India’s foreign policy in the 75th year of its independence has evolved with the changes in the international situation with continuities dictated by permanent interests: managing our neighborhood, protecting our borders, maintaining sovereignty in decision-making and ensuring the economic well-being of its people. Beyond all this, India is determined to play a role in world affairs that reflects its size, human resources, economic potential and civilizational assets.
After independence, India actively supported the decolonization process, opposed apartheid in South Africa rooted in racism, promoted Afro-Asian solidarity to resist historical Western domination and campaigned for the elimination of nuclear weapons which threatened the survival of mankind. 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 considered too moralistic because of some of these positions.
Some of India’s ancient battles have emerged in new forms. Decolonization may have been achieved, but the global system is still dominated by the West. India is seeking reform of the global political and financial institutions established by the West after the end of World War II, but so far without much success. India is seeking to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council so that it can participate in decision-making on issues of global concern, especially peace and security. Minister Jaishankar correctly pointed out that the exclusion of India, which will eventually 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 because it has had no choice but to act pragmatically in a world where hard power is still the most effective diplomatic currency.
The non-aligned movement lost its former relevance with the end of the Cold War and India no longer refers to non-alignment as the basis of its foreign policy. In the new context, we are now talking about India pursuing a policy of multi-alignment or issue-based alignment. This explains the transformations of our ties with the United States which include the signing of various fundamental defense agreements and substantial defense purchases, designation as a major defense partner, elaborate military exercises as well as membership in the Quad and a commitment to the Indo-Pacific concept. This also explains our membership of the BRICS, the SCO and the continuation of the Russia-India-China dialogue. In other words, we pursue our interests in all forums without exclusivity or alliance with any group of countries.
This ability to be part of groups, which may be strategically opposed to each other, and within these groups to have more or less strong ties with constituent members, could be described as India’s maintenance of its autonomy strategy in the midst of power shifts occurring internationally. When India was relatively weak, its leadership over the non-aligned world gave it leeway in foreign policy. Today, India is a significant player on the world stage due to its own strength as a rising power. It is a member of the G20, invited to G7 meetings and a major player in climate change negotiations through its own initiatives in this area. It has a powerful voice on global health issues by the way it has drawn on its own resources to fight the Covid-19 pandemic more effectively than some advanced countries could, and has provided vaccines not only to developing countries in need but also anti-Covid 19 drugs to developed countries too.
India has gradually started to shed its lack of trust in its relations with China. China’s policy of engagement despite its aggressive conduct towards us has not been abandoned, but it is clearer that China will remain our adversary and India must stand up to it while forging partnerships with others. to curb its expansionism. India stood up to China in Doklam and confronts it militarily in Ladakh.
Today, there is much more emphasis on national security in policy making. Defense sector reforms, emphasis on building local manufacturing capability in defense manufacturing, private sector involvement to achieve this, stimulation of defense exports to consolidate partnerships with key countries, the rapid improvement of military infrastructure in border areas are part of these new prospects.
This perspective encompasses a much greater focus on maritime security issues, especially in the Indian Ocean, not least because of China’s maritime strategy in our region. SAGAR, the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and the previous Indian Ocean Naval Symposium are concepts that India has launched to position itself more visibly and effectively on maritime security issues. India has set up an Indian Ocean Information Fusion Center at Gurugram to enhance maritime safety and security. A strong maritime partnership has been established with France. Closer to home, at the NSA level, maritime security cooperation has been established between India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
All Indian governments prioritize stable and friendly relations with their neighbors, although this goal has never been achieved to the desired extent. Pakistan is of course a special case. Our neighbors have always sought to balance India’s influence and power in various ways, whether it’s playing China’s card against us or raising suspicion domestically about India’s desire for dominance. India 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 link our neighbors to us in positive ways, including through connectivity initiatives. Relations with Bangladesh have greatly improved. Nepal remains difficult to manage despite many efforts to bring it closer to us. Frequent visits to these countries at Prime Minister level have become the norm, while taking advantage of religious and cultural ties to promote ties with them, unlike in the past.
With Pakistan, the terms of engagement were radically changed with the revision of Articles 370 of the Indian Constitution, separating Ladakh from J&K and forming them into two new Union Territories. It was a bold move given the international profile the Kashmir issue had acquired since our independence, the Western pressures on us on human rights issues and our internal political handling of the J&K situation, 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 issue of Kashmir from any re-established dialogue with Pakistan, which India has firmly conditioned on Pakistan’s recantation of jihadist terrorism against us. India has now reached out to the Taliban in Afghanistan to pragmatically protect its longer-term stakes there and outflank Pakistan in sending a message of friendship to the Afghan people.
A big change that helps Kashmir and terrorism is the big change that has happened in our ties with the conservative Gulf monarchies that have moved away from Islamic extremism in a bid to modernize and prepare for a world post-oil. We are now receiving cooperation from them on counter-terrorism issues, in addition to opening up prospects for security cooperation. We have managed to forge close ties with Israel without affecting our relations with the Arab world or Iran, with which we have kept the channels of communication open. The recent summit meeting of I2U2 (India, Israel, United Arab Emirates and United States) demonstrates the new creativity of Indian foreign policy. Turkey, however, has become a thorn in our flesh, driven by its Islamized leanings under President Erdogan.
The Ukrainian crisis demonstrated India’s ability to assert its strategic autonomy by refusing to condemn Russia despite pressure from the West. We did not want to jeopardize our long-standing friendly relations with Russia on an issue for which the policies of the United States and NATO also bear responsibility. By providing wheat to needy countries following the shortages created by the Ukrainian conflict, India has enhanced its international image as a country capable of providing international food aid when needed, in addition to providing food aid to millions of his own compatriots during the social stress created by the covid19 pandemic.
India’s foreign policy examines all possible means to improve its position in the world. Putting Yoga and Ayurveda on the global map is part of it, as is intensified engagement with our Diaspora. That an Indian Prime Minister can hold a joint meeting with the Prime Ministers of the Nordic countries as a group, the Central Asian States, the Caribbean Forum and the Forum of Pacific Island States shows how the stature of the India has grown as an interlocutor. IMF or OECD projections see India as having the highest growth rates in the coming years among major economies and India becoming the third largest economy possibly by 2030. This widens the scope for more confident and effective Indian diplomacy in the international arena despite all the challenges that India still faces. This is a big change in Indian foreign policy 75 years after independence.
Kanwal Sibal is India’s former foreign minister. He served as India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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