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Keynote Address by Foreign Secretary at the Inaugural Session of the International Relations Conference 2021 organised by Symbiosis School of International studies

April 29, 2021

Dr. S.B. Majumdar, Founder and President, Symbiosis, and Chancellor, Symbiosis International University;
Dr. Vidya Yeravdekar, Pro Chancellor, Symbiosis International University;
Dr. Rajani Gupte, Vice Chancellor, Symbiosis International University;
Prof. Shivali Lawale, Director, Symbiosis School of International Studies;
Distinguished Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen,


It gives me very great pleasure to deliver this address at the inaugural session of the International Relations Conference of the prestigious Symbiosis International University, Pune. I understand my predecessor former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and batchmate and friend Gautam Bambawale have both been associated with Symbiosis University. Given their depth of experience and expertise, I have no doubt that they would contribute greatly to the work of the Symbiosis School of International Studies. I had very much wanted to be with you in person on this important occasion but circumstances dictated otherwise. Pune is one of the most international of India’s cities. It has also been a crucible of ideas and of movements that have shaped the direction in which our country has moved.

This was the base of the Peshwas. It was the home of two of our great leaders, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and social reformer Jyotirao Phule. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who played such a prominent role in the framing of our Constitution, was also strongly associated with this city.

In modern times, this has become an industrial and educational hub. It has universities that teach students from across the world. It has a concentration of large business operations. It is a major destination for FDI. It houses, among other things, one of our leading vaccine manufacturers.

It is an outward looking city.

Continuity and change have been the defining characteristics of India’s foreign policy. Our foreign policy has always been deeply intertwined with our national priorities. These priorities have evolved as we traversed our journey as a nation. They will evolve further, as the world and the international situation evolves, over the next decade and longer.

There will be change, there will also be continuity. While India’s foreign policy adjusts to the evolving global environment, it will not stray from safeguarding our core interests. Our foreign policy has always been aimed at, and will continue to be directed towards diversifying and expanding the country's political, economic and geo-strategic options in order to ensure that India continues on its upward trajectory as a fast-growing inclusive economy, with a rising profile in global affairs.

We meet in the shadow of the greatest shock to the international system since World War II. We are living through a catastrophic health disaster, the consequences of which are yet to be fathomed. We know that health emergencies last year and currently in the wake of the second wave of the pandemic, have triggered a series of lockdowns that have resulted in economic slowdowns and GDP contractions. The effects have spilled over beyond the economy to all sectors of life. The loss of more than three million lives worldwide and of countless livelihoods has affected, perhaps irreversibly, an entire way of living.

The pandemic has had a major impact on our diplomatic environment. Some trends have been accelerated and new equations have appeared.

The bipolar order that prevailed during the Cold War gave way to a unipolar system following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. A further transition is underway as this unipolar world order moves to a multipolar world order. This rearrangement, or rebalancing, is driven in part by a change in the determinants of power.

The rise of China has also placed us in a central role at the geopolitical stage. It is our largest neighbor and one with which we share more than just a border and proximity. We are at the core of a greater Asian and Indo-Pacific space that is witnessing dynamic change.

This churning is taking place within an international system of unprecedented complexity. We live in a world that has two prominent characteristics. The first is that we are globalized. We live in an international community linked together at multiple levels by multiple arrangements. Economies are interlinked. Technology obeys no borders. Our education and our entertainment are drawn from global content pools. Our families live across the world.

The second striking characteristic is the rate of change. We live in a world of e-commerce, streaming media, social media, energy transition, biotech and gene editing technologies, autonomous vehicles, and advanced materials. Innovations and changes are constantly being introduced into our lives and into our consciousness. Many of them were just ideas a decade ago.

The determinants of comprehensive national power are changing rapidly and include not just territory and human and natural resources, but also technology, connectivity and a country’s economic and business prowess.

India itself is changing rapidly. We have quickly grown in economic, political and military strength. We are a country with global interests. We have one of the largest and most able diasporas. Our economy, and our material well-being, is linked to global value chains and supply chains. We are a services powerhouse with a distinct international presence. We see the world as an interlinked economy.

