Re-calibrating India’s foreign policy in times of global uncertainty


I am delighted to welcome you all to the 2nd edition of the Raisina Dialogue. As they will probably be saying at every international gathering this year, the landscape looks dramatically different than it did a year ago. However, the organisers of this conference may have been a bit more perceptive than most. By accident or design, they have selected a theme – the new normal of multilateralism with multipolarity – that certainly fits the bill for the days ahead.

A Changing World

The world we enter in 2017 is marked by unevenness, possibilities, uncertainties, known and unknown unknowns. The United States seems ready to change the terms of its engagement with the world. Relations between US and Russia could undergo a transformation that we may not have seen since 1945. Its dimensions, leave alone implications, are hard to predict. Europe, engrossed in multiple domestic challenges and reconfiguring itself, signals less appetite for more distant politics, even as it watches these developments.

Outlook Asia

The picture in Asia, however, looks somewhat different. The economic outlook is more positive, although sentiment is clearly affected by developments in the West. Social and political stability are not in doubt and levels of confidence are somewhat higher. Asia, of course, is not without its challenges, among them maritime disputes that acquired a salience in the last few years. Broadly speaking, the growth in China’s power and its expression abroad remain a dynamic factor in Asia. Japan is another major variable, as it seems to be preparing for more responsibilities. And as for India, as you heard from the Prime Minister yesterday, we see ourselves both as a source of stability and a key contributor to both growth and security in the region.

These different landscapes also give rise to divergent narratives. In the Western world, voices of inter-dependence and globalization have become more muted. Optimism that trade and investment overcome political divides has also faded. More dangers than convenience are perceived from connectivity. And there is a lack of purpose in confronting global challenges like terrorism, though some important exceptions should be acknowledged. The world has not just got flatter. Suddenly, one part of it is also more inward looking; in some ways, more tired.

Promoting multi-polarity

The narrative in Asia, and I am sure in many other parts of the world, is a less pessimistic one. We undeniably have our sets of issues including emerging multipolarity in Asia, heightened nationalism, disputed boundaries, creating institutions and adhering to norms. But if there is change of mood, it is more from the impact of developments in US and Europe. Globalisation has not stopped – indeed cannot stop, just because someone somewhere has called ‘time out’. From the Asian perspective, it is less a world in disarray than one in flux. We understand that there is a global stock-taking going on and must approach it with empathy, rather than anxiety. We should also recognise that this is not so much global change, as change with global implications.

So, instead of being driven by headlines – or tweets – let’s look at what’s different and what is not. The reality of our business is that much is actually the same. Terrorism remains the most pervasive and serious challenge to international security. Developing a serious global response is of the highest priority, yet hard to do. Climate change is an existential challenge on which some common ground exists, that needs to be consolidated. The implementation of Sustainable Development Goals is a formidable enterprise, but one that holds enormous promise. Humanitarian assistance will be as regular a demand as disaster relief. The danger of epidemics continues as does finding cost effective solutions. In some regions, migration deriving from conflict situations is a serious challenge. WMD security will be a continuing concern, especially as terrorist groups strike deeper roots. And given our lifestyle, cyber security has become a serious threat for every modernising society. And that is just the short list.

The fact is that the challenges – political, economic or social – we face are not all new. But there is frustration in some societies about lack of progress in addressing even the old ones, leave alone meeting the new. They even feel that they have been disproportionately burdened. Others feel that they can craft their narrow response and are paying the price of shorter term calculations. In global politics, self-esteem derives from power differentiation. As that has narrowed, so too has the attitudes of key nations towards global responsibilities and their national welfare. A parallel debate pertains to observing the broad rules of the game. If these are seen to have manifestly worked for some and not others, obviously that too will have its own backlash. Some of this is reality, some perception. At the end of the day, it makes little difference. If key nations in the international system start to initiate changes in its current configuration, then change we will most certainly have.

It may be worth a moment to reflect on a somewhat different situation eight years ago. If there is an immediate precursor to the current global situation, it was in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In many ways, this laid the basis for a more multipolar world. Ironically, while the Western-led G8 gave way to the more representative G20, the more diverse UNSC remained as resistant to change as before. The redistribution of power that happened in the aftermath of that crisis extended beyond symbolisms to developments on the ground. They opened up spaces for economic activity and political collaboration that were not there earlier. Certainly, for a number of emerging powers, the period from 2008 onwards has been one of opportunity. A country like India, for example, has not only loomed larger in the consciousness of more distant regions. It has actually broadened its footprint and intensified its investment, trade and technical activities in an unprecedented manner. Interestingly, this is also a period when we have become more sensitive to regional cooperation ourselves, collaborating with other regional groupings and making growing commitments to broader connectivity efforts.

