A Score Card for India's Foreign Policy in 2016
Amb Kanwal Sibal

India continued its vigorous diplomacy in 2016 under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership. Modi’s aspiration to make India a “leading power” by overcoming the challenges it faces and the opportunities it offers was pursued during the year with characteristic energy and pragmatism. He continued to deliver a message to the outside world of a strong, confident and purposeful leadership in New Delhi, with ambitious political, security and economic objectives for the country. He continued to enlarge India’s foreign policy options, with a show of assertiveness when needed and a capacity to adapt policies as required.

Ties with the US deepened during the year. Modi met Obama five times during 2016 either on bilateral visits or in multi-lateral settings. Such top-level engagement was a product of good chemistry as well as geopolitical and economic motivations on both sides. Modi was invited to address the US Congress, a gesture that acquired extra meaning as he had been denied this opportunity on an earlier visit. Apart from indicating growing bipartisan support for the India relationship in the US Congress, this invitation also symbolically sealed political acceptance of Modi as India’s leader. Defence ties continued to expand during the year, reflecting our rising political trust in the US. Additional orders for defence equipment were placed. More significantly in terms of its connotations, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement was signed, with which India broke with traditional thinking on this type of a military relationship with a foreign power. The US declared India a Major Defence Partner, a designation that obtained a legal basis with Obama signing the relevant US legislation in late December. The respective defence ministers of the two countries also reached an understanding of the practical implications of this designation with Ashton Carter’s December visit to India. The US had been pushing India on climate change issues, with Obama viewing a global agreement on climate change a legacy issue. Modi astutely extracted India from a position of being viewed as an obstacle by working constructively with the US while strengthening claims for technology and financial transfers from the developed world by initiating a Global Solar Alliance and adopting hugely ambitious renewable energy targets for India.

As part of shoring up India’s global role, India strongly pushed for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2016. Risking uncertainties, Modi did not fight shy of personally lobbying for it with various world leaders. India’s efforts proved abortive in the face of China’s persistent opposition. That China was allowed to rebuff India in a body founded by the US in response to India’s 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion showed the compromises and contradictions at play in US management of its relations with both China and India. In areas of greater geopolitical interest to it, the US seeks to mobilise India against China’s power play, but in areas of less critical interest, it is averse to countering China for India’s sake. India, however, obtained membership of the Missile Technology Control Group during the year.

In 2016, India continued to grapple with the difficulty of working at two levels with China, that of countering its challenges at the bilateral and regional levels and cooperating on issues where the interests of the two converge. Modi met Chinese president Xi Jinping three times in 2016- at the SCO, G-20 and BRICS summits, but despite such highest level engagement, the atmosphere of India-China relations deteriorated over the course of the year. China’s made its strategic intentions towards India more visible- that of curbing the momentum of India’s rise to global status as much as possible, and even more openly circumscribing it regionally through Pakistan. It exhibited its strategic spite by persistently opposing India’s NSG membership despite its material consequences for India being limited, as well as preventing the designation of Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohamed (JeM) as an international terrorist by the relevant UN Security Council Committee. It was undeterred by the negative message it conveyed about China being out of step with the international community on the need to collectively combat the menace of terrorism. China obviously believes that it can bear the cost of hardened negative perceptions about China in India. Not surprisingly, therefore, India disregarded China’s imperious position on maritime issues in the South China Sea and in joint statements with the US, Japan and Vietnam underlined the need to show utmost respect to UNCLOS in addressing them. To increase its political space in dealing with an assertive China, India allowed pro-democracy Chinese dissidents to meet in Dharamsala in April 2016, besides allowing the Karmapa to visit Tawang in November and the US ambassador in Delhi before that in October. The Dalai Lama’s own visit to Arunachal Pradesh was announced for March 2017. The invitation to him to attend a Rashtrapati Bhawan event in December was part of a new and necessary political messaging to China about the need for mutual respect for each others concerns. At the same time, India encouraged Chinese investments in India which showed an upward curve in 2016.

