India in the New Geopolitics of Asia

India has become a major player in world affairs. It is in the midst of a geopolitical repositioning as it navigates its place in the evolving regional and global order. Eminent Indian experts and thought leaders convened for the FES national strategy and foresight lab to discuss the current state of play, identify emerging trends and develop strategic options.

The second most populous country in the world finds itself at the intersection of traditional geopolitical challenges and emerging regional and global trends. While managing the fallout of the US-China rivalry, India must also keep an eye on protracted border tensions, dynamics in the neighbourhood and manage its equation with China. In the context of shifting alliances, New Delhi is set to shape the future of the Indo-Pacific region in security and economic terms. As it looks to strengthen its position as a regional trade hub and stay open for international commerce, it has to carefully consider a mosaic of domestic interests. Huge tasks and opportunities present themselves in being able to engender a sustainable and equitable post-COVID recovery and taking action to tackle climate change.

To discuss these challenges and trends, the FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia and the FES India Office convened a diverse group of policy makers, civil society representatives, academics, and retired diplomatic and military personnel for a two-day workshop as part of the FES regional programme Navigating the New Geopolitics of Asia and Global Order of Tomorrow. Facilitated by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Executive Education team, experts discussed the challenges facing their country amid a changing regional order and put forward a set of recommendations that would help India successfully navigate the geopolitical and geo-economic new normal.

Current state of play

The lab commenced with a multifaceted discussion on the current geopolitical and geo-economic situation and India’s role in trade, economy, security, and regional integration. Concerns over the growing communal, demographic, and socio-economic fissures in Asia dominated the discussion, along with observations related to the growing wedge between the Global North and Global South made apparent by the pandemic.

In the aftermath of its withdrawal from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), India appears to be moving from a strategy of free trade to strategic trade. With a view to the ongoing power rivalries, a shift in the regional order from South Asia 1.0 (characterized by the India-Pakistan conflict) to South Asia 2.0 (dominated by India-China relations) was observed. Participants also highlighted the need for reformed multilateralism and leveraging domestic tailwinds to manage the emerging regional and global challenges.

Emerging trends

In the second session, an exercise in futures thinking guided discussions on the emerging long-term trends and their potential impact. The participants concurred that geopolitical tensions in the region are likely to continue along with land-border and maritime sovereignty issues. These will be complemented by intensifying technological rivalries and geopolitical competition around connectivity. In foreign affairs, the shift from India’s former policy of non-alignment to strategic relations with the United States, Europe and Indo-Pacific countries figured prominently in the discussion. This in turn opens discussions around the possibilities of emerging multilateral and plurilateral partnerships. The impact of climate change on human security was reviewed at length as one of the most worrying future trends with a cross-sectional effect on food security, movement of people, and resource scarcity. The implications of the pandemic and changing geo-economic patterns on supply chains and rising inequality were also identified as significant trends to watch out for in the future.

Strategic options and policy recommendations

The debates on India’s strategic options and policy choices put the spotlight on a wide array of issues in the diplomacy, defense & security, socio-economic, health and climate domains. A major set of recommendations included continued social and economic reforms that can help enable a competitive, equitable, sustainable, future-oriented economy with sound investment in knowledge creation and capacity building. The experts also agreed that enhanced diplomacy was key to an integrated approach to wider Eurasia and that India’s foreign policy stands to benefit from a continued cooperative, pragmatic, and targeted approach. As a champion of regional connectivity initiatives, increased participation in issue-based coalitions and deepened cooperation with strategic partners to keep the balance was seen as vital. Finally, the discussion emphasized the need for climate change action through a targeted plan for a just energy transition that is aligned with a wider regional strategy and joint initiatives by all stakeholders.

Event summary compiled by Mekhla Jha, Research Intern, FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia.

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