India needs a forward-thinking foreign policy irrespective of who wins the elections in May 2019. New Delhi’s Act East policy has been a step in the right direction but South Block needs to refocus its energy on forging an all-weather, insulated policy matching its interests and capacity.
The Ministry of External Affairs of India (MEA), also known as the Foreign Ministry, is the government agency responsible for the conduct of foreign relations of India. With the world's fifth largest military expenditure, the second largest armed force, the sixth largest economy by nominal rates and third largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity.
India was one of the founding members of several international organisations—the United Nations, the Asian Development Bank, New Development BRICS Bank, and G-20—and the founder of the Non-Aligned Movement.
India has also played an important and influential role in other international organisations like East Asia Summit, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund (IMF), G8+5 and IBSA Dialogue Forum.
Regionally, India is a part of SAARC and BIMSTEC. India has taken part in several UN peacekeeping missions and it was the second-largest troop contributor to the United Nations. Despite its integration in the modern international political system, India lacks a coordinated and directed foreign policy.
India's international influence varied over the years after independence. Indian prestige and moral authority were high in the 1950s and facilitated the acquisition of developmental assistance from both East and West. Although the prestige stemmed from India's nonaligned stance, the nation was unable to prevent Cold War politics from becoming intertwined with interstate relations in South Asia. On the intensely debated Kashmir issue with Pakistan, India lost credibility by rejecting United Nations calls for a plebiscite in the disputed area.
The last five years has seen a positive, if not half-baked, approach at re-inventing India’s decades-old policy of undefined neutrality. PM Narendra Modi announced his ‘Act East’ policy on the day of his inauguration, which saw the heads of state of all SAARC member countries, including Nawaz Sharif attending the ceremony. Under the ‘Act East’ policy, India would commit itself to re-direct its energy on strengthening its ties with Asian countries, both as a strategic buffer against Chinese encirclement as well as hedging its bets in the fastest growing region on the planet.
The ‘Act East’ policy is termed as a half-baked approach because of the staggering lack of proportional action to compliment the lofty ambition of the plan. China has become more aggressive and assertive of its rights (and demands) across the Indian Ocean. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has taken the wind out of South Block’s sails as it finds itself unable to match China’s cheque-book diplomacy.
The next five years need a stable, results-oriented plan. There is no denying that India’s foreign policy interests in the long term are served best by countering China’s growing economic and diplomatic clout. A startlingly obvious example is Beijing’s repeated Security Council veto on designating Masood Azhar as a terrorist.
Constructive engagement with China, on the lines of the ‘Panch sheel’ agreement, could be used as a base model for the MEA to adopt. China and India have a lot more in common than what divides them, therefore both countries can benefit from mutual cooperation. Coincidently, the on-going trade war gives New Delhi a critical swing vote status between the US and China, and it is strongly suggested that India use this opportunity to iron out a beneficial cooperation agreement with Beijing.
As for the performance of the Minister and her deputies, nothing can be said that would demean their efforts. Sushma Swaraj has treaded a careful path with her counterparts while asserting herself at every possible chance. The 2015 Evacuation of Yemen is proof of the MEA’s capacity to deploy resources strategically and coordinate with over 70 different countries.
In addition, India could mould its foreign policy based on a limited regional role it excels in. India has become the first responder for natural disaster relief operations across the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean. Starting with the Malaysia Air flight 370 search operations to the relief for Cyclone Idai-hit Mozambique, India’s large naval presence in the region gives it a unique advantage in extending a helping hand to countries in need. The advantage of this approach is a low-risk, long term and high yielding cooperative neighbourhood policy, which incidentally, is also the closest physical manifestation of the Sanskrit phrase Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The world is one family).
Our assessment is that India needs a leap in its foreign policy formulation process, which takes into account the new ways of engaging the public, dignitaries and institutes of value, who align with our core interests. New Delhi has reaped the benefits of a largely neutral, non-interventionist foreign policy but that legacy of the Cold War is losing relevance in an increasingly multi-polar world. We believe that the ‘Act East’ policy is a solid foundation for India’s “21st Century realignment” towards a more constructive, assertive and engagement-based policy which focuses on results rather than running through the motions.