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Debate on the newly assertive India

Excerpts from remarks made by Ambassador Neelam Deo, who was one of the speakers at The Policy Debate 2019, titled, ‘The Winds of Change: Analysing the Newly Assertive India’, held at the Government Law College, Mumbai, on 19 October 2019.

In the past 70 years, there have been significant changes in India. It is more comfortable in its own skin today:  Prime Minister Modi speaks in Hindi at all international forums and meetings.

It is the fifth largest economy in the world, and third in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP). It is a member of numerous multilateral organisations, such as the G20, BRICS, and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). India has also been instrumental in co-creating organisations, such as the New  Development Bank (NDB), the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). But it is still not a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

India participates proactively in dialogues on global governance, counter-terrorism, climate change and other issues, but our ethos remains Ahimsa, non-violence. The best example of India not being aggressive is Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue (Singapore, June 2018), which was inclusive and clarified that India’s outreach and alignments are not against anyone.

With its economy expanding, India’s foreign policy also changed – it has gone from non-alignment to multi-alignment. In general, in foreign policy, there are few discontinuities. Adjustments are made. For instance, when the USSR was dissolved in 1991, India started building closer ties with the Middle powers, like Japan, France, and the United States

Today, in general, India is more articulate than assertive. But it is more assertive than before when it comes to Pakistan. Responding to terrorist activities, it used kinetic methods and even crossed the border into Pakistani territory in Balakot! It is more assertive also in global governance, counter-terrorism, climate change and other issues – which define its articulateness. The best example, though, of India not being assertive is Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue where he highlighted India’s ethos.

India, a large country, is being taken seriously by the world. That can be seen in the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston in which U.S. president Donald Trump joined, followed by the Eastern Economic Summit in Vladivostok with President Putin and the ‘Chennai Connect’ summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram.

The Belt and Road Initiative

China is increasing its footprint around the world with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Gateway House, which undertook extensive research on Belt and Road initiatives in India’s neighbourhood, found that China has undertaken massive projects in these countries. These projects are not gifts, they are not funded by grants – they are loans, given on high interest rates, and also lack transparency. For instance, the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka was a white elephant as only one ship called at the port every month, making it unviable. This forced the Sri Lankan government to hand over the port on a 99-year lease to the Chinese state-owned company which built the port.

Consider also that Pakistan took the last IMF loan to pay the interest to China for its unviable power, road and rail projects in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The BRI projects are strategic for China as it helps them export capacity. But African and Central Asian countries have been forced to pledge their natural resources, especially oil, to repay China.

Religion’s role in diplomacy

Today, religion is discussed more than before, and it is being instrumentalised by some States. But we must look at how diplomatic alignments are changing too. For instance, Saudi Arabia is closer to Israel while its support to Palestine has waned.  As for India, the late external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj was invited earlier this year by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to be the guest of honour at its 2019 conference even though Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, boycotted it in protest against his Indian counterpart’s presence.

India’s take on nuclear energy

We must remember that all the P5 countries have nuclear capabilities and one of them has even used it in the past. While the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – U.S., China, UK, France and Russia – have pursued non-proliferation to perpetuate their dominance India has always promoted disarmament to reduce the number of nuclear weapons – and give them up eventually.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder & Director, Gateway House.

This speech was delivered at The Policy Debate 2019 organised by Government Law College, Mumbai, on 19 October 2019. 

For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact outreach@gatewayhouse.in.

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