The New Year will bring fresh opportunities and challenges for India’s foreign policy as it starts the year with a hectic calendar of events.
The priorities for 2018 will be grounded in the gains and challenges India faced in the past year. The two main issues that dominated the foreign policy agenda were building ties with the United States under the new presidency of Donald Trump and Sino-Indian relations.
While India’s relations with the US strengthened in 2017, with Trump referring to India as a leading global power, relations with China dipped to their lowest level over the confrontation at Doklam.
Though the two issues would remain high on India’s agenda for 2018, the New Year will begin on a bright note with a host of visitors travelling to India in the early weeks of the year.
It will see the gathering of Asean leaders in Delhi for the Republic Day celebrations, the first time that leaders of the ten Asean states will be chief guests at the Republic Day parade.
The Asean gathering will mark 25 years of India’s association with the South-East Asian group and also signals increased Indian focus on the region through its Act East policy.
Among other early visitors to Delhi will be Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The International Solar Alliance proposed by India will have its summit in early 2018, which would be attended by a number of international leaders, including French president Emmanuel Macron.
Though Indo-US relations continued their upward trajectory, India would need a careful monitoring of its ties with Washington, given President Trump’s penchant for stirring up the international political scene with his unpredictable policy changes and controversial tweets.
Restoring Sino-Indian relations would be a task for the New Year, after the strain in bilateral ties during the past two years.
But India’s biggest foreign policy challenge for the immediate future will be in the neighbourhood. Despite prime minister Narendra Modi’s avowed Neighbourhood First policy, uneasy ties with several of them require more sustained attention, especially as China has emerged as a major development partner in the region with its large infrastructure projects.
India is likely to focus on the Indo-Pacific region and security in the Indian Ocean region through working on various multilateral forums in the region. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government will make a push at active engagement with multilateral groupings from Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Commonwealth, BRICS, and the Quadrilateral.
After its initial hesitation over the Quadrilateral concept of Japan, Australia, the US and India, New Delhi is likely to assign the Quad greater priority for boosting cooperation among the four partners. The Asia-Africa growth corridor that has been under discussion between New Delhi and Tokyo is likely to gain traction during 2018.
The Commonwealth has not received high priority in India’s foreign policy agenda for some time as the increasing number of new multilateral groupings springing up in the recent past has called for more attention.
The UK, which had displayed declining interest in the grouping of former British colonies for some time, has since reviewed the Commonwealth connection after Brexit.
In quitting the European Union, Britain would find it necessary to lift its relations with other regions and countries to a higher level. It is now planning to revitalise the Commonwealth grouping and has asked India to play a bigger role in the Commonwealth fora.
Modi is expected to attend the Commonwealth Summit in London in April. He is also likely to attend the Singapore-based Shangrila Dialogue, the first time an Indian prime minister would be addressing the premier security conclave in Asia.
The prime minister is also scheduled to attend the World Economic Forum at Davos.
The impact of India’s wider outreach was evident when New Delhi was able to get its candidate elected to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the face of a strong contest by the UK.
Though the British candidate had the support of all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, New Delhi could mobilise overwhelming support in the UN General Assembly.
Indian support continued to increase through several rounds of voting, till the British government withdrew its candidate, thereby ceding the position to India. A determined effort by New Delhi and the absence of popular support for the UK carried the day for her.
In 2017, Modi separated India’s policy towards Israel from its stance on the Palestine issue with his highly successful visit to Tel Aviv. Indian leaders travelling to the region have made it a point to visit Palestine along with Israel, but Modi’s tour to Israel was a standalone bilateral visit, the first ever by an Indian prime minister to that country.
The Israeli premier’s visit to India will further consolidate bilateral ties. Even as Indo-Israeli ties have blossomed, India voted to condemn the US for recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, despite American threats.
The Doklam stand off brought India and China to their most serious confrontation; there were lessons to be drawn for both countries from the face off. Referring to the Doklam confrontation, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi candidly said that the military standoff had put `severe strain’ on Sino-Indian relations.
Both sides believe that they have cause to complain in their relations. Chinese media reports point to India’s boycott of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation meeting that was held in Beijing in May as well as the Dalai Lama’s week-long tour to Arunachal Pradesh, as negative elements in Sino-Indian relations in 2017.
