India can look at the year gone by - 2017 - with some satisfaction, even as there might be some trepidation about the year ahead. The certitudes of the past are disappearing with each passing day and the international system is passing through unprecedented flux.
Established powers are grappling with internal challenges of the kind they had not encountered in the last few decades and, as a result, they are looking inwards. On the other hand, China's rise is an established reality now and Beijing is unabashed in announcing its arrival. This power transition is challenging the existing multilateral global order, with significant implications for countries likes India.
The government's proactive global outreach continued in 2017, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself leading the way. He reached out energetically to India's partners such as the US and Israel and even to adversaries such as China. The results could have been mixed, but Modi cannot be faulted for making his best effort at reconciling often irreconcilable differences, especially with Beijing. India also expanded the scope of its engagement with East and Southeast Asia in a year when India and ASEAN observed 25 years of their Dialogue Partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction and five years of strategic partnership.
In a region shaken by China's assertive posturing, India publicly and vigorously supported freedom of navigation and access to resources in the South China Sea in accordance with principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. More broadly, it made a case for a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region where multiple powers can co-exist supporting a stable ecosystem.
In its immediate neighbourhood, New Delhi followed a two-pronged policy. On the one hand, it continued its high decibel campaign to marginalise Pakistan by repeatedly underscoring the pernicious nature of the terror threat emanating from the country. On the other hand, it started an ambitious undertaking of reimagining its strategic geography by linking itself more closely with the wider Bay of Bengal community.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative are being revived by New Delhi's newfound interest. India and Afghanistan also managed to ramp up their ties. India's agenda is to build the capacity of the Afghan state as well as of Afghan security forces, enabling them to fight their own battles more effectively.
Modi's outreach to US President Donald Trump seems to have paid off so far, with the Trump administration's National Security Strategy strongly endorsing India's global credentials. Seeking to support "India's emergence as a leading global power", the NSS calls for increasing "quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India". It is tough on Pakistan, calling on it to desist from engaging in "destabilising behaviour" in Afghanistan as well as to end its "support for militants and terrorists" targeting American interests in the region.
At the global level, India's integration into the global order continued apace despite the setback at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This year saw India entering the Wassenaar Arrangement, which regulates trade in dual-use technology, as its 42nd member. India's Justice Dalveen Bhandari was re-elected to the International Court of Justice for a nine-year term, after Britain withdrew its candidate from the race. Britain withdrawing its candidate was a tribute to smart and aggressive diplomacy by India.
With Indian diplomats and top political leadership getting involved in the process and using their diplomatic capital rather effectively, New Delhi signalled that it is now ready to play a larger global role and it is willing to step up to the plate should there be a need. This hunger was absent before, but the Modi government has made it clear that it will fight for what it believes India deserves.
What stood out in 2017 was an India that was standing up for its interests, not only on the global platforms but also in its bilateral dealings with major powers, particularly China. India refused to participate in China's Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, maintaining opposition to China's investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
And in the Doklam standoff, New Delhi stood its ground. It was responsible for handling the crisis - refusing to be drawn into escalation by bellicose rhetoric and not losing its nerve. But the underlying forces shaping this relationship continue to make for a grim prognosis. India and China are two rising powers in the larger Asian strategic landscape which is being reshaped by American disengagement, and the two are increasingly bumping into each other.
China's presence is rapidly altering the South Asian strategic realities for India. Setbacks in the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka have alerted India to the possibility of New Delhi losing its geographic advantages in the region. India's challenge will be to get back in the game with a renewed sense of purpose. Another challenge has come in the form of deepening Sino-Russian ties and growing concern in India about Moscow's changing regional and global priorities. This has become even more complicated as Russia's ties with the West have touched the nadir.
Great power politics is getting ever more contentious, and this will have a significant bearing on India's ability to shape the strategic environment to its own advantage. But as a 'leading power', New Delhi needs to persevere even if the tidings may not be favourable. The Modi government has done well to recognise this, but it will have to harness Indian capabilities to greater effect in the coming years.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King's College, London)