In his address to the nation on 74 years of independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that while India has embarked upon an extraordinary journey, the path is riddled with extraordinary challenges. Presently, India is reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic and also embroiled in an ongoing standoff with China. Parts of PM Modi’s speech suggested that Indian foreign policy was experiencing a shift based on such regional and global trends.
India has appeared to have taken an offensive stance with China, following a trust deficit resulting from skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border in Sikkim and more recently in Ladakh. For instance, according to reports, India has completed the construction of a strategically important bridge over the Galwan River in eastern Ladakh, despite strong opposition to it by the Chinese military. Along with construction of permanent structures such as roads and bridges, India has also deployed new units along the border. Furthermore, in his Independence Day speech, Narendra Modi claimed that the nation’s soldiers had given a befitting reply to those who had tried to threaten the territorial integrity of the nation and that India would continue to fight against any and all attempts of expansionism. These developments suggest that India has adopted an assertive position, at least on border issues with China.
In efforts to modernize its military, India has gradually become one of the world’s biggest arms importer. More recently, India has purchased 36 Rafale fighter jets from a French manufacturer. The first five of these jets landed in the country on July 29 in the midst of a border face off against China. PM Modi welcomed the arrival of the fighter jets and tweeted, “There is no sacrifice like the national defense; there is no good deed like the national defense; there is no practice like national defense”. The Indian Air Force lags behind China both qualitatively and quantitatively and faces the challenge of mustering enough aircraft to tackle any possible collusion. Although the fleet of 36 Rafale aircrafts may not dramatically alter the balance of power in the region, it has certainly provided a boost to Indian military capability as well as morale.
Amidst criticism that India has lost influence in its neighborhood, India has increased its engagement in the South Asia which can be observed in its recent conduct of diplomacy in the region. For Modi, the development of India’s East and Northeast is a top priority and a strategic imperative which requires better integration with Bangladesh. The Indian foreign secretary visited Dhaka and conveyed Bangladesh’s privileged position in Indian foreign policy matrix. The Sri Lankan foreign secretary also announced that while Sri Lanka will maintain neutrality when dealing with regional and global powers like China and continue to cooperate with them on the economic front, it will adopt a strategic security-wise ‘India first’ policy. Furthermore, in his speech, Modi also made an appeal to strengthen cooperation with not only India’s neighbors connected by land and sea but also countries with whom India shares harmonious relationships. India has asserted strategic autonomy in all international partnerships, however, mounting tensions with China has prompted India to have a change of heart. For instance, India has been warming to the ‘Quad’ and the Indo-Pacific concepts for military cooperation in the Indian Ocean. These developments certainly suggest a turning point in India’s conduct of foreign policy.
At the heart of Indian foreign policy and development assistance is the principle of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” or “the world is one family”. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen this principle in action as India has been providing assistance to thousands of foreign citizens stranded abroad, assembling rapid response and medical assistance teams, and sending medical, food and other essential supplies to countries that have been hit the hardest by the virus. As a matter of fact, India was a first responder to countries in the Indo-pacific such as Maldives and Sri Lanka and sent teams of doctors along with essential medical supplies. Furthermore, India has drawn up a medical assistance plan of Rs 1 billion in an attempt to scale up India’s diplomatic outreach to over 90 countries. Although the plan has not yet been formalized, India’s Covid-19 diplomacy has caught the world’s attention.
Despite the ongoing strife with China, India has also shown openness to resolve outstanding issues through diplomacy and cooperation. Indian and Chinese counterparts have constantly communicated since May at various levels as the de-escalation process in Ladakh moves forward in what is being called a ‘phased manner’. Furthermore, India is set to attend the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to be held in Moscow in September. According to reports, Ahead of this SCO meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will chair a large-format meeting of BRICS Foreign Ministers via videoconference on September 4 which will include both India and China. The two feuding Asian giants are thus set to engage in a hectic diplomatic dialogue facilitated by Russian interlocutors.
It would be premature to say that there has been a major shift in India’s foreign policy. However, over the past month and half, there has been a shift in India’s willingness to more actively engage in the neighborhood and beyond. Furthermore, despite India adopting a more offensive position with China on border issues, keeping economic benefits and development in mind, it has shown a willingness reach a resolve with China via Russian meditation. The Covid-19 crisis has also given India an opportunity to leverage its image and reputation as a trusted, neutral and credible development partner in the post-pandemic world.