The priority national interest in foreign policy: The Tribune India

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Gurjit Singh


former ambassador

In 2018, Prime Minister Modi, in his keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, spoke about India’s growing engagement through economic and strategic cooperation with different parts of the world. He spoke of India’s strategic autonomy and its maturity to develop ties with all. India’s global strategic partnership with Russia was important; with the United States, India had overcome the hesitations of history; the mature relationship with China had so far managed the issues, ensuring a peaceful border. So much has changed since then that the call for strategic autonomy is now challenged by new situations.

The pandemic was a natural disaster that affected countries across continents. The ability to deal with it has bolstered New Delhi’s strategic autonomy since India developed its own Covid vaccine, was willing to share it with others and ran the largest vaccination program in the world.

Since then, the Ukrainian crisis has compounded global problems. Two of India’s strategic partners, the United States and Russia are at loggerheads. Europe, the third pole with which India willingly worked, is put to the test by the Ukrainian crisis. The India-China equation is marred by the fact that China has reversed two decades of calm on the border with defiant and aggressive behavior that it also continues in the East and South China Seas.

Thus, India’s relationship with China has undergone a change due to Chinese behavior. The relationship with Russia is under pressure as our other friends exercise sanctions against it for the good of Ukraine. Added to this is the tension around Taiwan.

India and other emerging powers that prefer a multipolar world are caught in the middle of these divides. India’s strategic autonomy aims to improve the functioning of UN agencies and to have partners around the world who would cooperate for more functional partnerships. India has come to the fore on issues such as climate change and trade, becoming more receptive in recent years.

India shows its will to respect the rules of the international order. The permanent members of the Security Council, including the United States, Russia and China, deliberately violate these rules for their own benefit when it suits them.

The security aspect of the world order is becoming increasingly important. The agenda for globalization of trade, climate, public health, etc., is often pushed back, allowing the bigger powers to settle their scores. The increasing bipolarization of the United States through Quad, AUKUS and NATO pushes its friends to become allies. Europe is stronger behind NATO. Asian allies Japan and Korea attended a NATO summit in Madrid. China and Russia are closer. Russia has invaded Ukraine and China is more aggressive on Taiwan. This aggressive competitive intent worries the rest of the world. Most summits now focus on dividing the world rather than unifying it, even if, on the face of it, their agendas are well-meaning towards a better world.

The new buzzword is resilient supply chains. The accession of developed countries to China by concentrating their production there is called into question and must be modified. China Plus One policies are emerging. Resilient value chains make more sense. After the pandemic and the China Plus One syndrome, it now also includes a Russia Plus syndrome, although the equation there is largely based on energy and food grains, which are also essential.

It is not just labor arbitrage and lower production costs that are now attracting international commercial chains. The reliability of a country and the way it is supported by trade agreements are taken into account for new investments. India and ASEAN with whom it has trade, investment and services agreements and Africa under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) need to raise ambitions and increase digital chains and regional supplies.

Japanese companies are looking for new manufacturing facilities, which will participate in value chains with ASEAN and export to Africa. German companies are also looking to expand manufacturing in India and export to Europe. They might also think of using the FTA with ASEAN to build new supply chains as part of their Indo-Pacific policy. Dependence on China and Russia may not go away. It decreases, which indicates opportunities and alternatives for exploration. Seven ASEAN members are part of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) of which India is also a part.

India’s preference for a multipolar world is to better exercise its strategic autonomy. If the world is pushed towards bipolarity, being a reliable partner will indeed be a major contribution to achieving economic diversity and supply chains.

For vaccines, agricultural products, food grains and pharmaceuticals, besides services, India is an important partner for ASEAN, Africa and beyond. Similar secured supply chains for energy, fertilizers, solar panel components, rare earths, etc. are needed for India to move to the next level of manufacturing. India needs to find partners to contribute to these sectors. India has both the manufacturing clout and market size to provide the basis for China+1 systemic change.

In this multipolarity, India, ASEAN, Japan, Germany, Australia, the countries of Africa, Central Asia and the countries of Latin America could play a role by pooling their energies and their resources. Alternative security and economic confidence can emerge. For its own development and for its strategic autonomy, India needs an international order favorable to its place in the world. If some powers are reluctant to grant this, India must reach out to others to create new opportunities.

The G-20 summit will be held in November in Bali, Indonesia. A year later, India will host the summit. Brazil will be the host in 2024. This is a unique opportunity for three important countries of the Global South to guide the G-20, insulate it from great power politics and save the institution and its program to ensure broader consultation and cooperation.

In his “Tryst with Destiny” speech, Prime Minister Nehru said: “Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is the freedom, so is the prosperity now, and so also is the disaster in this one world which can no longer be divided into isolated fragments. Now at 75, we set off into a changed world to pursue these ideals independently and with empathy.

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