The year 2018 presents a challenging external environment to India as Prime Minister Narendra Modi enters his last full year in office. Mr Modi’s conduct of foreign policy has propensity for nationalistic posturing when crucial state elections approach. That impacts India’s neighbourhood policy, specifically relations with China and Pakistan. This year will be full of byelections to Parliament in the critical states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The last two and Karnataka would also elect new Assemblies.
Later this month Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in India, followed by a mini-Asean summit as its 10 members are guests at the Republic Day celebrations. But the principal challenge to India is its immediate neighbourhood. First, despite palpable bonhomie, Mr Modi having been the first Indian head of government to visit Israel, India voted for a UN General Assembly resolution asking the United States to reverse its decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Perhaps this was unavoidable after four permanent UN Security Council members and over two-thirds of the UN membership lined up behind the resolution. It indicated that Indian foreign policy remains rooted in pragmatism. The Saarc neighbourhood is more divided today than ever with persistent Pakistani defiance and Chinese aggressive intrusion. The Economist notes that “China is making it increasingly clear... (that) the thing it really disapproves of is India maintaining a sphere of influence”. The Sino-Indian standoff at Doklam has persisted, albeit with a limited Chinese withdrawal to dodge embarrassment before its 19th party congress and to save the China-hosted Brics summit. Reportedly, despite the onset of winter, when normally Chinese troops return to the Tibetan hinterland, they have bivouacked at the spot, within sight of Indian troops. This maintains pressure on Bhutan, in whose territory Doklam lies. It also thus leaves Bhutan vulnerable to Chinese cajolements of a permanent territorial settlement to wean it away from India’s tutelage.
The Chinese pressure on the Indian periphery was manifested in Sri Lanka conceding control of Hambantota port and its adjoining territory to China on a 99-year lease, the Maldives ramming through a free trade agreement with China and a coalition of the two largest Communist parties winning the elections in Nepal. Until 2011, China didn’t even have an embassy in the Maldives. According to exiled former President Mohammed Nasheed, who is perceived as close to India, China now holds 75 per cent of the Maldives’ debt. The Nepalese government can be expected to tilt more visibly towards China and thus allow the Belt and Road Initiative to connect Kathmandu by train to Lhasa and beyond, consequently tying the Nepalese economy more closely to China’s.
India-Pakistan relations are now in free fall, with Mr Modi having used Pakistan as a convenient punching bag in the recent Gujarat Assembly elections, even hinting at treason when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former vice-president Hamid Ansari had attended a dinner in honour of a former Pakistani foreign minister. Post-election, India facilitated the visit of the mother and wife of alleged spy-cum-saboteur Kulbhushan Jadhav for a meeting, which ended up humiliating the ladies when they were strip-searched. Later, Pakistan began alleging that Jadhav’s wife’s shoes contained snooping devices. That the national security advisers of India and Pakistan attended the following day a pre-scheduled meeting in Bangkok indicates either that Lt. Gen. Nasser Khan Janjua was complicit in the Islamabad charade or was undercut by his former service to keep India-Pakistan relations disturbed. India’s Pakistan policy of boycott and threats has thus faltered as Pakistan is, if anything, even more defiant. Ceasefire violations in the last year climbed to 820, 589 more that the preceding year, and 667 more than in 2014. Drawing solace from the rising crescendo of Trumpian warnings would be unwise as the United States is principally soliciting action against groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network and not India-specific groups, which Pakistan is mainstreaming by transmutation into political units.
In India’s expanded neighbourhood to the east a two-track approach is being adopted. The “Quad”, a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US, to balance China, has been resurrected. Some see it as a rudimentary Asian version of Nato. That would be premature as more members yet need to be co-opted, including Vietnam and South Korea, and perhaps even Indonesia. Meanwhile, India continues supporting the East Asia Summit (EAS), built around the 10-member Asean. On a separate track, India would remain active in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a Chinese brainchild, and Brics and RIC (Russia, India and China). This is to both balance China and engage it. This is necessary as the US under Donald Trump has undertaken a structural withdrawal by abandoning Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Paris climate change accord, vacating space for China.
To India’s west, the geostrategic scenario is more muddled. Mr Trump’s Riyadh visit early in his presidency emboldened the Saudi ruling dispensation to confront Iran, pillory GCC allies whose conduct the Saudis abhorred, escalate the war in Yemen and attempt novel reforms at home. Consequently, it exacerbated the Shia-Sunni divide and caused an intra-Sunni split. The US move on Jerusalem before a final settlement of the West Asia issue and unrest in Iran add to the complexity. India has one foot in a boat rowed by the Saudis and Emiratis (Mr Modi is to revisit the UAE next month), and the other foot in the Iranian dhow, now in Mr Trump’s cross-hairs. With President Trump given to diplomacy by Twitter and Russia converging with China on most international issues, the space for a balancing game has shrunk further.
Thus 2018 will see Indian foreign policy largely playing a waiting game as elections loom in India, Pakistan, Russia and even the United States (the mid-term congressional polls). The new foreign secretary has his work cut out.