While India can look back with content at the way it conducted its foreign policy in the past year, a changing world order can throw up challenges that have to be overcome with greater perseverance in the coming years.
As 2017 draws to a close, India can look at the year gone by with some satisfaction even as there might be some trepidation about the coming year.
The certitudes of the past are disappearing with each passing day and the international system is passing through unprecedented flux. Established powers are grappling with internal challenges of the kind they had not encountered in the last few decades and as a result, they are looking inwards.
On the other side, China’s rise is an established reality now and Beijing is unabashed in announcing its arrival. This power transition is challenging the existing multilateral global order with significant implications for countries like India.
The Narendra Modi government’s pro-active global outreach continued in 2017 with the Prime Minister himself leading the way. He energetically reached out to India’s partners such as the US and Israel and even to Indian adversaries such as China. The results may have been mixed, but Modi cannot be faulted for making his best effort at reconciling often irreconcilable differences, especially with Beijing.
India also expanded the scope of its engagement with East and Southeast Asia in a year when India and ASEAN observed 25 years of their Dialogue Partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction and five years of strategic partnership this year.
In a region shaken by China’s assertive posturing, India publicly and vigorously supported freedom of navigation and access to resources in the South China Sea in accordance with principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. More broadly, it made a case for a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region where multiple powers can co-exist supporting a stable ecosystem.
In its immediate neighbourhood, New Delhi followed a two-pronged policy. On the one hand, it continued its high-decibel campaign to marginalise Pakistan by repeatedly underscoring the pernicious nature of the terror threat emanating from that country. On the other hand, it started an ambitious undertaking of re-imagining its strategic geography by linking itself more closely with the wider Bay of Bengal community. The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative are being revived by New Delhi’s newfound interest.
India and Afghanistan also managed to ramp up their ties. India’s agenda is to build the capacity of the Afghan state as well as of Afghan security forces, enabling them to fight their own battles more effectively. This is in line with the requirements of the Afghan government as well as the international community. India’s regional role got a rare acknowledgement from the United States (US). The Trump Administration’s South Asia strategy in many ways marked a radical departure from the past by putting Pakistan on notice and bringing India to the centre stage of Washington’s Afghanistan policy.
Modi’s outreach to US President Donald Trump seems to have paid off so far with the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy strongly endorsing India’s global credentials. Seeking to support “India’s emergence as a leading global power”, the NSS calls for increasing “quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India”. It is tough on Pakistan, calling on it to desist from engaging in “destabilising behaviour” in Afghanistan as well as to end its “support for militants and terrorists” targeting American interests in the region.
At the global level, India’s integration into the global order continued apace despite the setback at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This year saw India entering the Wassenaar Arrangement, which aims to regulate trade and use of dual use technology as its forty-second member. India’s Justice Dalveen Bhandari was re-elected to the International Court of Justice for a nine-year term, after Britain withdrew its candidate from the race. Britain withdrawing its candidate was a tribute to smart and aggressive diplomacy by India. With Indian diplomats and top political leadership getting involved in the process and using their diplomatic capital rather effectively, New Delhi signalled that it is now ready to play a larger global role and it is willing to step up to the plate should there be a need. This hunger was absent before, but the Modi government has made it clear that it will fight for what it believes India deserves.
What stood out in 2017 was an India that was standing up for its interests not only on the global platforms but also in its bilateral dealings with major powers, particularly China. India refused to participate in China's Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, maintaining opposition to China's investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. And in the Doklam standoff, New Delhi stood its ground. It was responsible in handling the crisis – refusing to be drawn into escalation by bellicose rhetoric and not losing its nerve. But the underlying forces shaping this relationship continue to make for a grim prognosis. India and China are two rising powers in the larger Asian strategic landscape which is being reshaped by American disengagement and the two are increasingly bumping into each other.
China’s presence is rapidly altering the South Asian strategic realities for India. Setbacks in the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka have alerted India to the possibility of New Delhi losing its geographic advantages in the region. India’s challenge will be to get back in the game with a renewed sense of purpose. Another challenge has come in the form of deepening Sino-Russian ties and growing concern in India about Moscow’s changing regional and global priorities. This has become even more complicated as Russia’s ties with the West have touched their nadir.
Great power politics is getting ever more contentious and this will have a significant bearing on India’s ability to shape the strategic environment to its own advantage. But as a ‘leading power’, New Delhi needs to persevere even if the tidings may not be favourable. The Modi government has done well to recognise this trend, but it will have to harness Indian capabilities to greater effect in the coming years.