India’s expanding diplomatic footprint in a fast paced and rapidly shifting international environment

The 2024 Global Diplomacy Index released by the Australia-based Lowy Institute on 25 February brought out that India, which has “historically underinvested in the size of its diplomatic network relative to its demographic and economic weight”, had evolved to now become among the fastest growing diplomatic networks in the world
March 05, 2024 | 07:00

With a total of 194 diplomatic posts, India had jumped to the 11th rank in the Index — ahead of Canada, Spain and South Korea. It had opened as many as 11 new posts since just 2021, most of them in Africa. At a time when India has been trying to position itself as the voice of the Global South, as evidenced throughout its G20 presidency last year, the report says that over 75% of new diplomatic posts opened by India since 2021 were in Africa. In addition, Indian missions in Lithuania and Cabo Verde are in the process of being set up, and the country is also preparing to open a mission in the strategically located island country of Timor-Leste, positioned between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Last month, during the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a bilateral meeting with Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta in Ahmedabad to discuss how to take ties ahead. During the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi last week, the Foreign Minister of Albania, a key country in the Western Balkans, announced that his country is planning to open an embassy in New Delhi, while India will set up one in Tirana.

The pace and scale of Indian diplomatic activity has picked up consistently over the past several years, and just a brief look at the diverse engagements New Delhi partook in over the past week demonstrates just how, and how much. Thailand’s Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, who is also Thailand's deputy Prime Minister, visited New Delhi from 25 to 28 February and held extensive and wide ranging talks with Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar while participating in the 10th India-Thailand Joint Commission Meeting. Ways to further expand India-Thailand cooperation in areas of defense and security, trade and investment, connectivity, culture, and people-to-people exchanges figured prominently in the discussions.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement that “The two ministers reviewed progress in wide-ranging areas of bilateral cooperation, including in defence and security, trade and investment, connectivity, science and technology, health, culture and people-to-people exchanges”. The MEA said the two ministers also expressed their commitment towards strengthening the India-Thailand partnership, noting a convergence between New Delhi’s Act East Policy and Bangkok’s Act West Policy. It said Jaishankar and Bahiddha-Nukara also exchanged views on regional and multilateral issues of mutual interest, adding that they expressed commitment to further enhance cooperation in sub-regional, regional and multilateral platforms especially within the framework of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It concluded that “The visit of Thai deputy PM and foreign minister to India is part of the ongoing high-level exchanges and has contributed to further strengthening of the civilizational bonds between the two friends and maritime neighbours”.

Thailand’s vice minister for foreign affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow, who was part of the delegation accompanying the Thai deputy Prime Minister, emphasised during a lecture at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) the need to speed up efforts to forge a strategic partnership between Thailand and India, something that was first talked about 12 years ago. During the period since then, India has established strategic partnerships with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and a comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam.

Phuangketkeow also spoke at length on Myanmar. He stressed that Thailand and other members of the ASEAN needed to work with India to address the crisis in Myanmar, even if a definitive solution can only be found by parties within the country. He was critical of ASEAN’s policy of non-interference, saying that rigid adherence to it could lead to the grouping being “paralysed on many important issues”. In the context of Myanmar, he said talking about domestic issues is intended to help an ASEAN member State out of a difficult situation. The principle of non-interference cannot be used as a “blank cheque to do whatever you want against your people”, he emphasised.

Saying that developments following the 2021 coup in Myanmar had affected both Thailand and India, Phuangketkeow asserted that regional players had no choice but to find ways to implement ASEAN’s five-point consensus formula to find a way out of the crisis in Myanmar. He said, “In the end, all of us have to pitch in to help Myanmar return to the path of peace and democracy. We would like to work with India, in partnership, on the question of Myanmar”. He admitted, however, that outside players could “only do so much”, and that eventually the parties within Myanmar have to solve their problems. “We can entice them, persuade them, maybe a little bit of coercion, but they will have to decide what is the future of Myanmar”, Phuangketkeow concluded.

To India’s West, New Delhi has devoted considerable energies and capital over the past few decades to take its ties with countries across the Middle East to a higher level of comfort and trust. India has signed a free trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is in talks with the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) on a trade deal. Oman, with which India has traditionally shared close ties, had started talks on a bilateral trade pact with India just three months ago, and media reports this week have suggested that the deal is already nearing conclusion. Oman is India’s third-largest trade partner among the GCC nations, and two-way trade stood at $12.38 billion in 2022-23, according to India’s trade ministry.

