There has been a progressive evolution in Indian thinking on forming and joining regional economic and security groupings, since the days New Delhi declared itself as “Non-Aligned” in the 1950s. India, thereafter, remained a leading player in the “Non-Aligned Movement” (NAM). The 120 members of NAM professed that they would not get drawn into “Great Power” rivalries between the US and USSR.

The weird contradictions in NAM stood exposed when the world witnessed the emergence of a US, China, Pakistan grouping to “contain” the Soviet Union during the Bangladesh conflict in 1971. India then joined the Soviet Union after signing a ‘Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation’ with Moscow. These developments led to the birth of Bangladesh, following a conflict pitting India and the Soviet Union against the US, China and Pakistan.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s led to new groupings and alliances. But we are now happily in a position where we are partners, in different ways, with all major global power centres. Economics and economic integration play a far more central role as bridges of cooperation today.

India, therefore, finds itself linked with the US and Japan far more closely than in the past, in a world order which is becoming more China-centric than in the past. The emergence of an increasingly strong China, willing to display and use its military power freely, and even assert its maritime land boundary claims against virtually all its neighbours, is a fact of life. Many of China’s neighbours naturally run scared of doing anything which may offend Beijing.

Russia is, inevitably, forced by American hostility to make common cause with China. But this is an era when it is not wise to unilaterally take directly adversarial positions against any one major power. Channels of communication have to be kept open for dialogue with all.

This has been the rationale of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD, comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US.

One cannot, however, forget that Australia virtually halted discussions on such cooperation when it was led by a Sino-centric Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Mercifully, the conduct of foreign policy invariably enjoys a national consensus in India, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has followed up on actions undertaken by his predecessors

While the QUAD has done well in promoting maritime and military cooperation across the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific, the QUAD has underperformed on promoting economic cooperation.

Most notably, a proposal to rapidly promote production of Covid vaccines in India was undermined by the failure of negotiations with the US vaccine company, Johnson and Johnson.

While India has an free trade agreement (FTA) with ASEAN, New Delhi has chosen, for understandable reasons, not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), containing 15 East Asian and Pacific nations, including ASEAN members, Australia, New Zealand and China. It makes far more sense to negotiate such agreements with the US and the EU.

Chinese trade practices have led to an annual trade deficit of $72.9 billion. Moreover, India has joined a 13-member Indo-Pacific Economic Framework Agreement, put together recently by the US, which includes QUAD and ASEAN members, apart from New Zealand. India’s present “Look East” polices also include increasing maritime/military cooperation across its land and maritime frontiers.

The aim, quite obviously, is to balance growing Chinese power across the Indo-Pacific.

The recent Summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) provided an opportunity for India to supplement its “Look East Policies,” by promoting closer economic cooperation with its western neighbourhood through Iran.

It facilitated India’s use the Chahbahar Port in Iran. Chahbahar is crucial for establishing a reliable line of communications for India’s trade and economic cooperation with the entire Central Asia region. Russia plays a crucial role in the region, especially in erstwhile Soviet republics.

Iran oil

The Summit provided an opportunity for Modi to meet Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi. While oil purchases from Iran are hampered by existing US sanctions, it is in India’s long-term interests to encourage the process of ending nuclear sanctions on Iran.

These sanctions, in any case, have not resolved differences between the US and Iran.

Moreover, Central Asia is now seeing the beginnings of a religious divide, by escalation of tensions in Muslim dominated Azerbaijan and its Christian dominated neighbour, Armenia. With Russia tied up in its conflict in Ukraine, it is India that has stepped in, by undertaking substantial supplies of arms to a besieged Armenia.

What is now coming into play in the day-to-day conduct of Indian foreign policy is the evolution of a substantive and integrated approach to promote its political and economic interests across its western neighbourhood.

The most notable decision taken in recent days was after the first summit meeting of the recently established I2U2 grouping, comprising India, Israel, the US and the UAE, on July 14,

This was the first time when India and the US partnered two West Asian countries to focus cooperation on use of water resources, food security, health, transportation and space. Concerns about the security of food supplies have now increased because of recent developments involving the blocking of vital sea-routes for supplies of wheat to countries across Africa and West Asia. The conference was accompanied by a decision to develop integrated food parks across India, coupled with Israeli technology for optimum use of water resources.

It would have been unthinkable barely a decade ago to envisage a situation where India receives UAE finances and Israeli technology, geared to US involvement, for stepping up agricultural production for its western neighbours.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan