Reset button on foreign policy imperatives

[ Suresh Chandra Mohanty ]

International diplomacy has been witnessing intense and vigorous confabulations over the last month, triggered by the conflict in Ukraine and at the same time assisted by physical meetings after a nearly two-year hiatus, with the Covid-19 pandemic being on the wane. The Indian foreign policy has charted an exciting, independent and assertive approach as firmly and eloquently articulated by S Jaishankar. Under intense diplomatic coercion from the West as regards its differing standpoint on the Ukraine conflict and refusal to unequivocally condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India has steadfastly maintained its consistent stand in rare diplomatic candour. Jaishankar’s pointed reference to the EU’s deliberate ignorance/indifference towards violation of a rule-based order in Asia vis-à-vis Europe (events in Afghanistan, along LAC and South China Sea), hypocrisy with respect to procurement of Russian oil, equal right to be concerned about human rights violations in the US while Washington has firmly put the ball in the court of the EU/US, forcing them to make conciliatory statements, albeit grudgingly. The refreshingly new Indian approach is engaging with the West on its own terms; to be confident of who we are, rather than pleasing the world by being a pale imitation of what they are.

However, having savoured the afterglow of Jaishankar’s intrepid response to the West’s pugnacity, it would be pragmatic to harmonise our engagement with the EU (as also the rest of the world) in areas of mutual convergence and share our nuanced views with regard to the ongoing conflict in our long-term strategic interests. The PM’s recent visit to Berlin, Copenhagen and Paris must be viewed in this context as a part of reorientation of our foreign policy imperatives, which of necessity is ought to be multidimensional. While we need to nurture and redefine old relationships, the evolving geopolitics necessitates building/rebuilding and restructuring new ones based on contemporary economic and security challenges.

Our historic close relationship with firstly the Soviet Union and then Russia, predominantly constrained by legacy defence equipment notwithstanding, there is an urgent need to diversify sourcing of critical defence equipment and trade for a few reasons; first, Atmanirbharta has a long gestation period and will take time to transit from a 80-85 percent import dependency to be substantially indigenous and assured supply chain management. Our experience during Operation Vijay (1999) and Operation Snow Leopard (2020) would substantiate this argument. Second, given the wide-ranging sanctions on Russia and the economic turmoil it will be progressively subjected to in the foreseeable future, the uninterrupted supply of defence equipment and spares is likely to be severely hit. There has already been a three-month delay in the supply of the second batch of S-400 Triumf air defence missile system. Third, Russia’s economic dependence on China is expected to rise exponentially, which is likely to influence its strategic engagements with India to suit Chinese geopolitical ambitions. Fourth, in the emerging multipolar world order, the EU is certain to emerge as an independent and self-assured power centre, rather than playing second fiddle and being browbeaten by the US and the UK.

French President Emmanuel Macron, having won an unprecedented second term, will continue to have a dominant voice in the EU well beyond the termination of its rotating presidency of the Council of European Union in June 2022, owing to its economics and military (including nuclear) power and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Given the bitter AUKUS experience, it is likely to veer away from the Anglosphere influence. Amongst the EU countries, France is one with which India enjoys a long-term and trusted defence relationship, second only to Russia. India has been operating French Mirage and Jaguar fighter aircraft, Scorpene submarines, helicopters, sourcing engines for indigenous Dhruv helicopters and Airbus/ATR passenger aircrafts since decades. Indeed, the trusted Mirage 2000 were used in the Balakote transborder strike for precision targeting. The recent withdrawal of the French company naval group from the P75I project to build six conventional submarines in India has more to do with conforming to technical issues in the RFI and should not be viewed as a setback to longstanding and deepening defence relationship. During the visit of French Defence Minister Florence Party in December 2021, the two sides affirmed their commitment to ensure defence technology with a high make in India component. For France, the Indo-Pacific space is a geographic reality with 93 percent of its EEZ located in the Indian and Pacific oceans, including the Reunion and Mayotte regions. The dominion is home to 1.5 million French people and 8,000 soldiers. With the joint production of nuclear submarines with Australia having fallen through in favour of the AUKUS, France would be more than keen to take forward the project with perspective buyer India in strategic partnership mode. The Indo-French cooperation in space and civil nuclear energy is robust and exhaustive. Furthermore, India-France engagements are bereft of irritants like Sikhs for justice (SFJ)/Khalistan supporters, extradition of economic offenders and respect for human rights (as with UK/US/Canada). France has made substantive efforts to bring about a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine, unlike the hardnosed approach of other EU members, an aspect where India and France seem to be on the same page. The visit of PM Modi ended with commitments for cooperation in the fields of space, efforts to end the war in Ukraine, investment in the defence sector in India and Indo-Pacific.

As regards Germany, though the joint statement released consequent to the visit of PM Modi to Berlin clearly indicated widely differing standpoints on the conflict in Ukraine, Germany recognises the futility of antagonising India, the only country which is predicted to grow at 8 percent of GDP post the pandemic, and has extended an invitation to India for the next month’s G7 summit as a special invitee. Given its excessive dependency over Russia for oil and gas (over 40 percent), Germany is a reluctant player in the anti-Russia narrative. For India, it is imperative to prevent Germany from over obsession on Ukraine and focus on the centrality of Indo-Pacific. Post Angelo Merkel, who was the force behind the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment that fell through in the European Parliament, Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears more inclined to take an anti-China stance favourable to India. The inter-governmental consultations need to be upgraded to strategic partnership. More than 1,800 German companies have business relations with India with majority having joint ventures and subsidiaries. There are nearly 30,000 Indian students in Germany pursuing technical education in various universities. The areas of cooperation are huge and must attenuate the current disagreement over Ukraine.

The India-Nordic summit with the prime ministers of Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway also comes at the most opportune time while the world is preoccupied with the Ukraine conflict. With a combined economy of over $ 1.3 trillion and free market economies, there is huge opportunity for India in the fields of renewable energy, smart cities and high technology.

Despite choosing the middle path in the most defining crisis in Europe since the Second World War, India saw a stream of high-level diplomats and political leaders visiting the country, indicating its increasing geopolitical importance. India must utilise these opportunities to reach out to new partners, redefine old relationships and strengthen existing ones to secure its long-term national objectives. (Maj Gen Suresh Chandra Mohanty is security adviser to GoAP.)