Five foreign policy developments of 2021 that bolster India’s global standing in 2022

The Indian foreign policy establishment can feel gratified that it has not let the grass grow under its feet in 2021 and has worked painstakingly to advance India’s interests.

Ashok Sajjanhar January 03, 2022 18:31:33 IST
Five foreign policy developments of 2021 that bolster India’s global standing in 2022

File image of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. PTI

The world witnessed a rapid flux in geopolitics and international relations over the last few years. These trends became much more pronounced in 2020 with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the beginning of 2021 the world was looking at the coming year with some hope and optimism. However, the year witnessed the eruption of the most devastating Delta variant in March 2021. Today the world is staring at the havoc being perpetrated by the new Omicron variant.

Under these challenging circumstances, the Indian foreign policy establishment can feel gratified that it has not let the grass grow under its feet in 2021 and has worked painstakingly to advance India’s interests.
Some significant developments in India’s external relations in 2021 can be enumerated as follows:

The Vaccine Maitri Initiative
India started its vaccination drive on 16 January 2021. Within four days, in accordance with the “Neighbourhood First” Policy enunciated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the beginning of his first term in 2014, it started supplying the indigenous Covishield vaccines to our neighbours and strategic partners. Bhutan and the Maldives became the first two countries to receive the vaccines on 20 January 2021. Bangladesh and Nepal came next on 21 January 2021. Myanmar, Seychelles, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan followed soon thereafter. Within a short period, India supplied 66 million vaccines to more than 90 countries. Most supplies to developing countries were gratis.

All consignments were welcomed with deep gratitude by the recipient countries. Bhutan's Prime Minister applauded “the gesture that signifies compassion and generosity of PM Modi, and people of India for the wellbeing of humanity”. He added, “It is of unimaginable value when precious commodities are shared even before meeting your own needs.”

Bangladesh’s health minister said that India had stood by Bangladesh during the Liberation War of 1971 as well as the pandemic. “This proves the true friendship between Bangladesh and India,” he said.

The Nepalese PM thanked PM Modi and the Indian government for the “generous grant at this critical time when India is rolling out vaccination for its own people”. The Crown Prince and the PM of Bahrain thanked PM Modi and the people of India for sending the vaccines which are a “sign of India’s global generosity”. The Brazilian President thanked PM Modi for sending Covid vaccine with a picture of Lord Hanuman bringing the holy ‘Sanjeevani’.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 28 January termed India’s vaccine production capacity as the “best asset” the world has to fight the pandemic. US State Department, Mauritius PM, DG of WHO, Bill Gates and several others spoke appreciatively of the selfless manner in which India helped several developing countries with the vaccines. India’s “Vaccine Maitri” mission also put China on the back foot.

India had to temporarily curtail these supplies when the second wave of the virus struck India in April 2021 but they were resumed as soon as the situation and supplies normalised. This initiative significantly enhanced the influence and image of the country particularly when compared with attempts to weaponise such supplies by our northern neighbour. The fact that India has been able to develop, manufacture and use Covaxin and several other vaccines domestically has significantly enhanced India’s status as a rising scientific and technological power.

It was due to India’s selfless initiative to supply vaccines to several countries that many nations around the world including the US, Russia, Germany, France, Australia, Canada and more responded immediately to supply India with oxygen, oxygen concentrators and other essential medical supplies to deal with the ferocity of the second wave.

India-US Relations
President Joe Biden assumed power in the US in January 2021. Some apprehensions had been aired in both countries whether the energy and dynamism of the India-US strategic partnership could be maintained. Both Biden and his Vice-Presidential running-mate Kamala Harris had, during the campaign, made critical remarks on the internal affairs of India. It was also charged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invested considerable political capital to cultivate President Donald Trump. This would prove to be an obstacle in establishing strong ties with Biden. All such apprehensions were found misplaced.

The critics failed to realise that Modi was proactively engaging with Trump in the latter’s capacity as the President of the US, the most valuable strategic partner of India, and not in Trump’s individual capacity. Biden started on a positive note with PM Modi from the word go to chart the upward course of bilateral ties. PM Modi had a highly successful visit to the US in September 2021. His interactions provided a strong impetus to the India-US partnership and to India’s initiative of reformed multilateralism.

