Representational image. (Bloomberg)
Representational image. (Bloomberg)

Expanding India’s foreign policy canvas

Climate, health, digital tech, and geo-economics will define the global conversation. India must be proactive
By Syed Akbaruddin
UPDATED ON JUL 22, 2021 08:41 PM IST

New thinking about global norms is in the air.

At one level, a new global tax is being worked upon. The objective is not only to establish a minimum corporate tax regime but also a system where certain profits of large companies will be taxed where they are generated. Carve-outs to suit specific requirements are being carefully negotiated.

Separately, carbon border levies are being unveiled to aid net zero emission goals. These portend fusion of trade and climate in unprecedented ways. Also, binding dispute resolution provisions are sought to be embedded into international agreements. At another level, standards are being contested and technological decoupling is taking place, leading to new value chains being set up.

They are all signs that changes in the global economic domain are underway. There is no turning back. It is only the pace, not the trajectory of changes that is now an issue. Their cumulative impact will be on us. India’s choice is to understand and shape them or be at the receiving end.

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Indian foreign policy, like that of most other States, has generally given primacy to the frictions and friendships relating to geopolitics. Geo-economics, usually, has taken a backseat. The advocacy of decolonisation; the demand for nuclear disarmament; the crafting of the Non-Aligned Movement as a response to the Cold War; the support for United Nations (UN) peacekeeping; the quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council; and the call for the comprehensive convention on international terrorism are some of the many global foreign policy initiatives that stand out.

Such successes, have aimed to better our geopolitical situation and, thereby, contribute to our economic well-being.

As global issues have evolved, India has, in a more direct manner, ventured to plug into development and economic activities as links to a global role. For example, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has espoused climate action as an issue where what India does within its borders to benefit its citizens also matters well beyond our borders. This has both economic and political benefits.

Leveraging economic engagement to boost political ties is not new. It goes back to India’s decades-long development cooperation with countries of the global South. What is different is the scale and global impact of what India does or does not do on several issues coming onto the global agenda — for instance, the climate crisis, health security and digital technologies. These can no longer be termed only as sectoral issues; they are now becoming primary global concerns.

During the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, our foreign policy apparatus was key in securing essential global supplies even as our corona warriors battled the virus across the country. Conceptually, other subjects such as taxation of global corporates, regulation of trans-boundary digital behemoths, big data management, disaster and humanitarian relief, not to forget trade issues, can benefit by being addressed through the prism of a broader approach taking into account the global dimensions.

Similarly, migration and human mobility are emerging issues. India and Africa will be the largest repositories of young populations while most other societies age. Likewise, concerns about anti-microbial resistance are rising as are those about cybersecurity. All these are trans-boundary issues with intrinsic foreign policy dimensions as we have to engage on them globally and what we do domestically has global repercussions.

There will be challenges in changing from a sectoral to a broader approach that looks beyond the horizon. But let us not forget that by most accounts India emerged as a net beneficiary of the last wave of globalisation, despite going into it with considerable reluctance. With global changes of a different kind now in the making, we need a holistic approach to tackle them. In short, there is a case to expand our foreign policy agenda beyond the traditional thinking of what is geopolitical.

This does not entail a shift of focus. Perennial subjects such as the boundary question with China will remain important, as will our ties with midnight’s other child in South Asia. So also rising geopolitical situations such as in Afghanistan. At the same time, increasing the scope of foreign policy to take into account the intermeshed nature of global changes underway is crucial too.

Geo-economics inevitably impacts geopolitics. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is an example. Climate, health security and digital technologies are becoming aspects of geopolitical contestation of different kinds. Our willingness to encompass areas, which we previously considered beyond the pale of our foreign policy posture, will be key to our ability to navigate the coming wave of global changes.

The primary goal of foreign policy is to preserve, promote and protect national interests in the broadest sense of the term, and not to limit the canvas. We have the talent in the form of a cadre of dedicated officials, as well as ability in the form of one of our ablest diplomats holding the political fort. Also, PM Modi, as a leader, is not averse to risk-taking. What is needed is to mainstream the different strands of various policies that are encompassed by the coming wave of global change into an integrated foreign policy approach. Our presidency of G20 in 2023 will provide opportunities to weave geo-economic themes with geopolitical interests. If we want to ride the next wave of global change, we need a broader global agenda and a carefully crafted game plan in place soon.

Syed Akbaruddin is a retired diplomat who served as India’s permanent representative at the UN. He is now the dean of the Kautilya School of Public Policy

The views expressed are personal

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