India also has well established interests and positions in global governance regimes in climate, technology, health and other global commons.

It is important to remember that the globalized world carries with it its risks and unpredictability. The rate of change brings a significant degree of uncertainty to our world. The current pandemic underlines some of these risks. We live in an age of the Black Swan. It is a time of disruptions, of the unexpected.

The nature of threats has changed. Conventional war has been supplemented by rising security threats from terrorism, climate change and biological and other non-traditional threats. New technologies have created not just new industries but new political currents. Non-traditional threats and new technologies have combined to form a whole new spectrum of sub-conventional security challenges.

We also live in a world where interdependence has been weaponized.

This is a highly complex, multi-layered and multi-dimensional operating environment. It defies geometry and does not allow us to think in terms of binaries. Sometimes it also does not permit an easy distinction between the global and the local.

Indian diplomatic strategy is adjusting to these changes and this complex and uncertain environment.

This requires agility and flexibility. It requires the ability to think and act innovatively and to adapt not just in terms of operations but at the conceptual level.

It is an environment that External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar has described as one of multi-alignments.

We must, in an environment such as this, build the capacities that allow us to maintain decisional autonomy.

We must focus on acquiring a leadership role that allows us to both participate in and contribute to the emerging world order.

We must deepen cooperation with old partners and allies.

We must at the same time forge new partnerships with rising powers.

We must have a dynamic and proactive global strategy in a multipolar world that adjusts to alliances and convergences that are fluid and issue based.

We must engage simultaneously with multiple centres of gravity and capacities in an extremely complex and fast-moving global scenario.

We must also not forget that geography remains destiny.

The primary spatial orientation of India’s foreign policy remains its immediate neighbourhood, under the Neighbourhood First Policy. It is supported by the revitalised Act East Policy and Think West Policy that seeks to enhance our engagement in our extended neighbourhood.

The countries in our neighbourhood are of unique and special strategic significance to India. Relations with them also impact our own states that border these neighbours. The primacy given to our near abroad in our diplomatic efforts is reflected in our Neighbourhood First policy, a central pillar of India’s foreign and security policies since 2014. The bulk of our diplomatic resources, financial and human, are deployed here. India’s Lines of Credit to its neighbours, for example, have jumped from USD 3.27 billion in 2014 to USD 14.7 billion in 2020.

I would like to draw your attention to some trends. Connectivity projects are being implemented at an unprecedented pace. Railway projects with Bangladesh and Nepal, Chabahar and Sittwe Ports in Iran and Myanmar, respectively, and inland water projects have created new transport corridors that are facilitating rapid transport of goods and people between different nations in the region and different parts of India.

The energy grids of India are linked with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar. India has invested in power projects in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Power trade in our neighbourhood is a reality.

Hydrocarbon pipelines link India with Nepal and Bangladesh.

Newer areas of cooperation in financial technology, such as RuPay cards, space cooperation and nuclear power cooperation are emerging.

I expect these trends to accelerate over the next decade.

India has always been a maritime nation. 90% of our trade happens through sea-lanes. The Prime Ministers vision of SAGAR – Security and Growth for all in the Region - underpins our vision of the Indian Ocean region and the greater Indo-Pacific region. It is an inclusive and forward-looking vision and it is worth reiterating the main points made by the Prime Minister at his speech in Singapore in 2018. He stated that our vision of this region is of a free, open, inclusive region that embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity. He also stated that a common rules-based order is required for the region in which all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces such as the sea and air.

This will be a space where we will try and enhance connectivity, provide net security and promote the vision of a democratic and rules-based international community.

We are supporting the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative to build on our progressive agenda for the region.

We believe that the ASEAN countries will be central to realizing our vision of the Indo-Pacific. We have strengthened our engagement with ASEAN and ASEAN members bilaterally and through India-ASEAN initiatives under our Act East policy. Indian engages with ASEAN in multiple formats such as participation in ASEAN India Summits, the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEM, the ADMM+ and Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum.

