India’s Foreign Policy & the Youth of India


This is a text version of a lecture delivered by Ambassador (Retd) Kishan S Rana Jain at Symbiosis Centre for International Education (SCIE), Pune .


All over the world, today the country’s foreign policy is of greater concern to home publics than ever before. What is the reason? Why should young people in India pay attention to foreign affairs? How do they benefit?

Let me explain at the outset: as someone that retired from the Indian Foreign Service, I have a vested interest in this subject. For the past two decades, I have been a teacher of diplomatic studies, mainly through distance learning courses run by a small NGO in Europe called DiploFoundation, and I have written about a dozen books, mainly on diplomacy. This has given opportunity to compare the way foreign affairs issues are handled in other countries; participants from almost 100 countries have joined these classes. This has given insights into the study of international affairs. As the Greeks said, ‘we learn by teaching’. I remain a student, like all of you, even if a little older.

Globalization has produced greater interdependence between countries, economies and regions. This is a major and even irreversible trend of our age. A few countries play the role of ‘outliers’, those that deliberately choose to stay isolated and resist foreign contact, but even they cannot remain unconnected. In effect all states, large or small, rich or poor, are interdependent and mutually engaged with one another as never before. North Korea is probably the most aloof and isolated country in the world, now a dictatorship run by its 3rd generation leader from a single family. But even that country finds it useful to develop its mountain regions to draw in high-paying foreign tourists, to earn the foreign exchange it needs for its essential imports; it also maintains an ono-and-off dialogue with South Korea, one of the most dynamic states in Asia. Others, which were considered relatively self-reliant and unwilling to engage in foreign contacts, such as Myanmar (formerly Burma), now join the mainstream, because they realize that their own economic progress, as well as stability and domestic harmony, depend on better connection with their neighbors, their region and with the global community. Think of the mobile phone in your hand – it has parts that come from different parts of the world; it was designed in yet some other country, and is driven by software that also came from elsewhere. That diversity applies also to the company that markets the phone. It adds up to a snapshot of globalization.

Whether it is in terms of inflows of foreign tourists, or economic development, or fulfillment of expectations of domestic publics, countries find it essential to work with others, networking internationally, stepping up exchanges of ideas and people, and blending domestic and external policy in ways that are novel, even innovative.

Why should foreign policy be more relevant today for Indian youth, and young citizens from other countries, than in the past? Let us look beyond the obvious facts of globalization, into the reasons that make countries look beyond their own shores.

First: Indian Economic Reforms that were launched in 1991, now in their third decade, have shown us that our basic goals, improved living standards for our people, social equity and achievement of basic development goals, demands a foreign policy that contributes to this national goal. This means expanded trade, foreign investments both into and out of India, obtaining vital inputs of technology, using our foreign aid program more effectively, in a ‘smart’ manner, and working with universities, scientific institutions and thinktanks in expanding their international connections, and helping civil society institutions for similar purposes. Thus international affairs enter our daily lives.

Second: In most fields of activity, foreign cooperation fits tightly with domestic actions. Take education as an example. Many more students study abroad than before, because this widens their horizons and gives them different kinds of training and experience. In our country, receiving foreign students helps improve our own standards, and produces interactions between home and foreign students that is to the advantage of both groups. Symbiosis International University is an outstanding example. That same situation is repeated in other fields of activity. Thus international interchanges serve our institutions, and benefit our people. This is especially true of a country such as India, which is a natural leader in information technology; we need to use global connections to develop that level of Indian engagement and leadership in other branches of knowledge industry.

Third: Relations with foreign countries are enriched by such domestic-international connections, because in those countries too, a similar process operates. The more we connect with them, in diverse fields, the deeper are the roots of peace and international stability. This is particularly true of countries with which we have unsolved problems, or ties that are mutually competitive, or even adversarial. For India, this applies to our relations with Pakistan and China. It makes sense to develop between such countries diversified connections, which help to anchor relations in mutually beneficial cooperation. That leads to growth of confidence in one another, and gradually transforms the context in which these countries look at one another. This has been Europe’s experience in the development of the European Union. Latin America and South East Asia have also shown how such a process of cooperation and mutual security takes root. The EU began as narrow focused cooperation in the coal and steel industry. In South Asia, trade exchanges can be a similar game changer; today the percentage of trade exchanges between the eight countries of SAARC are just 5% of their total trade, making our region one of the least ‘integrated’ in the world. In the past year or two realization has grown in Pakistan, and other neighbors, that they need to benefit from India’s economic growth. We need to work on that further.

