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  • Aakrith Harikumar


Updated: Feb 1, 2022

The start of COVID-19 indicated a period of eventfulness and turbulence. While dealing with many geopolitical, economic, and healthcare issues, India was challenged to balance its interests and goals. This interview seeks to explore India’s progress in the geopolitical and economic realms, in addition to mapping out a strategy for growth over the coming months of the new year. The JSIA Bulletin speaks to Professor Harsh V. Pant, Director and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Professor Harsh V Pant

Q. How would you rate India’s geopolitical and economic progress since the start of 2020? Would you say that despite COVID-19, economic downturn, and threats from neighbours, the country has remained stable through its challenges?

This has been an extraordinary period not only for India but the world. Each country has been forced to reassess its assumptions on how the world works. India has been at the forefront of the geopolitical and geoeconomic restructuring that has started. COVID-19 is just one part of the story. India has also been at the center of another aspect of international relations – the rise of China. The border crisis which started in 2020 and persists today, is a stark example of what happens when major powers rise. China’s rise puts pressure on India and other states in the region. Although we are still finding an adequate response, it has been a relatively stable ride. India has managed multiple crises including a massive socio-economic dislocation that COVID-19 produced. Despite all that, the nation has navigated turbulent waters efficiently. Although health infrastructure has not always been India’s strength, the country has got through the crisis - bruised, but not battered. India has not just desaturated its survivability but has projected a sense of leadership during these times.

Q. On the economic side, India has a projected growth rate of over 9% for FY22, making it the fastest-growing economy. How will this impact India’s international relations? Will it give India a boost, good enough to gain a competitive advantage over other nations during the coming months/years?

Both economic growth and crises produce their own set of consequences. There is no doubt that India will continue to rise. The numbers speculated will surely be a part of India’s growth story. There are projections that by 2030, India will be a top-three economy by various measures. The consequences of India’s path to becoming a five or ten trillion-dollar economy will have an impact on the way it conducts itself on the international stage. There will be an aspiration to play a larger role and be a leading player rather than merely a balancer.

Another aspect of this is that the international community will expect leadership from India. It has demonstrated that it can provide leadership at critical times. Through its outreach to SAARC and the G20, India has shown COVID-19 cannot be resolved unless countries look outward at a time when most nations like America and Europe have looked inward. This shows that today, India has more self-confidence. As its economic growth story picks momentum, its policymakers will be more open to playing a larger role, showing that India is not a reticent nation anymore.

Q. One of India’s biggest geopolitical threats now is at the border, with China laying claims on a substantial portion of India’s land. There are reports of CCP-funded villages being built in Arunachal Pradesh. More recently, the implementation of the Chinese border law has alarmed the Indian government. How will this affect our national security going forward and what should India’s response be?

China is and will continue to be India’s most important security challenge, and there is no way for one to ignore it. Gone are the days when Pakistan was our major security threat. India’s problem is that it did not start looking at China as a threat early enough. It did not gear itself up enough to meet that challenge. It is only after the Galwan skirmish that there is a new urgency to counter China. The good news is that we have now acknowledged the problem. But unless we take measures, it would be difficult to ward off the China challenge. There is also the issue of capability differentiation between both nations. It is difficult to challenge China’s raw power. India has looked at the China problem more holistically as it is not just a border issue but an economic threat. COVID-19 showed that India was overdependent on China. India needs to be self-reliant. It needs to build its capacities and rely on external partnerships. For that, a complete and well-rounded government approach is needed to tune India’s strategic policy with the ground reality.

Q. India is now a part of two QUADs: with the Indo-pacific, and more recently, the Middle East. Despite India’s tensions with China, the latter has emerged as our largest trading partner in 2021. In that case, how will India manage its multiple economic and geopolitical interests simultaneously? Is there one area that it should prioritize more than the other?