Our BIMSTEC and IORA initiatives are also expected to grow and bring us closer to ASEAN. Exciting concepts such as Ganga Mekong Cooperation have much potential.

India’s North East is the land bridge between it and ASEAN. Connectivity projects are steadily transforming that region and I expect that these will have a major impact on Indian ASEAN relations in the next decade.

India’s relations with major powers have attained comprehensive strategic levels while maintaining strategic autonomy.

The India-US bilateral partnership was elevated to a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership in February 2020. A new momentum in India-US relations has emerged in our engagement with the Biden administration. We expect this intense engagement to continue.

You would all have noted that the 1st Leaders’ summit of the QUAD framework was held virtually in March 2021. You would also have noted its forward-looking work agenda that focuses on issues such as vaccines and critical technologies.

A new strategic dimension has been added to India’s partnership with Russia with a special emphasis on defence and space cooperation. You might be aware that a US$ 1 billion credit line for development of the Russian Far East has been announced by the Prime Minister.

We have recently entered into a Green Strategic Partnership with Denmark. This is a template of our emerging cooperation with Europe. It is a relationship that will focus on elevating India-European ties by building on areas of common interest such as digital cooperation, climate change, and mobility and connectivity agreements.

We accord importance to our relations with China. However, the maintenance of peace and tranquillity on our borders is an essential pre-requisite for the development of the relationship in other areas.

India’s relations with the Gulf and Middle Eastern countries have entered a new chapter with greater strategic content, economic cooperation, business flows, energy cooperation and diaspora related engagement.

Japan has become one of our most important partners. It is one of the largest investors in India. It is assisting us with projects of national importance such as the high-speed train corridor between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. We work together in the North East in a new paradigm of cooperation through the India Japan Act East Forum.

Australia has become a key partner in the Indo-Pacific.

Africa is the continent of the future. The India Africa Forum and its Summits are a platform that we have created to shape with our engagement with the continent. Regular high level contact is being pursued at an unprecedented pace with visits to more than 30 African countries at the level of the President, Vice President and Prime Minister. More than two-thirds of our lines of credit in the last decade have been extended to Africa. An India-Africa Defence Ministers Conclave was held in February 2020. India also hosts African students under its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme. I understand that several African students are studying in Pune, particularly in Symbiosis.

We will remain committed to the multilateral system.

The pandemic has, however, demonstrated the limitations of the existing international system. A purely economic agenda has defined globalization so far, and nations have cooperated more to balance competing individual interests, rather than advance the collective interests of all human kind. The limitations of this approach are evident.

In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for a human-centric globalization. It is a globalization, based on fairness, equality and humanity.

India has always been a constructive actor in shaping of such a human welfare-centric international system by sharing developmental experience with partner countries in the Global South; undertaking humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, particularly during the pandemic; through initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure; and by acting as a first responder and net security provider in its diplomatic environment.

We are currently serving a two-year term in the UN Security Council. We have just finished chairing the SCO. We are currently the chair of BRICS. We are the forthcoming chairs of the G20. We will also be present at the G7 meeting in London in June.

We will expand our vision of human-centric globalization and of reformed multilateralism and work through these and other multilateral and plurilateral platforms in the decade ahead.

India is committed to be a leader in climate action and in climate ambition.

India has a remarkable track record of augmenting its renewable energy capacity – we are committed to having 450GW of renewable capacity by 2030.

We are one of the few countries in the world that has succeeded in increasing forest cover.

These are some of the actions that place India on a path towards energy transition and reduction of carbon intensity.

I just referred to the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.

India, as you are all aware, is one of the few countries and, at present, the only G-20 country that will exceed the Paris Agreement commitments and whose Nationally Determined Contributions are "2 degree compatible”.

India will lead in thought and action in the domestic and diplomatic arena in this front.

