India renews influence in its neighbourhood
A strategic expert analyses what India’s foreign policy highlights were in 2018 and where things are headed in 2019.
Although the year 2018 was not marked by any major foreign policy developments – unlike previous signature events including India’s sponsorship of the UN’s International Yoga Day (2015), the surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir (2016) and the first Indian prime ministerial visit to Israel (2017) – India’s ability to effectively navigate through the uncertainties and disruptions of the year were notable.
Ironically, the significant achievement for India’s security leadership in 2018 was the ability to retain and renew India’s influence in key parts of its immediate neighbourhood, despite a difficult regional security environment and stiff challenges emanating from the expansion of Chinese influence. I deliberately use the term ironic, as for most of the year it appeared that the opposite was true and that India was fast losing out in terms of influence vis-à-vis China first in the Maldives, then Nepal and Sri Lanka, and finally in Bangladesh.
Yet, India’s cautious approach and the leverage of long-standing diplomatic and high-level political contacts with these countries, alongside outreach to key members of the international community, paid off. This finally ensured that free and fair elections were held in the Maldives and the first foreign visit of new president Ibrahim Solih took place to India; that Sri Lanka’s ‘ousted’ prime minister Ranil Wickremsinghe returned to power despite the opposition of president Sirisena; Bangladesh’s elections took place as scheduled and prime minister Sheikh Hasina was re-elected as prime minister for the third time; and the first foreign visit of Bhutan’s new prime minister Lotay Tshering was to India. In effect, India’s security leadership managed to take a ‘strategic’ view of neighbourhood developments with a ‘cool head and warm heart’. But, what if the reverse were true and India’s security leadership was guided instead by a ‘hot head and cold heart’ and driven only by short-term ‘tactical’ considerations? Would the outcomes have been the same?
The most significant challenge to India’s security continued to originate from China. Despite the Wuhan informal summit in April 2018 between India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping, India remains concerned over Chinese assertiveness on its land borders and expansion of its influence in the Indian Ocean (the previous year was marked by the Sino-Indian military stand-off at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction on the Doklam plateau). This is marked by India’s continued strong objections to China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) as well as its flagship China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). New Delhi perceives the BRI/CPEC as a strategic, not simply an economic, initiative.
Indeed, the year was also marked by closer China-Pakistan ties, as publicly stated by Pakistan’s new prime minister Imran Khan. Arguably, with hindsight, it may turn out that India was unnecessarily critical in public of Khan being close to the Pakistan army. Following the brutal killing of Indian security personnel and the cancellation of the India-Pakistan foreign ministers meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2018, India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement that said: “The evil agenda of Pakistan stands exposed and the true face of the new prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has been revealed to the world.” This led to a personal Twitter outburst by Khan against Modi and, arguably, served to further deepen Khan’s relations with the army. As a result, even the inaugural ground-breaking ceremony for the Kartarpur corridor was marked by controversy over India’s concern of Pakistan’s support to Sikh extremists around the world. However, with Khan widely expected to be prime minister for his full five-year term, any future improvement in India-Pakistan relations would require Khan’s full support.
There was also a great degree of uncertainty in India’s relations with the US and its mercurial President Donald Trump. During the year, India signed the much-delayed Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the US and held the much postponed ‘2+2’ meeting of both foreign and defence ministers. And, in November, India was granted a six-month waiver from the re-imposition of US sanctions against Iran; its commercial operations in part of Iran’s Chahbahar port also remained unaffected as it served as a transportation corridor for land-locked Afghanistan. However, unless India is granted an extension of the waiver, it would be forced to reduce oil imports from Iran as payments would become difficult. And, there was pressure on India from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which it defied to order the S-400 air defence missiles from Russia.
India was also unhappy over the unilateralist approach of the Trump administration to multilateral trade and security issues. The latter was most visible with president Trump’s sudden intention to halve the number of US troops in Afghanistan at a time when the US was talking directly to the Taliban. This change in US policy in Afghanistan raised considerable concern in New Delhi over Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban in negotiations with the US and its implications for India’s security if/when a reconciliation process with the Afghanistan government was completed. The prospect of any form of Taliban representation in an Afghan government remains unacceptable to India, which continued to stress on a peace process that was ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled’ and took place with the participation of the Afghan government. This was exacerbated by Trump’s mocking of India’s ‘soft power’ approach to Afghanistan during his New Year press meet, resulting in India’s public refusal to send Indian troops to Afghanistan.
Despite Modi’s visit to the UK in April for the Commonwealth Summit and bilateral talks, where he rhetorically stated that post-Brexit bilateral relations would improve, the reality appears quite different. As I have written in a previous column in this series, the uncertainties of Brexit have resulted in the loss of momentum in bilateral relations, with irritants magnified at the cost of prospective cooperation.
For the first six months of the New Year, foreign policy will take a back seat to the more pressing requirements of India’s General Elections. It is now unlikely that Modi will travel abroad till the elections, even as the visits of foreign dignitaries will reduce. lt is also highly unlikely that foreign/defence policy will become an electoral issue in Indian politics, with the single exception of the ongoing raging controversy over the Rafale combat aircraft deal that continues to occupy front page news in India and has generated more heat than light. The single major exception could be in relation to terrorism, and thereby Pakistan, in the event there is another deliberately timed Pakistan-based terror attack against India. Perhaps, the box office success or failure of a major Bollywood movie ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ will be indicative of the evolving national mood.
Once the next central government is formed by the end of May 2019, it will take at least four to six weeks for its new foreign minister and the national security leadership to begin to formulate their priorities and objectives for the next five years, amidst a constant inward stream of foreign ministers and others. In the interim, the central government will continue with the policies of the previous government. In this respect, it will be crucial to see where the first few bilateral foreign visits of the next prime minister will be; although we should, once again, expect this to take place within India’s immediate neighbourhood.
In effect, the key foreign and security policy priorities of the next Indian government will be the following:
- To stabilise India’s influence in its immediate and extended neighbourhood to counter Chinese expansion, with special continued focus and engagement in the Indian Ocean. This will require India to prioritise its policy directives within the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, which formally entered India’s official lexicon in June 2018 with Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at the IISS Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore.
- To confidently navigate the complexities of the Trump White House and leverage its influence with Congress.
- To seek to stabilise relations with Pakistan without compromising on countering terrorism and seeking the ‘democratisation’ of Afghanistan’s polity.
- And, finally, to resume the momentum in relations with the UK post-Brexit through convergence on international affairs, including cyber and maritime security as well as cooperation on defence technology and production.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is Senior Fellow for South Asia at the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).