The Economic Times reported two days ago that India and Oman were close to concluding talks on a trade deal that would allow easier access of goods and services into each other’s markets, thereby further cementing the South Asian nation’s presence in the Gulf region. The two sides had reached consensus on a majority of the issues in the comprehensive economic partnership agreement, and the deal could be finalized as early as in March, The Economic Times quoted unnamed sources as saying. New Delhi wants lower tariffs on exports to Oman ranging from rice and pharmaceuticals to petroleum and steel products, and it is also negotiating with Oman easier access for Indian professionals such as doctors, nurses, engineers and other workers. Oman wants better access for goods such as downstream petroleum products, fertilizer and iron and steel products, among others. Although a small economy, Oman is important for India given its location in the region. Oman sits alongside the Strait of Hormuz, an important oil transit chokepoint through which most of Asia’s crude oil moves. Oman also has the fifth-largest population of Indians working overseas.

From even further afar West, France’s Army Chief General Pierre Schill paid a three-day visit to India from 27 to 29 February. After paying tributes to fallen Indian soldiers in a wreath-laying ceremony at India’s National War Memorial, General Schill received a ceremonial Guard of Honor in New Delhi. He visited the Sapta Shakti Command in Jaipur and interacting with senior military commanders there. He also addressed officers at India’s National Defence College (NDC).

During General Schill’s meeting with India’s Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Pande and other senior officers of the Indian armed forces, discussions centered on contemporary issues, as well as on strengthening bilateral cooperation between the two armies. The French Army Chief interacted with Indian defence industry representatives and witnessed a firing demonstration of Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher at the Pokhran Field Firing Range in Rajasthan. The Pinaka launcher is manufactured by the Tata Group in India. France has proven to be a dependable defense partner for India, especially during times of crisis, and India is actively seeking to establish itself in the global defense market by promoting the export of various defense platforms, including the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile system, and the Pinaka launcher system.

A statement issued on the French General’s activities in India underlined that “The visit by General Pierre Schill highlights the shared commitment of France and India to strengthen their strategic collaboration across defence, security, and technology. Such bilateral visits and various exercises between the militaries of both the nations epitomise the longstanding bond between the armed forces and reinforce their dedication to promoting regional stability and international security”.

This wide range of high level diplomatic interactions within just the last handful of days is indicative of the India’s expanding international footprint. As Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, pointed out in an analytical article this week titled ‘India maintains a fine balance in the Global North-South equation’, “India is taking the ‘leadership’ of the Global South but is also strengthening its ties with the Global North. (One could also speak of East and West). This fits into India’s policy of ‘re-balancing’ its external relations. The North is seeing a growing shift of political and economic power towards the East. This shift is being accelerated by India’s rise, after that of China. This widens India’s foreign policy options. As a ‘leader’ of the Global South, with a fast growing economy and a view of the North that differs radically from that of China, the North is reaching out to India much more than before. India sees the North as indispensable for its economic growth and technological advance and is therefore reaching out to it with a clear sense of its self-interest. This explains India’s expanding ties with the US in various domains, including defence. The US is now India’s biggest trade partner, including trade in services. India has signed an FTA with Australia and is negotiating FTAs with the UK and the EU, though with Canada it has been put on hold because of political differences. This explains also that while India is a member of BRICS and SCO it is also an increasingly active supporter of Quad and a proponent of the Indo-Pacific Concept, both opposed by China and Russia”.

Sibal continued, “India wants a reform in the structures of international governance dominated by the West for centuries, including after 1945. The rhetoric is that all nations are equal but the UN Security Council has in-built, formalised inequality with five permanent members with veto rights. The composition of the UNSC does not reflect either the shifts in power that have occurred in recent decades away from the West or the increase in UN membership from 45 originally to 193 today. The developing countries need more representation in the UN Security Council if it is to retain legitimacy already severely eroded. The World Bank and the IMF, dominated by the West, need to be reformed too. India seeks a reform of the international order to reflect the realities of today. This position no doubt pits it against the entrenched power and privileges of the West. However, the logic of India’s position is not unappreciated in countries like France, for instance, as there are concerns in the UN system as a whole about the survival of multilateralism in international affairs. India has no doubt positioned itself as a bridge builder between the North and the Global South, especially after the success of its G20 presidency. Its ability to take an independent position on critical global issues in line with its national interest and preserve a degree of strategic autonomy has given it credibility”.

Sibal concluded that “India is currently in a ‘sweet spot’ but it cannot remain unaffected by global political, economic and security disruptions. It needs a peaceful international environment to maintain its steady rise. It has limited means to ensure that. It will have to ultimately rely on astute diplomacy and rapidly build internal strengths with aatmanirbharta (self reliance) to navigate the challenges ahead”.

These challenges, as also New Delhi’s expanding international footprint and influence, will most likely mean that India will continue to remain among the fastest growing diplomatic networks in the world when the Lowy Institute releases its Global Diplomacy Index for 2025, for 2026, and for long beyond that.

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