What 2023 holds for India’s foreign policy - Hindustan Times
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What 2023 holds for India’s foreign policy

Dec 28, 2022 08:01 PM IST

The Ukraine war threw unexpected geopolitical tests at India in 2022, and Delhi handled it deftly. But challenges from China persist, and if the war drags on, India’s new multi-alignment strategy will face the stress test in the new year

As another turbulent year comes to an end, international politics seems to have reached an inflection point. Great Power politics is now firmly entrenched, with war reaching the European shores in ways few had anticipated when the year began. The world had barely come to terms with post-Covid-19 normalcy when the Russian invasion of Ukraine threw a new set of challenges at the global order. The United States (US)-China contestation sharpened with the Russia-China axis getting further cemented. The debate around deglobalisation gained traction as the weaponisation of almost everything emerged as the new normal. Amid all this turmoil, global institutions seemed remarkably ill-equipped to rise to the challenges, and so, the search for new institutional frameworks gained pace.

At a time when multilateralism is facing a crisis of credibility, all eyes are on New Delhi’s G20 leadership to provide a road map for some of the key challenges facing the world (AFP) PREMIUM
At a time when multilateralism is facing a crisis of credibility, all eyes are on New Delhi’s G20 leadership to provide a road map for some of the key challenges facing the world (AFP)

Indian foreign policy had to respond to all these shifts in a year when some of the fundamental assumptions of the nation’s strategic thinking became overtly contested. Just as the Galwan crisis of 2020 forced New Delhi to re-evaluate its China policy, the Ukraine war pushed India to relook at the drivers of its Russia policy. It also allowed it to set new terms of engagement with the West. When the Russian invasion began in February, there was much discussion on how India would find it difficult to navigate its ties with a demanding West on the one side and a disruptive Russia on the other. But what began as a balancing act has culminated in New Delhi finding its voice on a critical global issue.

India has managed to continue with its engagement with Russia and even enhanced its energy ties with Moscow in search of energy security. At the same time, India’s ties with the West continued to gather momentum throughout the year, despite criticism in certain quarters in the West about New Delhi not siding with the West in publicly condemning Russia. For its part, India’s stance shifted from framing the issue of Russian aggression around the United Nations (UN) charter, international law and territorial sovereignty to Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly exhorting Russian President Vladimir Putin that this was not the time for war, a sentiment that managed to find expression in the G20 communique at the Bali summit. As the year concludes, there are growing expectations that India will take a more proactive role in trying to bring the Ukraine crisis to an end, with even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calling PM Modi this week.

Though the West was initially critical of the Indian approach towards Russia, New Delhi’s diplomatic outreach was nimble enough to make the West recognise the rationale for a continued Indian outreach, and also underscore the hypocrisy inherent in thinking that “Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems”. Ironically, this year saw a rapid acceleration in India-Europe ties as European nations finally came to terms with the Indo-Pacific and India’s centrality therein. Despite Russia roiling the European periphery, there is a clearer understanding that the long-term strategic challenge emanates from China and its aggressive tactics.

India’s relations with the US also progressed, driven by the strategic logic of their engagement. The Indo-Pacific is today the pivot around which this relationship is evolving as it takes on a regional and global dimension. With Quad in the Pacific and the I2U2 (Israel, India, the US and the United Arab Emirates) in the Middle East emerging as institutional anchors in two key geographies, New Delhi and Washington are re-defining the agenda of their engagement, moving beyond the bilateral, and taking on a much more ambitious contour.

The world is taking India’s global role more seriously because New Delhi today seems more willing and able to lead on critical global issues. It is willing to provide solutions to global problems, crafting partnerships with like-minded nations. At the United Nations Security Council, New Delhi used its presidency to highlight reformed multilateralism, peacekeeping, counter-terrorism and maritime security — issues that are not only pertinent for Indian interests but also resonate with a large part of the world. While there is a newfound sense of pragmatism in India’s engagement at the United Nations, its voice remains one that speaks for the large majority of nations that remain unheard and unseen. It is this priority that India is taking to its G20 presidency as well. At a time when multilateralism is facing a crisis of credibility, all eyes are on New Delhi’s G20 leadership to provide a road map for some of the key challenges facing the world. This is an opportune moment for India to underscore its credentials as a “leading power” that can shape global outcomes, especially when the India story is getting attractive.

While emerging as a major economic power has played an important role in this evolving appreciation of India’s global role, New Delhi, firmly standing its ground vis-à-vis a belligerent China, has also created new opportunities at a time when disillusionment with Beijing is at an all-time high. Indian foreign policy succeeded in tapping into some of these opportunities this year as it managed to craft a strategic narrative that suited the requirements of the extant turbulence. The China challenge will continue to test New Delhi’s resolve for the foreseeable future, even as the India-Russia ties will also come under greater scrutiny if the Ukraine crisis continues to drag on beyond the winter months. New Delhi’s much- vaunted “multi-alignment” might face the stress test in the coming year. But if 2022 is anything to go by, India’s voice on the global stage will only get amplified as its uniqueness has found a new resonance that is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.

Harsh V Pant is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and professor at King’s College London The views expressed are personal

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