Consider for a moment our strengths as a people and as a culture. Indian students are welcomed the world over as bridge-builders, those that mix easily in any society or country, and enrich it. You are aware that an increasing number of Indians now head international corporations, and our country has become a global resource, a kind of human talent bank, not just in business but also in academia, entrepreneurship and in many fields of activity. Stop for a minute and ask yourselves, why this is so? What are our strengths that seem to attract much of the world? Some will point to our family values, which gives us a firm orientation in our lives. Others will speak of India’s heritage and culture, which are accommodative, with tolerance as a basic feature of our lives. Some will point to the fact that we value education in a very profound manner; even those that come from the weakest sections of our society work day and night to ensure that their children get the best education possible. All these factors are relevant, but in my view what seems to count most is the fact that we are a plural society, in terms of religion, language, ethnicity, region, culture and all the rest. This gives us an intrinsic ability to deal with a multi-hued world and to work across different kinds of diversities. We take this for granted, but I am sure those that have traveled abroad, or your foreign friends, will tell you that this is not the norm all over the world. Yes, our sprit of accommodation is under stress, the more so in times of acute political contestation as now, on the eve of our 2014 general elections. We need to hold firm to our intrinsic tolerance and ability to live in harmony in the midst of diversity, rising above prejudice and narrow thinking.

Thus in net terms, today’s citizens need not only a sense of patriotism and awareness of national issues, but also benefit by connecting their action horizon with the external regional and global environment in which our country is located. More than ever before, this foreign policy process is open and increasingly transparent. It also benefits from informed participation by people in all walks of life.

Let us consider some examples that are drawn from India’s experience.

One. Many non-official groups of citizens and activists are engaged in improving understanding between India and Pakistan, be they academics, journalists, students, retired officials and armed force personnel, civil society activists, women and many others. The leading newspaper groups of the two countries, Times of India and Jung, have implemented for some years a program that is called ‘Amaan Ki Asha’, sponsoring people-to-people exchanges and many activities aimed at improving mutual understanding. A similar program has recently been developed with Bangladesh, called ‘Maitri Bandhan’. This helps ease tensions and improve the mutual climate between the countries.

Two. Over ten thousand Indian students now study in China, most of them engaged in medical education. In the reverse direction, the numbers of Chinese students coming to India are less than two thousand. A similar imbalance is found in the numbers of tourists that are exchanged: about 600,000 Indians visiting China each year, as against about 100,000 Chinese coming to India. In both these fields we need much greater exchanges, as also better balance in the flows in the two directions. To an extent this hinges on the facilities we develop in out country to receive foreign students and tourists, not just from China, but those that come to India from all over the world.

Three. For India’s North East states, much hinges on their connections with Bangladesh and Myanmar, and beyond theses immediate neighbors, the dynamic region of SE Asia, which adjoins them. This is a result of geography as well as ethnic and cultural links that they enjoy. Today, with roads built in Myanmar, with aid from India and China, we face the paradox that owing to huge delay in our domestic infrastructure development, roads on the Indian side of the 1500 km India-Myanmar border, are not ready to receive traffic in goods and passengers from these neighboring countries. Sometimes dubious arguments about security have led to delay in building these connections. But we have no alternative to using these road, rail and water transport linkages for the benefit of our NE people, who have largely been left out so far from our development process. Last year India and China announced an ‘economic corridor’ that would link this region, including also Bangladesh and Myanmar. There are also plans to step up wider regional cooperation, all if which needs translation from concepts and plans to implementation. We need public awareness of this, so that these projects move ahead.

Four. India and China are the two large countries of Asia. Many of our development challenges are similar, even while the system of governance of each is radically different. In fields such as agriculture and industry, and in education, we have much to learn from one another. We also compete mutually, and some anticipate a sharpening clash of ambitions. Strategists can build up ‘worst-case scenarios’ that seem to point in this direction. The reality is also that we actively collaborate on many international issues, and both countries, as non-Western powers, seek a more democratic international system. The key challenge is to implement stronger people-to-people exchanges and to expand knowledge of each country in the other. It is in our hands to shift the balance from potential confrontation to stronger cooperation.

Sketched above are four examples, drawn from many more that are available, that show how and why it is crucial for young people to take strong interest in foreign affairs, and to become citizens who are deeply rooted in India and are at the same time intensely aware of world affairs, and comprehend how global and regional issues affect their own lives.

I would urge you to develop personal awareness of foreign affairs, to play your role as well-informed citizens, deeply rooted in India but also aware of global trends, especially relations with neighboring countries.


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