Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen here with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others at the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, Fujian province

While countries were hectored by US on various fronts, India largely escaped through careful engagement

by Kanwal Sibal

NEW DELHI: India met the challenges to its diplomacy in 2018 with pragmatism, suppleness and adroitness. It handled India-US relations under a mercurial President Donald Trump skilfully, preserving the positive orientation of ties amidst pressures that could have impeded their upward trajectory. While America’s allies and friends, as well as adversaries, continued to be hectored by the United States in 2018 on political, economic and security fronts, India largely escaped it through careful engagement. On the security front, India-US ties gained more depth conceptually as well as in substance. The 2+2 dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministers of the two countries upgraded the level of bilateral engagement, the COMCASA was signed as another step to consolidate defence ties, further underpinned with additional arms deals, stepped up military exercises and so on.

India’s centrality in the area of maritime security in the Indo-Pacific concept gained durability with the US renaming its US Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. While allowing the Indo-Pacific concept to develop as required in response to China’s maritime challenge, India made a move to ease Chinese concerns about its China-centric thrust and in the ASEAN about its centrality in constructing a security architecture in Asia with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, recognising ASEAN centrality, clarifying that the concept was not strategic in nature and was inclusive.

That US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis too referred to the concept being “inclusive” during Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s US visit should address concerns in some quarters that Modi’s formulation had diluted the concept in response to Chinese concerns. The US also adopted the same language as that of India on the many negative aspects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in itself and for participating countries. On oil sanctions on Iran under America’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India secured an exemption from its provision requiring India and all others to cut their oil purchases from Iran to zero by 4 November, even if the exemption is for six months only. The Chabahar project, which will provide a vital alternative link to Afghanistan, has been exempted too.

In the absence of these exemptions, our relationship with Iran would have received a very damaging long-term blow and a backlash against America interfering in India’s third-country ties and energy security would have materially set back the ongoing trust-building exercise in bilateral ties. India came under pressure on trade issues owing to Trump’s fixation on America’s trade deficit, but differences over these issues which rankle the Americans were not allowed to derail the mature handling of bilateral ties, though we have been dragged to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism on agricultural and export subsidies. The US, unfortunately, does not take the same strategic view of economic ties with India as it does on the security front.

India consolidated its ties further with Japan in 2018, including in the defence area, with discussions on an eventual logistics agreement, a 2+2 dialogue at the level of the Foreign and Defence Ministers, the expansion of military exercises to include the Army and Air Force also, as well as some specific projects of cooperation in defence production. Adding the defence dimension to the economic one in India-Japan ties should elevate their longer-term strategic trajectory. The trilateral Japan-America-India dialogue at summit level at Buenos Aires on the margins of the G-20 was a powerful geopolitical signal at the international level. While this dissuasive signal to China was needed, it was balanced by a trilateral Russia-India-China summit which communicated India’s intention to have a balanced relationship with all power centres and mark the point that its diplomatic lines were open to them even when these powers saw each other as adversaries, such as the US on one side and Russia and China on the other.

India’s decision to finalise the purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia despite the risk of sanctions under CAATSA, followed by finalising the acquisition of four frigates, announced a determination to maintain its strategic autonomy. That during Defence Minister Sitharaman’s visit to Washington in December, US Defence Secretary Mattis should affirm that he saw no contradiction between “strategic autonomy” and “strategic partnership” would suggest that US misgivings about India’s unwillingness to give up its freedom of choice are being adequately handled.

India continued to closely engage with Russia in 2018, with a Modi-Putin informal summit at Sochi in addition to the annual summit. Russia’s approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan is no longer in tune with ours. Its military engagement with Pakistan and political engagement with the Taliban, in addition to its concerns about the strengthening of India-US strategic ties and reservations about the Indo-Pacific concept and support of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, have required a more intensive dialogue at the Modi-Putin level to keep policy differences as narrow as possible, and this seems to have been achieved. With India obtaining full membership of SCO, Modi attended the SCO summit in China in 2018. Despite the underlying tensions in the relationship and China’s strategically hostile policies towards India as expressed in its continued opposition to India’s NSG membership, giving cover to Pakistan on terrorism in the UN Security Council and undermining our interests in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal, India kept the lines of communication open with China at the highest level in order to circumscribe the disagreements, especially on the border, and maintain a positive engagement on some mutually beneficial fronts. The informal Modi-Xi Jinping summit at Wuhan was based on this logic and has helped to improve the atmosphere of the relationship in the wake of the Doklam stand-off.