After 2008, the world largely went back to its business. The concern at that time was more the resilience of the economies of the developed world. There was a great desire to return to normalcy as represented by the status quo. Today, we are looking at a very different prospect. It is not a looming crisis but a deep dissatisfaction that pervades many developed societies. Each case is unique and yet, they seem to reinforce each other. In the case of the United States, maintaining its global standing while simultaneously rebuilding its economy are the declared goals. But this time around, unlike 2009, it is sought to be achieved in a very different manner. This promises some upheaval in relations among states. While every country has some stake in the stability and the contribution of the United States, many would also watch these changes with anxiety. One thing is clear; few of us will be unaffected.

Where Europe is concerned, the consequences are very different. It would undeniably be a key partner for much of the world, including India, on issues of economy, technology, standards and development. But, it might be worthwhile for European speakers at this conference to spend some time explaining their strategic outlook to an Indian/Asian audience. That could help address concerns – misplaced or otherwise – of shrinking horizons.

Rise of India and China mutually supportive

No significant part of the world is self-contained or unaffected by forces beyond it. It was never so; even less now. Asia is no exception. Of course, its primary drivers are its national, sub-regional and regional constituents. While trade and other economic activities has led the resurgence of the continent, progress on connectivity and security have lagged behind. In the absence of an agreed security architecture and the continuation of significant territorial disputes, the Asian landscape has been more than a little uncertain. The ASEAN has long functioned as an anchor of stability at its eastern end and its continuance in that role is critical. Its centrality and unity is an asset for the entire continent. The rapid growth of Chinese power, the strengthening of India’s position, the sharper role of Russia, the activity of Japan, the divisions in the Gulf, the interests of Europe, and the entrenched position of the United States have not made this calculus an easy one. How major powers relate to each other is a complex interplay. This is not a competition of absolute or even relative strength. It is more a function of their inter se relations and who gets to occupy the pole position. The impact of major changes in major global relationships will, therefore, be felt as strongly in Asia as in Europe, even if differently.

India’s optionsand approach 

So how does India approach this period of recalculation and recalibration? Overall, we are well placed and certainly no worse than many others. Our ties with the United States have been steadily growing and today cover vast areas of collaboration. We established early contact with the Trump transition team and see a strong convergence of interests and concerns. With Russia, India’s relationship has actually grown very substantially in the last two years, as has the bonding between our leaders. An improvement in US-Russia ties is therefore not against Indian interests. With China, the overall broadening of ties, especially in business and people-to-people contacts, has been overshadowed by differences on certain political issues. But it is important for the two countries not to lose sight of the strategic nature of their engagement, or falter in their conviction that their rise can be mutually supportive. We will continue to invest more energy into this account in 2017. With Japan, there is really a transformation underway in the relationship that would make it a key player in India’s modernization. European countries, big and small, remain valued partners across a broad range of sectors and activities, including defence and security. Given the progress we have already made, India is confident that its net relationships would position it favourably in the dynamic environment that I spoke about earlier.

But it stands to reason that India should steadily build up its influence and capabilities, keeping pace with the unfolding scenario. To that end, India can draw on broad support from many nations, regions and groupings with whom it has developed an impressive record of partnering. These relationships naturally make their demands of Indian diplomacy. But more than in the past, we have nurtured bonds of friendship and constituencies of support across the world. In our immediate region, we have worked relentlessly to encourage and promote a stronger sense of connectivity, cooperation and contacts. At times, we may encounter obstacles but that has not stopped us persevering. As a result, ties with neighbours like Bangladesh stand truly transformed. To the extended neighbourhood in the East and the West, our diplomacy has focused on restoring linkages broken in the past. While the East was more an exercise of consolidation with ASEAN, the reaching out to the GCC and Iran have been among one of the hallmark initiatives of the current Government.

As a result, India is today involved in the Middle East in a manner in which it has not been for many decades. Our Africa engagement has also acquired a very different quality and content. What we have seen recently is the conscious broadening of India’s diplomatic footprint, whether it is from sub-Saharan and Western Africa to the South Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean. As a business partner, an executor of projects or a provider of assistance, India’s economic reach has grown in parallel with its domestic capacities.

Expanding footprints of a rising India

It is also important that as new equations are being worked out, India does its part in contributing to global development, progress and security. It is already doing this through a variety of policies and initiatives and I highlight some of them for your consideration:

We are now a significant provider of official development assistance to other developing countries and a major hub for training and education. Grants and loans extended to our immediate neighbours, even excluding Bhutan and Afghanistan, currently total $ 10.4 billion while our commitments to Africa have tripled over their initial $ 5 billion.

