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Published on: Dec. 27, 2021, 3:32 p.m.
Challenges and new grounds
  • Modi with Putin: strengthening relationship

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

Indian diplomacy is facing a serious challenge. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has put Pakistan in the driver’s seat in Kabul. The Indian mission in Afghanistan has withdrawn from a country in which New Delhi invested for two decades. A belligerent China has upped the game by breaching nearly three decades of diplomacy, refusing to accept the status quo ante on our northern borders. Its collusion with Pakistan and inroads into our neighbouring countries has sharply altered the geopolitics of the region. All this has raised a question mark over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “personalised” brand of foreign policy.

Take the case of Vaccine Maitri, or vaccine diplomacy, which was launched by Modi to help our smaller and underdeveloped countries in their fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. It was rolled out on 20 January, sending 1.5 lakh vaccine doses to Bhutan and 1 lakh doses to the Maldives within four days of initiation of India’s public immunisation drive.

About 6.64 crore doses were sent to 95 countries across the world from January to April, some free of cost, some were sold commercially. However, with India facing shortage of vaccines amid the second wave of the pandemic, exports were stopped. It left several countries, who were becoming dependent on Indian vaccines, in the lurch.

So while domestically, this defused anger and earned the government breathing room; externally, it provoked criticism, for many countries in the neighbourhood were left stranded. This breach of commitment forced Bangladesh and Nepal to halt their vaccination programme and explore other sources. It was only in June that some of these countries had been able to resume their vaccination programme.

With the WHO approval to Sinopharm in May, China replaced India in supplying vaccines to South Asia. It signed agreements with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for the supply of vaccines. Typically, the Chinese gesture came with a non-disclosure clause for prices and quantities but it helped Beijing diplomatically. India could resume the initiative only in October.

The developments in Myanmar, which shares a 1,700-km border with us, are testing India’s diplomatic skills. Early this year, the military junta staged a coup on the grounds of alleged election fraud, taking into custody the entire civilian government, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and triggering another round of violence and instability.

China, along with Russia, has provided diplomatic cover to the military junta, which has largely defied the international community. India has remained wary of directly criticising the military regime. Time and again, it has sought the military junta’s help to tackle the insurgents in the northeast. Like in Afghanistan, all it can do is to call for a “restoration of the democratic process and human rights”.

Setbacks and successes 

It is not that previous PMs did not suffer setbacks in the foreign relations. Nehru’s failures on China are well documented. Rajiv’s intervention in Sri Lanka led to a backlash and tragically his assassination. Vajpayee’s bus trip to Pakistan was followed by Kargil. To his critics, Modi’s apparent failures look all the more glaring because he has had the benefit of advice from two reasonably efficient foreign ministers, the political astute Sushma Swaraj and the cerebral Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

  • Piyush Goyal inaugurates India pavilion at Dubai Expo: stepping up cooperation

Yet it has not been all failure and no success. Pressure to reduce our dependence on Russian arms supplies has been growing. During 2011-20, India’s arms imports saw a 33 per cent drop, with sales from Russia hit the hardest. Moscow witnessed a 53 per cent fall in its arms exports to India even as the latter’s imports from France and the US saw an upswing. India has, however, managed to successfully navigate its defence relationship with Russia even as it ramps up its military ties with the US.

The acquisition of Russian S-400 surface-to-air Triumf missile defence systems, which New Delhi considers to be critical in countering China, could have been a major irritant in Indo-US ties, inviting sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions (CAATSA) Act. Once fully acquired, the Triumf system is expected to give India strategic deterrence against rivals China and Pakistan. Yet, India and Russia have operationalised the deal. It was the crowning glory of Russian president Vladmir Putin’s visit to India in December. 

Dawn of Biden era

The Biden era may be lacking the back-slapping bonhomie of the Trump era but it is turning out to be more accommodative. Ties are now on a more stable keel. The inauguration of new Presidency of the US has signalled a change in America’s foreign policy. The new administration aims at positioning the US on the international stage as a peace maker and democratic nation builder. While this means promoting democracy and human rights in the authoritarian parts of the world, it also meant exploring peaceful solutions to international conflicts. 

There have been no major run-ins between India and the US on human rights, as was predicted in a Democratic dispensation. A sign of the times is the statement of the new US ambassadorial nominee to India, Eric Michael Garcetti, has said that he will raise human rights issues “respectfully” when he takes up his new job. That is comforting to the Modi regime. Trade talks have begun in a more meaningful way with both sides exploring each other’s needs and compulsions. India also couldn’t have ramped up the production of Covid-19 vaccines without the US opening up supply chains for ingredients.

Modi’s success has been in making successful inroads into west Asia.  India’s establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel nearly three decades ago broke the ideological shackles that severely limited Delhi’s post-independence foreign policy in the vital but politically charged region. While Modi has nurtured this relationship, he has surprisingly also found a friend in the United Arab Emirates. India is simultaneously pursuing free trade agreements with the UAE and the larger Gulf Cooperation Council. The upshot of these developments for India is that the oil producing countries in the Gulf are no longer pro-Pakistan as they were in the past.

  • The difference between a major power and a smaller player is that the former is able to shape the environment within which it operates

    Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary

Not just that. There is a renewed engagement with the region in terms of investment and trade. Modi is now expected to open his 2022 foreign visit calendar by trip to trusted allies United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in January. That all this could happen under a BJP-led government in New Delhi was unthinkable in the past. Modi deserves credit for that.

