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East-West, North-South: Indian diplomacy’s 360 degree waltz amid ballot ballet

May 05, 2014

By Manish Chand

Amid the frenzy and fever of the world’s most colourful elections, India’s diplomacy is quietly and meaningfully humming along as the country’s foreign secretary and senior diplomats head east, west, north and south, in quest of new opportunities unleashed by a rapidly globalising world.

From Beijing to Buenos Aires and Tokyo to Tbilisi, India held wide-ranging talks with at least a dozen countries since the mammoth nine-phase elections began April 7. And there is more on the way.

Looking East and West with a 360 degree vision of India’s omnidimensional engagement with the world, India is set to engage varied countries, including the UAE, Oman, Tajikistan, Greece and Finland in the next few days till a new government is formed after the results of the parliamentary elections are announced May 16.

India’s top diplomat, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, is leading the charge, and is ably complemented by the country’s seniormost diplomats, including Dinkar Khullar, secretary (West) in India’s Ministry of External Affairs and Anil Wadhwa, Secretary (East) in MEA.

images/211.jpg Foreign Secretary holds consultations with Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki on bilateral, regional and international issues in TokyoEngaging China, Japan and Russia

Foreign Secretary Singh made two separate trips to China and Japan, where she underlined New Delhi’s commitment to expand economic and strategic engagement with Asia’s leading economies. The fact that New Delhi chose to engage with Beijing and Tokyo within weeks belied the speculation by some analysts that India was subtly engaged in a balancing game of sorts, playing the two countries, which are often portrayed as rivals, against each other. New Delhi has made it clear many a time that it is not into any containment game, but is only interested in enlarging India’s developmental options.

images/212.jpgForeign Secretary Sujatha Singh meets with China's Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin for sixth Strategic Dialogue in Beijing.


In the middle of the world’s largest democratic exercise, India sustained the momentum in bilateral ties with China by participating in a naval exercise and holding a meeting of the joint border mechanism in Beijing. The two emerging Asian powers reinforced the centrality of maintaining peace and tranquillity on the border as a prerequisite to fostering their multi-faceted bilateral relations. The meeting has buttressed an emerging template for developing India-China relations – keeping border peace and economic relations going while keeping intractable issues like the boundary dispute for long-haul negotiations.

India’s time-tested special ties with Russia were reaffirmed when Singh travelled to Moscow and reaffirmed the critical importance of Russia in India’s foreign office calculus amid the flux in the global order. Her trip will be followed by a string of two-way visits, culminating in the state visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India later this year.

images/213.jpgHola Latin America!

Geographically distant, but kindred in spirit, India has signalled its diplomatic thrust to deepen engagement with Latin America, an emerging economic dynamo which is also home to some of the greatest literary and creative geniuses, who effortlessly criss-cross magic and realism. Mr Khullar’s trip to Argentina and Guatemala mid-April showed that India’s engagement with Latin America is acquiring heft incrementally, and is poised for a marked upswing and high-profile visits later this year.

images/214.jpgSecretary (West) Dinkar Khullar and Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for Bilateral Relations Amer Kapetanovic of Bosnia & HerzegovinaFocus on Europe

With Europe on the cusp of recovery and economic vigour returning to the Eurozone, India is set to sustain and rejuvenate its relations with both eastern and western Europe. Mr Khullar travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovnia (April 22) for wide-ranging talks and is set to travel to Greece and Finland May 9-14. Senior officials of India and Norway engaged in wide-ranging talks in New Delhi and discussed, among other things, cooperation in renewable energy and jointly fostering innovations. Building bridges between Asia and the 28-nation EU, India also participated in a meeting of the senior officials of Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels April 29.

images/215.jpgSecretary (East) Shri Anil Wadhwa with Deputy Prime Minister H.E. Sok An and Minister of Culture of Cambodia, Ms. Sokhana, at the Inauguration of the India Mekong–Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Asian Textile Museum in Siam Reap, Cambodia.Enhanced Look East Policy

Looking East, the election period saw a slew of significant interactions and initiatives, with India naming its first full-time envoy to the 10-nation ASEAN. India separately held talks with Vietnam and Cambodia, the Southeast Asian countries that are trying to script their economic resurgence and carve a place in the region. The economic relations between India and ASEAN are blossoming, with bilateral trade having crossed US $ 75 billion, in 2012-13. Building upon its multi-layered civilizational and economic linkages with the economically vibrant region, India is now moving towards Phase 2 of its Look East policy, which is called "Enhanced Look East” Policy in diplomatic circles. "We are now engaged in the formulation of an Enhanced Look East Policy for the new century which fully recognizes the potential of our civilizational outreach, our economic aspirations, our desire for integration and our shared values and objectives,” says Mr Wadhwa.

The Way Ahead: Emerging Opportunities

The multi-pronged diplomatic interactions during the election period spanning a wide arc of the globe have, therefore, set the stage for an ambitious agenda for diplomatic engagement for the next government in Delhi. By and large, the next dispensation in New Delhi is expected to continue the across-the-party consensus on foreign policy, with a dash of its own style and minor improvisations to suit the changing times. This unwritten national consensus on foreign policy comprises the primacy of strategic autonomy, good relations with neighbouring countries and extended neighbourhood, robust economic diplomacy to maximise gains from globalisation, creating a multi-polar world through constructive engagement with major powers and emerging powers, promoting a rule-based international border, and the democratisation of global governance institutions.

images/216.jpg Amid speculation about changes in India’s foreign policy postures and positions under the next government, the country’s foreign secretary underscored fundamental principles underpinning India’s foreign policy, which are set to endure regardless of power shifts. In a speech at Russian Diplomatic Academy in Moscow April 17, Mrs Singh alluded to "the noisy and exuberant carnival of Indian democracy” and underlined that the country’s "foreign policy perspectives have remained fundamentally stable” all these years and will remain so in the future as well. "India’s overall approach to dealing with an ever-changing world has been and will be consistent – to grasp emerging opportunities, while exercising eternal vigilance against traditional and non-traditional threats,” she said.

If grasping emerging opportunities is the name of the game in the 21st century statecraft, the next government in Delhi should seize the initiative to pursue dynamic and imaginative diplomacy to bolster India’s standing in the international arena, marked by seismic shifts of power from the west to the rest.

(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes, www.indiawrites.org, an e-magazine focused on international relations and the India Story)

(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)



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