One of India’s priorities should be border security, given its potential to escalate. There is a real-time crisis along the border and India is not yet close to a resolution. The status quo is not sustainable. China may expect India to expand trade and people-to-people relations but failing to reach a consensus on border security will not work in India’s favour. Reducing economic dependence on China is a long-term process that requires India to build its domestic capabilities. Hence the emphasis is on programs like ‘Make in India.’ At the end of the day, competing against China will not be possible if India does not have enough industrial power.

India can divide its goals into short and medium/long-term. In the short term, India’s most important priority is to diplomatically negotiate and stabilize its borders. India’s medium/long-term term goal should be to focus on its domestic capacity and leverage partnerships with other nations. There is a lot of talk about India entering into Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with nations like the UK, South Korea, the US, the UAE, and the EU. Unless India focuses on economic development, it will not be able to address the China challenge. India should be able to engage with China as an equal, without being overdependent on it. This is something that requires all our diplomatic might.

Q. We currently seem to be facing tensions with neighbours like Nepal and Sri Lanka as China’s influence is growing through the strategies of Wolf-Warrior and Debt-trap diplomacy. It has been a reason behind Sri Lanka’s economic fall and has politically influenced nations like Bhutan and Nepal. India, currently, needs the support of its neighbours. How can it strengthen its relations with these nations now?

Our neighbours are extremely important. South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world. There are problems that Indian foreign policy has not been able to solve. It is not just about ‘what India can do.’ Even smaller states have their agency in the region. They have a choice between India and China. In an ideal world, it is about leveraging the two to get the best bargain. But that is not the case with China. China operates through stealth to put pressure on these countries. Sri Lanka is a classic example to show this. Its economy is crumbling, partly due to economic mismanagement and COVID-19, but also due to its mounting debt crisis. India cannot provide the kind of aid that China can. But India can emerge as a reliable partner that has its priority of capacity-building at the forefront.

Even if India emerges as an alternative to China, it is important to recognize that the conflict between India and China will continue. Smaller nations will continue to leverage both for their benefit. India’s way of countering China here is to present itself as a more reliable nation. India must neither ignore nor overindulge its neighbours. It is a big power in the region but should be prepared for a long-term contestation with China.

Q. Moving on to another Asian neighbour, Afghanistan has been a historically and strategically important partner for India. It has only been a few months since the Taliban takeover. While India took measures at the global level as the UNSC president last year, it also held talks with the Taliban at Doha. In that case, how will this year pan out for India-Afghanistan relations? Can India come to a consensus with the ruling government?

This is an interesting issue. 2021 was a dramatic year for Afghanistan. Nobody expected the Ghani government’s fall and the US’s sudden extraction of troops. The challenge going forward for India now is handling the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. There is a burden on the world to help the Afghan people. India’s policy over the last two decades has also emphasized the same. Whether it is building infrastructure, providing aid, or capacity building - all of it was done to gear Afghanistan in becoming a self-sufficient society. Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s collapse is an example of the long-term challenges towards building a stable state. But the Taliban’s claim to power has raised a different question. India believes that the Taliban should have been more inclusive in its approach and ensured that Afghanistan’s development in the last twenty years is not lost.

The Taliban continues to be as brutal as ever on women’s and minority rights. The challenge in 2022 is about deciding whether India should continue to provide humanitarian aid or take a stand against the Taliban. There are reports that even the Taliban and Pakistan government are having disputes, especially with the Durand line now emerging as a point of friction. There are opportunities for India here to work with various stakeholders in Afghanistan to ensure that they veer away from the Pakistan-dominated destabilization agenda. Pakistan now speaks of a ‘hundred-year peace’ with India and focus on economic development. But there are doubts as to whether this will materialize. As a neighbour, India has a strong stake in what happens in Afghanistan. The fact that India is investing by reaching out to Russia, Central Asia, and Iran is an indicator that it is not willing to give up on Afghanistan, despite what has transpired in 2021.

Cover Image: Laing Buiss

About the interviewer: Aakrith Harikumar is a second-year undergraduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs. His research interests include International Security, Foreign Policy, and Diplomacy.

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