Indian Foreign Policy: Constants and changing contours in the Anthropocene

Session Report
Narayani Bhatnagar

Our last speaker for the last day of the three-day online certification training course on India’s G20 Presidency and Contours of Indian Foreign Policy organised by #IMPRI Centre for International Relation and Strategic Studies (CIRSS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi programme was Professor Sanjay Chaturvedi delivered his presentation on Indian Foreign Policy: Constants and changing contours in the Anthropocene.

The G20 presidency, he asserts, is an exercise of statecraft elite foreign policy or diplomacy. A shift in the field of international relations, a time that should prompt us to reconsider the current mainstream conceptions of international relations. Foreign policies and diplomacy should enable us to think a great deal differently about how we learned international relations or foreign policy narratives, as well as should help us widen and deepen the nature and breadth of international relations, making it more global and non-western. 

That is the reason Mr Chaturvedi does not examine the G20’s triumphs and failures narrative because he believes it to be far too soon. In his eyes, it is a movement signal, with multi-scalar and multi-spatial components. The fact that power continues to shift speaks and India’s return is seen as the rise as part of Asia’s greater rise, return, and rise.

He began his lecture by discussing the Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy, which was published in 2015. He refers to Professor Kanti Vajpayee’s input here. In this particular contribution, he discusses postcolonial sovereignty. Professor Vajpayee addresses India’s struggle with Pakistan, China, and the US.

He maintains that this is how we have approached India’s or Indian foreign policy, and he contends these are the major causes and concerns. So, when we talk about postcolonial sovereignty, we’re talking about countries’ fundamental concerns about challenges to territory, nationhood, and decision-making independence. 

The second is Alliance politics, in which India’s greatest fear is the United States aligned with Pakistan to the detriment of Indian interests to the changes and the shifts that have taken place. 

Power distribution in India remains concerned about, “The asymmetries of power that have profoundly affected New Delhi’s dealings with Islamabad, Beijing, and Washington.”

In his most recent book on India and China, Professor Vajpayee discusses the growing power inequalities not just between the United States and China, but also between the United States and India. So it’s a critical argument that is being made here in conflict over political values

He quoted, “Interestingly value differences continue to complicate India’s relations India regards Pakistan Islamization with deep forwarding is in tested competition with China’s structuring stretching authoritarianism and remains suspicious of U.S led Globalization.” 

Domestic politics is also highly significant. While many of these elements, including postcolonial sovereignty, alliance politics, power distribution asymmetries, and struggle over political principles in domestic politics, continue to be essential, the whole nature and meaning of these categories is evolving. For example, in the FIIA report called, “Great Power Competition and the Rising U.S China Rivalry“, his narrative : 

“’Estranged democracies’ no longer, the United States of America and India no doubt find themselves in the tight embrace of a ‘strategic partnership’. But there is no evidence as yet to suggest that ‘views from India’ and ‘views on India’ – especially those of the US-converge fully on the what, where and why of the Indo- Pacific. In India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific one finds a subtle but significant policy move towards the sub-regionalization of this Super Maritime Region of sub-regions, such as the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the South China Sea.

This can also be seen as a conceptual contribution by India to the new meta-geographies of a new planetary multiplex geopolitics where the Indo-Pacific becomes a space, a site or a laboratory where unconventional meanings of security and sustainability can be tested, operationalized and even institutionalized at multiple scales. The process of broadening and deepening India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific is an evolving one, often articulated in terms of India’s Look/Act East policy”. 

Therefore the message that Mr Chaturvedi attempted to convey here was that the relevance of India’s G20 presidency needs to be considered in the context of India’s multi-spatial contacts with the world, even on a planetary scale. 

His anchoring slide comprised his key argument for this evening, India’s G20 presidency has to be seen through the lens of intersections of ecological unsustainability, growing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, and the complexity of climate change.

“It’s a pity we’re still officially living in an age earlier we were living in the Holocene. The Anthropocene- human dominance or biological chemical and geological processes on Earth is already an undeniable reality.” 

Paul Knudson

What the Anthropocene is doing to international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy, and what international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy, both theories and practises can do for the Anthropocene and G20 presidency quite differently. The knowledge that the importance of India’s G20 presidency lies not in asking questions about its successes and failures, but in terms of the social, cultural, and ecological impacts.

It is an honour of thinking, political thinking, social thinking, geopolitical thinking, and cultural reasoning. How it is compelling us to reconsider the geographies and geography of foreign policy, geographies that are not just tangible but also imagined and written geographies.

Geography and locations matter

According to Vasudev Kutumbukum, old Indian knowledge possesses a lot of modern significance, especially in the Anthropocene period.

Ambassador Shyam Saran draws a very unusual connection to Vasudev Kutumbukum, as he mentions in his excellent book, “How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the Twenty-First Century.” In one of the opening chapter’s footnotes, he makes a very essential reference to Diana L Ecks’ work, “India: sacred geography.” Mr. Chaturvedi quotes,

“In the Mahabharata, the narrator Sanjaya, recalls for King Dhritarashtra the vision of the entire cosmos as a vast circle of seven concentric oceans separating six regions or varnishes, each with its own monuments and river systems. At the centre lies Jambudvipa, described in other sacred texts as a four-petalled lotus floating in the ocean, with our own Varsha, Bharata, defined by the southern petal.

It has the Himalayas for its mountain system and mighty rivers, as do the other varnishes, and seas surrounding its triangular shape. This is a landscape that is mythical yet hallowed, and also recognizably physical. It is a template ingrained in the collective Indian consciousness that continues to shape our view of the world around us -as it has through centuries, irrespective of the rise and fall of empires. This vision has endured in our subconsciousness, prevailing over the political, social and cultural peculiarities that make India such a diverse country.”

Keeping this in mind, and looking at India’s G20 presidency, Vasudev Kutumbukum, we can see that when India engages in discussion not from these self-conceived senses of superiority, but in light of what Ambassador Shyam Saran says while talking about unity in diversity as universalism at a planetary scale.

Unity in Diversity As Universalism At A Planetary Scale

“India’s worldview is worth examining within the framework of the mandala as described in the old treatises on Indian statecraft. Studying the Jambudvipa mandala from our ancient texts, one is struck by the fact that it does not ascribe centrality and superiority to Bharatvarsha, which is only one among the lotus petals that make up our universe.

Each of the concentric circles in the mandala that radiates outward is superior to the preceding one. This is the reverse of the Chinese worldview, which sees the Han core as the most advanced, with increasingly larger circles symbolizing the more barbaric and the less civilized. India will never have a middle kingdom complex. It accepts a world in which there are other ‘dvipas’ or islands with their own characteristics and values.”

While talking about unity and diversity in our internal domestic concept, Vasudev Kutumbukum is upscaling it to what is being discussed concerning the global scale in the Anthropocene. It is not only rhetoric or symbolism; it has a profound sense of meaning in the sense of intended zest, the spirit of the times, necessity of the times, demands and imperatives of the times.

As the honourable External Affairs Minister of India, Mr S. Jaishankar  tells us, he quotes, 

“The world we are poised to enter is a subject of intense argumentation. It is further complicated by transformational changes in politics, economics and technology. The Indian way, especially now, would be far sharper or decider rather than just being an abstainer. This has been already visible on debates like climate change and connectivity…”

India has embraced a common but differentiated responsibility stance on climate change and climate diplomacy. Whatever the international climate diplomacy wants. Mr Chaturvedi continues, 

“….I believe, it is also the responsibility of civil society organisations, academic institutions, and intellectuals to continue to talk about while acknowledging the challenge of climate change, ethical moral dimensions of climate change, and internalise the principle to the extent that is possible that common but differentiated responsibility into our domestic reality.”  

“India must be a just and fair power as well, consolidating its position as a standard bearer of the global south…the rise of India, like other aspects of international relations, is a story without an ending…The world is not what it was until just recently. In its systemic impact, the coronavirus may be the most consequential happening after 1945…The paradox the world will confront is to seek change in the very order in which it is still deeply invested…

A more fragmented, diffused and complicated future awaits, as all of us will now do our political sums differently…The value of India in such global calculations is apparent…It will probably increase even further after the virus.”

