Monday, 30th October 2017

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Neighbourhood watch

India's foreign policy last year and the challenges of 2017

By Kanwal Sibal
  • Published 11.01.17

The vigour of the Indian prime minister's diplomacy did not abate in 2016. Ties with the United States of America received particular attention, with five meetings with Barack Obama during the year that signified a convergence of interests in a changing global environment. In his address to the US Congress in June, Narendra Modi called the US India's "indispensable partner" and extolled it in terms that would have surprised and delighted those with memories of conflicting visions of the two countries in the past. Defence ties expanded during the year with the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that broke with traditional Indian thinking on military relations with a foreign power and India's designation as a major defence partner, the practical content of which was finalized during the visit of the US defence secretary, Ashton Carter, to India in December. Under pressure on climate change issues, Modi found a way of working constructively with the US, drawing acclaim from Obama. By initiating the global solar alliance and adopting the hugely ambitious renewable energy targets for India, Modi took a leadership role in an area where India had been on the defensive.

As part of the process of making India a "leading power", Modi personally pushed for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group despite known Chinese opposition. The thinking might have been that in the power game, India should not shy away from public diplomatic tussles with China on important issues, even as we engage China positively on other fronts. To allow China to cynically use the argument of India's non-NPT status to deny it NSG membership and tie it with that of Pakistan's was a blow to US prestige too, as the message was that the US could not deliver what it wanted to its new friend, India, over China's head. American disinclination to enlarge the differences with China in areas not considered critical might explain the failure to deliver on its promise to obtain NSG membership for India during the year. India, however, obtained membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The year, 2016, was a difficult one for the India-China relationship, with the promise of earlier years fading as China decided to trim India's status internationally, equate it with Pakistan and demonstrate its own primacy in Asia. Modi met the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, three times in 2016 - at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, G-20 and BRICS summits, but without success in bridging differences over issues on which China is wilfully rebuffing India. China also finally blocked the designation of Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammed as an international terrorist by the United Nations. China's sense of self-importance has risen to a point that it is unbothered about the hardening of negative perceptions about it in India, even on issues that are not central to the India-China relationship. China was not concerned either about how its petulance over the NSG and the Masood Azhar issue would affect India's position on maritime issues in the South China Sea, on which China is on the wrong side of international law and global opinion. In joint statements with the US, Japan and Vietnam, India underlined the need to show utmost respect to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in addressing these maritime issues. China's reaction to India's Agni V test was sharply provocative, in line with its refusal to accept India as a nuclear power. It implied that the test was "illegitimate" as it was violative of UN "regulations" and that it endangered "strategic stability" in South Asia, bringing Pakistan once again into the equation. India put China on notice that sensitivity to each other's concerns has to be mutual and not one-sided. Consequently, India allowed the Karmapa and the US ambassador in Delhi to visit Tawang, besides announcing the visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh in March 2017, and inviting him to a Rashtrapati Bhavan event ignoring Chinese protests. At the same time, India tried to separate the political ties from economic engagement and encouraged Chinese investments in India, which showed an upward trend in 2016.

Relations with Pakistan, always volatile, got more deadlocked during the year as Pakistan-based terrorists attacked Indian military bases in Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota and Nawaz Sharif, upon whose better sense Modi had relied, led a virulent anti-India campaign, including one in the UN, after the killing of Burhan Wani, burying for the time being any hope that he could set India-Pakistan relations on a better course. India responded uncharacteristically to Pakistan's provocations by Modi raising Balochistan in his Independence Day speech, expressing India's intention to fully exercise its rights under the Indus Waters Treaty, and publicly announcing surgical strikes across the Line of Control, opening up thus new pressure points against Pakistan. Even during the Kargil conflict, India chose not to cross the LoC in its military response. India's silence after the Nagrota attack and the statement of the minister of state, M.J. Akbar, that Pakistan has to be engaged with as it is a neighbour (but underlining that terrorism and dialogue cannot go together) and the comments of the army chief in favour of a ceasefire to avoid civilian casualties suggest some holding back from a robust strategy prompted perhaps by the appointment of a new army chief in Pakistan.

In 2016, India achieved some success in its declared policy of isolating Pakistan diplomatically on the terrorism issue. India forced the cancellation of the Saarc summit in Islamabad in November. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, made a blistering attack against Pakistan at the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan in December in Amritsar, accusing it of providing safe haven to the Taliban. In the context of Pakistan, India's diplomacy with the key Gulf countries reaped gains on the terrorism issue.

During Modi's visit to Iran in May 2016, the geopolitically important Chabahar port agreement was signed by Iran, India and Afghanistan. The visits of the presidents of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to India in December gave impetus to India's relations with the Central Asian countries. The visit of the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to India in September was important in the context of the turbulent situation in West Asia. With Nepal, after a serious dip in relations because of a slowdown in oil supplies from India, the replacement of the India-baiting prime minister, K.P. Oli by Pushpa Kamal Dahal or Prachanda was a positive development, although the announcement of unprecedented joint military exercises between Nepal and China indicated no let up in Chinese political penetration in our neighbourhood.

At the 17th India-Russia summit in October in Goa, major agreements related to defence and energy were announced. But by holding military exercises with Pakistan in September on the heels of the Uri attack and acknowledging the political legitimacy of the Taliban, Russia created some misapprehensions. Its presidential envoy for Afghanistan rubbed Indian sensitivities the wrong way by making pro-Pakistan statements at the Amritsar conference. Russia held a trilateral dialogue with China and Pakistan on Afghanistan. Its increasing engagement of Islamabad has implications for India's efforts to isolate Pakistan on the issue of terrorism.

India's foreign policy challenges in 2017 will, in the main, be a continuation of those that it faced in 2016. The result of the US presidential election has, however, created new uncertainties that India (and others) will have to cope with.

The author is former foreign secretary of India