Climate action and sustainable development will also figure increasingly in our development partnership portfolio. India has a full spectrum development partnership presence with a global footprint. I have spoken of our work on connectivity and energy. You will hear more about our work in areas such as renewable energy, technology solutions and digital and financial inclusion in the years to come. India’s development cooperation is demand driven and we are in a position to fulfil demands from our partners in these areas in the decade to come.

India will also continue to make efforts to take a broader and comprehensive view of security and improve the net security situation. It will continue to deal with existing and newer threats through platforms such as FATF and counter-terrorism channels in BIMSTEC, SCO, UN and other plurilateral and multilateral fora. India will work with partners in areas such as augmentation of domain awareness, in building capacity in traditional and non-traditional areas and the promotion of interoperability.

All crises are followed by periods of growth. The current crisis, as grim as it looks presently, will abate. Empirical evidence points in the direction of a subsequent period of growth. In this context, India’s diplomatic strategy takes into account the imperative of an Atmanirbhar Bharat that catalyses a globalised India focussed on linking the local to the global, on becoming a nerve center of global supply chains and a manufacturing hub.

We have to adapt to the geoeconomic trends and the geotechnical trends that the pandemic has both revealed and accelerated.

I have already spoken of the rate of change and of the salience of technology.

How technology can be harnessed to help, and not hurt, is one of the great questions of the day. Algorithms must not harm. Transparency is required. Forward looking and positive rules that are congruent with good public policy, with protecting legitimate free speech and with promoting accountability and transparency are required.

Working with big-tech and participating in the shaping of the new rules of the game on data, on e-commerce and on emerging areas such as AI and biotech will be a new focus of our activities.

Our Ministry already has Cyber Diplomacy as well as New and Emerging Strategic Technologies Divisions that are working on these issues.

This, as I have said before, is an era of the uncertain and the unexpected. I would like to end by bringing to your notice how Indian diplomacy responded to the challenge of the pandemic.

India has been at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to deal with the pandemic and its consequences through its participation in SAARC, G20, QUAD, BRICS, UN and other initiatives.

We have adapted rapidly to virtual diplomacy. The Prime Minister has conducted over 12 virtual Summits and more than 75 virtual bilateral meetings. The External Affairs Minister has conducted at least 34 Ministerials and Joint Commissions, over 28 multilateral engagements and over 159 telephone calls with foreign counterparts. Bilateral and plurilateral dialogues in several sectors such as Foreign Office Consultations, Senior Officials Meetings, etc. have switched to virtual platforms.

Through Operation Sanjeevani and Vaccine Maitri, India has established itself as a country with internationally relevant healthcare capacities. India established itself as a reliable global pharma hub supplying medicines and equipment to over 154 countries in the face of daunting logistical challenges.

Indian HADR operations acquired global dimensions with the deployment Rapid Response Teams to Maldives, Kuwait, Mauritius and Comoros and with Mission SAGAR to Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Our network of diplomatic posts played the key role in organizing the Vande Bharat Mission, the largest logistical mission of its type ever undertaken. This has facilitated the movement of more than 7 million people through lockdown and post-lockdown periods. We have also worked on the ‘Air Bubbles’ that have now been established with 27 countries.

A 24*7 Covid Cell was created at the outset within our Ministry. It managed a global effort to assist millions of Indians stranded by successive lockdowns. In the wake of the second wave of the pandemic, we have once again constituted teams of our best officers to coordinate and channelize global efforts to source raw materials for our vaccines, pharma and medical industries, to source oxygen and oxygen producing equipment, and for coordinating the delivery of essential and relief supplies to India. We had participated in the earlier global procurement effort for medical supplies such as PPEs and testing kits, during initial shortages.

I would like to end by emphasizing that even in an increasingly transactional world, India does not and cannot live in a moral vacuum. We are a nation that believes in "vasudaiva kutumbakam” and in the principle of "nishkama karma”, that good needs to be done for its own sake.

I would like to leave you with a thought.

India, in the midst of the pandemic, went out of its way to be a force for global good and a responsible international citizen. We decided, in these very difficult circumstances, to be a responsible member of the international community and take a far-sighted view.

We expect that this will stand us in good stead in the post-pandemic world.

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