Discover more from The Bell
India’s Shifting Priorities: Balancing National Interests and Multilateralism
As the West recognizes India as a key partner to counter China’s rise as a disruptive power, New Delhi must prioritise and strengthen its historical ties with neighbouring countries in South Asia.
By Caroline Wilson
INDIA’S STRATEGIC LOCATION and comprehensive economic interests have reinforced its non-alignment policy in foreign relations. Its priorities have traditionally been centred around creating strategic ambivalence, based on the principles of international peace and cooperation. However, in recent times, India is moving away from conflict avoidance to a paradigm of assertiveness, in order to protect, promote, and prioritise its national interests.
As the fifth-largest economic power in the world, India’s importance in international relations is a by-product of remarkable levels of domestic economic growth. Furthermore, it is poised to become the world’s most populous country in 2023, surpassing China. With 40 percent of India’s population aged under 25, its economy offers a young and dynamic workforce, as well as a market for driving innovation and commercial diversity. China and the United States on the other hand, will face the economic consequences of a rapidly aging population.
For international political elites, India has always belonged in the big leagues and is seen as a key player within Indo-Pacific strategies, to counter China’s growing influence in Asia. With India assuming the presidency of the 2023 G20 summit, New Delhi has a unique opportunity to foster an agenda which ensures that the unheard concerns of the Global South are heard loud and clear — especially within the context of a Western-dominated international order.
This is to say that the West needs to stop solely prioritising its internal interests, and recognize broader considerations in its approach to global governance. As pointed out by the External Affairs Minister of India, when Western sanctions are imposed on Russia, low and middle-income countries tend to suffer the most. These economic barriers drive up the prices of energy, causing long-lasting socio-economic hardships and instability across “poorer” nations — which tend to rely on production across primary and secondary sectors of their economies.
With the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Russia pivoting toward the East for influence, New Delhi’s relations with the West have come under strain, mainly because of its diplomatic partnership with Moscow. It is true that Russia and India have retained a long-standing relationship since the Cold War. The two countries share historical ties, especially given their philosophical outlook on a public-sector heavy economic landscape.
Russia’s continued arms sales to India, and the 20th century geopolitical alliance between India and the Soviet Union versus the United States, Pakistan, and to an extent, China, provides ample evidence to explain why Moscow remains an important partner for New Delhi. However, India’s ties with Russia today are not the same as the one it shared with the Soviet Union. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, it is true that India increased its imports of discounted Russian oil — but this move has been framed as purely economic in nature.
India continues to maintain its neutral stance. It has not aligned with Russia on any international platform with respect to the war. At the same time, New Delhi refuses to take the side of the West. This was evident at the United Nations, where India did not succumb to the political pressure of the United States or Europe, and abstained from condemning the actions of Russia in Ukraine. New Delhi is clear about its multiple alliances’ strategy for the promotion and protection of its national interests.
India’s multilateralism is reflected in its relations with the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and other European countries. These engagements have intensified over the last decade. For instance, India recently made record-breaking deals for 470 aircrafts from Boeing and Airbus, which highlights how the country is expanding on its priorities, purely to serve its own interests.
With the growing skepticism about China’s aggressive foreign policies, particularly via its Belt and Road initiative, and the disruption of supply chains due to its zero-Covid restrictions, the world is slowly waking up to the problems associated with a lack of economic diversification and an international overdependence on China. This has provided India with an ample opportunity to increase its influence on the global stage.
However, in the process of creating a new roadmap for multilateralism, India has sidelined its complicated relationships with its smaller neighbours. The Modi government seems to be moving away from its initial promise of its Neighbourhood First policy in foreign relations. India is the only country in the world that shares its borders with seven countries, making it extremely important that New Delhi maintains a working relationship with its neighbours to achieve the objective of non-alignment, while protecting its domestic interests.
The reality is that India’s South Asian neighbours are aligning with China on a plethora of issues — which threatens India’s non-alignment approach in the long run. For instance, Nepal was backed by China in its cartographic war with India, even though New Delhi and Kathmandu have traditionally shared friendly relations. Meanwhile, the ties between Pakistan and China have also been a threat to India. With Sri Lanka’s inability to service Chinese loans and Beijing’s String of Pearls doctrine coming closer to home, India needs to step up its game in the region.
Even its closest ally, Bangladesh, a country rapidly marching towards economic development, has been strategic in strengthening ties with Beijing in the past decade, to serve its own economic interests. The island nation of Maldives, which has relied on India for its assistance and economic security, has recently exhibited opposition to India’s military presence in the country, through the India Out campaign.
Though India is politically an influential nation, with its remarkable economic trajectory and military strength, it is still not in a position to encourage dependency from its neighbours. India’s primary focus has been in providing financial assistance and in promoting trade agreements with its neighbours. But this is not enough to sustain long-standing relations. India needs to start focussing on the prompt delivery of its commitments to the overall development of the region.
Therefore, New Delhi still needs the consent, if not obedience, of its neighbours, to create the sustainable sphere of influence it wishes to have within the region, and enjoy the benefits of its envisioned path towards multilateralism. India’s efforts at regional blocs such as the Association of South Asian Nations, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, and the Modi government’s efforts to exhibit spectacular symbolism to its neighbours, are simply not enough to secure New Delhi’s hegemony in Asia.
Rather than competing blindly with China on infrastructure development, India needs to acknowledge its comparative advantage and reassert the shared cultural and historical ties with its neighbours. It needs to stop playing ‘Big Brother’ and must build a more inclusive network of Asian economies, rather than an India-led one, to ensure effective cooperation within the region.
To do this, India must focus on a long-term strategy for strengthening bilateral ties with its neighbours and work towards being a democratic nation at home — especially if it wants to maintain and grow its global relevance.
Caroline Wilson is a Master of Public Policy candidate with the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. She holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in sociology. Caroline has previously worked with the Government of India on women empowerment projects and on collaborative education programs in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.