Prof. Harsh V Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and he holds a joint appointment with the Department of Defence Studies and King’s India Institute as Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.
He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.
Prof. Pant has been Visiting Professor at several reputed universities such as the University of Pennsylvania, McGill University, University of Melbourne, and others.
His most recent books include New Directions in India’s Foreign Policy: Theory and Praxis, India’s Nuclear Policy,
The US Pivot and Indian Foreign Policy, Handbook of Indian Defence Policy, India’s Afghan Muddle, and the US-India Nuclear Pact: Policy, Process and Great Power Politics.
Dr. Pramod Jaiswal, Strategic Affairs Editor at Khabarhub, spoke to Prof. Harsh V Pant on the issues related to India’s Foreign Policy.
What are the current foreign policy priorities and challenges for India?
When you look at India and Indian Foreign Policy, it is constantly evolving in response to what is happening around India, in the international environment as well as within India.
But I think at the moment if you look at various priorities of India, the topmost one would be primarily ensuring there is relative stability in the wider region in which India operates so that it can continue to focus on domestic economic development.
At the end of the day, a strong economy is one of the most important markers of any country’s global aspirations.
So, unless the economic fundamentals are sound, unless the Indian economy is doing well, I think, India’s role in the global order in the wider region will remain constrained.
I think for most policymakers it is important to focus on internal capacity building, internal development, but I think we are increasingly living in a world where the differences between domestic policy and foreign policy are getting blurred and I think that is a very important message that is coming out from across the world at this point.
In the post COVID19 environment, countries are having to deal with both the health front-the health crisis and the economic front- the wealth crisis as well as in trying to figure out the response to so much that is happening around the world from major power contestation to the growth in extremism and terrorism, to the wider challenges in the maritime space, to new technologies that are emerging and reshaping the way they work, we think and we operate.
All of these challenges are profoundly serious and are having a significant impact on the way most nations are thinking about their foreign policy priorities, India is no different, but as a COVID19 situation stabilizes hopefully the challenges for India would be to bring its economy back on track, as well as to use or try to shape their regional and global environment which allows India to fulfill some of its domestic aspirations.
Where is India’s Neighbourhood policy headed under the Modi Government especially during and after the COVID19?
I think this has been a very challenging time for all nations including India and India’s neighbors. And in that context, India’s neighborhood policy in the last one and half years has also responded to some of the challenges that India and India’s neighbors have been facing.
So, you would recall, for instance, from the very beginning, India was one of the few countries to say that look this pandemic cannot be resolved by countries turning inwards.
We have to work together and in fact, at that point in time even PM Modi convened a conference of all SAARC nations, of all nations in the neighborhood, Pakistan was also invited.
So in a sense, that was the first phase of the crisis, and India was arguing that India really cannot tackle it on its own, it needs the support of its neighbors to tackle it because we live in a neighborhood which is, you know, where the boundaries are porous, borders are porous, where people interact with each other all the time and this is a region where people to people ties are very strong so it’s very difficult to become, to change the way we operate on a day to day basis.
Therefore, regional cooperation was very important and, in that spirit, in the 1st phase, in fact, we saw India using some of its global manufacturing capacity to reach out to its neighbors- supplying PPE kits and medicines that were needed then.
Moving on to vaccine diplomacy, I think the first phase of vaccine diplomacy was largely focused on India supplying it to its neighbors.
But then you had the second wave and that second wave earlier this year, March-April blindsided Indian policymakers and it was very difficult because the resources were very limited and the scale of the crisis was of a very different magnitude.
And at that point in time, India started prioritizing domestic consumption and its vaccine diplomacy. So, we have seen India not exporting and supplying vaccines since March-April this year.
And given their production capacity, the manufacturing industry is also coming down. And now that I think India is back on track with its own vaccination program and the supply of vaccines, the issue is once again getting normalized.
I think very soon we would see India once again engaging with the neighborhood.
But I think there are two important points on the neighborhood policy, one, compared to the past, India’s neighborhood policy is being shaped also by the rise of China and China is now one of the most important partners of almost all of India’s neighbors and all that will continue because China is a growing power.
It a power that has resources and therefore it is important for India’s neighbors to engage with China as well.
But this dilemma which India faces and to a certain extent India’s neighbors also face; how do you balance India and China and their foreign policy priorities?
And how can India make sure that it remains a positive player in the region? Those challenges will remain with Indian foreign policy for some time now, given China’s role in its expanding profile.
The other thing, which I will very briefly touch upon, is the issue of Afghanistan and what has happened in Afghanistan with the coming back of the Taliban to power.
Now I think, this will once again have significant consequences for the region because this is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious region and any attempt where religious extremism comes on the rise that challenges the stability of the region.
So, I think for some time now India’s neighborhood will have to focus more on its western frontier- the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt because for a long time now India had been focusing on the eastern flank, the whole BIMSTEC, Bay of Bengal, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar and Thailand.
Those were the focus areas for India but now with the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan, which raises some significant security concerns for India and I think the focus is slightly to be shifted towards it.
Will the Indian government acknowledge Afghanistan under Taliban rule? What transpired the Indian and Taliban talks earlier this month? Does this indicate the shift in India’s policy?
I sense that th
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