The Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Vikram Doraiswami, recently delivered an insightful talk on ‘India’s Foreign Policy and Trade Relations’, hosted by the King’s India Institute at King’s College London. Here are some excerpts from the wide-ranging lecture, concluding by contentexualising India’s current presidency of the Group of 20 (G20).
Foreign and trade policies are in every sense of the term part of the same process by which a nation seeks mutually beneficial partnerships with the external world. We live today in an era in which the broad guiding principle for such external policies is mutuality of benefit: suffice here to say that this is a relatively new approach that was not always the case, say, a century and more ago.
What then are the current guiding principles and contextual factors that shape foreign trade and political policy? While I cannot presume to speak for other countries, the following apply to India:
First obviously, securing national interests. Naturally there must be a broad harmony of interests and values, but fundamentally, the purpose of foreign policy is the protection and promotion of national interest. In recent years, we have added to this larger definition the notion that this also involves safeguarding the interests of Indian citizens, and building ties with people of Indian origin (PIOs), of which there are an estimated 32 million worldwide.
Our efforts in these two related lines of endeavour are the logical extension of policies that have seen India open its borders to PIOs in crisis, from the then Burma in the early 1960s to east Africa in the early 1970s: today the protection of the Indian state includes evacuation of Indians in distress, from Afghanistan, Ukraine, during Covid, from Yemen, and so on, and the promotion of links with diaspora include an overseas Indians conference as well as an annual travel scheme for diaspora youth to re-connect with India.
Indeed, the primary purpose in the government of Prime Minister Modi is to ensure that our external policies — political, economic, trade — all converge around the defined national goal of renewal of India. The target is to ensure that every one of India’s diverse communities are better served through better delivery of services, and that all Indians lead comfortable lives in a developed country, within the centenary of our independence.
Second, is about optimisation of alternatives, based on the recognition that contrary to what theoretical analysis might suggest, in the real world, choices come with consequences, and the latter usually come with costs. As the adage goes, it’s easier to say, much harder to do. Therefore, foreign and trade policies are all about choosing the least worst option, and seldom perfect options, because choices need to be made, and not merely debated, and costs need to be assessed and often paid.
Examples of these policies in actual effect include decisions to manage and if possible, mitigate the sourcing of defence hardware, electronic goods, energy from abroad. While we are moving steadily to reduce external reliance in the first two, we remain dependent on external sources for hydrocarbon fuels, for over 80 per cent of our needs.
Third, effective policies are about grounding decisions in the clearest possible understanding of the prospect of ensuring an intersection between your own national needs, external options, and the costs of making specific choices. This also means that policies must be based on pragmatic and realistic assessment of actual capabilities: your own and those of your interlocutors — even adversaries.
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In practical terms, this means that our policies have had to be tailored to fit the shifting security and economic environment around us, especially in Asia. That means doing so in a manner that is well-suited to India’s democratic system, and the notion of mutuality of benefit for partners. In other words, our approach to the world is not, and has never been, mercantilist.
Fourth, if the purpose of policies to manage the external domain is to minimise risk and maximise benefits — and ensuring both a multiplicity of options and that the chips stay up are obviously also benefits — then it follows logically that policy must be based on rigorous understanding of the current external environment. In other words, unlike theoretical constructs, in the real world, policies and actions need to take into account the prospect of multiple ranges of responses and counter measures from other players and partners. Thus, it isn’t even chess or go: policy-making is multilevel, multiplayer chess. That too, on a continually evolving playing board…
As current G20 chair, we have set out our vision of how the world’s 20 largest economies and other guest invitees can help move the dial forward on addressing the leading challenges of humanity. We have identified:
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• Leveraging technology to solve problems. India has deployed technology at colossal scale to roll out 1.2 billion unique identity cards, through which social sector payments, public health insurance and other benefits are paid routinely and directly. Hundreds of millions have been brought into the banking system, and our FinTech system now records the world’s largest number of payment operations, at 8 bn in Jan 2023, just one month, by an order of magnitude.
• Strengthening the international order by enhancing the voice of the global South. India has long worked with partners in Asia, Africa and Latin America to promote a fair, balanced and cooperative world order.
• Promotion of a lifestyle that is more in harmony with nature, and our own effort to depoliticise the global supply of food, fertilizer and healthcare, especially vaccines.
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• Creation of resilient supply chains and wider dispersal of value chains of production.
• Peace through dialogue, and the settlement of disputes through peaceful means.