Patchy landscape

The successful completion of India’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Asean marks a milestone in its economic diplomacy.

As the curtain rings down on a tumultuous year in India – during which self-confidence eroded, anxieties took hold and the ‘best lacked conviction’ – foreign policy and diplomacy couldn’t possibly escape the desultory meandering that has become the trademark of the United Progressive Alliance government.

There are not many major gains to show. The seat in the United Nations Security Council remains elusive. Nor does anyone talk about India’s membership of technology control regimes. India is peripheral to major issues of international security – Syria, Iran, North Korea, ‘Arab Spring’, Afghanistan and so on. 

The year is nonetheless ending on a satisfactory note when it comes to India’s neighbourhood. The two-decade old ‘Look East’ policy never had it so good. The successful rounding off of India’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) marks a milestone in economic diplomacy. India’s integration with the Asean region takes a big leap and it can now make a wholesome contribution to the 16-member FTA space in the making in Asia-Pacific.

2012 also witnessed a remarkable shift in the India-China discourse. Acrimony, nitpicking and grandstanding gave way to meaningful engagement. National security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon reportedly reached understanding with the Chinese leadership during his recent visit to Beijing to shift the gear on the protracted border talks. Meanwhile, the strategic economic dialogue has gained traction and there is mutual political recognition that India and China have more in common than what separates them. In sum, India’s management of its China policy has been both creative and optimal.

But unalloyed good news really ends here. Beyond lies a patchy landscape with green sprouts interspersed with parched land with even an occasional bleached bone of some dead carcass. There is indeed greater stability and predictability in India’s relations with its neighbours – Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka – thanks largely to a mood of accommodation in Delhi. But the ‘feel-good’ needs nurturing and demands fresh initiatives so that the momentum is not lost. The dip in the ties with Maldives underscores the futility of being prescriptive.

China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean stemming from a variety of factors – growing rivalry with the United States, maritime security, search for resources, new markets, communication links, etc. – is a compelling reality, and the countries neighbouring India tend to fancy the ‘China card’. India’s interest lies in working out a modus vivendi with China as regards each other’s vital interests and core concerns. But the underlying geopolitical reality is not to confuse the Indian Ocean as ‘India’s Ocean’.

Skillful management

Thus, the correctness of India’s stance vis-a-vis the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas and the robustness of its efforts to strengthen strategic ties (at bilateral level) with the countries of the region need to be put in perspective. Equally, the raison d’etre of India’s disinterest to become a ‘lynchpin’ in the US’s Asia-Pacific strategies is self-evident. The Indian policymakers have skillfully managed the overlapping templates.

Contrary to the creativity of the ‘Look East’, India’s relations with Central Asia remain in a state of drift. The residual verve of the relationship is almost entirely due to the profound historical and cultural empathy. The hard truth is that unless India can improve its relations with Pakistan and Iran, it lacks easy access to Central Asia. This is more so in the case of Iran with which in deference to the relentless US pressure, UPA government regrettably downgraded the India-Iran strategic understanding regarding the issues of regional security.

On the other hand, the relations with Pakistan kept up an air of improvement through much of the year – certainly, until about the middle of the year – but new momentum has become increasingly hard to build once it became evident that prime Minister manmohan Singh’s long-awaited visit is not going to take place and the UPA government is unable (or unwilling) to reciprocate Pakistan’s historic gesture of according the MFN status to India – not even by reaching agreement on any of the ‘doable issues’.

On Siachen, in fact, Indian position ‘hardened’. When it comes to Pakistan, the challenge always arises when the attempt is to keep the state of play at virtual standstill. The stakes are high because India tangibly benefitted out of the improvement in the climate of relations with Pakistan – cross-border terrorism has been reduced; the LoC remains peaceful; security situation in J&K is better than at anytime in living memory.

Having said that, after a period of chill in US-Pakistan relations, Islamabad has lately regained its status as Washington’s indispensable partner in negotiating an Afghan settlement and this will resonate on Islamabad’s attitude toward India as well. The irreducible minimum for Pakistan in an Afghan settlement at this point will be to safeguard the security of the regions straddling Durand Line, which would translate as enabling the Taliban to regain the levers of power in southern and southeastern Afghanistan.

And Washington would concede this as a legitimate demand by Pakistan. But then, these are also regions where camps for militants operating in J&K used to be located in the 1990s. This is where our failure to make Pakistan a real stakeholder in peace and regional stability may come to haunt us again. The big question is whether we did all that was possible to make the relationship with Pakistan more predictable. There are no easy answers here.

(The writer is a former ambassador)  

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