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Weathering Foreign Policy Storms In 2023

January 02, 2024 09:55 IST
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Foreign policy is always a work in progress and ups and downs are built into the foreign policy process.
What is permanent is national interest.
Hopefully, this year, which will witness general elections in the country, will also clear clouds on the foreign policy horizon, observes Rup Narayan Das.

IMAGE: President Joe Biden welcomes Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi to the White House, June 21, 2023. Photograph: Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters

After the euphoria of India's successful conclusion of the G20 Summit, Indian foreign policy orientation seems to have encountered some hiccups in 2023.

Another feather in India's cap, which was choreographed well on the occasion, was the landing of Chandrayaan on the moon in August.

Of course, the absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Putin at the G20 summit were conspicuous.

Given the difficult State relationship between India and China and their strategic rivalry, Xi's absence is understandable; but the non-participation of President Putin, a long standing ally of India, was disquieting.

Not to be missed is the point that an India-Russia summit has not taken place for last two years, reflecting the strain in the bilateral relations between the two countries.

This is in spite of India's abstention in the US-sponsored UN resolution criticising Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a special military operation and also India's deftly drafted G20 Delhi Declaration, which was likened by Russia.

India's commitment to honour and implement the defence deal of $2 billion to buy the S-4000 missile system from Russia notwithstanding the US sanction under CAASTA is yet another instance of India's strategic commitment to Russia.

It was against this backdrop of Russian chill that External Affairs Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar travelled to Moscow last week on a five-day trip to mollify Moscow and prepare the pitch for a summit between Modi and Putin.

Dr Jaishankar, it may be noted, had stoutly defended India's decision to buy Russian crude oil in spite of the sanction by the US and the west.

The no-nonsense and plain speaking Dr Jaishankar, the son of the late K Subrahmanyam, India's foremost strategic thinker, has pointedly articulated the double standard of Europe and the West regarding import of Russian crude oil.

India's positive vibe and Dr Jaishankar's persuasive diplomatic acumen has prompted Moscow for an early meeting between Modi and Putin.

IMAGE: 'Honoured to call on President Vladimir Putin this evening. Conveyed the warm greetings of PM Narendra Modi and handed over a personal message. Apprised President Putin of my discussions with Ministers Manturov and Lavrov. Appreciated his guidance on the further developments of our ties,' Dr Jaishankar tweeted after his meeting with the Russian leader in the Kremlin, December 27, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Yet another issue that some what cast a shadow in the surge of India-US relations is the non-fruition of US President Joe Biden to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade.

Although it is possible to argue that Biden had just visited India to participate in the G20 summit in October and as such it was highly unlikely for him to visit India in quick succession in a few months.

But the fact that the US ambassador in India had publicly declared the Indian invite to Biden suggesting the speculation of US discomfort at India's take on the allegation on US-based Khalistani activist Gurupatwant Singh Pannun and also the allegation by Canada, a close ally of the US, about India's involvement in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada last June.

Be that as it may, India's relations with both the US and Canada is much deeper at the people-to people level rising above the engagement or estrangement at the government level.

If you throw a stone, it will invariably hit a middle class family in India whose son or daughter works or studies in the US or Canada.

So this impasse will also pass and the New Year may clear the headwinds.

China has upstaged India having entered into a negotiation with Bhutan of its 477 km border, adding grist to India's strategic anxiety.

A Bhutanese delegation led by its Foreign Minister Lyonpo Tandi Dorji, which also included its Foreign Secretary Pema Choden and its ambassador to India, visited China in October and met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong (a former Chinese ambassador to India) and held discussions to expedite the settlement of the China-Bhutan border and to establish diplomatic relations.

The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 1948 obliged Bhutan to consult India with regard to foreign policy issues and defence matters. The treaty was, however, revised in 2007 to tone down the treaty obligation.

Although the China-Bhutan border issue does not involve India's territorial sovereignty, the tri-junction in Doklam in the India-China-Bhutan sector has security implications for India's north east as it provides passage to what is called the chicken's neck corridor in Siliguri.

It was against this background that Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel visited New Delhi last month to assuage India.

Any settlement of the Bhutan-China border in some sectors including in Doklam will have security implications for India.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Modi greets Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk in New Delhi, November 6, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

There also seems to be some disquiet in India's relations with Vietnam, touted as a pivot of India's 'Act East' policy and the Indo-Pacific architecture.

The relationship between the two countries was scaled up to a 'comprehensive strategic' level during Modi's visit to Vietnam in 2016 and there has been regular exchanges of visits at various political level in recent years.

Defence Minister Rajanath Singh visited Vietnam last year and Dr Jaishankar visited Vietnam last month.

However, a visit by a high political dignitary from either side is awaited while Vietnam and China are cosying up to each other.

Vietnam's President Vo Van Thuong visited China in October and Xi visited Vietnam last month.

The New Year may perhaps witness a visit to India by a Vietnamese top leader to inject fresh vigour to the strategic partnership between the two countries.

In the Maldives, China has consolidated its foray cultivating the new regime and curbing India's strategic presence in the volatile island nation in the Indian Ocean.

New Delhi is trying its best to salvage lost ground.

In Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, there seems to be an interregnum of India's diplomatic engagement, but back channel diplomacy continues for restoration of peace and normalcy.

Taking advantage of the void created by the American withdrawal, China forayed into Afghanistan and recognised the Taliban regime in Kabul.

China's outreach can be attributed to its secessionist problem in Xinjiang province bordering Afghanistan and its covetous eyes on Afghanistan's rich minerals.

New Delhi is impelled by the distress faced by Afghan nationals in the land locked country afflicted by ethnic and sectarian divide exploited by outside forces.

The Afghan people can rest assured that they cannot have a better friend than India whose friendship with Afghanistan is truly selfless and rooted in history and culture poignantly captured by Rabindranath Tagore in his story Kabuliwala.

Foreign policy is always a work in progress and ups and downs are built into the foreign policy process.

What is permanent is national interest. Hopefully, this year, which will witness general elections in the country, will also clear clouds on the foreign policy horizon.

Rup Narayan Das is a former senior fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research and the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views expressed are personal.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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