Monday, July 22, 2024

India’s diplomacy in 2022: Expanding geopolitical heft, strategic ties; assuming G20 presidency

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In a year that saw revival of the great-power rivalry triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India assumed the presidency of the powerful G20 grouping and demonstrated a steely resolve and statecraft in expanding its strategic influence in reshaping the regional power balance in the face of China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour.

As the eastern Ladakh border standoff lingered on for over 30 months, India also maintained a clear and firm policy in its diplomatic engagement with China, sending a clear message to Beijing that the return of peace and security along the frontier was paramount for overall development of ties.

India also continued its diplomatic overdrive to expand ties with major global players like the US, the UK, Japan, France and the European Union in sync with a broad goal of increasing its geo-political heft and positioning itself as a credible force for peace and stability in contrast to China’s bullying behaviour.

Neutral approach to Ukraine-Russia conflict
With the Ukraine conflict resulting in a global food and energy crisis and an intensifying geopolitical competition between Russia and the US, India displayed a distinctively nuanced approach and pressed both Moscow and Kyiv to end the hostilities and find a solution to the problem through dialogue.

At a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand on September 16, Prime Minister Narendra Modi nudged the Russian leader to end the conflict saying “today’s era is not of war,” a formulation that found a mention in the declaration of the G20 summit in Bali. However, India abstained from voting in the United Nations on multiple resolutions condemning the Russian invasion, in reflection of its decades-old relationship with Moscow that covers a range of critical areas including defence and nuclear energy.

In the midst of the war, India significantly enhanced its import of discounted Russian crude oil prioritising its energy requirement and blunting the mounting pressure from Western countries to suspend the procurement.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24 left almost all major cities of the eastern European country under siege, India launched a massive evacuation operation to rescue its citizens from the conflict zones. Over 22,000 Indian nationals, the majority of students, were brought back home in 90 evacuation flights of which 76 were by commercial airlines and 14 were by the Indian Air Force.

Amid the geo-political turmoil over the Ukraine conflict, India assumed the presidency of the influential bloc G20 at its annual summit in Bali with a promise of striving to ensure that the grouping acts as a global prime mover to envision new ideas and accelerate collective action to deal with pressing challenges.

“India is taking charge of the G20 at a time when the world is simultaneously grappling with geopolitical tensions, economic slowdown, rising food and energy prices, and the long-term ill-effects of the pandemic,” Modi said at the Bali summit. “At such a time, the world is looking at the G20 with hope. Today, I want to assure that India’s G-20 presidency will be inclusive, ambitious, decisive, and action-oriented,” he said. India officially assumed the G20 Presidency on December 1.

Tumultuous relationship with neighbours
In dealing with China against the backdrop of the eastern Ladakh border row, India maintained an assertive policy insisting that the relationship cannot be normal unless there is peace in the border areas. “For ties to return to a positive trajectory and remain sustainable, they must be based on the three mutuals: mutual sensitivity, mutual respect and mutual interest,” External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said in August.

At a G20 dinner in Bali, Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands and spoke briefly in their first such exchanges in public view since the India-China border standoff began in May 2020.

In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited India, in the first major diplomatic engagement between India and China following the border row. The talks between Wang and Jaishankar lasted for around three hours during which the external affairs minister pressed for early completion of the disengagement process in the remaining friction points in eastern Ladakh.

In 2022, India also redoubled efforts to boost strategic cooperation with countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood, Gulf region, Central Asia and member nations of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) grouping.

But, India’s relations with Pakistan deteriorated further following Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s personal attack against Modi over two weeks ago.

Islamabad continued with its support to cross-border terrorism to create instability in Jammu and Kashmir. India reacted sharply to Bhutto-Zardari’s remarks describing them as “uncivilised” and a “new low” even for that country. New Delhi also continued its diplomatic offensive against Islamabad on the issue of terrorism and remained firm on not having any talks with Islamabad until it stops cross-border terrorism.

Indo-US ties
A major highlight of India’s diplomatic engagement in 2022 was the expansion of strategic partnership with the US including on key regional and global issues like working jointly for a free and stable Indo-Pacific. The reflection of renewed vigour in the bilateral ties was on full display during talks between Modi and US President Joe Biden in May as well as in November on the sidelines of the Quad meeting in Tokyo and the G20 summit respectively.

In May, India on Monday joined a US-led initiative to set up an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to bind partner countries to achieve common goals with Modi asserting that New Delhi will work with the stakeholders to make it an “inclusive and flexible” structure to pave the way for development, peace and prosperity in the region.

Rolling out the IPEF a day ahead of the Quad summit, US President Biden said 12 countries have joined the new initiative which is largely seen as an attempt to counter growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

In July, the four-nation grouping ‘I2U2’ held its first virtual summit. With Biden, then Israeli PM Yair Lapid and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan listening, Modi said the grouping would make an important contribution in areas of energy security, food security and economic growth. The grouping is known as ‘I2U2’ with “I” standing for India and Israel and “U” for the US and UAE.

Ties with rest of the world
In June, Modi attended the G-7 summit in the Alpine castle of Schloss Elmau in southern Germany.

India’s ties with Europe also witnessed an upswing in 2022 with both sides resuming negotiations for a comprehensive free trade agreement after a gap of over eight years with a resolve to firm it up in a time-bound manner.

In February, India and the UAE finalised a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with an aim to significantly ramp up overall trade ties. The CEPA is expected to increase the total value of bilateral trade in goods to over USD 100 billion and trade in services to over USD 15 billion within five years, according to the government.

In 2022, India and Australia also inked an Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement that is expected to boost trade ties in areas of jewellery, engineering goods and plastic goods among others.

In January, Prime Minister Modi hosted the first India-Central Asia summit in virtual format which was attended by Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. During the summit, Modi and the Central Asian leaders discussed the next steps in taking relations to new heights.

In the year, India also played a significant global role in calibrating a comprehensive approach to overcoming the adverse economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic while pitching for setting up resilient and trusted supply chains.

In the overall policy framework, India continued its focus on the Indo-Pacific in the backdrop of growing global concerns over China’s aggressive posturing in the region.

India also focused on improving regional connectivity with countries in its neighbourhood as well as with several central Asian nations as China’s opaqueness in rolling out projects under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) continued to draw suspicion.

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