A new balance of power is shaping the world. Multilateralism, unilateralism and nationalism are all rising simultaneously, whileworld institutionsand the United Nations are losing influence and control. With the aggressive rise of China, a new cold war for carving out supremacy between the United States and China has replaced the traditional antagonism between the United States and the Russian Federation. Future wars will be fought more in the technological fronts inaddition to the traditional, characteristic, physical domains. Global economic linkages, dominance in supply chains and critical technologies will shape the future of this world.
In its path towards economic development, so essential for pulling its 1.35 billion people out of mediocrity and eliminating poverty, India has striven gamely over the past couple of decades despite some unfavorable world conditions. First, the world economic crisis of 2008-09 and lately, the Covid -19 pandemic are two significant black swan events which engulfed the world and acted as setbacks to India’s seemingly ascendant path to development. An interconnected and interdependent global economy is discovering the perils of offshoring, excessive dependencies and denials in the face of disruptions caused by inward tendencies, trade wars and global pandemics. While the US – China rivalry for dominance heats up, Russia is also not down and out – it has made a comeback in the middle east and Eurasia. Europe is divided due to nationalist tendencies, and new challenges to its unified voice have emerged due to opposition from the “New Europe” which is now an intrinsic part of the 27 member European Union.
India cannot be immune to any of these influences and must chose its pathways and policies carefully. With alarge, unsettled border, an aggressive China not only poses a challenge on land for India but also in the seas – especially the Indian Ocean. The United States has drawn a line in the sand, it will try to ensure continuation of its dominance and the balancing of China will be the new game. US antagonism with Russia will ensure a Russian-Chinese marriage of convenience in the foreseeable future and Russia and China will try to ensure tha the US does not dominate Asia. While India will be more comfortable with a multipolar world, it needs to ensure that its neighbourhood in the Indo Pacific and beyond does not affect its naval security, its sea lanes of communication, and that the presence of a belligerent China is minimized in the Indian ocean – especially in countries that are neighbours of India. This has brought about an imperative of teaming up with United States and the other Quad democracies. The military dependence on Russia continues, and unless India is able to become self-sufficient in defence manufacturing, it will face continued pressure to defend its long borders and coastal jurisdictions. With close ties with Russia on the one hand, and US, Japan and Australia throughthe Quad mechanism on the other, India finds itself in a “swing” position.Its membership of the SCO, BRICS and RIC brings it together with China and Russia, but the situation on the ground on the border where India has faced multiple incursions from China makes cooperation in the minilateral groupings seem meaningless. India, therefore, faces the biggest challenge since independence in its foreign policy – ofpreserving independence of decision making and navigating between the conflicting interests of all these big powers.
India needs to continue to pay special attention to its sensitive neighbourhood. Regional organizations like BIMSTEC can play a vital role. Here again, India will need to improve its delivery record on mutually agreed projects. The neighbourhood should not be taken for granted, and more resources devoted to maintenance of Indian interests in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. India will have to deal deftly with the military government in Myanmar in order to preserve its connectivity interests, and security implications of insurgency fueled by forces inimical to India. India will have to steel itself to deal continuously and effectively with state sponsored cross border terrorism from Pakistan. India will have to guard against radicalisation attempts in India by Pakistan, especially in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Challenges of new forms of warfare like drones will need to be effectively countered. Chinese interests in the CPEC which runs through Pakistan occupied Kashmir has posed additional challenges for India. For the first time in many decades, China and Pakistan have combined to raise the specter of a two-front war against India. India will need to be wary and prepared of Pakistan using a trouble ridden Afghanistan as a base for pushing jihadi fighters into India. The changed status of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 has been followed by illegitimate Pakistani moves to change the status of Pakistan occupied Kashmir which will pose its own challenges in the coming years.
India’s relationship with Japan is based on a growing convergence of economic as well as strategic interests. In the coming years, both sides will need to build on the structures in place to achieve greater convergences on Japanese involvement in the development of India’s north east, undertaking strategic projects in third countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and South East Asia, cooperation in the cutting-edgetechnologies and science and innovation. The Indo – Australian relationship has been elevated to a comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Economic cooperation will be the key to further strengthening ties, and a bilateral CECA which will boost trade, bring down tariffs and spur investments will need to be explored quickly.
A stable middle east, especially the gulf, is vital for India’s energy security, and for the livelihoods and remittance opportunities it provides to Indian workers in the region. The Gulf of Oman, the Straits of Hormuz and the Straits of Bab Al Mandeb are lifelines for India’s oil and gas needs. A peaceful and calm relationship between UAE and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other, as well as a calm atmosphere of cooperation within the GCC states is in India’s interest. The ideological divide between UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt vis-a-vis Turkey and Qatar has been overshadowed by the Abraham accords, brokered and pushed by the Trump administration, which has brought about closer ties between UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Israel and complicated the Arab stand on the Palestinian question. As a friend of all, and a beneficiary of a benign relationship with all these states, India will need to strive to engage widely, and ensure its interests in the region.
India would like to see stability in the relationship with Iran so that it can work through its interests in Chabahar, which will act as a gateway to Central Asia and Afghanistan, which seems to be spiraling out of control of the Ashraf Ghani government rapidly, with rapid gains for a Pakistani backed Taliban. For this to happen the relationship between the United States and Iran needs to thaw, so that the much-needed JCPOA can go into force, allowing investments without sanctions into Iran.
