Modi government can’t afford to repeat foreign policy mistakes in 2018

In 2018, significant developments could take place in Southeast Asia, beginning with the Indo-ASEAN commemorative summit on January, followed by New Delhi hosting all the ASEAN leaders collectively as chief guests at the Republic Day function.

 Indian foreign policy, India, Modi, Doklam, Beijing, China, Pakistan, New Delhi, Manoj Joshi
Source: PTI

When it comes to the Modi government’s foreign policy record, you can see it as a glass half full or a glass half empty. Full or empty, it was half. It did not meet its full potential and there were more misses than hits, especially in the neighbourhood, in 2017. But there was one significant achievement which has made up for this and has important portents for the future. This was facing down Beijing over Doklam which was done with verve and sophistication.

So what could 2018 bring? Perhaps its most important motif will be balance. Having stepped out in significant directions in 2015 and 2016 towards the US and Israel, Modi will seek to restore some equilibrium. He will seek to repair ties with China and reach out to Palestine, to signal to the Arab world that Indian policy is not changing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu is set to visit India, but that is more about ideological signaling rather than achieving any major foreign policy goal. India is not a player in the Middle East, its primary interest is the stability of this vital region and it would be well advised to maintain its traditional posture of balancing between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

With the Saudi-Israel entente growing, there could be an argument for a slight tilt in the Iranian direction, else we may see a repeat of a situation where external pressures pushed our ally Russia into the arms of China. Note that Modi’s initiatives in the Gulf sheikhdoms are now paying. Following Modi’s visit in early 2017, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority has invested nearly USD 3 billion (INR 19,000 crore) in a range of areas relating to infrastructure and renewable energy. And this, say Indian diplomats in the region, is only the beginning.

In 2018, significant developments could also take place in Southeast Asia, beginning with the Indo-ASEAN commemorative summit on January, followed by New Delhi hosting all the ASEAN leaders collectively as chief guests at the Republic Day function.

Modi’s expected speech at the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore in early June will be important because it is being delivered at Asia’s premier security meet. This could be a harbinger of deepening Indian commitments in the region to balance China’s activism in South Asia.

The China factor

Having faced down Beijing in Doklam, India is in a good position to engage Beijing. Not much will come from this because issues between the two are not open to quick resolution. In recent years, they have displayed a dangerous tendency not to respond to the numerous CBMs that have kept peace between the two countries in recent decades.

We now need newer mechanisms simply to ensure things do not get out of hand. If things go well, we could well see an acceleration of the steadily increasing Chinese investments in India topped off by a visit by Chinese supremo, Xi Jinping. The Chinese understand well that India is a huge opportunity for them. We could well see a negotiated settlement of the Sino-Indian impasse over the Belt and Road Initiative. It is in the context of China that India also needs to pay attention to Russia in 2018. There has been significant activity on the official front in 2017, but a visit by President Putin for the annual consultative summit could restore some vitality to the relationship.

No change for Pak

Our most important tie will remain the one with the US. It will also be the most problematic. It has so far been Washington’s best managed foreign relationship, but it could rub up against Indian interests relating to Iran and Russia. However, there is every indication that the US is willing to give New Delhi considerable leeway here because its need for India’s weight in the “Indo Pacific” region is significant.

And what about Pakistan? There is unlikely to be much of a shift here, considering Pakistan has no real government at present and, perhaps, more important, it remains a useful electoral tool for Modi. He is also likely to visit Davos for the World Economic Forum summit. At first sight, it looks like an attempt to catch up with Jinping who was the chief guest last year. Symbolic attendance at Davos won’t change things. The economy is not going anywhere for a while and Modi must take the blame for that.

New Delhi does appear to be in a sweet spot of sorts because of American friction with Pakistan and China. This could grow, for differing reasons, in 2018. This can provide sufficient space to further India’s interests. This is where the rub comes in. It is now widely accepted that Indian economy slowed down on account of self-inflicted wounds in 2017. Hopefully, Modi and his team will not do a repeat in the arena of foreign policy.


This commentary originally appeared in DailyO.

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