While India's relations with China and Japan are likely to improve, relations with Pakistan may come under further stress
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | May 3, 2014
The Chinese have a curse which goes thus: May you live in interesting times! In the uncertain world of international affairs, the next prime minister of India can rest assured of exciting and challenging times. Exciting, because major geopolitical shifts have created opportunities for influencing the evolving multilateral order and challenging, because having stakes in most emerging regimes and global powers, India has to tread carefully while engaging omni-directionally. If the muted tones on foreign policy in recent manifestos are anything to go by, political parties across the spectrum seem blatantly unprepared or oblivious or both to the challenges and opportunities that await them on this front. Nonetheless, the incoming PM will have an extremely busy diplomatic calendar.
One of the stated objectives of Indian foreign policy for the last two decades has been the resistance of a unipolar (read American hegemonic) world. Though the poles of power have definitely proliferated, the real dangers posed by the not-so-peaceful rise of China have enhanced the bilateral and multilateral imperatives of India with the emerging economies. IBSA, BRICS, G20, SCO, and ASEM have found mention in the BJP manifesto. A month into the government, the new PM will attend the BRICS summit in July in Brazil; his first global engagement where he will meet Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Vladimir Putin of Russia. It will be interesting to see the relations between India and Russia especially on two counts: (i) Being suspended from G8 over the Crimean issue, Putin will look to India and China to further strengthen his economic ties. It is important to note that India and China were the only two countries thanked by Putin in his St. George Hall address after the annexation of Crimea; and (ii) The Rightist ideology is quite strong in Russia today and one will have to wait and see its possible shadow on Putin’s equations with Narendra Modi – if he is the next PM. Apart from the BRICS meeting, Putin will meet Modi in India for the annual India-Russia summit. The PM is also scheduled to travel to Russia for an important bilateral visit.
The Look East Policy, one of strongest foreign policy initiatives of the country in the post-liberalisation era, was given due importance by the UPA government. India’s bilateral trade with the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) as a whole since the implementation of free trade of goods has increased by 37%. The emphasis on economic growth being a favoured topic with Modi, cooperation with Asean can be expected to be further strengthened under his watch. Also, the East Asia Summit (EAS) due in November in Myanmar will provide Modi an opportunity to engage our other East Asian neighbours.
Despite being the third largest economy by purchasing power parity in the world, India remains highly vulnerable to emerging realignments in the world axes. For instance, a US-Russia or US-China face-off might find India entangled in a situation it is not prepared for. This would call for a deft handling of relations with all the great powers – USA, Russia, China, Japan and the EU – while maintaining sufficient strategic autonomy. This will obviously be a challenging task. Another area of interest would be the trajectory of Indo-US relations with Modi as the PM. Any unfolding balance of power in Asia cannot discount the role of the US in the continent. The new PM will meet Obama at EAS and G20 scheduled for November in Brisbane. Given the decade-long visa ban on Modi those expecting fireworks may be disappointed. There have been signs of a possible thaw with a recent meeting between the US ambassador and Modi.
The diplomatic engagement with China will have to go beyond rhetoric whether romantic or ominous, considering that China is India’s largest trading partner (bilateral trade has reached $49.5 billion during the first nine months of the current fiscal) and a superpower. The BJP manifesto states, “In our neighbourhood we will pursue friendly relations. However, where required we will not hesitate from taking strong stand and steps.” The statement of “pursuing friendly relations” almost sounds like an act of generosity rather than a real imperative if India is serious about deepening its global footprint. Muscular diplomacy is not an option, whether with China or Pakistan.
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As Governance Now goes to press Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh was scheduled to meet Chinese vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin in Beijing as part of its sixth round of strategic talks on bilateral relations and other regional challenges facing both the countries. However, it is probable that China will wait for the next government to come in before committing to any diplomatic decision. Interestingly, Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat has visited Beijing at least four times.
As regards pacifying the trans-Indus territories, the divergent perceptions of Modi-ean values and the Vajpayee-ean values in Pakistan, will inhibit Modi from reaping the dividends of the goodwill created by Vajpayee. Modi, in order to live up to his “tough” image at home, may become vulnerable to muscular obstinacy when the need of the hour is to expand engagement with Pakistan beyond traditional bureaucratic structures and to find means to engage with different political forces. A Modi government will have to strengthen partnerships with other countries as well for sustainable peace in Pakistan.
The recently held, fairly peaceful election in Afghanistan is an important development. India is a major investor in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Whether it is Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani or Zalmai Rassoul, Afghanistan will look to India for strengthening its areas of cooperation in the wake of withdrawal of international forces. The next government should make full use of this opportunity. No two countries have more at stake than India and Afghanistan for a stable Pakistan. Though a far stretch at the moment, it is critical for the Modi government to further enhance cooperation with the extended neighbourhood of largely Islamic Central Asia, the Gulf and West Asia. It would be crucial to focus on the Gulf Cooperation Council states especially with its shared interest in energy security.
The BJP’s manifesto talks of carving out a role for states in the execution of India’s foreign policy. This would be a lot more difficult proposition than it sounds. The tactical space created by India’s abstention at the UN Human Rights Council vote on Sri Lanka may have to be re-negotiated if the post-poll alliance of the NDA comes under pressure from leading political players in Tamil Nadu.
Border connectivity is beginning to find its rightful place in India’s foreign policy objectives. Modi, one can hope, would capitalise on his strengths and pursue infrastructure diplomacy and strengthen transport corridors. The Chinese have taken the lead in pushing forward the BMIC project which will run from Kunming to Kolkata, linking Mandalay in Myanmar as well as Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh. The enthusiasm has to be complemented by the next government.
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has publicly expressed his desire for stronger ties with India. The Japanese are particularly interested in investing in India and are likely to find a receptive interlocutor in the Modi government. They are already a major partner for the dedicated freight corridor (DFC) and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC).
India reportedly has also invited Japan to build infrastructure in the northeast of India, a part of which remains a disputed area between India and China. Abe was the chief guest at the Republic Day this year. The new PM will also travel to Japan as part of the annual summit between the two countries.
The statement, “BJP believes that the strategic gains acquired by India during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime on the nuclear programme have been frittered away by the Congress. Our emphasis was, and remains on beginning of a new thrust on framing policies that would serve India’s national interest in the 21st century” is perhaps a counter-productive stance. India has proved to be a responsible nuclear power and this statement will make neighbours understandably jittery, complicating the objective of “pursuing friendly relations with neighbours”.
The campaign for UNSC reforms for expanding the Security Council and the inclusion of more permanent members in it is on for a decade now. The 69th UN General Assembly is scheduled for September. Modi, being a polemical personality, has already garnered sufficient interest from other global leaders. The curiosity on his foreign policies is likely to continue for at least the first year of his term.
However, the most bewildering statement in the manifesto which defies both logic and analysis runs thus: “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.” To decipher the possible connotations of this statement, one will have to observe not only the foreign but even domestic policies of the Modi government.
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