Diplomats Roundtable, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 15 Apr 2019
Remarks by Dr Arvind Gupta, Director VIF on India’s Foreign Policy: The Modi Years
Engagement

During the Modi years, India’s image in the world has improved significantly. Active and well directed diplomacy has been Prime Minister’s forte. He has engaged the world’s major leaders several times over and also reached out to leaders in different continents. He has represented India at the top multilateral fora. As a result India has gained visibility. The declaration of 21 Jun at International Yoga Day, the launch of International Solar Alliance, India Africa Forum meeting, Forum with Pacific island countries, are notable examples.

Pursuit of National Interests

In his engagements, the Prime Minister pursued national interests relentlessly, be it economic cooperation, fight against terrorism, maritime security, science and technology, energy, infrastructure, defence manufacturing, defence procurements, cyber security etc. He has also positioned India as a major development partner.

New Concepts in tune with Indian Values and National Priorities, positioning India for the Future

Several new concepts have been introduced in foreign policy e.g. Security and Growth for All (SAGAR), Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, Serve Bhavntu Sukhina, Sahnah Bhavatu etc. These are rooted in Indian cultural values. A future looking progressive agenda has been put forward. Neighborhood First, Act-East Policy, Indo-Pacific, Look-West are some examples.

Maintaining Strategic Autonomy and balance in Foreign Policy: Strategic Partnerships

In a multipolar world, it is essential that India follows a pragmatic policy based on national interests. Strategic autonomy needs to be maintained. India has struck several strategic partnerships fulfilling one of the other of India’s needs. On one hand, relationship with the US and Japan has been upgraded, on the other, India has joined the SCO and regularly participated in RCI and BRICS. Relations with Russia are being improved.

Connectivity

Connectivity is the buzzword in today’s world. China has launched the Belt and Road initiative to improve connectivity with the rest of the world’s top connectivity projects also have geopolitical implications.

Modi’s foreign policy has placed great emphasis on improving connectivity between India and the neighbours and with the rest of the world. Enhancing India’s visibility in other countries has been a major plank of India’s foreign policy. Major initiatives have been launched to improve connectivity between India and Bangladesh, between India and Myanmar, India and Nepal. India is investing in Chabahar port and building infrastructure in Mauritius and Seychelles. Presence in Duqum in Oman has also been enhanced.

The focus on Security Cooperation

Security cooperation has been an important pillar of India’s pragmatic foreign policy. India is slowly shedding its hesitation to strike security cooperation arrangements with other countries. The signing of foundational agreements like LEMOA and COMCASA with the US is a major change in India’s thinking. Likewise, the trilateral mother exercises in which in due course Australia may also be admitted, is another example of India’s forward-looking attitude towards security cooperation. After many years, India and Russia are doing substantive military exercises. India is also participating in Shanghai cooperation organisation counter-terrorism exercises.

India and US have held 2+2 dialogue at the level of external affairs and defence ministers. Several maritime dialogues are underway. National security adviser and Deputy National Security Advisor also hold a large number of security dialogues. This has opened the way for deeper cooperation amongst security and law enforcement agencies. The number of joint exercises has increased, counter-terrorism cooperation with many countries has been deepened. Information sharing among agencies has improved. Cyber security cooperation arrangements have been set up. There is more cooperation in the maritime domain awareness and wide shipping area.

Some significant actions in the security areas, unthinkable up to a few years ago, have been taken. These have had huge policy implications. A few examples are: action against NSCN (K) group based in Myanmar, surgical strike on terrorist launch pads across the LC, airstrike on Balakot, the Doklam military stand-off against China, the Mission Shakti, ASAT test in Mar 2019 etc. This showed that while India pursued cooperation and engagement, it would also not hesitate to safeguard its territorial integrity and sovereignty. In these security actions, deft diplomacy was indispensable. Diplomacy is being pursued to meet security interests. This is how it should be. These actions sent positive signals to friends and adversary about India’s firmness.

National Security Adviser has emerged as a key interlocutor on security issues as they relate to foreign policy. NSA and the National Security Council institutions have been actively engaged with counterpart institutions in other countries on vital national security issues.

It has been realised that diplomacy is as strong as the comprehensive national power of the country. Thus strong security institutions and well thought out national security policies give direction to diplomacy. Likewise, these institutions are enriched by diplomatic inputs. A new synergy is being built between the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Defence. Efforts are underway to make the office of defence attaché more meaningful. The Ministry of Defence has started holding annual conclaves with the Indian defence attaches.

Defence relationships play an important role in not only strengthening national security but also projecting India’s the nation abroad. India is one of the largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping forces. This enhances India’s image internationally and also strengthens its claim to the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Today the need has been felt to pursue an active defence diplomacy in which both the MEA as well as MOD or involved.

Winds of change are blowing in the Ministry of Defence. The Defence Minister, in a public meeting at the VIF, indicated the need for a robust defence exports policy. Such a policy would also help strengthen the indigenous defencemen factory. In the next few years, the impact of the new thinking would be visible. There is a greater focus on defence diplomacy and defence exports.

Gaps

India must discover its own values and follow policies that are consistent with them. India has yet to build a narrative of its own for the contemporary problems. India is maturing as a regional and global power but it is still not there. As the fifth of the sixth largest economy in the world, there is a natural interest in other countries to engage with India. India’s vast markets are attractive to other countries but India has yet some way to go before this powerful lever can be leveraged.

The institutional basis of India’s foreign policy is still inadequate. Coordination among different institutions still a problem. The National Security Council can do that coordination but its own status and place in the overall scheme of the government structures is ambiguous.

India has still not come out with authentic foreign policy concepts or national security strategies and doctrines. The reform of the higher defence organisation is still awaited. This comes in the way of proper defence planning and making of synergistic policies which would guide defence diplomacy. If India rises as a major exporter of defence items, India’s stock in the world will rise even more.

Transition to a new world order is underway but it is not clear which way it is going. At the same time India has to figure out its role and place in a multipolar world which in itself is nebulous. Concepts like the Indo-Pacific are evolving. India must contribute towards the shaping up of the new concepts.

The world is changing rapidly. The global security environment is complex and unpredictable. Technology is going to impact on all facets of a policy. India needs to factor in new trends and security and technology in our security and foreign policies. This is a difficult exercise which requires a coordinated and synergistic action. A lot needs to be done in this area.

Thank you.

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