In this world of all against all, India’s goal should be to move closer towards the strategic sweet spot. — Jaishankar
What we’ve seen from India’s strategic stance is the pinnacle of strategic autonomy, emphasizing diplomatic activity, geopolitical pragmatism, placing national interests before of bloc politics, and maintaining excellent connections with all parties so that India can utilize these relations to get the best possible result, even during times of global turbulence. India also applied ‘strategic autonomy’ as an endeavor to maximize policy space while maintaining national interest. India regards bloc politics as a limitation on its activities and options. So far, India’s recent primary focus has been on balancing China, cultivating strategic ties with both the West and Russia and maintaining a firm strategic grip on the regional geopolitical framework. However, the recent extraordinary developments in international politics pose a significant challenge for India due to its neutral status. India must now deal with both political and economic issues while maintaining prosperity. So, the atmosphere is really difficult for India, despite the fact that India has done exceptionally well so far.
Since its independence, India has maintained a balanced relationship with the superpowers while also maintaining an important presence in the regional strategic stance. However, the world is in the grip of instability for the last two years. The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the economics of various nations. And it was in August 2021 when world geopolitics changed dramatically. The US exit from Afghanistan has prepared it to concentrate on its primary preoccupation, the Indo-Pacific. The issue also exemplifies the conventional US pivot to Asia in order to pave the basis for future competition with China. That’s when Vladimir Putin decided to take the rug out from under the other boxing in Russia, as he saw it. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has transformed global equations in ways that no other strategic event in recent years has, a game-changing event that, like 9/11, has forced a historical pivot. It’s simply that the incident has had such a deep influence that it’s impossible to predict how the consequences will play out.
Balancing the blocs
The ‘Ukraine conflict’ makes India busy keeping the geopolitical balance between major nations in check. India, as a large, strategically significant swing state, has drawn a lot of international attention by refusing to play bloc politics and prioritizing its interests despite enormous turbulence in the global system. Between the United States and Russia, India has conducted ‘equidistant diplomacy.’ With this understanding, it may stay extremely close to the United States for its own purposes, but being a vassal nation is never a possibility. India has learned a bitter lesson from Afghanistan, where the West has paid little heed to Indian investment ($3 billion in development assistance). They started negotiations with the Taliban and eventually withdrew their soldiers. They made no move to incorporate India into the discussion. The circumstance placed India in a bad predicament. To secure diplomatic victory in the Ukraine War, the West needs Indian support. Instead of helping the West unreservedly, India took an independent diplomatic stance. India hasn’t disappeared; it retains a key strategic position. In addition, India has taken a neutral approach in the UN, abstaining from practically all key votes and refusing to join the US-led sanctions against Russia. Its non-participation sparked outrage in the West. The West, led by the United States, strove to bridge the gap and bring India closer together. The West seeks to lock Russia in a lengthy Ukrainian quagmire, increasing Putin’s war costs via heavy economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. The West also wants to deter India from purchasing Russian crude oil. This work is a bit more difficult. It would not be easy to urge India to stop purchasing Russian crude oil while Europe is effectively funding Putin’s war against Ukraine and paying Moscow 1 billion euros per day for gas and oil. So, the West’s message to India is: buy Russian oil if you must, but don’t buy in quantity or exceed your previous purchases. However, India’s imports from Russia demonstrated that the approach had not been implemented. When Russia offered its oil for $20-35 per barrel in March 2022, India eagerly accepted. In a single month, Indian refiners purchased 13 million barrels and pledged to purchase another 15 million barrels, almost doubling their total purchases from Russia in 2021.
This shows India’s strategically balanced position because India has a huge reliance on Russia for weapons imports handing it more than $25billion over the last 10 years. The West views this as a triumph, but for India, it is a matter of national interest.
Joining the international organization with clarity
India has recently been highly active with its organizational strategy. Connecting with other economic and strategic groups and finding opportunities for further economic and strategic advantage is one of India’s latest approaches. However, collaboration with other players has resulted in a solidary stance in which India states that it is prioritizing national interests above the requirements of the actors. With defined aims for shared prosperity and security, India joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) for the Indo-Pacific with the United States, Japan, and Australia, seeking a common rules-based system for the area that would encompass all states in this geographical region on an equal footing. India has also agreed to join another QUAD for West Asia, together with the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. At the same time, India maintains contacts with Russia, the RIC, and the BRICS. Closer ties are being created between Russia and Afghanistan and Central Asian nations, and attempts are being made to operationalize the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). India is collaborating with Iran to identify a replacement for the TAPI gas pipeline. It has made the Chahbar port operational in Iran. Nonetheless, New Delhi promotes the link with ASEAN and outlines the organization’s additional ties.
New strategic moves
Recently, India has ramified some strategies that are entirely dedicated to securing a strong Indian presence in international and regional places. India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All Regions) program is driven by strategic and budgetary needs. This is not just to meet the domestic demands but is also a plan to secure deeper links with India on a long-term basis. India also, revamped the Look East policy into Act East Policy. Previously, India did not fully use the potential of its partnerships with these nations. India has extended its business and investments in these regions as part of its efforts to strengthen ties with these regions. India’s philosophy of ‘effective multilateralism’ embraces the reality of many rising countries and recognizes that voices of many nations, rather than perspectives of a few, should determine the global agenda.
Neighborhood First policy and Vaccination diplomacy
India treats its neighbors consistently. “Neighborhood First” refers to domestic non-interference. The policy strives to build friendly and synergistic ties with South Asian neighbors. India’s vaccine diplomacy during the COVID-19 outbreak helped several nations, including neighbors (Vaccine Maitri). India has also donated $10 million to the SAARC Fund to fight the pandemic. The Indian government has earmarked INR 62,920 million for development assistance in 2022-23. India has agreed to lend Sri Lanka $1 billion due to its dire economic predicament. It sent Sri Lanka fuel to aid with the blackout. India also sent food grain to Sri Lanka to ease food shortages.
New calculation and new strategic gains
The world has begun to split into two sides, and India has the capacity and capability to face the fractured globe and stand on its own platform. Because it reflects India’s and its people’s capabilities, this self-reliance posture has had a huge impact on both local and international levels. In politics, a self-sufficient government is typically popular. This Indian balancing approach has the political effect of carving out an independent superpower position and hastening the transition to a multipolar global order. India now has a noticeable presence in international organizations as a consequence of its recent strategy. The EU, ASEAN, BIMSTEC, BRICS, IPS, and QUAD are common players who seek to cooperate more with India.
This new position benefits India economically in many ways. One of the crucial areas is FDI inflows in its history. Despite the COVID-19 global pandemic, India received the largest annual FDI inflow of $83.57 billion in FY21-22 which has increased from $62 billion in 2018-2019. Paradoxically, the return of a polarized world generated a new role for India, demonstrating a perfectly balanced route. It is also a lesson for governments seeking to distinguish themselves in the post-pandemic, newly divided international order.
*S. M. Saifee Islam is a Research Analyst at the Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA), Dhaka, Bangladesh.