by Nirendra Dev

New Delhi: In terms of steering country's foreign policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declined to be another fading leader of another developing nation or a non-emerging economy.

His stint since mid 2014, therefore, saw a rejuvenated PMO - pulling the foreign policy engine room - with a series of new and innovative measures. The circa 2018 was also crucial in such endeavours and some efforts probably fetched in dividends. 

India's foreign policy initiatives in the year bygone was kicked off with mega outreach to ten ASEAN members when New Delhi hosted the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit coinciding with the Republic Day.

Adding to the symbolic importance, a commemorative postage stamp was released. The Delhi Declaration sought to encourage the early completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and extend this Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam.

The mega extravaganza also sought to explore the possibility of cooperation in alliance building and partnership between ASEAN and India in integration of ASEAN community and implementation of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.

During the year, as one interacted with a senior MEA official and also an old trying to know whether India’s growing proximity with Russia and the United States could easily drag Pakistan into the ‘lap’ of China, there was a rather point blank admission - “Pakistan toh China ki god mein baitha hua hae (Pakistan is already sitting on the lap of China)".

In this context, the source, however, maintained without ambiguity that - “Irrespective of whatever the impact on Pakistan, we have to develop relations with all the major players”. 

The source had insisted that the Modi government’s policy is to “be close to all countries” and going beyond the spirit of Non Aligned Movement (NAM).

'Someone asked whether the current government’s policy is neo-Non Alignment.....My answer is very simple. I said it’s not Non Alignment as Non Alignment means equi distance from all....But the current government (headed by PM Modi) decision is to stay closer to all countries,” the official had said.

But, he also said the Modi-led dispensation has been firm about “taking independent decision on India's national interest”.

This could be measured from Indian government's association with France vis-a-vis Rafale aircraft deal. This can be perhaps also spoken about India's defence ties with Russia despite US objections.

India's growing role in Indo-Pacific in association with Japan and the US ostensibly to counter Chinese hegemony got a bolster this year. 

In the regional spectre, a major push during 2018 was, however, Prime Minister Modi's maiden Informal Summit with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in April and with the Russian President Vladimir Putin at Russia's summer beach Sochi in May. 

There was no ambiguity on the part of the Ministry of External Affairs to underline clearly that the statement New Delhi desired to make through such Summits is that India has 'strong relationship' with all major partners.

On December 21, Chinese counterpart Wang Yi maintained that Sino-India relations have "entered new historical stage". For her part, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said ten areas identified for enhanced people-to-people relations will be cultural exchanges, cooperation in film and television, ties in maintaining museums, sports, youth exchanges, tourism, state and city level cooperation, ties in traditional medicines, and cooperation in industry and telecom.

Of course, there was need for a tightrope walking and understandably so. But it was also dealt with in a spirit of maturity. The Modi-Putin Informal Summit on May 21, 2018 came at a time when the US slapped sanctions against Russia for the latter's alleged meddling in Ukraine, Syria and the 2016 Presidential elections.

There were raised eyebrows about India's defence deals with Russia and also about Russia-Pakistan ties. Top MEA officials had always summed up things rather lucidly, : - First, India will not allow its own defence requirements to be dictated by any other country and that an assurance has been ascertained from Moscow that it will not undertake any activity which can affect India's national security.

Moving on September 6, New Delhi hosted the much-awaited '2 Plus 2 Dialogue' between India and the US.

Ms Swaraj at the end of the meet said: President Trump's call for Pakistan to stop its policy of supporting cross-border terrorism "finds resonance with us". The meet was attended by Ms Swaraj, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Defence Secretary James Mattis.

Ms Sitharaman later said: "The defence cooperation has emerged as the most significant dimension of the strategic partnership between two sides".

Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the inaugural '2 Plus 2 Indo US Dialogue' as "very productive". Secretary of State Michael Pompeo echoed similar sentiment and said both India and the US had "shared interest in promoting peace and prosperity across the Indo Pacific region".

Mr Pompeo also had assured that it is ready to work with India on Iranian oil import issue.

This was well reflected later in the year when in November, in a major relief to India and some of the close allies of the United States, the Trump administration exempted these countries from oil sanctions on Iran. The eight countries listed for temporary waivers are India, China, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey.

Sources said India could continue to buy about 1.25 million tonnes of oil a month until the end of the financial year 2018-19.

Other highlights of India's foreign policy journey in 2018 was dominated by its well-known and oft-repeated love-hate rhetoric with Pakistan.

On September 21, India cancelled Ms Swaraj's meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in New York. 

"........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 in his first few months in office," MEA spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in a strongly-worded statement.

The skirmishes in Indo-Pak relations again came to light when Punjab Minister Navjot Siddhu visited Islamabad to attend Imran Khan's swearing in on August 18 and 'embraced' Pak army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The same row again surfaced when both sides pledged to build up infrastructures at the Kartarpursaheb Gurudwara.

Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh declined invitation from Pakistan to visit Kartarpur but his Ministerial colleague Navjot Singh Siddhu did go and hailed 'Khan sahab' drawing flak at home.

"This is a socio-political and religious issue. We do not see it as any diplomatic breakthrough. External Affairs Minister is not going to Kartarpur for the groundbreaking ceremony on November 28," a BJP source told UNI here summing up various complexities on the issue.

In a statement with far-reaching impact, PM Modi has said, "Kisne socha that ki Berlin ki deewar gir sakti hai .....(Who thought Berlin Wall could have been brought down. Maybe, with the blessings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Kartarpur corridor will not only be a corridor but can become a reason behind a greater bonding of people).'

India also ruled out Prime Minister Modi attending SAARC Summit next year. After India stayed away from SAARC meet in 2016 following Uri terror attack, the Summit has not taken yet. 

Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan had also stayed away from SAARC Summit in 2016.

Instead of SAARC, India is pushing for greater role for the BIMSTEC, a regional grouping comprising Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal. 

By year end, there were a series of related issues. Capt Amarinder tweeted and said ISI had a 'game plan' about Kartarpur.

MEA spokesman Raveesh Kumar snubbed Pakistan PM saying while his country is in "mess", he would do well to focus on domestic issues.

However, Imran Khan remained defiant and at one time sought to lecture Indian PM on how 'minorities' should be treated. But, this time, his comments earned him strong rebuttal from Allahabad-based cricketer Mohammad Kafi, himself a Muslim.