India’s Act East policy advanced in 2018, with all the 10 leaders of ASEAN present as chief guests at the Republic Day celebrations in 2018, stepped up engagement with Myanmar, Vietnam and Singapore and, in particular, Indonesia, where Modi’s visit in 2018 produced important strategic understandings on maritime issues and defence cooperation. India tried to enlarge BIMSTEC’s strategic ambit by organising the first BIMSTEC exercise in India, in which Nepal finally decided not to participate in what was a snub to India. India’s Look West policy got further consolidated in 2018, with stronger understandings on UAE investments in infrastructure and contribution to setting up a strategic oil reserve in India, besides increased counter-terrorism cooperation. With Oman, defence-related cooperation took a leap forward with an agreement on Indian Navy obtaining access to Omani ports. India maintained close contacts with the Saudi leadership, given our energy and manpower interests there, while avoiding getting caught in the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry. India showed its ability to be friends with countries at loggerheads with each other by consolidating its ties with Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to India in 2018, and also with Modi visiting Palestine on an independent visit. India’s outreach to Africa continued and new ground was broken with Modi’s visit to Rwanda (and Uganda) en route to the BRICS summit in South Africa.

India strengthened its ties with Europe, the other power centre in the world. The French President visited India in March 2018 to launch the International Solar Alliance, a project inspired by Modi as part of India taking leadership in climate change negotiations rather than being seen as obstructive. The domestic controversy over the Rafale contract that had implications for our ties with France was not handled well by the government. India continued to pay attention to Germany, with Modi visiting the country in 2018. With Italy, relations moved forward with the visit of the Italian Prime Minister to India. Modi held the India-Nordic Countries summit, which was remarkable in terms of the new equation between India and these countries collectively that was signalled. The EU unveiled its new strategy for India in November that covers foreign policy, defence and security cooperation, promoting multilateralism and building on common values, signifying the growing importance of India for Europe.

India stood firm on its position on refusing a dialogue until Pakistan ceased sponsorship of terrorism, though Pakistan continued to manoeuvre to make itself look good and India rigid by the newly elected Imran Khan proposing a dialogue with India without disavowing terrorism. A ceasefire was agreed to in order to bring down casualties on the border, but without ending the ceasefire violations. Imran Khan’s tactical peace overtures were rightly rejected, though the initial acceptance of a meeting at Foreign Minister’s level at New York and immediately cancelling it looked ham-handed. The decision to break ground on our side for the Kartarpur corridor on 26 November, the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai attacks, was ill-timed as it drew attention away from Pakistan’s monstrous act in 2008, even if is the case that India’s hands were forced by Pakistan’s manoeuvres on this sensitive issue for Sikh religious sentiment by suddenly fixing the foundation laying ceremony on the Pakistani side on 28 November.

Allowing the former Norwegian Prime Minister to visit Kashmir and meet the Hurriyat on a mediation mission was contrary to long-standing policy and how and why it was permitted remains unexplained. With Nepal, despite mutual engagement and exchange of visits, Prime Minister K.P. Oli continued to play the Chinese card against us. For most of the year, President Yameen of Maldives cocked a snook at India and exposed our lack of good options in dealing with a small country backed by China. India’s decision to let things run their course and not intervene paid off eventually with the ouster of Yameen and the election of a pro-India government.

In Sri Lanka, a reversal of fortunes for India seemed to have occurred with the appointment of the pro-China Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister by President Maithripala Sirisena, who, in the course of a political stand-off with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, adopted an unfriendly posture towards India, landing the country into a serious Constitutional crisis and creating a headache for us. The election of a new government in Bhutan created a little uncertainty about the management of India-Bhutan relations under China’s shadow, but the newly elected Prime Minister’s recent visit should calm things down. India continued to consolidate its ties with Bangladesh. In Afghanistan, India faced an uncertain situation with Taliban’s successes on the ground, the legitimisation of Taliban as a political force by both the US and Russia, forcing India to send two retired diplomats to attend a conference on Afghanistan in Moscow in which the Taliban were participants around the table. India’s management of its periphery remained difficult in 2018 despite significant effort by Modi personally.

All in all, India’s stature in the world rose in 2018 because of the dynamism of its foreign policy under Narendra Modi. In a changing international environment, all countries are facing new and difficult challenges. How to navigate through them is the real test of a country’s foreign policy. All the big powers—US, China, Russia, Europe—are beset with problematic issues and are seen as failing to address them properly. With this as a yardstick, India certainly has done well.

Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary