JNU Seminar on issues in Foreign Policy, 01 Feb 2019
Remarks by Dr Arvind Gupta, Director, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF)

Global and regional power equations are in flux. The old world order is beginning to change but the contours of the new order are not yet clear. The world is becoming multipolar but how the emerging powers and will be accommodated in a new world order is still an open question. India will have to identify opportunities and deal with challenges of the world in transition.

President Trump’s ‘America first’ policy, aimed at reducing America’s commitments abroad, is clear from the decision to withdraw troops from Syria, reach a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan and withdraw from a series of international agreements that are considered inimical to American interest. The American alliance system may be transformed if President Trump continues with his policies. It is becoming increasingly clear that American foreign policy is being driven more by domestic, rather than global imperatives. This has created apprehensions amongst America’s alliance partners regarding America’s retrenchment from several parts of the world. The European Union is already beginning to talk about building a European army.

America’s policies have created a space for China to come in. Whether China will be able to step into the void being created by America, or whether it is willing to do that is an open question. At the present level of its comprehensive national strength, China cannot be a global policeman. It still remains a country focused on building itself, taking advantage of the liberal International Order that the West created after the Second World War. However, China will enforce its own order wherever it is possible. This is evident in the South China Sea where it has occupied many disputed islands unilaterally and has built military infrastructure there. Its key goal has been to push out the Americans from the ‘first island chain’, and, if possible beyond the ‘second-island-chain’. It has succeeded in restricting the US from enhancing its presence in the area within the first island chain.

The possibilities of US-China conflict cannot be ruled out in future if China continues with PLA modernization and with its efforts to push America out of the Asian region. America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the region can potentially trigger a conflict with China if the latter occupies of Taiwan. If that happens, Asian power equations will be dramatically rewritten.

However, the present major issue is the US-China trade war which, if unresolved, has the potential of derailing the global economy. China is deeply concerned as it knows fully well that its prosperity depends upon foreign trade. Underlying the trade war is a key American concern that of theft of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of intellectual property by China. US-China trade friction can spill one into military tension too.

Europe is also entering a phase of uncertainty. Britain’s withdrawal from Europe is proving to be a messy affair and so far it is not clear whether the UK will have to leave European Union without a proper deal. No deal BREXIT will have a deep impact on Britain and also European companies.

Globalisation has reshaped international relations. Global commons – atmosphere, oceans, and the environment – have suffered enormous degradation due to reckless exploitation in the name of economic growth. Climate change is regarded as an existential threat. Inequality has deepened, resentment against globalization manifest in a range of protests across the world.

Technology juggernaut continues to move at a rapid pace. The emergence of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and big data analysis will fundamentally alter the way we do business. Internet of Things (IoT) will bring in hyper connectivity. New technology will not only destroy jobs but also reduce human autonomy. China, with its Made-in-China 2025 programme intends to close the technology gap with the US.

Issues in India’s Foreign Policy

This extraordinary period of flux and uncertainty creates challenges and opportunity for Indian foreign policy. They also define the new context for conducting foreign policy:-

i. India will have to comprehend the scope, range and depth of transformative changes that are taking place. Without full comprehension, foreign policy will only be episodic.

ii. The world is becoming multipolar. How will India ensure its place in such a multipolar world? Do we need to align with someone or do we maintain strategic autonomy? Will we follow an issue based policy or a policy based on long-term alliances?

iii. Can India become a ‘net security provider’? If so how? Will India have the resources? How will these resources be deployed?

iv. What are the domestic factors which derive India’s foreign policy? How does India leverage foreign policy for domestic agenda and requirements?

v. A lot of promises have been made in the various engagements that India has undertaken in the last few years. How does India improve its record of delivery?

vi. Do we have an Indian narrative on global issues? Such a narrative should be rooted in India thought culture and experience. Foreign policy needs to be guided by national interest, just as the Yoga has given India a high profile. We should study the ancient concept of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ and associated theme which are relevant in a modern context. For instance, Indian culture respects in reveres nature. Co-existence and diversity in harmony are ideas that a deeply ingrained in India’s culture. India’s soft power has a worldwide appeal. People like Vivekananda gave the message of spiritual oneness on the whole world and harmony in diversity. He called upon India to “wake up and enlighten the world”. We have become too defensive in our mindset to the extent that we ignore our strength and focus only on weaknesses. This defensive mindset needs to be changed so that we can develop an Indian narrative rooted in our own experience and ethos.

vii. On a practical plane, India’s policy towards China, Pakistan, neighbours etc. will have to be crafted on the basis of our comprehensive national strength. Hard power needs to be built and soft power needs to be projected. Soft power and hard power will need to be blended.

Geopolitics is driven by power self-interest. At the same time, the world also requires an alternative narrative, that priorities peace and cooperation one violence, war and conflict. The challenge before India policy planner is how to blend realism with ethics and morality and adopt practical approaches.

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