India’s foreign policy in the 21st century

Issue 03, 2019

India’s foreign policy in the 21st century

Anil Wadhwa |author

Issue 03, 2019

As the world order changes, the country is charting a new inclusive course in its diplomatic relations, says former ambassador Anil Wadhwa

India’s foreign policy in the 21st century has been dominated by the quest for creating an enabling environment in its neighbourhood and the world, which allows its economy to grow, its society to develop and its soft power to flourish – as this country of 1.3 billion people seeks its rightful place in the comity of nations. After almost three decades of reforms and opening up to the outside world, India faces new challenges to its security and the requirement of an increased flow of capital, technology, ideas and innovation for its accelerated transformation. Increased levels of trade, flow of labour and technology, in an increasingly interconnected world has ensured that India needs to secure its energy supplies, acquire vital natural resources for development, maintain open sea lanes of communication, seek trade and investment opportunities overseas while opening up itself to the outside world, and work through multilateral institutions to secure a rules based order and liberalised trade and investment regime.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (front row third from left) with other heads of state at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Bishkek, in June 2019

The last decade has seen the world change its character – the dominance of the sole super power – the United States has been challenged by a new distribution of power in the international system, and China has risen as a challenger to the US dominance. The new areas of conflict are based on technology dominance and the ability to develop exponentially on the powers of artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, machine learning and robotics even as climate change, food insecurity and terrorism threaten to disrupt the progress of mankind.

India has always concentrated on its immediate neighbourhood and periphery to secure a stable environment for its growth. South Asia, in particular, has a special place in India’s foreign policy. India is working towards building stronger relations with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives and Pakistan. India is also trying to maintain a balance in its ties with China. On the bilateral front, the Doklam stand-off with China has been set aside following the summit meeting between the two leaderships last year, and the process of finding cooperative adjustments with China is likely to continue.

The last few years have seen renewed ties with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), concentration on connectivity projects – physical, digital and cultural. India’s defence ties with Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have seen notable progress. The concept of Indo-Pacific has gained currency and the Quad has arisen as an informal grouping of USA, Japan, Australia and India – like-minded democracies that wish to maintain the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflights, and peace and stability in the region. India’s concept of the Indo-Pacific coincides with that of the ASEAN – that the Indo-Pacific is an inclusive concept, it does not seek to isolate any country against anyone’s interest, that ASEAN remains central to the concept and that it seeks cooperative arrangements for the development and prosperity of all in the region. India’s ties with ASEAN have progressed steadily and India has managed to tie together a string of arrangements in the field of maritime domain awareness. India along with ASEAN, China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea is also currently engaged in negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Partnership (RCEP) Agreement which, if successfully concluded, will be a far-reaching development in the region.

Attendees at the 21st ASEAN-India Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM), which was held in April 2019 in New Delhi

The India-Africa partnership is on track to achieve greater heights, based on the 10 guiding principles delineated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In its extended neighbourhood to the West, India has enormous stakes of energy supplies, seven million diaspora who live and work there, and trade, investment and security ties with the region, which have all seen an upsurge. India has a vital stake in the stability of the region, and is therefore, wary of an escalation of conflict between USA and Iran, which directly affects its energy security and connectivity with Central Asian states. Beyond India’s periphery, the country has also expanded its circles of engagement starting with Central Asia, where it is now an active participant in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and is working towards an economic arrangement with the Eurasian Community; Europe, where it has forged close ties with countries like Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the UK etc; and Latin America, with whom trade and investments have flourished and natural resources have become a new area of collaboration. Russia continues to be a reliable and long standing defence partner but both sides are exploring new avenues of reinvigorating the economic partnership, following a summit meeting last year in Sochi between the two leaderships. Relationships with Israel, South Korea and Australia have also seen expansion. India’s relationship with the United States has assumed a multi-vectoral character. Defence, science and technology, people to people contacts as well as trade and investment have all become important pillars of this relationship.

In the multilateral arena, India will strive to gain permanent membership of the UN Security Council, which it deserves on the basis of its contribution to peacekeeping operations, its record of support for international peace and security and due to its large population.
India has emerged as a champion of climate change, clean energy and spearheads the international solar alliance. It is working with regional organisations like IORA (the Indian Ocean Rim Association) to develop blue economy in the region, and has always advocated a comprehensive convention on combating terrorism, at the international level. It has taken the lead in reform in global governance – be it the UN, international financial institutions, or the G20 and is all set to chair the G20 in 2022. In the final analysis, India’s foreign policy is being shaped on the requirements of its domestic constituencies, its programmes for development and its desire to bring in technology and capital for its economic and scientific progress.

Anil Wadhwa

Anil Wadhwa has served as the Indian Ambassador to Italy, Poland, Oman and Thailand. A member of the Indian Foreign Service from July 1, 1979 to May 31, 2017, Wadhwa has served at the Indian missions in Hong Kong, Beijing, Geneva, Warsaw, Muscat, Bangkok and Rome. He is currently a Senior Fellow and Cluster Leader at the Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi.
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