India’s Foreign Policy Challenges

Sub Title : India’s foreign policy has largely been successful in giving the country a respectable image the world over. However, some recent events within and outside India have created the need for us to relook at some of our initiatives and more importantly astutely balance our relations with other countries in wake of the challenges that the changing world order is throwing at us

Issues Details : Vol 14 issue1 Mar-Apr 2020

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 32

Category : Geostrategy

: April 1, 2020

Over the past few years, one of the major successes has been India’s foreign policy initiatives which have decisively formalized alliances, developed strong relationships and kept threats at bay. It was a robust policy based on national interest that helped develop India’s image as a stable and responsible power. Yet a series of internal decisions  and the changing world order, have impacted the way the world views India.

The abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the six month long clamp down that followed has suddenly put Kashmir back on the world radar. This was followed by the CAA – NRC – NPR issue and the nationwide protests that erupted. The unfortunate communal riots in Delhi have drawn global attention towards India. India’s record on maintaining democracy and adhering to human rights is being questioned in the US Congress and the UK Parliament; Kashmir is repeatedly being raised in different forums, with all and sundry offering to mediate on it. Long term friends are condemning actions in India and there is a sense of disquiet amongst our neighbours.

There are changes in the horizon in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe, and the geo-political order as we know it is being overturned by an inward looking USA. All this will require deft maneuvering to ensure that our foreign policy helps us negotiate the hurdles.

Indo-US Ties

Perhaps the major foreign policy triumph has been the recent two-day visit of President Trump to India – his longest halt in a foreign nation ever. That visit provided great visuals of cheering crowds and mammoth rallies, but perhaps we need to look beyond the optics. Yes, the visit did reinforce ties, especially in the strategic domain, but there have been few tangible takeaways. Two mega defence deals worth $ 3.5 Billion were inked for the purchase of 24 MH-60 Romeo multi-mission helicopters and six AH 64E Apache attack helicopters. That would provide top of the line defence equipment and push the total defence procurements from USA to over $20 Billion. But the major deal – that of the Trade Agreement remained unsigned, and from all indicators, the US is willing to tighten the screws to get the terms it wants.

In spite of the dodgy policies of President Trump Indo-US ties remain strong. We have moved decisively by the formulation of the Quad and in working together for a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.’ Defence ties have strengthened with the conduct of five joint exercises, including the first ever Tri Service TIGER TRIUMPH exercise. Logistics Agreements have been inked and India has procured defence equipment ranging from P-8 maritime aircraft, C-130s, C-17s, Apache Attack helicopters and M -777 howitzers. The recently concluded 2+2 talks between the Foreign and Defence principles marked another upward trajectory in ties. But all this conceals the fact that no progress has been made on our prime concerns – trade and visas. Nor has the US really done much to ensure India’s strategic rise by boosting our case for permanent membership of the UNSC or NSG.

Indo-US ties always involve a tight rope walk and would always be seen through the prism of China. Their flip flop policies in Afghanistan and Iran seriously affect our long term interests there. Other irritants like the threat of sanctions over our purchase of S -400 Air Defence systems from Russia, and arm twisting to halt oil imports from Iran will continue to crop up. At the moment it seems largely personality based with the personal chemistry between Trump and Modi helping pave the way. The upcoming Presidential elections could have us dealing with a new administration which may or may not be favorably inclined to India. So, while the foundations are intact, we still need to ensure that ties continue on the upward trajectory, but without compromise of our own interests.

China–Russia and Europe

On the surface, relations with China have been cordial, and fortunately even the LAC has remained incident free. But at a deeper level, China continues to stymie India at every juncture and uses its all-weather friend, Pakistan, to pursue its agenda. It has a vested interest in Kashmir, since it holds Aksai Chin, which forms the link to its $64 Billion investment in CPEC. It will aid Pakistan in stirring the pot in Kashmir, which will hamper ties considerably.

With the trade war with USA winding down, China will be more aggressive in trade issues and on border disputes. Also, with the USA moving out of Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe, it has set the stage for China – in tandem with Russia-to take over the power vacuum there. It has also been creeping into the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean, impinging Indian interests. Countering China’s growing influence, and at the same time maintaining relations with them will be our major foreign policy challenge.

Russia has fast become the third arm in the Triad of world powers and under Putin, its influence in world affairs has increased significantly. Indo-Russia ties remain stable, but are largely commercially driven and we can never expect a return to the halcyon days of friendship and cooperation of the 70s. It remains our largest arms supplier and continues to support us in forums such as the UN. But it is increasingly falling into China’s embrace and is likely to adopt their stance on core issues – perhaps at our expense.

Another major power center is in a state of flux. The European Union has been shaken by Brexit, which will finally be implemented when UK formally leaves the Union by the end of the year. This itself is an opportunity which India can explore. It needs to formulate trade and strategic ties afresh with both UK and the EU. With Europe worried about the ambivalence of President Trump, a strategic alliance with EU could be explored, perhaps collectively or individually with powers such as France and Germany.

