Navigating Geopolitical Uncertainties

Shyam Saran, Former Foreign Secretary, Government of India, gave his expert insights on how India can navigate geopolitical uncertainty of the 21st Century during the Synergia Conclave-2019.


India’s strategic and foreign-policy options in the coming years will depend largely on its decision of whom it chooses to engage with. Ground zero of these geopolitical shifts in the United States under the current presidential administration. Once a steady rock in an unstable world, America is now a catalyst for much of the world’s uncertainty.

Shyam Saran, Former Foreign Secretary, Government of India, was able to succulently pinpoint the core areas which demand immediate attention. These uncertainties must be recognised early because when they prevail, countries find it difficult to formulate a cohesive strategy. 


Explaining the concept of power, Shyam Saran said that it arises from the human capacity to organise the resources available to it. Power, in brief, stimulates even weaker nations to rise and gain stature in the comity of nations. This is what India aspires. Today power is based on technology. We have to first adopt the best technology, then assimilate it and finally reach the stage of generating even better technologies on our own to become less dependent upon borrowed technology.

Globalisation has solutions for many of the challenges faced by India. While there are calls for scaling down globalisation and protect national markets, globalisation “is a bell that cannot be un-rung.” Countries that resist globalisation will suffer negative consequences. It is now a fact of life, and the world has to live with it and leaders who propound a return to the nationalistic era must realise this.  

The characteristics of Indian society was uniquely suited for globalisation as the nation can handle plurality being a vibrant, diverse society. The world needs societies that can handle plurality and diversity to make humankind progress.

India must seek and assimilate knowledge from advanced centres of learning. All that is required to gain more knowledge is to have the modesty and willingness to learn from others. Since other nations are also concerned about the rise of China, they will be willing to invest in India’s development and growth. However, it is important to create an ecosystem where this can be facilitated. 

In addition to a sense of itself as a civilizational entity, India has an area, population, resources and capabilities which assure it a global profile. While its indices of per capita and social welfare may still lag far behind developed countries, it has a large global and macro impact because of its sheer weight in the global economy. Choices India makes on its energy security or the progress it achieves on global health issues such as the eradication of polio etc. have a decisive impact on tackling a range of global challenges such as climate change or the ability to handle global pandemics. In areas such as cyber and space, India has developed substantial capabilities which could place it among the front-ranking nations of the future. 

In any rule-making in these domains, India will have a role to play. And importantly, in an increasingly globalised and densely interconnected world, managing diversity and plurality will increasingly become the hallmark of successful societies and India, fortunately, retains its cosmopolitan temper. If success in the future will belong to knowledge societies which can manage plurality, then India remains a promising candidate. The islands of excellence need to made into continents of excellence. India has the potential. However, waves of mediocracy cannot take over excellence.

For the short term, it is imperative to understand asymmetric power structures. For India, it is essential to make peace with the immediate neighbourhood. This is imperative before aiming for regional and global alliances. India considers the entire Indian subcontinent and the ocean space around the peninsula as its strategic neighbourhood. This is the core from which historically, political, economic and cultural influences radiated outwards, across the oceans to the East and West and across the mountains and deserts to the North and West towards Central Asia. This extended neighbourhood, in turn, had a major influence in shaping India’s identity as a diverse and plural entity but with a strong and enduring sense of cultural affinity. As India’s external profile develops and expands, it is along these remembered pathways that it will begin to manifest itself. 

Some of the key challenges for India remained its immediate neighbourhood, and the nation ought to make its own neighbourhood its main priority when it comes to its foreign policies. Despite efforts, India still hasn’t gotten the game right when it comes to actual policies on how to navigate geopolitics in its neighbourhood. This was so critical that the nation ought to be willing to shrink its own resources to global regions in order to invest more in its own neighbourhood. 

The balance of military power is also changing but more slowly. The US retains its predominance and global reach, but the capabilities of other major powers, in particular, China, are growing at a faster pace. The use of asymmetric capabilities both by the state as well as non-state actors has also exposed the limits and efficacy of traditional military power. This has also led to the eruption of latent inter-state conflicts and tensions, and this is evident in several parts of the world. Today, India’s main threat lies with asymmetricity vis-à-vis China.


  • India and China have been working according to rival geopolitical vision. Chinese policymakers have reformulated their regional policy to pursue a sustained political and economic relationship with several states in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean littoral. 
  • This impetus has been largely provided by the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) – a grand connectivity plan that envisions a network of states economically linked to China through a variety of commercial -financial relationships and industrial projects. 
  • South Asia is one of the five regions or sub-regions identified as areas to expand the geo-economic footprint. 
  • India’s efforts to advance regional integration remains at a fragmentary level; merely 5% of South Asian trade is intra-regional and inter-regional investment constitute less than 1% of total investment in the sub-continent. 
  •  However, both India’s and China’s regional policies are indicative of overlapping features as well as geopolitical fault lines at play. Both neighbours have a common interest in managing non-traditional threats like terrorism, promoting secular and stable regimes, promoting open sea lanes and ensuring the security of the maritime trade routes and geo-economically connecting South Asia with East Asia. 
  • The gap between Chinese growth and Indian rise is widening, and as the gap increases, India loses its place in the eyes of the world. This will impact the way the world invests, how they react to our internal situations, and where we are placed when seats are being allocated at the high table of world powers. Sadly, India is permitting this drift to continue due to lack of policy decisions and our involvement with myriad other issues.
  • We have to seek our place in countervailing coalitions. Summits like Wuhan and Chennai, are of little value as they are more theatrics being generated by China to project a positive relationship with India while it continues its disruptive policies in collusion with Pakistan. India also has to refine this art to use such occasions to its own advantage while keeping expectations from them as close to reality as possible.
  • Our neighbourhood first imperative cannot be overemphasised. China is making huge inroads in Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka and even has made tentative gestures to Bhutan. Our neighbourhood has to be with us before we project ourselves as its leader.