concerned. Such dichotomous approaches and actions seed the doubts about their intentions. In any case the relationship with China is being managed like the two matured countries . PM Modi visited China twice and President Xi Jin Ping was one of the first leaders to visit India after the new government . China also remains a strong trade and investment partner. Both countries continue to collaborate in BRICs and RIC.
Engage with the West : Middle East ,our extended neighbourhood, especially the GCC countries are extremely important from our security and diaspora perspective. They host over 8 million Indians who remit over $ 60 bn . Besides almost 70% of our energy and hydrocarbon needs are met from the region. Our trade with the region is ever expanding and has become a major priority. Despite the down turn and Arab Spring effects these countries have huge sovereign wealth funds which could be a viable source for India’s exceptional investment needs that would be mutually beneficial. From the security and maritime perspective they have a strategic bearing on us. Having historical relations and our benign approaches the relationship, despite the absence of high level interactions in the 1980s and 1990s and the Pakistan factor, continued to strengthen. After the new government of PM Modi the countries from the middle east in our neighbourhood were somewhat skeptical about the perceived proximity towards Israel at their expense as well as wondered whether our commitment to the Palestinian cause will remain undiluted. On both these accounts the suspicions were allayed since PM Modi’s high octane visits to UAE, Saudi Arabia , Qatar and return visits from those and other countries along with huge investment prospects and commitments reiterated the strategic nature of our partnership be it in counter terrorism, diaspora welfare, energy security or defence and maritime security. Relationship with the GCC and the Middle East countries is high on the agenda. However the policy of Look West to Engage West needs to be actualized at the earliest.
Diaspora Dividend: Indians are highly enterprising people and more than 20 million of them constitute the diaspora and a very successful one too. Almost 8 million Indians live and work and contribute to the well being and development of the Gulf and other middle- east countries. They have turned ‘Brain drain’ into ‘Brain Trust’ for the country and have been instrumental in orienting the countries of their residence towards Indian opportunity especially in the IT, financial, technology transfer and investments . They have also acquired significant political clout especially in the US, Canada and UK etc. In the GCC countries Indian enterprise and industry , professionalism as well as the disciplined Indian work force is highly appreciated and preferred over other expatriates. During PM Modi’s interactions and visits abroad the Indian diaspora’s enthusiasm to present their leader with Rock star welcome was the envy of even local leaders. Besides the remittances by Indian expats back home constitute a significant portion of our foreign exchange reserves. A new approach of engaging and assisting them has been adopted by the present government. It is unique that Mrs. Sushma Swaraj, EAM attends to the smallest labour or personal consular issue of individuals directly and personally ensures speedy action. Government’s adoption of social media tools for its extensive outreach and public diplomacy has yielded desired dividends. The current policy to make them respectable stake holders in India’s development objectives could bring about a paradigm shift in orienting and utilizing this invaluable resource.
Africa Next : Africa is the natural friend and partner for India . Tremendous grass root affection and goodwill for India exists across the continent. . However ad-hoc policies and consequent erratic spells of engagement with the region were adopted . While many of the African leaders looked up to India and visited occasionally there was a tremendous deficit from our side. Last major visits to many of those countries were undertaken by the first PM Jawaharlal Nehru. Although we directed our efforts towards capacity building in Africa through ITEC programmes and Lines of Credit that were indeed appreciated by the locals a great deal we did not carry it with the same enthusiasm . It is a known fact that Indians and India are liked and preferred at the grass roots level but certain acts of criminality racial injustice in Indian cities tended to create some misgivings that need to be countered. India-Africa Forum Summits were instituted but not at the scale it should have been. However India has declared the stepping up of its cooperation with African countries. At the Third India-Africa Forum Summit, which took place in New Delhi in October 2015 which was attended by the largest numbers of Heads of States and Governments , the Indian Government announced concessional credit worth $10 billion for Africa during next five years and promised assistance of $600 million in areas such as public transportation and agricultural science and technology. Capital and training will be provided to combat terrorism and extremism on the continent, and some 50,000 scholarships for African students have been announced. Moreover visits by Prime Minister Modi, President Mukherjee and Vice President Ansari during this year alone have sought to bridge the high level interactive deficit and to assuage the concerns of several African leaders . This has to continue unabated as Africa is the continent of the next century and India their preferred partner.
