The rest of the world has been eyeing India especially on how it manages all sorts of complexities and contradictions both at the domestic and global levels.
India’s elevation of its status in the international system has been a manifestation of its behavioural patterns where it has reflected the need for a rule based world order. India’s credentials have been understood by the rest of the world that it is a responsible player on which one can bank on. India’s transition from its focus on Afro-Asian nations during the 1950s to dealing with all the multiple poles of powers across continents in the 21st century signifies its growing aspirations to be seen as a major power in Asia. The contemporary debates on India’s rise have taken into account all the factors including whether it has the potential to lead world affairs. The evolving nature of comprehensive national power in India’s case is becoming a reality. The rest of the world has been eyeing India especially on how it manages all sorts of complexities and contradictions both at the domestic and global levels.
A year is too short a period to assess changes in foreign policy. After decades of pursuing a Pakistan centric foreign policy, the Narendra Modi dispensation in 2014 shifted its focus to the neighbourhood, the region and aimed for a global role as a rule maker. But ironically, 2019 brought foreign policy back to Pakistan probably due to domestic politics and situational compulsions.
Continued cross border terrorism and reckless terror attacks on the security forces left New Delhi with no option but to retaliate. 2019 began with the Indian Air Force mounting a surprise and decisive attack on terrorist infrastructure at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The airstrike was bound to create ripples in the international arena, but India’s diplomatic nucleus was well prepared to handle the situation. Our missions in various countries and the greatly efficient leadership wasted no time in convincing the world of our approach to terrorism. In vindication of our stand, the world appreciated India’s stand and understood its predicament. POK was effectively used by Pakistan as a terror hub to strike India, besides opening it up to China to use as entry point to the Indian Ocean. Besides, China’s border dispute negotiations never included POK. The Balakot airstrike was a warning to both Pakistan and China that India’s strategic and security consideration are not negotiable. India’s national interest will remain paramount.
Beijing made strategic course correction in its diplomatic approach and sent out a message that it was ready to broker peace between the two nuclear neighbours. But New Delhi brought the situation under control, assured world capitals through diplomatic channels that it was a responsible state and would not allow the tension to escalate.
After the resounding victory in May 2019, Prime Minister Modi turned his attention to yet another long pending issue of Article 370. With the abrogation of Article 370 and creation of two Union Territories in place of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Modi government sent out a strong signal to Islamabad and Beijing that New Delhi is firmly in control of the situation and China should better stop playing the Pakistan card against India. Beijing’s attempts to “punish” India through a UNSC resolution did not succeed as member countries in the closed meeting rejected China’s proposal. As a result, in a major diplomatic victory, India not only isolated Pakistan effectively, but was successful in exposing the double standards of China on terrorism.
Given the burden of US-China trade war, it was imperative for Beijing to keep India on its right side. The next foreign policy challenge for India was to continue the summit level talks in continuation of the Wuhan spirit and at the same time engage in trade talks with the US.
Meanwhile, last week, almost at the end of 2019, the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has proposed a framework for resolving the long pending boundary dispute. While China was working at an “early harvest” approach and tried to resolve non-contentious border disputes first, India was firm on its stand of one time resolution of all boundary related issues. Both countries will have to maximise diplomatic engagements not only to resolve pending issues, but also keep the borders incidence free and avoid Doklam like situations.
It would not be very wrong to say that while the diplomatic and foreign policy arm of the government did a good job, trade, commerce and economic ministries need to do their homework better. It is here that the concerned ministries greatly miss the acumen of stalwarts like Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Manohar Parrikar, all three of whom were members of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). They passed away in 2019.
In a highly globalised world, trade and economic might determine the strength of a country as much as geography and military might determine the status of a country in the last century. New Delhi will have to combine the strength of its diplomatic channels and economic ministries in order to further trade and commerce with India’s eastern neighbours and other regional multilateral institutions.
India’s extended neighbourhood in the East includes a number of multilateral institutions like ASEAN and BIMSTEC that play a vital role in regional trade architecture. They are also extremely important for India’s strategic outreach, combined with economic development of the region and of India’s own Northeast. India must concentrate on the developmental aspects of the Northeast in a holistic manner and then focus on leveraging BIMSTEC for economic gains. India does need to intensify all its efforts in strengthening its ties with ASEAN and enhance the volume of trade.
Due to a lack of political will and a calculated approach towards foreign policy, India failed to take up the leadership of the region in the post Cold War era. The strategic space vacated by the erstwhile USSR was filled by China much to the detriment of India’s security and economy. An effective course correction was necessary and that was done in 2014 by the Modi government when it laid emphasis on the Look East-Act East policy and neighbourhood first policy. Yet the trade outreach was lacking which could have been achieved through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), giving a great fillip to economic diplomacy. If India is prepared to be a part of RCEP forms a major part of the debate.
India, undoubtedly, has made a dent on all the poles of power in the international system. It has developed a special rapport to deal with Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin simultaneously. Likewise, India has shown its maturity in dealing with both Israel and Palestine simultaneously. India has a lot to do with the emerging equation with Iran. Growing energy requirements will find a significant place in India’s foreign policy orientations. India’s ambitions to be seen as a responsible power will depend on how best it can create a conducive environment in its immediate neighbourhood and deal with the rest of the world by not compromising on its strategic autonomy in the decision making process. India slowly and steadily will emerge as a key player in setting all the global agenda and will negotiate from a position of strength to fulfil its larger strategic aspirations.
Dr. Arvind Kumar is a Professor of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE). Seshadri Chari is a well known political commentator and strategic analyst.