When it pertains to the Covid-19 Virus, the Westphalian state structure remains the most significant player in international relations, but Vasudev Kutumbukum advocates for a different approach. Depending on where you are, if you begin to view the world through the BharatVarsha lens, we begin to challenge the territorial traps and tropes of international relations and foreign policy narratives.

John Agnew’s concept of the territorial trap becomes very important to break through this cartographic imprisonment is, 

“An intellectual or analytical trap in inter-state studies; however, it can be generalized to consider the territorial traps of various forms of power at both inter-state and sub-state scales… Rather than reflecting unambiguous sovereignty that ends/begins at a border or that must be overcome as such, border thinking should open up to consider (a). territorial spaces as ‘dwelling’ rather than national spaces…” 

Thus, Vasudev Kutumbukum was characterised as a world habitat for everyone that included not just humans, as well as non-humans. 

“…and (b) political responsibility for pursuit of a decent life as extending beyond the borders of any particular state. Borders matter, then, both because they have real effects and because they trap thinking about and acting in the world in territorial terms.”

When looking at the agenda of India’s G20 presidency, it appears to be an extensive list of these all-encompassing dots, waiting to be connected. They are already interconnected in many respects but what needs to be addressed is how the politics of knowledge production has taken place. For instance, how Area Studies programmes have been dominated in the West as IR was born as a social science discipline in the United States, and ultimately includes the Global South and India.

Many people may disagree, but a postcolonial engagement that includes the perspective of the Global South is a postcolonial language that reminds us of how our distinct disciplines of international relations have constrained our imagination and thinking about innovation.

There is no end to geography, places matter, the Earth is constantly being rewritten, and there is deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Old Waters have become permeable new boundaries, and knowledge is defined as the ability to act. The emphasis on the Global South, such as climate change in the Bay of Bengal and floods in Mumbai, and geographical uncertainties, ranging from the Russia-Ukraine conflict to Pakistan, and Afghanistan, are important discussion points from India’s G20 presidency.

It also emphasises that one of the most significant uncertainties in climate research pertains to the destiny of Antarctica’s ice sheet. India’s voice at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings is the voice of many, whether it’s the discussion on biodiversity, biology, or the prospect of climate change, our narratives as observers have now shifted.

He concluded his presentation by discussing Anthropocene geopolitics in foreign policy and international affairs further. He spoke on theorising Anthropocene (In)Securities through the Mapping of Ontological (In)Securities in Times of Uncertainty, and he did so by quoting from Cameroon Harrington and Clifford Shearing’s book, “Security in the Anthropocene: Reflections on Safety and Care.” Mr Chaturvedi quoted, 

“Security, both as a practice and as an analytical category, is more complex than we ever imagined. As a consequence, we are compelled to revisit our core ideas and reorient our practices as we make sense of the planet’s inter-permeable systems of humans, animals, things, and processes.

The idea of an ‘Earth system’-the planet’s interlocked, interacting physical, chemical, and biological processes-has been absent from almost all security approaches. Our purely anthropocentric framings are no longer viable they were a luxury that cannot be maintained. If our metamorphosis teaches us anything, it is that we are entangled in a complex set of assemblages-one set of interlinked things among many. (Harrington and Shearing 2017. page 17).”

Finally, the G20 presidency will be a movement, an academic and intellectual movement in which we will be encouraged and motivated to discuss the full language of mainstream international relations.

Every lecture was followed by an interactive question and answer session which facilitated a more nuanced understanding of the topics covered and cultivated a critical understanding among the participants about India’s G20 Presidency and Contours of Indian Foreign Policy. 

Closing a riveting three-day online certification training course on India’s G20 Presidency and Contours of Indian Foreign Policy, Ashwash Mahanta, a researcher at IMPRI, thanked the panel members for their insightful sessions and the program ended with a vote of thanks.

Read more session reports from Day 1 India’s G20 Presidency and Contours of Indian Foreign Policy

India’s Digital Public Diplomacy and Brand Building

Contours of India’s Foreign Policy in the Current Era

India’s Rise and Future- Southeast Asian Strategic Relations

Narayani is a research intern at IMPRI.



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