Relations with Pakistan, always tension-ridden, entered into a deeper trough than before in 2016. Pakistan’s terrorist felonies against India continued with the attack against the Pathankot air base in January and against military camps in Uri (September) and Nagrota (November). Burhan Wani’s killing in July saw Pakistan seeking to add fuel to the fire in J&K, with Nawaz Sharif vaunting him as a martyr and denouncing India at the UNGA. These habitual Pakistani provocations forced Modi to react by sowing seeds of a policy that opens up hitherto unexploited pressure points against Pakistan. Modi’s reference to Balochistan in his Independence Day speech was a warning, reinforced by Sushma Swaraj’s allusion to Balochistan in her UNGS speech. Modi changed our predictable response to Pakistani sponsored terrorist attacks by publicly announcing “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control (LOC) in retaliation for the Uri attack. This opened up space not explored before to deal with the terrorist weapon Pakistan uses against India, though our lack of reaction after Nagrota introduced some confusion about our resolve to continue punishing Pakistan by kinetic action across the LOC. Modi announced our intention to exercise our full rights under the Indus Waters Treaty, for which the first inter-ministerial meeting was convened. The regular meetings of the Indus Waters Commissioners were called off. Pakistan has not been earlier put on notice in this manner at the level of the Indian Prime Minister on the highly emotive waters issue.

Isolating Pakistan diplomatically on the terrorism issue became a declared policy in 2016. Some progress was made in this regard with the boycotting of the SAARC summit in Islamabad in November. At the Amritsar Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan in December, Pakistan was attacked frontally by the Afghan president for providing safe havens to the Taliban. India was able to obtain for the first time a reference to the LeT and the JeM in the declaration issued by this forum. India’s diplomacy with key Gulf countries on the terrorism issue garnered success during the year. Modi made successful visits to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2016, with the Qatar Prime Minister returning the visit in December and the invitation extended to the UAE Sheikh to be Chief Guest at R-Day 2017. India was able to consolidate the breach on the terrorism issue with these countries in 2016. This has significance in the Pakistani context.

2016 saw turbulence in India-Nepal ties flowing from the fall-out in India of the crisis created by the promulgation of a constitution for the country that was contested by a section of its population. With the removal of prime minister Oli and his replacement by Prachanda - who chose to make his first foreign visit first to Indi - matters improved, But the China factor continued to cast a shadow on India-Nepal relations. Nepal and China announced the holding of a first ever joint military exercise in February next year. In November Bangladesh received the first of the two submarines it had contracted from China. In August, Sri Lanka signed the Colombo Port City Development Project with China under a new name- the Colombo International Financial City - which underlined the strategic inroads China continues to make in our neighbourhood.

Modi’s visit to Iran in May 2016 when the geopolitically important Chabahar port agreement was signed by Iran, India and Afghanistan was important in terms of expanding our presence and interests in this region to our west. The visits of the presidents of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to India in December reinforced our outreach to Central Asia with which we have shared concerns about terrorism and extremism. Egypt remains a key player on the chessboard of West Asian politics, which made president Al Sisi’s visit to India in September significant, including in the context of the need to collectively combat the threat from extremist ideologies represented by the Islamic State.

Our Act East policy received a boost with a successful India-Japan summit in November that saw the signing of the civil nuclear agreement between the two countries, and Modi’s visit to Vietnam in September. Following the India- Africa summit in New Delhi in 2015 Modi’s visit to South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya in July maintained the momentum of our ties with Africa.

A disquieting development in 2016 was a shift in Russia’s policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan. The 17th India-Russia summit in October in Goa saw the announcement of major defence and energy related agreements, the two core areas of India-Russia ties. While this maintained the momentum of this vital relationship, it did not remove misapprehensions that crept in during the year about some aspects of Russian policies towards Pakistan and Afghanistan. Russia held military exercises with Pakistan in September, soon after the Uri attack, which was untimely. Reports surfaced about Russia’s intelligence chief visiting Gwadar. Its diplomatic representatives gave legitimacy to the Taliban as a political force in their statements. Its presidential envoy for Afghanistan ignored Indian sensitivities and displayed a pro-Pakistan bias in some of his statements at the Amritsar conference. Russia has initiated a trilateral dialogue with China and Pakistan on Afghanistan. China’s deepening support for Pakistan, coupled with Russia’s increasing engagement of Islamabad has implications for our efforts to isolate Pakistan on the issue of terrorism.

It is evident that vigorous diplomacy does not necessarily mean that a country can achieve all its goals, as other countries too pursue their own interests. The current flux in international is shifting geopolitical cards and our diplomacy has to adjust to these developments. With that in view 2016 was on the whole a successful year for Indian foreign policy.

(The author is a former Foreign Secretary)

Published Date: 30th December 2016, Image Source: https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com

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