Under Modi’s leadership, India’s foreign policy establishment has made a break from the past of ‘non-alignment’ and ‘anti-imperialism’.
The country has charted an independent and confident course that accorded primacy to the country’s interests.
The year 2017 will go down in the history of Asia, if not the world, as one in which India’s foreign policy and conduct came of age. India not only showed the world that it can stand up to China’s threats and bullying and make the dragon ultimately stand down, but has also forged strong ties at bilateral, trilateral and multilateral fora with countries at various levels.
Steered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s foreign policy establishment made a clean break from the past of ‘non-alignment’ and ‘anti-imperialism’ and charted an independent and confident course that accorded primacy to the country’s interests, especially its economic and strategic interests.
But it was the Doklam crisis – the 70-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at the Bhutan-Tibet border within Bhutanese territory that China had transgressed into – which marked the coming of age for India. Five and half decades after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of China, and remaining constantly in fear and awe of China ever since, India has finally mustered the spunk to stare the dragon in its red eyes and force it to back down.
China employed a multi-pronged strategy to beat India into submission – it issued threats every day through its spokespersons, reminded India of its humiliation in 1962 (under Nehru) and said history could repeat itself, amassed troops and military hardware at the border in order to overwhelm India militarily, and cited fake documents to lay claim to the disputed Doklam area.
However, India was not browbeaten by the Chinese, who had successfully employed this strategy against other countries, this time around. India stood up to China’s threats, bullying, psychological pressure and arm-twisting by employing a remarkable strategy. China’s strategy was the ‘san zhong zhanfa’ or ‘three warfares’ strategy (media, psychological and legal offensives that would allow China to win without firing a single bullet). India ignored China’s threats and rants, the psychological pressures it was attempting to mount on India, calling China’s bluff on international treaties and documents proving Doklam was its territory, and by matching China’s buildup of troops and military hardware in the disputed territory.
India also quietly reached out to the international community and convinced many countries, including the United States of America (US), the European Union, Japan, Australia, Canada, the African nations and many others, that China was the aggressor and was at fault. Many of these countries told Beijing that they would not support any military misadventure on China’s part. China thus stood isolated diplomatically on Doklam. Add to this the fact that India was prepared to wage a limited war on the border and Beijing, finding little international support and finding itself at a severe strategic disadvantage in Doklam, finally backed off. India also prolonged the standoff with an eye on the Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China scheduled for mid-October; a continuing border standoff with a smaller and defiant neighbour, or a limited armed conflict at the border, would have taken the sheen off President Xi Jinping, who wanted to strengthen his hold on the party and the country through the party congress.
The victory at Doklam brought India multiple benefits. It not only made its diplomatic and military establishment more self-confident; it also helped the country move beyond the defeat of 1962. And it also elevated India’s standing in the global community, especially in its immediate neighbourhood and among countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia (with which China is involved in the South China Sea territorial dispute), South Korea and Japan, which are at loggerheads with China over many issues. The Chinese withdrawal from the Doklam standoff also signalled to smaller countries in South Asia that India can stand up to China.
Another major diplomatic victory for India was its opposition to China’s sinister ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative. India was the only major country that absented itself from the OBOR conference in Beijing in May this year. India’s objection was over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through large swathes of Indian territory. India also has serious reservations over China’s financial involvement in OBOR (renamed the ‘Belt & Road Initiative’); many countries which have accepted Chinese investments in building infrastructure for OBOR have become precariously indebted to China, which has been leveraging their indebtedness to extract concessions in military and strategic matters in a very sinister manner.
Since then, a growing number of countries has started raising doubts over OBOR. Some Chinese-funded OBOR projects, even in Pakistan, have run foul with the host countries that are finding themselves sinking in debt. Chinese extractionist interest rates and conditions – which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson aptly terms “predatory economics” – has triggered resentment in many countries in Asia and Africa. The Chinese media, wholly controlled by the country’s ‘communist’ rulers, has started blaming India for running a negative campaign against OBOR. That, again, has enhanced India’s standing in the league of nations as a country that conscientiously treads the right path and can challenge a big power like China.
India, under Modi, has also succeeded in interacting with major powers, including the US, on equal terms. When most other countries, including America’s NATO allies, are having a tough time with the Trump administration, India enjoys cordial relations with it. The US now looks to India as a strategic partner and a country led by a strong leader which does not shy away from taking tough decisions and acting tough.
In 2017, Indian foreign policy also matured to the obvious need in today’s changed scenario to engage with countries not just bilaterally but also trilaterally and multilaterally, and keep bilateral ties independent of India’s objectives at trilateral and multilateral fora. This needs a lot of fine balancing, and South Block is slowly mastering this complex technique. One example of this is our relationship with Israel which, under Modi, has taken deep roots. But India not only continues to maintain very cordial ties with Iran, an arch enemy of Israel, we have also cemented our ties with Tehran. A confident India can today vote in the UN against the US for recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel while, at the same time, continuing to engage with the US at both the bilateral and multilateral levels like the Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). India has also initiated or deepened its commitment and role in groupings like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), and BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal), and positioned itself as a lead player in the Indian Ocean Region.
In 2017, India also succeeded in coming out of its earlier obsession with Pakistan. The new foreign policy doctrine treats Pakistan as a necessary evil – which it is – that needs to be dealt with accordingly instead of being obsessed over. While not letting its guard down against Pakistan’s nefarious strategy of using its terror outfits against India, New Delhi has relegated Islamabad to the sidelines in many fora and has got the Trump administration to act tough against Pakistan. Islamabad does not like being ignored and snubbed, and New Delhi ignoring its fulminations and empty threats has angered it to no end.
Thus, 2018 could see China – which will likely try to avenge the multiple slights inflicted on it by New Delhi – and Pakistan ganging up against India. India can expect the Chinese to create more trouble along the Sino-Indian border while Pakistan might try to ratchet up its support to terror groups targeting India. While India needs to step up its guard against these two countries, it is expected to continue to engage productively and forge stronger ties with other countries around the world. If Indian diplomacy came of age in 2017, the next year could see a self-confident India assured of its strengths, sitting at the high table as an equal to the major global powers.