The achievements of foreign policy in stabilizing the neighbourhood are very much the basis for progress and development at home, Minister of External Affairs Dr S Jaishankar has said. He was addressing the St. Stephen’s- MRF Distinguished Alumni Lecture in New Delhi.
Talking on what a ‘good’ foreign policy means to the average person, Dr Jaishankar said a good foreign policy must work for all. Foreign policy being the link to the outside, it should enable us to draw what we seek. This could be in terms of technology or capital, best practices, or even work opportunities, he said.
Highlighting the importance of foreign policy in practice, he quoted the recent example from Ukraine where more than 20,000 Indian students had to be repatriated when war broke out. “This is when the entire foreign policy apparatus swings into action as it did through Operation Ganga. It does so by facilitating transport, and this includes trains and buses. It intervenes at the highest levels in Russia and Ukraine to ensure the ceasing of fire for safe passage. It engages the border authorities to ensure border crossing. And in extreme cases, such as, there is a particular town called Sumy, it even traverses conflict zones to assure you of the necessary logistics for your safety”, he said. Once you are out of Ukraine, it works with neighbouring Governments in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Moldova to establish transit camps, to utilize their air fields and to organize the flights which are required for your safe return home. Now reflect for a moment on these efforts, the interventions, the relationships at various levels that have gone into this – starting from the very top and think of what it needed to make all of this happen, he explained.
He also mentioned the work done by the government and MEA during extraction of Indians from Afghanistan under Operation Devi Shakti after the Taliban came to power. “The Vande Bharat Mission brought back millions of Indians from multiple countries through air, sea and land. It is, in fact, the largest recorded evacuation exercise in human history. The movement of the people itself was only the tip of the iceberg. Behind it were a complex set of activities that included organizing, gathering, testing, housing, even feeding those who are waiting to be repatriated”, he said highlighting the work that goes on behind the scenes.
Foreign policy matters not just in distress situations. It could literally determine your security, your job, the quality of your life, and as we have discovered recently, even your health. It shapes what you hold dear: like pride, values, reputation and image. And for all these reasons and more, it is important that you take a greater interest in the world,e he said.
When it comes to security, external or internal, diplomacy could be a preventive, a mitigator or a problem-solver. It can help raise awareness of a shared threat, just as it can find partners against common dangers. So, if you are a soldier guarding our frontiers or a policeman grappling with terrorism, a good foreign policy makes your life a little safer. And then there is the economy, with its search for investment, technology and best practices. In each of these sectors, foreign relationships can accelerate India’s progress. And cumulatively, what they do is to expand employment and improve your quality of life. Whether it is the cooking oil or pulses that are imported or a smart phone that is produced collaboratively, a larger policy decision has just made some difference to your purse. And bear in mind this is the era of globalization. So, whether it is oil, coal or fertilizer, or many other daily necessities, foreign policy can actually serve to ensure affordable access.
The world being what it is, self-interest and convergence cannot be fully counted upon, especially with neighbours. Their ambitions and emotions are not always predictable, nor indeed their risk-taking propensity. Few would have anticipated, for example, the turn that India’s relations with China have taken in the last two years. Any prudent policy therefore backs its posture with capabilities and deterrence. A big responsibility of Indian diplomacy, therefore, is to create the widest set of options for such contingencies. This could mean acquisition of defence capabilities and other supportive measures or securing the understanding for our policies and actions from the international community. And for that matter, in managing or resolving more fraught situations. So, let us look at how all of that has worked in the last few years.
A notable achievement of the Modi Government was to implement in 2015 the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh. In conjunction with the resolution of maritime differences, this has had a positive impact on the security situation in the East. More than that, it has opened up possibilities for economic cooperation and connectivity for the entire sub-region. The beneficiaries are not just India-Bangladesh trade and travel and that involving even Nepal and Bhutan, but also the North Eastern States of India, he said.
Speaking on the way India has managed to balance its relations with different blocs, he said leveraging of a multi-polar world has been particularly visible in terms of weapons and technologies needed by our defence forces. That a Rafale aircraft acquisition from France can take place at the same time as that of an MH-60R helicopter or P-8 aircraft from the US, the S-400 missile system from Russia or the Spice bombs from Israel speaks volumes of our nimbleness. These are typically accompanied by military exercises and policy exchanges that bring about greater strategic comfort. In short, diplomacy supports, empowers and facilitates the national security effort, he explained.
In many ways, foreign policy is an exercise in competitiveness; its economic facets are merely a reflection in a particular domain. If we have just crossed an export record, which we have by the way this year, foreign policy too has made its contribution in that record, he said. By its very nature, foreign policy develops a 360o outlook and can actually guide all other sectors. It could be trade and technology, or education and tourism. But current era really requires a holistic approach to important relationships.
At a time when demographic constraints are impacting the developed world, there is a real prospect of Indians gaining significantly in the global workplace. Till now, that has been largely self-driven with policymakers and the government mostly agnostic on this happening. However, a conscious effort at bringing our human capital into play on the world stage can actually create a very different set of outcomes. Employment prospects of Indian students studying in the US, in Canada, Australia or Europe are now very prominent in our agenda in interacting with these countries. Migration and mobility partnerships have been concluded with France, UK and Portugal, many more of them are on the way. And in fact, in this period of Covid-induced uncertainties, the educational interests of students have become very much a subject of focus for foreign policy. In terms of skills, we strive to ensure that Indian talent is treated in a non-discriminatory manner in the developed world – in US, in Canada and in Europe.
Speaking on the objectives of the Indian Foreign Policy since 2014 under Narendra Modi’s government, Dr Jaishankar said there was a conscious effort towards a ‘whole of the Government’ approach and more effective budgeting to back that up. He listed six broad objectives of the government as:
1) To bring about a change of thinking in the world about us.
2) Create partnerships on equal terms, and with smaller countries, and more generous.
3) The global agenda and the big issues of our times (Counter-terrorism, climate action, black money, maritime security, connectivity and pandemics) should be shaped by India as much as possible.
4) Foreign relationships should be actively explored and leveraged for domestic development and progress.
5) Foreign policy should be more people-centric and should look at the world as a global work-place and not just as a marketplace.
6) Indian culture, traditions (Like Yoga and Ayurveda) and thoughts should percolate our own articulation as well as influence international debates and initiatives.
In the years that have passed, the progress report on this transformation has actually been quite encouraging. The new energy in India’s endeavours is evident, notably in Prime Minister Modi’s own engagements. Some of India’s neighbours had not bilaterally hosted an Indian Prime Minister for years on end. Even a proximate region like the Gulf, leave alone those much further off, had seen a want of high-level attention for decades. Smaller nations, whether they are in the Caribbean or the Pacific, had actually been completely neglected. And to be very honest with you, Nations of Africa and Latin America had found their reach-out to be inadequately reciprocated. Now all of this has changed, and you can see that in terms of visits – bilateral visits, in terms of collective summits, in development partnerships and in fact opening of more Indian Embassies abroad. In our immediate region, the message of Neighbourhood First began to resonate, in fact, from the swearing-in ceremony in 2014. Its successor in 2019 further reinforced that impression. But this was not just symbolism; discernible progress in projects and activities have also lent it credibility.
A stronger and more capable India – one that is truer to its roots and culture – is a key factor in the larger rebalancing that characterizes our contemporary world. At a time when there are many more power centres, our place in a multi-polar order is clearly more assured. In an era that is more globalized, our talents, capabilities and contribution have a growing value for the rest of the world. As we mark 75 years of independence, Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, there is good cause to be confident about our prospects, he said.