2019 began fairly well for India in its foreign policy outreach with New Delhi reaching out to its neighbours in continuation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis on a ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. But the year was cruel to the BJP as it took away three of the best performing ministers of the Modi 1.0 cabinet -- Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Manohar Parrikar. All three were members of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).
Earlier, the year began with a bang, literally, with the Indian Air Force striking terror infrastructure in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The action by New Delhi rang alarm bells in many world capitals, necessitating diplomats to fan out to every country of significance to explain Delhi’s ‘zero tolerance’ to cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s soil. While there was an appreciation for India’s restraint and keeping the flash point under control, there were hectic parleys to prevent any escalation of the situation between the two nuclear neighbours.
Prime Minister Modi returned to power in May 2019 to lead the country once again and, as is his wont, took the bull by its horn. Home Minister Amit Shah successfully piloted the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution and creation of two Union Territories out of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. An agenda that found repeated mention in the BJP’s election manifesto was fulfilled. But that gave little comfort to the diplomatic core who once again packed their bags, this time to go out and ‘educate’ world leaders on the constitutional validity of a purely domestic subject.
In a major diplomatic victory, India’s approach was appreciated by many, understood by some but opposed by none. Yes, Beijing did come to the rescue of Islamabad, but it was short-lived as the resolution proposed by China asking for “closed door consultations” was rejected by the rest of the UN Security Council, resulting in Pakistan and China getting isolated over the issue.
Beijing was quick to do the course correction and prepared for the Chennai Summit between the leaders of the two countries.
During the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the fag-end of the year, China proposed a framework for resolving the long-pending boundary dispute. New Delhi has more or less maintained that the dispute has to be resolved in one go while Beijing preferred a piecemeal approach starting with settlement on areas of lesser contention (early harvest areas).
Besides agreeing to formulate a new code of conduct to maintain peace along the border, the Indian Army and China’s PLA will also set up a hotline to avoid Doklam-like incidents. 2019 has thus ended on a promising note for India-China relations based on the 2005 guidelines, but not before a number of meetings, including in Wuhan and Chennai, between Modi and Xi Jinping.
While India’s immediate neighbourhood is vital to security and peace, India’s extended neighbourhood, with which we are part of a number of multilateral institutions and formations like ASEAN and BIMSTEC, to name a few, is very important for strategic outreach and economic development. The end of the Cold War provided a new beginning for many Asian countries and New Delhi could have played a pivotal role in leading Asia as an economic block. But political constraints forced successive governments to take a back seat in the leadership race and to go slow on the trade aspect. A strong government with sufficient majority to take bold decisions was needed. Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao did try to focus on the East Asian economy through his ‘Look East’ policy. But more than a decade later, ‘Look East’ had progressed little. In 2014, the Modi government changed it to ‘Look East, Act East’ policy.
In September, Modi had an opportunity to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). But domestic concerns and the strategic asymmetrical economic contest with China probably forced India towards the exit gate. With India saying no to joining RCEP, the regional trade mechanism may experience a slow start, but for Delhi, joining RCEP would have added dynamism to our economic diplomacy and given much-needed boost to trade and commerce, which are important and strategic tools in the conduct of foreign policy.
In the latter part of 2019 -- the first few months of Modi 2.0 – Delhi has suffered some setback on the economic front which is likely to have a bearing on its diplomacy. It is true that managing domestic political issues and balancing international relations, especially trade and diplomatic ones, are getting increasingly intertwined. The clear demarcations between diplomacy, economic engagement and domestic dynamics have been obliterated in the world of realistic geopolitics.
While 2019 has opened up opportunities for India on the diplomatic and economic fronts, every one of those opportunities has been clustered with huge challenges. Foreign affairs and the economic ministries will have to work overtime, together, as there is a definite convergence in their areas of operation and influence.