Also the visit of Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile to Ladakh where he was ‘allowed’ to hoist a Tibetan flag on the shore of the Pangong Lake was perceived as a major irritant.
China, on its part, continued to block India’s bid to place Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, Masood Azhar on the United Nations sanctions list and also stuck to its stand of opposing India’s candidature to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG).
Beijing had been surprised when India did not attend the OBOR summit in China, opposing Beijing’s grand connectivity initiative for its lack of transparency and impinging on sovereignty issues, especially with respect to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Towards the end of the year, two bilateral meetings between Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, followed by the meeting of the two Special Representatives for the boundary question, Chinese state councillor Yang Jiechi and national security advisor Ajit Doval, have tried to reverse the trend for the New Year.
Both sides plan to initiate new confidence building measures (CBMs) to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas and also deepen bilateral economic cooperation.
China continued with its increasingly confident foray into the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions, setting up its first foreign military base in the northwestern Indian Ocean at Djibouti near the Horn of Africa.
China’s infrastructure schemes in the South Asian region are effectively ring-fencing India, with mega projects in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting China’s western region to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar.
With the exception of Bhutan and Afghanistan, all other Saarc countries have signed up with China’s One Belt One Road initiative.
China consolidated its economic clout in Sri Lanka through working out a deal with Colombo to lease the Hambantota port and economic zone in lieu of the debt incurred in the building and operating of the port.
Maldives signed a Free Trade Agreement with China in an agreement that was rushed through the Maldives Majlis in the absence of opposition legislators.
India, which has a trilateral maritime security cooperation arrangement with Sri Lanka and Maldives, responded with an unusually explicit reminder to its neighbours to keep India’s security concerns and sensitivities in mind in concluding bilateral agreements.
Beijing has been wooing Bangladesh with infrastructure projects; Dhaka took delivery of two Chinese made submarines in July 2017 in a $203 million deal to upgrade its navy.
Nepal turned to China for assistance at the time of the border blockade that cut off trade routes from India to Nepal during the Madhesi agitation in 2015. They also signed a trade transit agreement with China as well as memoranda on several infrastructure projects, including a rail and road connection between Lhasa and Kathmandu.
The Doklam issue had a spill over effect in Bhutan, where some apprehension was expressed over the confrontation with China. In Bhutan, there is a greater sense of independence and sovereignty in recent years, and there has been some social media chatter questioning the close Indian embrace, especially with respect to Bhutan’s foreign policy.
The Doklam issue could have its repercussions on boundary talks between China and Bhutan. There are young Bhutanese who are not averse to Bhutan opening up to China, though the older generation remembers China’s brutal takeover of Tibet in the 1950s.
China’s role has not been restricted only to the economic sphere in South Asia; Beijing has shed its earlier stance of not interfering in internal affairs of countries to adopt a more active political role. Beijing, not only backed Myanmar when it was facing angry criticism over the Rohingya issue, but also mediated between Myanmar and Bangladesh over the question of return of the Rohingya refugees lodged in Bangladeshi camps.
In Nepal, Beijing is reported to have facilitated the two main Communist parties to join an alliance just before the federal and provincial elections were held.
The Left Alliance went on to win the elections in Nepal. Beijing is also making efforts to mediate in the conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan with the support of Russia.
Pakistan has moved into a closer engagement with China over the CPEC and Russia has also stepped up its outreach to Pakistan. Moscow considers the Afghan situation as a major security challenge and Islamabad’s influence on the Taliban is leading Moscow to engage with Islamabad with China’s backing.
At the recent trilateral meeting of China, Russia and Pakistan on the Afghanistan issue, China offered to extend the CPEC to Afghanistan. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has suggested that New Delhi join OBOR by finding a way to take advantage of the connectivity projects without sacrificing its position.
India has supported the new US policy in Afghanistan, but New Delhi will have to deal with the growing convergence between China and Russia on the Afghanistan situation and Beijing’s efforts to bring in Pakistan on the same page to mediate between Kabul and the Taliban.
India-Pakistan relations have remained in the doldrums and incidents on the border have increased through the year. Saarc has been moribund since India’s refusal to attend the Islamabad summit, which led to its cancellation.
India cannot match China’s resources, but it will have to refocus its policies towards the neighbours to draw them into closer ties within the South Asian region.