Three challenges for India’s foreign policy in 2020

Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI photo)

In December 2019, India and Japan were scheduled to hold a prime ministerial summit meeting in Guwahati. However, due to the protests in Assam over the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the meeting had to be cancelled. Moreover, owing to the controversies related to the nature of the CAA, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen also decided to call off his upcoming visit to India.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar was slated to meet the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States’ (US) House of Representatives. However, citing the presence of Pramila Jayapal, a well-known critic of India on Kashmir, Jaishankar decided to not attend the meeting. India and its foreign minister came under a lot of criticism for skipping the meeting.

Besides, as the US goes through the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and approaches presidential elections in November 2020, managing the India-US strategic relationship also remains a challenge. India’s economic slowdown and a perceived majoritarian political turn have made it difficult for pro-India voices in the US to support India’s policies such as CAA.

All of these developments point towards three upcoming challenges for India’s foreign policy: CAA and its fallout over India’s neighbourhood policy; international troubles related to Kashmir and managing the relationship with the big powers like the US. All these challenges are interrelated and are likely to test India’s diplomatic capacity in 2020.

Citizenship tangle

Protests over the nature of CAA and its fallout in India’s neighbourhood policy is likely to present India’s foreign policy establishment with considerable challenges in 2020. The CAA specifically mentions three Muslim-majority nations in South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and their non-Islamic minorities.

It affects India's South Asia policy, provides ammunition to India's detractors in these countries and is likely to inject religion as a significant factor in its dealings with neighbours. Bangladesh is long considered as a bright spot for foreign policy. However, the CAA is likely to adversely impact India-Bangladesh relations as the Bangladeshi leadership has to respond to its domestic political compulsions.

Kashmir back on the table

Moreover, abrogation of Article 370 and its negative international impact is also hard to miss. India’s actions have re-hyphenated it with Pakistan, undone diplomatic efforts of the last 20 years and put Kashmir back in international diplomatic discussions. Sensing this, China has tried to create troubles for India in the United Nations (UN) and is likely to do so in 2020.

US Congress too discussed Kashmir and many influential voices in the West, including the likes of the US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, are critical of India. Kashmir is likely to feature in international discourse in the coming year more prominently than it did in 2019.

Moreover, the internet shutdown in Kashmir, continuing detention of senior political leaders such as Farooq Abdullah and restrictions over political activities in the region have not made it any easier for Indian diplomats abroad to argue India’s case convincingly.

A case in point here is the latest tussle within the bloc of Islamic nations to organise meetings for criticising India’s actions related to Kashmir. So far, India did not face harsh criticism from the traditional leader of the Islamic bloc, Saudi Arabia.

However, as Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar took the lead, with the tacit support of Iran, in criticising India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are finding it difficult to stay quiet. India has invested considerable diplomatic capital in cultivating relationship with these two West Asian countries in the last few years. However, they too will be constrained to be seen as taking action to chastise India over CAA and Kashmir.

Jammu and Kashmir was the only Muslim majority state in India. Coupled with CAA’s focus over non-Islamic minorities and Ayodhya verdict in the favour of Hindus, international observers believe that India seems to have taken a decisive turn towards right-wing, majoritarian politics.

Fallout of India’s ‘rightward’ turn

It does not augur well for India’s foreign policy as it dents India’s image as a liberal, secular democracy. Owing to this, India is likely to face difficult times in Western capitals because influential human rights groups, religious organisations and pro-democracy activists are likely to pressurise their governments and international agencies like the UN Human Rights Commission.

India’s invitation to a leader like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who proudly harbours controversial opinions about women, minorities, climate change and democracy, for Republic Day celebrations in January 2020 further erodes India’s credibility as a liberal democracy.

Breaking down of the bipartisan consensus over foreign policy in the US is likely to lead to hardening positions and tough language over issues like Kashmir. India’s recent actions, including organising events like ‘Howdy Modi’ in Texas, which has emerged as a political swing state, have not gone down well within the US political establishment.

As a result, many leaders from the Democratic Party are criticising India and cancellation of the meeting by Jaishankar has not helped in softening the criticism. In 2020, Kashmir-related troubles will only make it imperative for Indian diplomats to engage with the US lawmakers including those from the Democratic Party.

However, despite the gathering of diplomatic troubles on the foreign policy front, India has been forced to turn its attention inwards. Although CAA may perhaps lead to strengthening support, to an extent, for the ruling regime, it is not going to help in creating a favourable external environment.

In fact, inflexible stance over the issue of CAA-related protests, images of police brutality and inability to revive economic growth means that Indian diplomats are likely to be asked tough questions abroad and hence have lots of explaining to do.

Therefore, tough days are ahead for Indian diplomacy in 2020. As India struggles to explain its positions and manage the diplomatic impact of its actions, the Chinese challenge in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) only gets tougher.

While the Indian government was busy in passing CAA and dealing with domestic protests, the Chinese navy along with the Russian navy has held military exercises with South Africa and Iran in the Western Indian Ocean. Therefore, the growing Chinese footprint in the IOR should be the real challenge for India in 2020. But can India focus on it? And does India want to focus on it? These are the questions to watch out for.

(Sankalp Gurjar is a researcher based in New Delhi)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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