India Abroad 2016: The Asian Age
Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan will demand special handling. Mr Modi’s drop-in at Lahore suggests that he may have a plan, devised after internalising lessons from previous mistakes…
All those involved in the country’s foreign policy — as its makers, implementers and analysts — have reason to be happy: the subject received special salience in the national discourse during 2015. This is unlikely to change in 2016.
Anticipating intelligently what awaits India in the next 12 months can hardly be divorced from what happened in the past one and a half years. In other words, an evaluation of foreign policy and national security strategy pursued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India since May 2014 is relevant to what might happen in the future. This task needs to be addressed dispassionately, eschewing a binary approach. In admiring aspects of foreign policy or criticising them, one should not be pro-Bharatiya Janata Party or pro-Opposition.
Adhering to this broad framework, I would argue that the fundamental elements of the foreign policy remained unchanged, but the prioritisation of goals, the methodology to attain them, i.e. diplomacy, the personal engagement of Mr Modi, and the broad worldview, spanning from Fortaleza to Fiji, are relatively new. The BJP-led government has followed a foreign policy anchored in “change with continuity”. More of this may be in store this year.
While the importance of neighbours was projected, as reflected in the “neighbourhood first” mantra, the reality is that New Delhi invested heavily in cultivating closer ties with the major powers and a few middle powers. Mr Modi enjoys a seat at “the high table”. Supporters hold that this is essential to ensure a massive inflow of capital and technology, much needed for India’s economic transformation. Critics see in this a touch of overreach and personal ambition. Nonetheless, this will be continued as South Block executes the strategy of elevating India from a “balancing power” to a “leading power”.
The desired change will not happen overnight. Many long years of sustained work, steady economic progress and a calm and consensual political environment are the prerequisites for India to reach its destination.
Meanwhile, we may expect many more journeys by Mr Modi to foreign lands. Several summits — G20, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, East Asia Summit, and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, India- Association of Southeast Asian Nations, India-Russia, India-EU and UN General Assembly session — will take him abroad in 2016. An indicator of his popularity is the flood of invitations from foreign governments. He is awaited in such diverse lands as Mexico and Myanmar, Egypt and Israel, Indonesia and several African capitals. He will honour many of these invitations.
In dealing with India’s neighbours, the Modi government has demonstrated a mix of imagination, strength and resilience. Ties with Bangladesh are in a sweet spot today, but more work is required for resolution of the Teesta River and other issues. Bilateral relations with Sri Lanka are stable, but little progress on the fishermen’s problems has occurred. Maldives has continued to be a big challenge, more so now with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and evidence of new Chinese designs. This neighbour requires priority attention. So does Myanmar, now undergoing transition to a dyarchy composed of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Army that may co-rule the county.
Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan will demand special handling. Mr Modi’s drop-in at Lahore suggests that he may have a plan, devised after internalising lessons from previous mistakes. It could succeed, provided national consensus is re-built within India and the plan to normalise relations is sold to the Pakistan Army. As regards China, both a neighbour and a companion at “the high table”, the policy of cooperation and competition will continue, along with the resolve to maintain peace and tranquility on the border.
Among various regions, East Asia will probably receive the highest attention. Strategic competition is getting sharpened. Nations opposed to China’s assertiveness are getting their act together, albeit slowly. Given its internal challenges and the adverse external environment, China may find it prudent not to rock the South China Sea boat. If so, the region will remain stable though tensions and the arms race will not disappear. For India, a more immediate priority is to make connectivity projects with Asean a reality as fast as possible.
The past year indicates that Central Asia, the new theatre of “the Great Game” involving several major powers, may gain greater prominence. On West Asia, India will be watchful but also a little wary. There is far too much turbulence there, and India has only a few cards to play.
New Delhi is in a position to raise India’s profile in the African continent. It did well by holding successfully the third India-Africa summit which was remarkable in scale, scope and initial impact. To achieve stated goals, the government needs to strengthen its implementation mechanisms and ensure that our top leaders increase their visibility in Africa.
Latin American ambassadors in Delhi often express frustration while following their mandate to attract India’s attention. They have a point. India-Latin America ties in business and culture are on the rise. With some political push, they can bloom further. Mr Modi might fulfil his promise to visit the region, perhaps in 2016.
On major global issues of our time — climate change, terrorism, trade and UN Security Council reform India’s perspectives are better known today. Their projection has improved. Some credit should be given to Mr Modi’s communication skills, attention devoted to the diaspora and flair for use of social media as well as to his speechwriters who are doing a splendid job.
The assessment that results of the recent conferences in Paris and Nairobi were mixed and thus not to India’s complete satisfaction, should hardly surprise us. Welcome to the world of diplomacy where “you gain some and you lose some!”
The world in 2016 — and India’s foreign policy approach towards it — promises to be dynamic but largely predictable. Yet, we should also be ready to expect the unexpected.