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India's Evolving Foreign Policy Landscape In A Shifting World – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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India's Evolving Foreign Policy Landscape in a Shifting World

Harsh V Pant

Foreign policy is a murky business. All nations across the world, given a choice, would want to be strategically autonomous. That is, they would want to make their choices from as wide a menu as possible. All countries would want to be multi-aligned, building partnerships with one and all, depending on the issue at hand. All nations would also want to be friends with most others.

Why spend resources on national defence if favourable outcomes can always be achieved by talking sweetly to others? Wars are highly risky and expensive ventures, as we are being reminded every day with the goings-on in Eurasia and the Middle East. It, therefore, makes sense for nations to get along with each other and partner with most others.

It’s just that an inherent drive for power among nation-states in an anarchical world comes in between, and so countries are forced to the see the world as divided between friends and foes. And more often than not, it is the choices that others make which force the hands of countries trying to make sense of the world.

China’s Belligerence: Forcing India’s Hand in Foreign Policy Choices

For decades, Indian policymakers believed that they had found a modus vivendi with China, despite India having lost a war to its northern neighbour in 1962. It was assumed that by focusing on economic and people-to-people dimensions of cooperation, the two Asian giants would be able to have a normal relationship and the difficult task of settling mutual border disputes could be made marginal by continuing to hold talks about it. But it was not to be, as the Chinese had other plans.

The choice that Beijing made of bullying New Delhi into submission forced India to clarify its own foreign policy choices. As India doubled down on its own internal capacity building and shut China off from critical sectors of the Indian economy and infrastructure, it also ended up forging stronger partnerships with countries of the West. From the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), involving India, Japan, Australia and the US, to the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) project, which has the US as a benefactor and relies on Indian ties with nations across the Arabian Sea, the world seemed to emerge as India’s oyster in its search for a response to China’s belligerence and malevolence.

Jaishankar’s Diplomatic Balancing Act

The strategic choices of Russia today are equally consequential for India. As External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visits Russia this week, India-Russia ties are once again under a scanner. The Ukraine War has raised a plethora of questions about a relationship that is important for India in its quest to meet regional and global aspirations. Even after the end of the Cold War and Russia’s decline as a global power, successive Indian governments have continued to invest in this partnership, and for good reasons.

India’s reliance on Russia for defence supplies is just one part of the story. The two nations have critical anchor roles to play in Central Asia, and have viewed each other as balancing the China factor in their respective foreign policies. It also makes perfect sense for New Delhi and Moscow to leverage each other’s economic strength.

Yet, the choices that Russia has made in the past few years has left the future trajectory of India-Russia relationship rather unpredictable. Moscow’s war against Ukraine has not only brought the internal vulnerabilities of Russia—economic, military, political and societal—out into the open for the world to see, it has also constrained Indian foreign policy options.

A war that the Russian military was supposed to have won within just a few weeks has now dragged on for almost two years, exposing the Russian military’s weaknesses as a fighting force.

For India, Russia’s reliability as a defence partner for the long-term in now no longer a matter of debate. For all the steadfastness that Russia has historically shown in helping the country secure its defence and security interests, New Delhi’s defence-supply diversification away from Moscow is getting accelerated.

Russia’s European periphery, for all its show of strength, is gravitating towards the West. The membership map of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) is even closer to Russia today than at the start of its war against Ukraine in February 2022. Russian economic revival is now contingent on how much energy China and others in the developing world will buy from it. Most damagingly for India, Russia’s perceived dependence on China will also raise questions in New Delhi about Russia’s long-term reliability. Russia may declare some kind of victory vis-à-vis Ukraine at some point, but India-Russia ties have already been a loser.

It is striking that the two nations have not held their annual bilateral summit for two years in a row, even as India’s engagements with the West have continued to grow despite some earlier differences over Ukraine. New Delhi has indeed not termed Russia an ‘aggressor,’ something that the West would have liked it to do, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi, unlike Chinese President Xi Jinping, has also publicly told Russian President Vladimir Putin that this is not a time for war.

In an ideal world, India would like to balance its ties with Russia and the West, and that is exactly what it has striven to do so far. But the underlying trends are telling a different story, one where the choices that Russia is making are driving Moscow and New Delhi apart. It is unlikely that Jaishankar’s latest visit is going to rectify that.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations, King’s College London, and vice president for studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

The article was first published in Mint as Chinese and Russian choices impact India’s approach on December 26, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more at IMPRI: 

Houthi Challenges and Global Concerns in the Red Sea

India’s Role in the Global Order of 2023

Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.

  • IMPRI Desk
  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

  • Harsh V Pant

    Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and Director of Research at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.

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IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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