West Asian concord

There is now talk of a new grouping of India, Israel, the United States and the UAE holding their first in-person meeting of foreign ministers to take forward an agenda focused on economic cooperation and infrastructure projects. The foreign ministers of the group, described in some quarters as a West Asian Quad, are soon expected to hold their meeting on the margins of Expo in Dubai. The four countries have begun working on specific projects that could be taken up at the meet.

The four countries have insisted that the new grouping, which does not yet have a formal name, does not have a military element and is not directed against any country. Israeli ambassador Naor Gilon recently said there is no military angle to the ongoing cooperation and the four nations were pursuing a constructive agenda focused on the economy, especially infrastructure projects.

India has backed the Abraham Accords, through which Israel normalised relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. India, Israel and the UAE have also stepped up trilateral cooperation, especially in trade and investment, since the US brokered the accords. There is bound to be intelligence-sharing and closer coordination on the security front as economic cooperation and security are closely linked, especially in a region like West Asia. The area will include money laundering and criminal activities.

Another important development has been the operationalisation of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) which is an informal strategic forum comprising four nations, namely, US, Australia, India and Japan.  One of the primary objectives of the Quad is, to work for a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. The group is maintained through meetings, semi-regular summits, information exchanges, and military drills of all the member countries.

Countering China

Though Shinzo Abe, former Japan PM, was the first to float the idea for the formation of Quad in 2007 and its origin can be traced back to the evolution of Exercise Malabar and the 2004 Tsunami, when India conducted relief and rescue operations for itself and neighbouring countries, and was later joined by the US, Japan and Australia, Modi has, of late, backed the idea enthusiastically as it counters China’s economic and military rise.

As a member of the Quad, in the event of rise in the Chinese hostilities on its borders, India can take the support of the other Quad nations to counter it. In addition, India can even take the help of its naval front and conduct strategic explorations in the Indo-Pacific region. In November 2017, the four countries gave shape to the long-pending proposal to develop a new strategy to keep the critical sea routes in the resource-rich Indo-Pacific, free of any influence, amidst China’s growing military presence in the strategic region.

  • None

    Better diplomacy and stronger guardrails can prevent war (with China)

    Shiv Shankar Menon, ex-National Security Advisor

The US President Joe Biden is also serious about the idea. In March, he hosted the first-ever summit of the Quad leaders in a virtual format. In September, Biden hosted the first-ever in-person summit of the Quad leaders. The summit vowed to strive for an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, inclusive, and unconstrained by coercion.

Naturally, China’s aggressiveness and coercive nature in the strategic Indo-Pacific region is said to be a frequent topic of discussion among the Quad nations. The September summit, attended by Modi and his counterparts, Scott Morrison from Australia and Yoshihide Suga from Japan, announced a slew of new initiatives to take on common challenges, amidst muscle flexing by an assertive China in the strategic region.

Although Quad officially does not exist simply to counter China or its influence, the aggressiveness, the coercive nature with which China tries to press its claims, is certainly a frequent topic of discussion with all the allies and partners of India, and inside the Quad. The Quad arrangement gives India an opportunity to work multilaterally on all kinds of initiatives that can help create, a free and open Indo Pacific region. Jaishankar believes that the Quad is "very much for real" and has moved "very effectively and well" in the past year and not just an aspirational grouping. Whether on vaccines, student's mobility, looking at start-ups – it has taken a very sensible view of problems of the landscape and how do we find a practical solution.

Of course, there are questions on the Quad countries' interdependence with China, with regard to trade. To this, he said, "Decoupling is a fashionable word. Anyone with serious business experience would challenge it. Decoupling is much easier said than done. What you are going to see is hedging and de-risking multiple supply chains, shorter supply chains, and more transparent options."

Economic diplomacy

Another area is the ramping up of economic diplomacy. Following the impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Modi government mandated economic diplomacy as a major part of the activities of Indian missions abroad. By the end of this year, 300 lines of credit with a total value of more than $30 billion had been extended to about 70 countries. This has burnished India’s image and opened up new opportunities for domestic businesses.

  • By the end of this year, 300 lines of credit with a total value of more than $30 billion had been extended to about 70 countries

The 300-odd lines of credit were extended for some 600 projects in 70 countries, and they helped promote projects and Indian products. At the same time, India has provided 80 grants worth around $5 billion to some 12 countries. The idea is to use these LOCs and grants as platforms for Indian companies to promote their products and abilities. Such partnerships are meant to create jobs and enhance the strength of the country.

Another noteworthy initiative is the push to its ties with the five central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which have massive natural resources to fuel India’s next phase of industrialisation. The presidents of these nations will be chief guests at next month’s Republic Day celebrations. The central Asian republics have been tracking closer to the Indian position on Afghanistan, opposing foreign interference and use of Afghan soil for terror activities.

The government admits that the biggest challenge it faces is in dealing with China. Jaishankar says the standoff on the Line of Actual Control is “largely because they are not following agreements” and acting like a party that has “violated a contract”. Diplomatic observers on the other hand believe that to deal with the problem, India will have to tackle a fundamental dilemma. India is getting dependent on trade with China for its economic objectives, as trade data during the pandemic and post-pandemic period shows. But Beijing appears determined to consolidate its position in the Himalayas as well as the Indian Ocean. How India resolves this contradiction and builds a security posture that accounts for this will indeed define the relationship

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