2021: Challenges and opportunities for India in International relations


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not Much

Mains level: India's IR equation for 2021

After a year when it battled Covid-19 and Chinese aggression, India enters 2021 with the challenge of strengthening ties and building new ones with the US, EU, Middle East countries, and its neighbors.

Lets’ take a look at key determinants of India’s foreign policy in the post-pandemic year 2021.

Taking forward our legacy

  • In April 1963, about six months after the 1962 war with China, then PM 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’, said Nehru.

Agenda for 2021

  • 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.
  • The New Year presents India an opportunity to emerge as a global rather than an aspirational player.
  • 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 of 2020

#1: China aims for top

  • 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.

#2: America under Biden

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.

#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 the beginning of the process of re-engaging with the Taliban.
  • Signaling 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 India too is finally looking at the Taliban as a political actor, although it is controlled by the Pakistan military.

#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 polarizing 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 Beijing.
  • This has been possible also due to the US’s anti-Chinese rhetoric, the 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 neighbors

  • 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 neighbors 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 the Maldives and Sri Lanka. India appears to have made peace with the involvement of the US in the Maldives, and that of Japan in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

# 7: Aspirational India

  • By 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 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 European 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.
  • Cross-border terrorism is one of the top concerns and India will work towards isolating Pakistan further.
  • But a limited fixation on the western neighbor would distract from India’s aspirations of being a global leader.

#3: Friendship with the 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 defense 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 an EU-China trade deal would be dissected by Indian negotiators.

#5: Engaging with neighbors

  • China’s growing economic footprint in India’s neighborhood 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 neighbors in 2021 — supplying vaccines either frees or at affordable costs.

Conclusion: Thining global, not just aspirational

  • For a long, India has played the role of an emerging power — with ambitions to play the role of 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.
  • This could well be the Indian strategy in the New Year, as it navigates a post-Covid-19 future.

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