India’S polity has gone into election mode, and the answer to all questions is “election ke baad”. But the world has not stopped while India treads water. For Indian foreign policy, the challenge would be to keep pace with the rapid changes everywhere amid the political fluidity at home. The big pictures will remain the same — understanding China and managing relations with it; keeping fingers crossed with Donald Trump’s US; making friends with neighbours.
India and China
1 The Asian superpower’s economic and geostrategic ambitions will continue to shape India’s responses on almost every front, from its relations with the neighbourhood to the US and Russia in the West and ASEAN and Japan in the East. Despite the Wuhan meeting and the cooling of tensions caused by the Doklam standoff, and the inauguration of a “people to people” track during Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit, many differences remain. But new opportunities too have arisen for cementing some cracks in the relations. Beijing, under pressure of its economic slowdown coinciding with the US trade war against it, is keen to build bridges in the region and elsewhere, at least for now. Former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon has long made the case for a new modus vivendi to replace the strategic framework formulated in 1988 during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit, which served both countries well for three decades but is now under strain. According to Menon, a new framework should have: “respect for each other’s core interests; new areas of cooperation like counter-terrorism and maritime security and crisis management; a clearer understanding of each other’s sensitivities; settling or at least managing differences; and, a strategic dialogue about actions on the international stage”.
India and Pakistan
2 There will be no thaw in relations for the foreseeable future. The Kartarpur initiative or the release of long held prisoners by either side could have been leveraged by both for a wider engagement, but there is no inclination towards this. With the rhetoric, especially on the Indian side, becoming increasingly communal, the bilateral engagement is likely to remain trapped by the need for each side to come out the “winner” for domestic audiences. New Delhi is still in a funk about being upstaged by Pakistan’s decision to open the Kartarpur gurdwara to Indian pilgrims, and while hastily scrambling aboard the initiative, has denounced it as an ISI plot to revive secessionism in Punjab. While there may be more small gestures to keep a minimum engagement going, such as easing up visitor visas, it will be followed immediately by toxic rhetoric. The first half of 2019 could see Pakistan being used as a whipping post for the election campaign. A breakthrough, if any, could come with a different approach in Kashmir after the elections, and progress, if any, in ties with China, as India’s new big insecurities flow from the consolidation of China-Pakistan economic and security ties through the CPEC. Agreeing to maintain the ceasefire on the LoC would be the easiest way to restore some calm. But the LoC is also where it is easy to demonstrate one-upmanship.
India and the Taliban
3 New Delhi’s claim that Pakistan has been isolated in the international community has not been borne out by the key role the Pakistan army is playing in the push for a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. President Trump may have made it plain on Twitter what he thinks of Pakistan, but he apparently sent a more polite message requesting Prime Minister Imran Khan for Pakistan’s cooperation in furthering talks with the Taliban. The plan itself is far from clear. The last round of direct talks between the US and the Taliban was held in October, but since then the news that the US would soon withdraw 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, close on the heels of the announced pullout from Syria, caught President Ashraf Ghani off guard. It furthered the impression that the Trump administration was desperate to make concessions to the Taliban without a real plan in place for a peace deal that would have widespread acceptance. Not just Ghani, but Iran and Russia, which consider themselves stakeholders, would be hardly pleased. Earlier this month, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi went on a tour of Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia, but the results are unclear. One fallout of the 10-year freeze in India-Pakistan ties is that New Delhi has painted itself out of the Afghan picture. Russia has tried to keep India in the frame through New Delhi’s “non-official” participation in the Moscow process, but the future of that process is uncertain. The challenge would be for India to stay relevant in Afghanistan as the so-called endgame approaches.
Friendship with neighbours
4 India’s vision of itself as the self-declared “regional superpower” has been cut to size by the smaller countries in South Asia deciding to leverage China’s ambitions in the region, particularly the Indian Ocean, to their own advantage. New Delhi has tried to fight Beijing’s deep pockets by backing those political parties and leaders in these countries whom it sees as being more “pro-New Delhi” — as in Sri Lanka and the Maldives — or through high-handedness, as in Nepal. In 2018, India celebrated the electoral defeat of Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives, and the political and judicial putdown in Sri Lanka of a move by President Maithripala Sirisena to bring back the “pro-China” Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. However, as New Delhi has realised, even pro-India leaders in these countries do not like to take dictation. In Nepal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three visits in 2018, and promises to speed up long-pending projects, have not yet succeeded in reversing the damage done by the 2015-16 economic blockade in support of the Madhesis. Bhutan, as journalist Tenzing Lamsang wrote in this newspaper, does not want more development assistance from India, but more trade and investment that would provide employment, and help wean away the country from its singular dependence on hydropower exports to India. Much of India’s problems in the neighbourhood have arisen from viewing these countries through a security prism in which China looms large. In the new year, the key for India will be to discover how to make — and remain — friends with these countries.
India and Trump’s US
5 New Delhi has found much to celebrate in the Trump administration, starting with the US President’s open stand against Pakistan for doing nothing to rein in terrorist groups despite being given billions of dollars of American assistance. Signalling their growing strategic convergence, the two countries signed COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) in September, to facilitate interoperability between their militaries, and sale of high-end technology. Trump hailed India as a key player in a free and open “Indo-Pacific” over the China-dominant Asia-Pacific. However, the downside is that US protectionism on the trade front has already singed some Indian exports, its visa rules are hurting Indian professionals, and its collision course with Iran has already impacted India’s oil purchases from that country. It could also adversely affect the operability of Chabahar port, which New Delhi has built as an alternative route to trade with Afghanistan after being locked out of the land route by Pakistan. And Defence Secretary James Mattis, India’s biggest advocate in the Trump administration, who in the first week of December promised to “work out everything” on India’s purchase of the S-400 air shield system from Russia that could attract US sanctions, has become the latest to quit the Trump administration. In 2019, the third year of the Trump presidency, India-US relations will remain a work in progress.