As India’s capacities have grown, we have taken on the role of first responders to HADR situations. Our recent relief operations include the earthquake in Nepal, evacuation in Yemen and South Sudan, hurricane in Fiji, landslide in Sri Lanka and the water crisis in the Maldives.

iii. Afghanistan continues to deserve the special attention of the international community. After completing the Parliament building and the dam in Herat as part of our $ 2 billion assistance programme, India has made an additional $ 1 billion commitment at the Brussels conference for housing and rehabilitation, irrigation works and training.

  1. Conscious of our particular responsibility to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean, we have been active in promoting maritime domain awareness, concluding White Shipping Agreements, ensuring coastal surveillance and conducting hydrographic services.
  1. We are positive about promoting connectivity and support initiatives including the trilateral one with Iran and Afghanistan, the International North-South Transit Corridor through Iran, as well as the Trilateral Highway and the BCIM Corridor to our East. This was a subject of our deliberations last year.
  2. Regional groupings are today one of the building blocks of the global order. Their driving force and commonality are perhaps the most obvious of all. India is a founder member of SAARC, an organization that has been made ineffective due to the insecurity of one member. We hope to partially remedy this through the BBIN sub-regional grouping. It is also our expectation that the current level of enthusiasm among members of BIMSTEC can be channelled towards more far-reaching initiatives. We have been members of ASEAN-based groupings, including EAS, ARF and ADMM. BRICS and SCO represent a very different facet of our interest and engagement. In recent years, we have sought to engage other regional groupings collectively, among them GCC, FIPIC and CELAC.
  3. The role of plurilaterals in our foreign policy has grown steadily. One of the oldest is that with Russia and China, as indeed with Brazil and South Africa. Together, they of course now constitute BRICS. But we have always been open to these possibilities. And recent years have added to our repertoire. The India-Japan-US trilateral now has many dimensions. The Japan-Australia-India one has gotten off to a good start. The one with Iran and Afghanistan is actually seized of our practical cooperation as well as our strategic coordination. Working with Sri Lanka and Maldives together on maritime issues is sensible. And there could be more….

Promoting multilateralism

India is a natural exponent of multilateralism. To an extent, this reflects our own domestic traditions of pluralism and diversity. Well before a multipolar world actually came into being, we believed in its desirability and even its inevitability. It was inconceivable for us that a world as vast and diverse as ours could be run by a small set of powers through alliances. Over the years, other countries including China came around to this point of view. We were confident that with the passage of time and the economic revival of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the dispersal of power in the world would become more equitable. A lot of our diplomacy over the years has been dedicated to making that happen. When it was much more difficult, we have helped put together groupings of developing countries in different formats to make their voices heard on critical issues of the day. Our commitment to that approach remains firm. Today, as India’s capabilities and influence grow, they are naturally on offer to this longstanding endeavour. In critical deliberations, whether it is on climate change or SDG, we are even willing to play a larger bridging role to develop international consensus.

Reforming global governance

The democratization of the international order is a particularly complex challenge and the emergence of multipolarity is just a first step. Entrenched powers rarely give up privileges easily, even if they pay lip service to the deserving. Such tasks require patience, perseverance and determination and I can say with some assurance that we have them in full measure. The absurdity of the main multilateral decision-making body being more than 70 years old – and due for retirement anywhere in the world – is obvious to all except those with a vested interest. There can be no getting away from the myriad of global challenges that will eventually require a credible multilateral response. The pressures to reform the UN will only grow with each passing day.

Contemporary multilateral institutions have been devised on multipolar principles, even if they were not taken seriously in practice. Reality could well catch up one day. Accepting the limitations and constraints in international relations in an inter-dependent world will surely promote both multilateralism and multipolarity. Indeed, the two could well feed on each other as greater players need agreed formats to reach common outcomes. The big dangers confronting the world can only be addressed through multilateralism. Not all leading powers may willingly acknowledge this reality. But at the end of the day, there are real problems that wait for us out there in the world and serious expectations that we will do something about them.

Yesterday, PM Rudd reminded us that after decades of American internationalism, we are finally face to face with its nationalism. Now, it is true that Russia and Europe too became less internationalist in their outlook. Emerging powers, including regional ones, have shown little inclinations in that direction. India is actually an exception. So, is nationalism the new normal and can India make a difference – by being different?

(This is the text of speech delivered by India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar at the second edition of Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi on January 18, 2017)


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