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All eyes on New Delhi as it pursues its independent foreign policy

Ever since conflict broke out between Russia and Ukraine, leading western powers and members of the G7 countries have put India under the spotlight since its independent pursuit of foreign policy does not sit in comfort with the position the developed economies adopted.

By Prasad Kunduri
New Update

publive-image External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar with the U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken at an event in the U.S | Photo Courtesy: Social Media

It should be one of the most exhaustive engagements by an Indian External Affairs Minister that Dr S.Jaishankar undertook during his end-of-September sojourn. The diplomatic outreach at two locations, the United National General Assembly in New York and a stand-alone bilateral with the United States of America in Washington DC, have little precedence.

A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows the EAM held around 50 plus meetings in multiple formats – ranging from traditional bilateral, much-in-vogue trilateral, quadrilateral and multilateral in the first leg of the visit to attend the conventional September UNGA.

In his own words, “I had, of course, a lot of meetings in the U.N. I met roughly about half the delegations who were there,” Dr Jaishankar said. The stream of interactions with leaders of countries that stretch from one end of the atlas to the other is now a hallmark of modern Indian diplomacy. Leading practitioners of the art are adept at utilising the UNGA meet to exchange notes and share views on contemporary issues with counterparts and leaderships, yet the breadth of contacts straddled a wide field.

The September 18-28 travel of Dr Jaishankar encapsulates India’s proactive work in the sphere at a time when the world is paying undivided attention to policies New Delhi pursues and characterises as ‘multi-alignment”, or “strategic autonomy” reaffirmed in the U.N. recently on several occasions during votes in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Ever since the conflict broke out between Russia and Ukraine, leading western powers and members of the G7 countries have put India under the spotlight since its independent pursuit of foreign policy does not sit in comfort with the position the developed economies adopted. The long trip suggested that South Block wants to address this challenge since the United States and European countries are working on the premise of convincing India to change its stance on Russia. The next test is the resolution the United States and Albania brought up in the UNSC condemning the referendum by Russia in four provinces of Ukraine.

For India and its people, Russia holds a special place as a long and trusted friend and to expect New Delhi to abandon the chosen path is difficult. Added to this is the current geo-political landscape in the region with the growing relationship between Russia and China. Before taking up the outreach during the UNGA, the significance of EAM Jaishankar’s four days in Washington DC was to reinvigorate the ties, which appear to have taken a slightly lower trajectory under President Biden. Though not entirely in the hands of the administration, the fact that the United States has not had a full Ambassador in Roosevelt House for over 20 months indicates the status. President Biden’s nominee Eric Garcetti is yet to be confirmed by the Senate. The process is held up for domestic reasons, and now with the country going in for mid-term polls in November, a forward movement on this front appears difficult.

Of all the meetings EAM Jaishankar had, the one that got play was his remarks over the Biden administration’s decision to provide a $450 million package to Pakistan. The U.S. justified the move as a provider’s obligation to maintain the fleet. On U.S. soil and on the eve of his official engagements, the categorical message was that the argument advanced by the U.S. could not be accepted. The takeaway for India from this step was that the relationship was neither serving Pakistan nor American interests. On top of it, offering an explanation that these fighter jets were being bolstered to fight terrorism led to the EAM remark that everyone knew where these planes were and their use. “You are not fooling anybody by saying these things”.

Coming from a seasoned diplomat and now an important architect of the country’s foreign policy, these took the internet by storm. “He called a spade a spade as far as U.S. grant to Islamabad for sprucing up the F16 or for that matter to China for shielding Pak-based terrorists,” said Ambassador Anil Trigunyat, an obvious reference to the EAM mentioning of Beijing blocking the Indo-US proposal at the UNSC to declare top Lashkar-e-Toiba operative Sajid Mir a global terrorist. 

After the bilateral meeting with EAM Jaishankar, Secretary Blinken repeated the official line that the package was to sustain the existing programme and that the U.S. had the responsibility to provide for the F16. Then justifying the terror angle, he said Pakistan was facing terror threats from within the country and neighbouring countries, including the TTP, ISIS-Khorasan and Al-Qaida. Having flagged the F16 issue earlier and then the public articulation on it, India decided to move ahead on the path for deeper defence cooperation. 

A section of the strategic community in India interpreted the F-16 package as a not-so-subtle message from Washington on India continuing to be on the side of Russia at a time the country sought to be with New Delhi co-sponsoring the resolution at the UNSC against Sajid Mir, which China blocked.

Despite the differences, India kept pace with the United States by remaining engaged in defence cooperation over the past two decades, New Delhi procured platforms and military systems from the United States worth over U.S. $ 20 billion. The picture is growing bigger with many more acquisitions and investments to promote opportunities for defence industrial cooperation that supports India’s Atma Nirbhar campaign and its role as a regional security provider. Earlier this year, amid the threat of sanctions on India for procuring the S400 missile systems from Russia, an influential Democratic Indian-American Congressman Rohit ‘Ro’ Khanna moved a Bill to grant a waiver to New Delhi. The argument revolved around the need to shore up India’s defence needs and wean it away from dependence on Russia.