Big Powers : During the past two years or so India and the US have come closer as natural allies . PM Modi has met President Obama at least 8 times . Obama visited India twice and also promised US support to India for a permanent seat at the expanded UNSC. During his visit on Republic Day last year President Obama issued a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean that underscored the agreement to work together in South and East Asia. Defence cooperation with the signing of LEMOA and other agreements like Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) have moved in a different and higher orbit. They also support India’s entry to NSG and other regimes.US companies are keen to " Make in India” and invest in strategic industries. India also resolved the issues pertaining to nuclear liability issues and some other concerns with ensuing economic reforms. US would also prefer to see a democratic India win the economic race. Although US continues to maintain a close level of relationship with Pakistan due to Afghanistan and other strategic reasons it is obviously concerned about India’s reservations and Pakistan’s continuing indulgence with terrorism. Observers sea qualitative shift in the Indo-US relationship. As for Russia the high level interactions and engagement continue apace even though some may feel that it has been diluted. India recognizes the importance of Russia and its steadfast support be it defence, nuclear, space, counter terrorism or energy security or in the international and multilateral fora. It was after decades that India was able to secure stakes in Russian oil fields last year after a gap of over 12 years since Sakhalin. Russian foray into India’s civil nuclear programme moves on successfully. Besides US-India-Russia is not a zero sum game. Similarly relations with UK and France have been further intensified. There is a closer collaboration in the Climate Change area . Along with France PM Modi launched the International Solar alliance. However Free Trade Agreement with the EU is yet to see the light of the day.
Multilateral outreach : In the multilateral fora India continued to flag the areas of her concern very effectively . At the UNGA in 2014 , PM Modi staked the claim to a seat in the expanded UNSC as " our right” rather than pleading and justifying India’s stakes and credentials . On terrorism it was one of the most vehement and vitriolic denunciation of the countries that discriminate between different kinds of terrorism. There is no good or bad terrorist. Outreach for India’s initiative for Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism was given a new lease. PM Modi’s cultural diplomacy had a great victory with the largest number of countries supporting declaration of June 21 as the International Day of Yoga . In the Climate Change Talks India maintained the protection of its core interests while working closely with the other stake holders. In the G-20 for the first time India was able to get the money laundering and disclosure of information on black money highlighted and made actionable. India will be hosting the BRICS Summit on October 15 which will further review and undertake new initiatives with this intercontinental grouping. India also led the efforts to start text based negotiations on the UNSC Reforms. At the recently held NAM Summit in Venezuela our Vice President focused on devising a comprehensive strategy to combat terrorism.
Challenges Ahead: Present Government’s foreign policy is aimed to serve multiple objectives: improving India's international status and esteem, attracting capital and investment, and driving the domestic economy through multilateral cooperation. Foreign investment and technology have helped India gain more markets, thus pushing forward domestic economic reforms and facilitating the realization of ambitious government programs, including Made in India, Digital India, Smart Cities etc. While Indian diplomatic efforts have achieved remarkable success with an enhanced profile the challenges pertaining to managing relations with China, Pakistan and its sponsorship of cross border terrorism , international extremism and radicalization ,balancing of relations with USA and Russia as well as securing objectives in the multilateral fora will be the key to the success of the fastest growing major economy which needs to grow still faster to encompass and cater to the aspirations of its 70% young population below 35 years which will be the driving force for this Asian Century. This should be achievable since PM Modi believes in a proactive foreign policy .He recalled in a recent interview that speaking to young foreign service officers "in a very poetic way I told them that there was a time when we used to sit by the sea and count the waves, but the time has now changed, we are done counting waves, now it’s time for us to steer ourselves, ride the waves and decide on our direction, destination and speed.” However to overcome the foreign policy challenges we need clarity of purpose, true grit and determination, drive and the realistic means backed by the broad international goodwill and support that will deliver.