HTLS 2019: Foreign policy opportunities India must seize in 2020
The improved majority which the BJP won in the 2019 elections gives the Modi government not only enhanced domestic influence but also international stature.Updated: Nov 27, 2019, 23:07 IST
Domestic politics dominated 2019 and often prevailed over foreign policy calculations. Political energies remained focused on the general elections in May and its aftermath. Pakistan became centre stage, particularly after the Pulwama terrorist outrage in February, which was followed soon after by Indian airstrikes on Balakot in Pakistan. Right up to the general elections, a high decibel campaign was sustained against Pakistan and its use of cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy. This may have played a role in the resounding victory won by Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Despite protestations to the contrary, India-Pakistan hyphenation in international perceptions has re-emerged. It has been reinforced by the August 5 decision to nullify Article 370 of the Constitution and split the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories of J&K and Ladakh. Pakistan has predictably reacted with sharp hostility and moved to degrade the already thin political, transport and trade links between the two countries. Amidst this fog of hostility, the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor to Guru Nanak’s birthplace on the Pakistani side on November 12 provided a rare sliver of hope that this could open the way to engagement with Pakistan. This may depend upon what happens in the Kashmir Valley over the next several months. There is the related foreign policy challenge in managing the international fallout from the events in Kashmir. The longer it takes for the situation in the Valley to return to normalcy, diplomatic energies will have to deal with negative perceptions in countries across the world.
The improved majority which the BJP won in the 2019 elections gives the Modi government not only enhanced domestic influence but also international stature. This was apparent in the appearance of United States President Donald Trump alongside PM Modi at the Howdy Modi diaspora extravaganza at Houston Texas in September, followed by the second informal India-China summit held in Mamallapuram in October. That the leader of the most powerful nation and the leader of the second most powerful nation perceive an advantage in engaging with the Indian leader demonstrates that the country is perceived as an influential actor in regional and global affairs. This will be a key asset going into the new year. Its efficacy may be diminished by how things develop in two areas. One, whether India will remain distracted by Pakistan; and whether Kashmir will settle into a relatively stable situation. Two, whether the India economy will continue to decelerate and the long-term trend towards its greater globalisation and openness begins to stall. In that context the decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has dented India’s image. It will be difficult to sustain an expanded external political and security engagement with a shrinking economic engagement. This is likely to be the most significant challenge since it will also affect other aspects of India’s foreign policy.
The “neighbourhood first” policy will continue to be a guiding principle. During the year, relations with Pakistan worsened and may remain problematic in the new year. With Nepal and Bhutan relations remained positive, but the rise in Chinese political and economic influence will be a continuing concern. The change in government in the Maldives brought a sense of relief as China’s dominating presence was rolled back. In Sri Lanka, the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president and the appointment of his brother, a former president, as the new prime minister create renewed anxieties about a resurgence of Chinese influence, but the government has moved quickly to engage with the new leadership.
Chinese challenge in our sub continental neighbourhood will increase given China’s ability to deploy resources on a scale beyond India’s capacity. There must be other assets which will need to be leveraged to stay in the game. One should consider whether it is more important to open new missions in Africa or spend more resources in managing the neighbourhood.
China will remain the most significant foreign policy challenge for India. Managing this will become more difficult if the Indian economy settles into a lower growth trajectory and if India’s economic engagement with its partners, particularly in South-East and East Asia, diminishes. In such a situation, external balancing will gain salience over the bilateral India-China equation. The new year may see India becoming more amenable to upgrading the Quad, a grouping of India, the US, Japan and Australia to countervail Chinese power. Trump’s unpredictability will remain a constant preoccupation.
The bottom line? Get the economy back on high growth track, reverse the trend towards economic insularity, play to India’s strengths as a vibrant democracy and remain focused on the sub continental neighbourhood.