Amid these swings, the assembly of Quad Ministers at New York appeared natural and reaffirmed Quad’s work towards advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific that is both inclusive and resilient. In a joint read-out, the Ministers also underscored unwavering support for ASEAN unity and centrality, ASEAN-led regional architecture and practical implementation of ASEAN’s outlook on the region.  

Multilateral engagements

The post-pandemic global scenario complicates issues with the world bracing to face a blowback in terms of gathering food and energy crisis. In trying times, India remained steadfast in pursuing “multi-alignment’. The display of this policy was evident at the UNGA, with the string of bilaterals, including those with U.N. Secretary-General Antonia Guterres, his counterparts Sergei Lavaroy (Russia), Penny Wong (Australia), James Cleverly (U.K.), Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud (Saudi Arabia), Carols Faria (Venezuela), José Manuel Albares Bueno (Spain), Richard J. Randriamandrato (Madagascar) among others. 

The trilaterals were IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa), India-France-Australia, India- Indonesia-Australia and the India-France-United Arab Emirates. The interactions with a cross-section of the global community confirmed that India wants to use the opportunity to make its presence felt. 

India is determined to take steps to strengthen its quest for a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council, continue to be a voice strongly advocating South-South cooperation, initiate responsible measures and work with the world in tackling Climate Change and improving the security environment on fronts like energy, food and trade threatened by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

Describing the EAM’s hectic schedule in reaching out to these many countries and groupings as the ‘new normal’, former India’s Ambassador to the UN Syed Akbaruddin said, “the U.N. is more a forum than an actor. As minilaterals and plurilaterals blossom, India is displaying adroitness in finding new avenues for intense engagement. Being a non-permanent member of the Security Council has helped in this effort”.

In the context of building greater consensus and understanding among countries from different continents on the complexity of the situation, these meetings assumed importance on more counts than one – to reinforce opinion on structural U.N. reforms, review the impact of policies in the vast expanse of Indo-Pacific region, and gradually build an alternate system that loosens China’s grip.

Look at the breadth of the trilaterals, including the latest India-France and the UAE. The obvious issues are the Indo-Pacific region, regional connectivity, and maritime security, besides blue economy, cooperation in multilateral fora, energy and food security, innovation and start-ups as areas of potential cooperation. These are new areas to build resilient supply chains and reduce dependence on essential food items from Russia and others.

The India-Brazil-South Africa forum reflecting South-South Cooperation, and through a Trust Fund, the group allocated over U.S. $44 million for 39 projects in 35 partner countries, the majority of which are in the least developed countries. Measures to assist these nations may not match China’s deep pockets. In the same breadth, the meetings of the India-CELAC (Community of Latin American and the Caribbean States) Quartet emphasise the post-pandemic world and concern for economic recovery. Plans are for working together in sectors such as trade and commerce, agriculture, food and energy security, health, vaccine production, traditional medicines and logistics. 

Interestingly, the meeting the L69 group chaired was on the theme of “Reinvigorating Multilateralism and Achieving Comprehensive Reform of the U.N. Security Council”. Those attending included countries from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, all of whom advocated comprehensive reforms to strengthen multilateralism. 

A joint statement ‘Call to Action’ was meant to raise a collective voice towards this end. The participants at L69, including members and other like-minded countries, expressed the desire to achieve a comprehensive reform of the UNSC. The meeting and its outcome can be interpreted in the backdrop of developing and under-developed countries during the Covid-19 pandemic experiencing the limitations of the U.N., as developed countries shuttered borders and supply chains were disrupted. Another meeting of significance was the co-Chairing of the 4th India-CARICOM Foreign Ministers on sports, health and pharmaceuticals, traditional medicines, I.T. and ITES capacity building and culture.

“It appears as if India was the flavour at the 77th UNGA. As such the meet is usually a festival of high-level interactions and even for venting of grievances. The extensive outreach by EAM Jaishankar for reformed multilateralism and India’s rightful place at the “Horseshoe Table” during his 10-days was remarkable. The trilaterals like India, France and UAE were highly significant in ensuring that Indian strategic autonomy and national interests remain the core priority,” Ambassador Anil Triganuyat, who served in West Asian countries like Jordan, summed up the activities.

The underlying feature behind these meetings was to deepen India’s traditionally strong ties with some countries in the Pacific Islands like Fiji, which has Indian-origin inhabitants and expand the sphere of influence in the region. Observers from the strategic community did not lose sight of India’s outreach and saw a similarity in the latest initiative by the United States hosting Pacific Leaders Summit. The objective is to make some inroads in the region where China moved several years ago.  

China, with its growing economy and military, remains a country of concern for the United States. India has been experiencing a troubled relationship with its neighbour since the summer of 2020. The challenge for India is to work its way out of the situation in a manner that settles issues in an amicable fashion and return to the status quo as it existed on an undefined border in the icy heights of the Himalayas. This is where the mantra of ‘strategic autonomy’ is at work.


Prasad Kunduri is a Delhi-based journalist who writes on foreign policy, strategic affairs and Parliament. He worked in the U.S. Congress as a Fulbright-American Political Science Association Fellow. He has served as the Chairman of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Press and Media Advisory Committees.