To its east, India needs a reinvigorated Act East Policy, with emphasis on maritime security, resilient supply chains, and beneficial, renegotiated FTAs. It needs to convert promises of physical and digital connectivity into action, by revamping its bidding procedures in order to complete essential projects on time. Enhanced air and sea links are vital if India is to compete in the region with the likes of China and others who have signed up to the RCEP. The Asean wants to see India as a country which delivers and not dithers. Above all, India needs enhanced defence ties with the region, which is home to the strategic sea routes passing through the Malacca and Sunda straits, which have trade and security implications for India. Over recent years, India has also engaged the Pacific Island states in a much more encompassing manner that hitherto – annual grants, disaster relief help, and transfer of appropriate technologies for livelihood and for climate mitigating measures will need to be continued in the future.
Despite its limitations, an India under transformation is seen in Europe as a serious partner. Besides trade and investments in high technology, and a possible FTA as well as an investment agreement, India should use Europe and its capacities in the areas of climate change, sustainable development goals, development cooperation, disaster management, and connectivity. The rise of China, tensions with Russia and rift with the US under the Trump administration have started to push Europe towards new partners and India fits the bill. The UK after Brexit is also a keen partner for technology, financial services, trade and investments.
Africa is at a defining moment in history. Historical linkages with India, its extensive diaspora and shared history against colonialism have given way to extensive economic engagements. However, Indian presence in Africa still needs to be leveraged for greater benefit to both sides. The East African countries, being littorals of the Indian Ocean, are strategically important for India. More attention will need to be paid by India to this region in order to secure trade and economic interests and to build upon the gains and goodwill of the past. With Latin America, India will need to pursue more free trade agreements, extend furtherlines of credit, step up its visits and exchanges, and beef up diplomatic presence in the region. All this will help transform the growing economic relationship and trade in critical minerals and resources as well as open new avenues like defence cooperation.
Trade, investments and connectivity will drive the Indian relationship with Central Asia. In addition to developing Chabahar, India will need to infuse new life in the North South Transport corridor where Iran and Russia will play a leading role. Increased Indian presence in the Central Asian republics will also help in expanding Indian export markets but this has to come on the back of increased connectivity – which will continue to pose a challenge.
As India looks to transform itself into a nation based on resilient and inclusive economic growth, it will require to partner withcountrieswhich rely on innovation and high technology, and research and development, so thatit can compete with others by manufacturing qualitatively better goods. India also requires essential minerals and commodities for its programmes which move away from fossil fuels, usher in a revolution in clean technologies, including e – vehicles, and fulfill its infrastructure needs. Far reaching reforms and further improvement in the ease of doing business with India will help lift millions out of poverty, bring in much needed Foreign Direct Investment and place India on a higher pedestal in the comity of nations. Recent reforms in the mining, health, care, IT, infrastructure, defense, space, agriculture, medium and small enterprises, financial and banking sectors will need to be consolidated, in order to continue to attract foreign direct investment into India on a much larger scale. India needs further reforms in the land and labour segments. It needs to modernize its agriculture, food processing and grains storage technologies as well as dairy yields. Going forward, it must try to make clean drinking water, electricity and digital connectivity available throughout its villages. India must bring about predictability, consistency and simplification of procedures for foreign investors. India will need to make its voice heard louder in the UN and multilateral governance, regulatory, trading and lending organizations, bodies like the G-20 and in the negotiations on climate change even as it makes its case stronger for a permanent membership of the UN security Council.
India also faces extreme challenges of climate change, resulting in devastating floods, unusually heavy rains, typhoons, water scarcity and food imbalances. The nontraditional threats such as these and the ongoing pandemic related health infrastructure and supply issues require a robust response and monitoring. As India grows economically, its heft in international relations will also grow. India must get connected with the outside world through trading arrangements, rather than remain isolated. Balanced and fair FTAs with countries like UK, EU, UAE, Canada, Australia and Africa will help.
In this context, the recent initiatives like reforms across the board in various sectors, the PLI scheme designed to boost domestic manufacturing and investments and the credit facilitation measures need to be sustained and monitored, in order that India is able toskill, and provide jobs to a large number of its youth who are being churned out annually by its universities.The recent initiative of Prime Minister Modi to get Indian Heads of Missions together with key secretaries of the government, the state representatives and export agencies and other stake holders to increase exports and to get an infusion of much needed technology by removing bottlenecks in transport and removing congestion at ports through a whole of government approach will need to be followed up to its logical conclusion. India will be under constant pressure to open up its economy, to adopt higher standards of intellectual property rights and improve the ease of doing business. India needs to ride the technological revolution, and leapfrog generations and years especially in the new age green technologies, 5G, cloud computing, financial services solutions, digitization and cyber security. It needs to continue to foster innovation, and make India a research and innovation hub.
Domestically, India’s border connectivity needs to be improved, border guards beefed up, and the reform agenda expanded and consolidated. Internal security threats require a much robust response in this age of instant communication. The external affairs, home and defense ministries must work in unison to strengthen the internal and external security, and to ensure that India emerges as a strong nation. The space and naval programmes of India must work in synchronization to strengthen our coastal defences, communications and maritime domain awareness. Above all, India will need to create its own narrative in world affairs by popularizing its traditions, culture, soft power, scriptures and ancient sciences. Linking domestic priorities with foreign policy will be key.
– The writer is a former Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian Ambassador to Italy, Thailand, Oman and Poland. Currently, he is a Distinguished Fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation. Views expressed are personal.