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Home > News > Columnists > Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran

'Our neighbors have the highest priority'

January 21, 2006

The end of the Cold War, the accelerating process of globalization and the emergence of transnational challenges have become the defining features of contemporary international relations. India's foreign policy has had to adapt to this rapidly changing international environment.

Our foreign policy has also had to contend with remarkable changes within India itself. For more than a decade and a half, India has been engaged in a thoroughgoing reform and liberalization of its economy. Its engagement with the rest of the world has increased dramatically. It has become more than ever important to ensure for India a peaceful and supportive international environment, an environment which contributes to our developmental goals.

While meeting these challenges, India has maintained a remarkable continuity in the fundamental tenets of its policy. The core of this continuity is to ensure autonomy in our decision making. It is to ensure independence of thought and action. This was and remains the essence of our adherence to the principle of Non-Alignment. It is also the basis of our commitment to the Panchsheel, or the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, which India and China jointly advocated in the early 1950s, and still believe to be relevant in contemporary international relations.

There are other key elements of continuity as well. These include maintenance of friendly relations with all countries, resolution of conflicts through peaceful means and equity in the conduct of international relations. These basic principles are reflected in the Common Minimum Programme of the ruling UPA Government. There is a solemn commitment to pursue an independent foreign policy, promote multi-polarity in world relations and oppose unilateralism.

In pursuing her national interests and in seeking an appropriate role in the global political and economic order, India has consciously promoted multipolarity in international relations. The corollary to this approach is to strengthen multilateral institutions and mechanisms. We believe that such an approach is indispensable in addressing global challenges, such as terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemics like HIV/AIDS or avian flu, and drug-trafficking.

Foreign policy gets economic muscle

Such an approach is also helpful in pooling together the scientific and technical achievements and collective wisdom of peoples around the world in overcoming the scourge of poverty, disease and the environmental degradation of our planet. No one country or even a group of countries, however rich and powerful, can hope to tackle these challenges on their own.

This brings me to the need to evolve a new paradigm of cooperation relevant to the emerging multi-polar world in which global threats demand global responses. India has actively pursued the strengthening of multilateral institutions, in particular the United Nations. We are committed to the comprehensive reform of the United Nations, including its Security Council, so that the concerns and aspirations of the majority of the UN membership are adequately reflected and multilateralism becomes an effective tool for addressing global challenges.

It is obvious that in any reform of the United Nations, the restructuring of its Security Council must be a priority. India believes that the Security Council must, in its composition, reflect the contemporary geo-political realities and not those of 1945. Its actions must be representative, legitimate and effective and its methods of work and decision-making processes more democratic, transparent and responsive.

India: UNSC expansion imperative

We believe that India, with its large population, dynamic economy, long history of contribution to international peacekeeping and other regional and international causes, deserves to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. At the same time, we also realize that there is resistance to change among several powerful countries. However, this is the first time in many years that a certain momentum has been built up for a comprehensive reform of the UN, which should not be allowed to wither away. Here, I would wish to articulate our expectation that China will respond positively to our quest for Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council, consistent with our strategic partnership.

A basic tenet of India's foreign policy since Independence has been the pursuit of global nuclear disarmament. We believe that general and complete disarmament, including nuclear disarmament must remain on the international agenda. It must be a key objective of the United Nations. India's status as a Nuclear Weapon State does not diminish its commitment to the objective of a nuclear weapon free world.

Aspiring for a non-violent world order, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament continues to be an important plank of our nuclear policy, which is characterized by restraint, responsibility, transparency, predictability and a defensive orientation. As a responsible nuclear power with impeccable credentials on non-proliferation, we have earned increasing international recognition as a partner against proliferation. We hope to work more closely with our Chinese friends on this front, too.

India opposes US non-proliferation plan

Although the subject today deals with India's Foreign Policy as a whole, I would like to focus particularly on Asia, where the interests of both India and China intersect.

It is said that the logic of geography is unrelenting. Proximity is the most difficult and testing among diplomatic challenges a country faces. We have, therefore, committed ourselves to giving the highest priority to closer political, economic and other ties with our neighbours in South Asia. We have a vision of South Asia, unshackled from historical divisions and bound together in collective pursuit of peace and prosperity. We remain convinced that, on the foundations of its ancient civilisational and commercial interlinkages, South Asia can work together to emerge as a major powerhouse of economic creativity and enterprise.

For that to happen, it is essential that we unlock the potential of South Asia by dismantling the existing barriers that restrict the movement of people, goods and investment within and across the region. It is with this perspective that we have extended our hand of friendship and co-operation to all our neighbours and proactively addressed whatever differences we may have, including with Pakistan. We look at the SAARC process as a stimulus to strengthen cross-border economic linkages, through initiatives such as South Asian Free Trade Agreement, by drawing upon the complementarities among different parts of our region.

China, Japan can be SAARC observers: PM

We are encouraged by a growing perception among our neighbours in South Asia that a prosperous and economically vibrant India is an asset and opportunity for them. We encourage them to take advantage of India's strengths and reap both economic and political benefits as a result, since it is our belief that India's national security interests are better served if our neighbours evolve as viable states with moderate and stable political and social environment and robust economies.

We regard the concept of neighborhood as one of widening concentric circles, around a central axis of historical and cultural commonalties. In this, we see India's destiny interlinked with that of Asia. From this point of view, developing relations with Asian countries is one of our priorities, while pursuing a cooperative architecture of pan-Asian regionalism is a key area of focus of our foreign policy. Geography imparts a unique position to India in the geo-politics of the Asian continent, with our footprint reaching well beyond South Asia and our interests straddling across different sub-categories of Asia be it East Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia or South East Asia.

Ashwin Mahesh on neighborhood nationalism

To those who harbour any skepticism about this fact, it would suffice to remind that we share one of the longest land borders in the world with China, that Central Asia verges on our northern frontiers, that we have land and maritime borders with three South East Asian countries, that our Andaman and Nicobar Islands are just over a hundred kilometres from Indonesia, and that our exclusive economic zone spans waters from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca.

It is this geopolitical reality and our conviction that enhanced regional cooperation is mutually advantageous, which sustain our enthusiasm to participate in endeavours for regional integration, ranging from South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation to East Asia Summit and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

We believe that in our march towards economic progress, Asia in general and East Asia in particular, has been a natural partner. A common thread joins us. We stand to share the opportunities thrown open by the region's increasing economic integration, just as we face the common threats of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, energy shortage, piracy and others. The tsunami disaster has also brought home the point, in a tragic way, of how much we share our destiny in the region.

'Look East' policy set to get a boost

It was in this context that more than a decade ago, we launched the "Look East" policy, which is now a vital part of India's foreign policy. More than an external economic policy or a political slogan, the "Look East" policy was a strategic shift in India's vision of the world and her place in the evolving global economy. It was also a manifestation of our belief that developments in East Asia are of direct consequence to India's security and development.

We are therefore actively engaged in creating a bond of friendship and cooperation with East Asia that has a strong economic foundation and a cooperative paradigm of positive inter-connectedness of security interests.

Part II: 'A historic opportunity'

(Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran spoke on the 'Present Dimensions of the Indian Foreign Policy' at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, on January 11)


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