India diplomacy is running to stand still given the enormous expansion of the country’s overseas interests. The ministry of external affairs held its annual heads of mission meeting with a much larger backdrop than in the past, thanks to the many new challenges facing Indian diplomacy. These are just a few of them.
One is that India’s economic relations are now almost unrecognisable in their dimensions from even a decade ago. India’s economy was about $150 billion when it began economic reforms in 1991. Today it is over $ 2 trillion. Where it once worried about the import of a few bulk food commodities and oil, today New Delhi must also worry about access to automobile markets, medical patents, immigration policies, sea lanes of communication and other arcane issues. Today, with roughly half of even the Tata Group’s investments and earnings based overseas, India’s corporate and strategic interests are effectively one and the same.
Two, India’s foreign policy no longer deals, as it once did, with about a dozen countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s peripatetic habits are sometimes criticised, but the truth is that New Delhi has interests in countries many Indians cannot place on a map. New Delhi talks of having at least one high-level Indian visit to every country in the world. Earlier this would have been treated as a gimmick. Today, it is probably because India actually has a genuine interest in almost all of these countries. This poses its own problems. It is no secret that many embassies, particularly in places like Africa and Latin America, were treated as the backwaters of Indian diplomacy. Such marginal areas no longer really exist, putting a considerable burden on India’s already undersized diplomatic corps.
Finally, the world order is in flux with the United States’ influence declining and China’s capacities rising. India, like many countries, had become used to the global public goods provided by the US like the guaranteed security of supply of Persian Gulf oil and gas, freedom of navigation in the high seas and the maintenance of the world trading system. All of these are now in question as Washington becomes increasingly whimsical and the gaps it is creating are largely filled in by China. India is increasingly being forced to take a less passive role in many of these global issues, whether it is maritime security or climate change. Brainstorming sessions are fine but what all these point to is a more radical enhancement of India’s diplomatic capacities whether it is in sheer numbers, the introduction of outside experts or the use of new tools like big data.