The Af – Pak Conundrum

The greatest challenge will be in handling our vexed relations with Pakistan. Relations are at their worst since the Kargil War of 1999. The ceasefire along the LOC has broken down completely and the dangerous jingoism that followed Balakot has not yet died down. Plus the abrogation of Article 370, has made Kashmir a ‘now or never’ moment for them, and Pakistan’s continual stoking of the issue will deteriorate relations further.

But in spite of the deepening differences, it is time to get the relationship going once again. Even after Kargil, we could move ahead to have a summit between Prime Minister Vajpayee and Musharraf, implement a ceasefire along the LOC and resume trade and cricketing ties. It would not be a bad idea to restart normalization of relations and move ahead. But this needs to be done with caution as Pakistan has betrayed our trust more than once.

A greater danger lies from Afghanistan. With the signing of the US- Taliban Peace Deal, the way has been paved for a US withdrawal and Taliban pre-eminence in the country. President Ghani’s government is a lame-duck government and even though talks are envisaged between the Taliban and the Afghan government, it is the Taliban who hold all the cards. Even though India has begun engaging the Taliban and even sent a representative for the signing of the Accord, relations with them have been marred since the hijacking of IC 814 to Kandahar in 1999. Their inevitable return to power means that India will cede all influence in Afghanistan. Even Chahbahar port, the lynch pin of our Afghan strategy, could become redundant. Plus there is the added danger of an influx of Afghan fighters into Kashmir after the US withdraws, which will worsen the situation there. 2020 will be a decisive year in Afghanistan, but from all portends, our relationship there is likely to take a drastic turn.

The Neighbourhood

Our neighbourhood too has been shaken by world-wide changes and our internal policies. Indo-Nepal ties have still not recovered from the trade blockade that was imposed upon it in 2015 and it has veered towards China. Another diplomatic kerfuffle has broken out with the publication of a map that shows Lipu Lekh and Kalapani in India, which Nepal claims is in its territory. India will do well to allay its fears and use our historical and cultural bonds to revive ties. Chinese BRI projects are providing it railways, airports and roads into China. We can use our geographical position to counter it by providing access to the ports of Visakhapatnam and Calcutta to boost its trade and counter China’s growing influence. But the heavy handedness which we have shown in the past needs to be moderated, and perhaps a greater warmth needs to be infused in the relationship to get it back on track.

Ripples in Bangladesh that have followed the announcement of CAA and their condemnation of communal violence in India too need to be smoothened. Bangladesh is one of our strongest allies and has helped prevent Islamic terror from coming across its borders. It is also the key to our ‘Act East’ policy. The seven pacts signed during Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi emhasise the model of good neighbourliness but at a deeper level concrete measures need to be undertaken. The major need would be to enhance connectivity from India to Bangladesh and then beyond to the Far East. This would link both economies to each other and help integrate the neighbourhood. .

The island states of Sri Lanka and the Maldives are the key to our Indian Ocean strategy. The election of Ibrahim Solih in the Maldives and his surprise win over the pro-China Abdullah Yamin has again placed a favorable government there. In Sri Lanka the emergence of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa raises fears of a slow creep towards China. His visit to India in end February, provided the assurance that Sri Lanka would maintain India’s strategic interests. But then Humbantota port in already in China’s hands and they have now crept closer to our shores. India’s offering of a $50 Million Line of Credit and $400 Million for development of infrastructure is a small counter to China’s cheque book diplomacy, but is essential to ensure that our island neighbours do not fall completely in its sway.

In the outer periphery of our Neighbourhood, ties have been affected with Iran, Saudi, the UAE and other Islamic nations by some of our internal policies. With one of our strongest allies – Iran – we have been forced to walk a tight rope because of Iran – US tensions. Real politick demands that we toe the US line in sanctions against Iran, but by doing so we are alienating Iran and closing our options on vital geopolitical interests such as Chahbahar port.

Ties with Saudi and UAE too have frayed, especially with Saudi Arabia which is fast toeing the Pakistan line. President Erdogan’s belligerent statements have pushed relations with Turkey beyond the brink. The same cloud hovers over our relations with other states such as Malaysia on whom we placed an embargo on the import of palm oil for their stance. It will take much diplomatic cajoling to wean these nations back; else we may just lose the plot there.

The Way Ahead

The coming months seem to be one of turbulence. As the suave, articulate Foreign Minister, S Jaishankar put it, “Change is on us as never before.”  There will be changes in the world order and a realignment of allies. The neighbourhood will see changes with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the likely emergence of the Taliban. Voices from Pakistan are likely to intensify and the Kashmir issued amplified. And as the US moves inwards, China could become more aggressive in the neighbourhood. And to cap it all, Carona Virus will place the entire world in an isolationist mode – for some time at least.

The world must be made to believe in the liberal and secular face of India. The silver bullet would be to fix the economy. Reviving growth and commerce will automatically develop stronger trade and increase our heft. Yes, the time tested policies of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ need to be prodded out of their present hiatus with concrete measures. It would do to strengthen regional groupings like Quad and BIMSTEC and explore allies such as Russia, EU and Japan so that we can meet all challenges. But our foreign policy definitely needs a strong push to smoothen over the internal and external upheavals and maintain our position in the geopolitical world order.


Ajay Singh is a writer and strategic analyst who has written four books and over 170 articles.