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India and the world in 2021: A year to engage and assert

In April 1963, about six months after the 1962 war with China, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, titled ‘Changing India’. He conceded that there was a need to “adjust our relations with friendly countries in the light of the changing actualities of the international situation… the Chinese, ‘devious and deceptive’ as they have proved to be, required that India pay ‘considerably more attention to strengthening her armed forces’.” This task would need “external aid in adequate measure”, he wrote.

As India bids adieu to a disruptive year that challenged its diplomatic and military standing, and enters a new one fraught with challenges, it could borrow from Nehru’s words.

A reflection of events shows India faced seven hard realities in 2020, and has to deal with six challenges and opportunities in 2021.

Hard realities: 2020

#1: China aims for top

According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2020 was the Year of Rat. According to legend, in a competition held by the Jade Emperor to decide the zodiac animals, the quick-witted Rat asked the Ox to carry him across the river and jumped down before the Ox crossed the finish line, so the Rat became the first of the Zodiac animals.

In 2020, Beijing tried to behave much like the proverbial Rat. A country which, under President Xi Jinping since 2013, had been consolidating its global influence, saw an opportunity in a world distracted with the pandemic.

While it was targeted initially for being the source of the coronavirus, Xi’s regime turned around and started to flex its muscle in the region. The Indo-Pacific was its playground, where Chinese naval or militia forces rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat, “buzzed” a Philippines naval vessel, and harassed a Malaysian oil drilling operation. It even tried to arm-twist Australia through trade curbs.

And since May, Chinese troops have altered the status quo along the border with India, claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers, and violated every agreement to maintain peace.

So, while it was infected with the virus first, it claimed to be the first to overcome it, and to recover — as did the proverbial Rat.

#2: ‘Trump Americans’

Over the last four years, the US vacated the leadership space at the world stage under the Donald Trump Administration. It walked out of or weakened almost a dozen multilateral bodies or agreements, from the Iran deal to the WHO. While Beijing moved in to claim space, the Trump Administration did one thing right — it targeted China and the Communist Party of China for disrupting the global order.

Once Joe Biden takes over as President, the US is expected to reclaim the space vacated by Trump. But, as former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale has pointed out, the US will be defined by “Trump Americans”. “Going forward, America will not be defined by the Democrats or by the Republicans. It will be defined by the Trump Americans… Beyond the optics, the Trump Americans, who are the new political base, will still shape American policy irrespective of who the president is,” he wrote in The Indian Express on November 5.

#3: Acceptance for Taliban

Having invaded Afghanistan 19 years ago trying to root out the Taliban, the US finally made peace with them in February as it looks to exit. For India, this meant a beginning of the process of re-engaging with the Taliban, and New Delhi reached out with External Affairs minister S Jaishankar’s attendance through virtual mode and a senior Indian diplomat in Doha.

Signalling long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s future — under Taliban or other political forces — India has committed $80 million, over and above its $3 billion commitment in the last two decades. This means New Delhi too is finally looking at the Taliban as a political actor, although it is controlled by the Pakistan militaryt.

#4: Middle East equations

The US-brokered rapprochement between Israel and four Arab countries — the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — reflected the changing landscape in the region. With Saudi Arabia and Iran competing for leadership, along with Turkey, in the Islamic world, there have been growing calls for ties with Israel.

New Delhi has been ahead of the curve, cultivating ties with Israel as well as Saudi-UAE and the Iranians with deft diplomacy. But it has to be careful to not let its gains get impacted by polarising politics at home — be it through the CAA-NRC or religious fault-lines.

#5: Russia-China bonding

Brewing for the last three decades, ties between Russia and China got closer in 2020. India has always felt that it was the West, with its approach towards Russia after the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, that has pushed Moscow towards a tighter embrace of Beijing. This has been possible also due to the US’s anti-Chinese rhetoric, collapse of oil prices and Russia’s dependence on Chinese consumption.

India has strong ties with Russia, and Moscow was the venue for all the India-China official and ministerial conversations over the border standoff. But, it has taken note of Moscow’s position on the Quad and Indo-Pacific, a near-echo of Beijing’s stance.

#6: Assertive neighbours

The year began with Bangladesh asserting itself on CAA-NRC, and then Nepal claiming territory and issuing a new map. It brought home the reality that neighbours are no pushovers. By the end of the year, New Delhi had moved to build bridges with both, wary of an active Beijing. Bangladesh pushed back, and India did not notify the CAA rules. Nepal reached out at the highest level.

India also watched closely the US and Chinese forays with Maldives and Sri Lanka. India appears to have made peace with the involvement of the US in Maldives, and that of Japan in Sri Lanka and Maldives.

# 7: Aspirational India

Through 2020, India’s public articulation of “self-reliance” and refusal to sign trade pacts with RCEP countries was widely perceived as “isolationist” and “inward-looking”. India did step up to supply medicines and protective kits to more than 150 countries, but did not come across as the global leader the world needed at this time. Lack of resources, a contracting economy and its populist politics made it come across as an aspirational power.


2021: Challenges, opportunities

#1: Countering China

India’s response to the border standoff has been guided by a thinking that one has to stand up to the bully, but that has come at a cost: soldiers braving the harsh winter and military assets deployed on land, in air and at sea. The standoff has reinforced Nehru’s belief in 1963 that India needs “external aid in adequate measure”. India will need continuing support from the US, Japan, Australia, besides Europe leaders such as France, Germany and the UK.

#2: High table at UN

As India enters the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the eighth time, stakes are high in the wake of this leadership contest between China and the rest of the world. India will have to take positions on issues it had carefully avoided — from Tibet to Taiwan, from Iran-Saudi rivalry to the refugee crisis between Bangladesh and Myanmar. While cross-border terrorism is one of the top concerns and India will work towards isolating Pakistan further, a limited fixation on the western neighbour would distract from India’s aspirations of being a global leader.

#3: Friendship with US

Much is expected from the Biden Administration for building on Indo-US ties, but a lot will depend on how the US views China in the larger scheme of things. Moves towards a possible US-China trade deal will be watched by South Block closely. One of the key tests will be the future of Quad, and the Indo-Pacific strategy of the new administration.

New Delhi will build on its deepening strategic and defence ties with the US, and would want to resolve trade and visa issues.

#4: Wooing Europe

As the UK and the EU agree on a deal, India will look ahead to negotiating a deal with the UK and a long-pending one with the EU. For a start, it has invited British PM Boris Johnson as Chief Guest for Republic Day. In May, there is a possibility of an India-EU summit. Already, France and Germany have come up with their Indo-Pacific strategy, and a potential European strategy is a possibility, but a EU-China trade deal would be dissected by Indian negotiators.

#5: Engaging with neighbours

China’s growing economic footprint in India’s neighbourhood is a concern. While it is being played out in Nepal, India will also watch China’s moves in the rest of the subcontinent. Its moves in Iran, too, were closely watched, and as Presidential elections take place in Iran this year, stakes for engagement will be high.

One of the important aspects of 2021 is that, while there is a churning in Nepal, almost every South Asian country has had elections in the last couple of years. That means the governments in these countries are stable.

As the world emerges from the pandemic, New Delhi has a lot to gain from what could be “vaccine diplomacy” with neighbours in 2021 — supplying vaccines either free or at affordable costs.

#6: Global, not just aspirational

For long, India has played the role of an emerging power — with ambitions to play the role of a global power. In 2021, New Delhi will host the BRICS summit, and start its preparations for the G-20 summit in 2023. And the India-Africa Forum summit, which could not be held in 2020, could be held in 2021 or later. New Delhi has opportunities to articulate and be vocal on issues that matter to the world, and be proactive to further its interests.

As India looks ahead in 2021, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar may have taken a leaf out of Nehru’s playbook. In his book The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, he sums up India’s foreign policy goals in this age of disruption, “Many friends, few foes, great goodwill, more influence. That must be achieved through the India Way.”

In the Chinese Zodiac, 2021 is the Year of the Ox — considered productive for those who are “hardworking and methodical” and “fully feel the weight of their responsibilities”. It is “a year when it is necessary to redouble the efforts to accomplish anything at all”.

That could well be the Indian strategy in the new year, as it navigates a post-Covid-19 future.

Source: The Indian Express

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