Friday, January 10, 2014

2014: A Challenging Year for Indian Foreign Policy

Kanwal Sibal,
Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, VIF

Our major foreign policy challenges are enduring and no dramatic change in our security environment is likely in 2014. Relations with Pakistan could actually worsen. Nawaz Sharif is focusing on Kashmir, knowing that it is a dead-end issue. His strong links with Punjab-based jihadi groups, the continuing grip of the Pakistani military on policies towards India, his adviser Sartaz Aziz’s new environmentalist twist that India vacate Siachen to cease polluting Pakistan’s waters, Pakistan’s prevarication on DGMO talks to end LOC firings, relegating the MFN issue to the back-drawer, are all negative portents.

Afghan Problem

Developments in Afghanistan can potentially worsen our security environment as the prospects of stability there are uncertain. US/UK efforts to accommodate the Taliban with Pakistan’s cooperation facilitates the latter’s re-entry into Afghanistan even though it is the most de-stabilisation factor there. This will strain our strategic partnership with Afghanistan, requiring us to re-write our plans for investment there and we will not obtain access to Central Asian oil and gas resources. Our security threat from extremist ideologies backed by Pakistani hostility will increase.

Hobbled China Policy

China is becoming more self-assertive with its growing economic and military power. Its conduct in the western Pacific signals that its seemingly softer posture towards us currently can turn harder if it suits its strategy. Its position on border differences remains intrinsically hard and border negotiations from progressing on equitable terms will be prevented. It seeks a stabilisation of the status quo which gives it freedom to nibble away at our territory in sensitive areas. Our military and infrastructure expansion plans are medium term and will not materially change equations in 2014. Our China policies are handicapped by excessive prudence, now influenced also by domestic economic lobbies.

Rifts in India-Us Ties

Improved India-US ties was an external gain in recent years but the difficulties in managing an unequal relationship and differences on key multilateral issues have exposed the limitations of forging real strategic ties. The prevailing view is that relations have already reached a plateau. US corporates, once the strongest proponents of stronger India-US ties, have become powerful critics of our trade, investment and tax policies. Our nuclear liability law has become a sore point, with the expanded defence relationship not satisfying those who expect greater returns from India for the nuclear deal. India is skeptical of the US re-balancing towards Asia and does not want to be caught in the uncertain outcomes of US-China rivalry in the background of huge mutual interdependence. These fault-lines will continue to test the resilience of India-US ties in 2014. Added to this is the current diplomatic wrangle over the deplorable treatment of a senior Indian diplomat in New York, which is symptomatic of the moral fraud and arrogance that permeates US handling of international affairs whose victims can be friendly countries like India too. The tide of antipathy towards the US in India’s diplomatic cadre is so strong currently that its after-effects will be palpably felt in our dealings with the US in 2014.

Uncertainties

Our relations with Russia, too dependent on defence acquisitions while being stagnant economically, remain lop-sided. India’s commitment a strategic partnership with Russia remains strong but nourishing it is becoming difficult because even on nuclear cooperation issues our nuclear liability law is an obstacle. No new breakthroughs with Russia are visible for 2014. The European Union is a vital partner commercially, but the finalisation of the FTA with it in 2014 is uncertain. With individual European countries like France, UK and Germany, ties are stable and will remain so. The limited nuclear breakthrough between the US and Iran could, if it got consolidated in 2014, remove a major obstacle in the way of a normal India-Iran relationship, but the outlook is not certain.

Neighbourhood Issues

Our neighbourhood will remain problematic. Nepal is unable to settle down politically, giving the Chinese room for manoeuvre at our cost. The cracks in Bangladesh’s polity are becoming unbridgeable. Our inability to boost Sheikh Hasina politically with the Teesta Accord and the Land Boundary Agreement has been short-sighted. A pro-India political leader of a major Muslim country combating Islamism within is an exceptional phenomenon that we have failed to capitalise on, which we may rue if things go wrong for us in 2014 in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka has artfully pursued a policy of engaging us enough to blunt strong Indian reactions to the strategic openings it is providing China. Delhi is caught between domestic and external pulls on its Sri Lanka policy, to the detriment of our national interest. We have lost ground in the Maldives. 2014 does not offer hopes of improvement in our regional position.


If the opposition comes to power in 2014, the country’s mood may change, but how much improved sentiment will bring better external results is doubtful. Our adversaries are strong, our challenges are complex and our friends cannot be depended on beyond a point. We have to rely on ourselves, which is the logic of our strategic autonomy. For self-reliance and more effective external projection, we need better, more decisive governance, which our fractured polity does not guarantee us in 2014.

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