The first in-person summit of the Quad countries, after the first virtual summit in March 2021, was held during this visit which put this grouping on a firmer footing. Biden has accorded appropriate importance to the Quad as also to building alliances with friendly, like-minded democratic countries. He has also taken a leaf out of Trump’s book by standing firm against the aggressive moves by China and not adopting a soft approach towards it as many had feared. All this bodes well for stronger and deeper partnership between India and the US in 2022 and beyond.

India’s Presidency of the UNSC
India assumed the two-year non-permanent membership of the UNSC on 1 January 2021. It took over as President of UNSC for the month of August 2021. This provided India with a good opportunity to enhance its credibility as a responsible stake-holder and a rightful claimant to the Permanent Membership of the UNSC. India identified maritime security, peace-keeping and counter-terrorism as key issues for special debates during its presidency.

Discussions on Maritime Security in different UN fora were scheduled earlier but could not be conducted due to the high sensitivity of the issue. PM Modi chaired the Session which was attended by President Putin. The last time Putin attended such a discussion in the UN was in 2005! The month of August also witnessed the forcible assumption of power in Kabul by the Taliban. This put a huge onus on the Indian Presidency. India proved equal to the challenge. It presided over several discussions on the evolving situation and crafted Resolution 2593 which has come to represent the consensus view of the global community on actions that Taliban must take in the governance of Afghanistan.

The competent and deft manner in which India built consensus even amongst opposing parties during its Presidency has significantly added to its prestige and influence.

Instability in Afghanistan
India was one of the few major countries that did not engage with the Taliban over the last many years. India was continuously criticised, both by domestic and international analysts, that India had frittered away its political and economic capital in Afghanistan by adopting an unrealistic attitude. However soon after the Taliban took control of Kabul on 15 August 2021, it became clear to the apologists and supporters of the Taliban that this version of the Taliban was no different from that which ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

President Putin called PM Modi on 24 August suggesting that the two countries coordinate their positions and establish a “private bilateral channel” to bring peace and security to Afghanistan. This led to the visit by the Secretary, National Security Council of Russia to India on 8 September and again in another two months to participate in the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue. Heads of the National Security Councils of Iran and the five Central Asian Republics also took part in the Delhi Dialogue.

The participating countries unanimously adopted the Delhi Declaration calling upon the Taliban to install an inclusive government, respect the rights of minorities including the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Shias as well as of women and girls, and ensure that the Afghan territory is not used to launch terror attacks against other countries. The same message was reiterated at the Third India-Central Asia Dialogue convened by India’s External Affairs Minister (EAM) with the Foreign Ministers of the five Central Asian countries in New Delhi on 19-20 December 2021.

All these developments have brought India squarely back on the global negotiating table to ensure peace and security in Afghanistan. Even the Taliban have realised that India has a valuable role to play in restoring stability and economic development of the country.

India-Russia Ties
The year 2021 witnessed the 21st Annual Summit between India and Russia which could not be held in 2020 on account of the ongoing pandemic. Critical remarks were made on the postponement in 2020 suggesting that wrinkles had appeared in the relationship as the two leaders could have organised a virtual interaction if a physical meeting was not possible. These critics failed to appreciate the depth and range of India-Russia bilateral ties which do not lend themselves to an online discussion.

President Putin’s visit for barely a few hours on 6 December to Delhi while his country was experiencing a huge surge in coronavirus cases and the threat of confrontation on the Russia-Ukraine border loomed large, is strong testimony to the importance that Russia accords to relations with India. The simultaneous holding of the 2+2 Dialogue between the two countries raised the bilateral partnership to a level higher than has existed thus far. The bilateral Defence Agreement was extended by a further period of ten years and fresh initiatives taken in a wide range of spheres. The visit and comprehensive discussions laid to rest any doubts about the health and dynamism of India-Russia strategic partnership.

In addition to the above, several other major initiatives were taken by India in the field of climate change; green energy; launch of the new Quad comprising India, Israel, UAE and US; strengthening of India’s ties with its neighbours and many more. All these have imbued India with the requisite mixture of hope, confidence and determination to promote peace, security and prosperity for the region and the world.

Challenges of course remain, both in the realm of domestic as well as foreign policy. On the external policy front, the most formidable challenge is the continuing aggression by China. With the experience and preparedness over the last many years, India feels confident that it will be able to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty and continue on the path of economic development and growth in 2022 and beyond.

The writer is executive council member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, president, Institute of Global Studies, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Aspen Centre, and former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. The views expressed are personal.

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