The nation is anxiously awaiting May 23rd, when the electorate’s verdict will become known. Regardless of its hue, the new government would not have one luxury – of a honeymoon period. It would have to get down to business forthwith. The aspirants would have already begun brainstorming on their administration’s first 100-day agenda. India is passing through a heady yet challenging phase, in her journey of nation-building. She is now one of the fastest growing major economies in the world, whose GDP is poised to touch $5 trillion by 2025. Possible roadblocks in this journey need to be smoothened. India is blessed with a large, young and educated workforce, whose aspirations, energies and talent, ought to be harnessed gainfully. Regrettably, we lag behind our peer on social indicators, which is not tenable for too long.
To attain her development and security objectives, India has been energetically engaging with the comity of nations, near home and far beyond. The global interest in India and the resultant FDI inflows have never been higher. Yet most of the OECD nations are facing economic headwinds and globalisation is on the retreat. India has a different challenge. She is confronted with serious defence and security threats from her northern and western neighbours. Both have ganged up to thwart her rise.
India’s first priority therefore would be to double down on neutralizing the terror infrastructure in Pakistan. It is critical that its financial pipeline be choked and it be blacklisted by FATF, latest by October 2019. With China assuming Presidency of FATF on 1 July 2019, the task is cut out for us. We should adhere to our principled stand of not holding meaningless talks with Islamabad except on terrorism, regardless of outside pressure. We know that Mr. Imran Khan is nothing but a front for the army, which will lose its raison d’etre, if peace breaks-out with India. Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran opines that we should aim, not at any ‘grand reconciliation’ with Islamabad, but at managing our adversarial relationship.
The informal Wuhan summit in April 2018 enabled PM Modi and President Xi to have frank conversations and lower temperatures, post the Doklam-standoff. The next round in India should be scheduled at the earliest. We ought to deepen our engagement in areas of convergence. It helps that China recently lifted its short-sighted technical hold on the UNSC proposal to declare Masood Azhar an international terrorist, albeit under unremitting international pressure. All the same, we are fully alive to growing Chinese geostrategic ambitions in tandem with her strengthening economy and military muscle.
She has already arm-twisted Sri Lanka into leasing out its strategic Hambantota port for 99 years, set up a naval base in Djibouti and is angling for the Gwadar port in Pakistan. Pakistan is in a financial mess and deeply indebted to China. In parallel with engaging China, we need to unambiguously outline our core interests and redlines, shore up defenses, qualitatively upgrade border infrastructure and synergize with fellow democracies such as the US, Japan, Australia and Indonesia.
India is right in opposing the predatory Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which compromises India’s territorial integrity by passing through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK). Global push-back against BRI is increasingly forcing Beijing to make some course correction. The United States has been even more forthright. Speaking in London recently US Secretary of State slammed China for peddling “corrupt infrastructure deals in exchange for political influence” and “bribe-fuelled debt- trap diplomacy” (Reuters report).
Over the past decade, India has invested considerable diplomatic capital, inter alia in cultivating Japan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with excellent results. Japan and India have a similar geostrategic outlook. We struck a ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’ in 2014. India is now the biggest beneficiary of Japanese ODA. Japanese assistance is critical to India’s infrastructure development, including in our north-eastern region. Bilateral security, defense, energy, hi-tech, R&D and economic collaboration is steadily expanding. We need to continue nurturing this key relationship. PM Shinzo Abe who is hosting the G20 summit in Osaka on 28–29 June 2019, would be among the first leaders that the incoming Indian Prime Minister would be meeting.
Islamic nations have generally regarded India as a friend and Pakistan as a brother. However at least for Saudi Arabia and UAE, thanks to regular highest-level exchanges, in the past few years, the friend has become as close if not closer, than the brother. In an unprecedented move UAE invited our External Affairs Minister to address the OIC session as a guest of honour, casting aside the protestations of Islamabad. Invaluable intelligence sharing is taking place. Wanted fugitives are being extradited, which was unthinkable just a few years ago. Both capitals, holding huge sovereign funds are exploring infrastructure investment opportunities in India. They played a salutary role in encouraging Islamabad to expeditiously hand back, Wing Commander Abhinandan, unharmed to India, post Balakot air strikes. We will do well to consolidate the momentum in our engagement.
At a broader level, the world today is no longer bipolar and not yet multipolar, though there are presumptive poles like China, in the making. The US is weighed down by infructuous and financially ruinous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet she is and would remain the pre-eminent world power for some time to come. It is a manifestation of rapidly evolving geopolitical dynamics, that the US has shifted 180 degrees in ten years, from taking a lead in sanctioning India in 1998, consequent to our nuclear tests, to getting her the NSG waiver in 2008. The sides have since forged a ‘Global Strategic Partnership’. India has also become a ‘Major Defence Partner’ of the US. It would be no exaggeration to say that bilateral relations have been literally transformed. We have established 60-plus bilateral dialogue mechanisms, including the 2+2 (Foreign Affairs + Defense) Ministerial talks.
However, our immediate challenge is to deal with the mercantilist outlook of President Trump, who has triggered trade conflicts with many partners, including India. Impulsive and headstrong, he unilaterally pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, imposed new sanctions and is now arm-twisting India and China among others, from buying Iranian crude. He is also averse to India sourcing some of its vital defense needs from Russia. The good news is that India, a large and confident nation, understands realpolitik and the transactional nature of international relations. Hopefully, Indian nimble diplomacy will help find a modus vivendi, while safe-guarding core interests.
Former Foreign Secretary Dr. S Jaishankar, recently observed that the objective of Indian foreign policy was to cultivate the US, steady ties with Russia, manage China, enthuse Japan & engage Europe. That may be a useful mantra for the incoming government
(The author is a former diplomat. Views expressed are personal.)
This article was originally published by Financial Express on 13 May 2019