To the layman on the street, beaming faces of two or more national leaders (sharing some supposedly ‘warm moments’) that splashes the front pages of the dailies, hold little interest but to give a passing assurance that all’s right in the area of foreign policy. Take a closer look and like everything else, there’s always more than what meets the eye.
As the epic TV show ‘House of cards’ rightly portrays, India finds itself in a world filled with Frank Underwoods and Petrovs that makes foreign policy a complex exercise whose strength is mostly tested by its hostile South Asian neighbors. In today’s second era of NDA rule, India has witnessed new developments in its dealings with these neighbors, particularly Bangladesh, Pakistan and China.
Bangladesh: Strident deals
The roots of Indo-Bangla ties goes back to the shared history of colonial experience that remains alive in public memory as well as the 1971 liberation war in which India displayed stout support to the Bangladesh cause.
An acknowledgement of this effort, through the Award of Liberation War Honor, conferred on former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (after many years of dismissal) during Prime Minister Modi’s 2015 visit was a striking epitome of strengthening relations.
The two countries made impressive headway with the signing of 22 crucial agreements contained in a joint declaration- Notun Projonmo-Nayi Disha (New Beginning-New Direction). The landmark features were the resolution of the border dispute through ratification of Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), a package of USD 2 billion to Bangladesh for developing public transport, railways and ports, etc.
Despite new heights reached in bilateral ties, certain traditional problems remain- such as illegal migration, insurgency, water disputes (prominently the Teesta and Feni dispute) and a lot more. With the recent attacks on minorities and terror incidents happening every now and then, Bangladesh is slowly turning to be a neighbor India should worry about.
Nepal: Madhesi agitation
Nepal has been a peaceful neighbor to India and an ally so close that the two countries don’t follow Visa procedure required to visit their neighbor’s territory. But, the recent agitation by Madhesi people on the delineation and discriminatory politics played by Nepal has caused the trust level between the countries to a new low.
The Nepali leadership alleges India’s hand behind the Madhesi agitation as they are of Indian origin. The blockade on the border of India and Nepal by the madhesi protesters has made life tough for Nepalese and in desperation; they have turned to China for help.
Pakistan: Terror hiccups
Regimes may change, but terror and skirmishes seem to be the eternal impediments to the progress of India- Pakistan ties. Political pundits are of the opinion that in contrast to UPA’s soft stance on terror, the new regime has decisively adopted a more muscular policy on Pakistan’s ‘adventurism’.
India has witnessed in recent times, ample sour episodes that have shook the conscience of the nation. Between September 2014 and March, 2015, there had been armed conflicts along the Line of Control and Working boundary in Kashmir; 2016 witnessed the Pathankot attack. Diplomacy hit a new low with postponed talks, war of words in the UN on the issue of Kashmir, allegation by both countries on the involvement of intelligence agencies in terror activities, etc.
Notwithstanding these setbacks, the Modi regime has sought to develop relations with pragmatism. It has adopted a ‘twin track approach’ that seeks to push forward security dialogue and other high-level talks while simultaneously retaliating with ‘double the force’ to incidents of terror. Political experts are of the opinion that it would bode well for the government to make good on its promise of involving the bordering states- J&K, Gujarat, Haryana etc. in the conduct of foreign policy.
China: Primarily containment
The current scenario of superpower rivalry in South Asia between India and China is no secret today. Despite this, Modi’s keen interest in developing positive relations showed even before his prime minister-ship when in 2011 he declared-
China and its people have a special place in my heart. I admire their hard working, disciplined and resilient nature and above all, their sense of history.
Nevertheless, the new government has been quick to come up with plans to counter China’s expansionist ambitions. It has reached out to 14 Pacific Island countries to build defense and strategic ties. The landmark Chabahar Port agreement was an important step in countering the China-Pakistan axis; with the port expanding India’s market in Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Europe. To balance the growing Chinese influence in neighboring regions, India has inked pacts with countries like Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam and Sri Lanka encompassing trade, naval exercises, infrastructure projects, etc. In recent times, it has showed greater interest in the internal politics of these countries and has been quick to respond in times of need.
Maritime Silk Road project (for greater connectivity in Asia and Europe), the alleged ‘string of pearls’ design in the Indian Ocean and influential status in the UN threatens the regional balance of power in its favour. Hostility with China has meant that even justified proposals at the UN such as application for NSG, banning of JeM chief Masood Azhar, etc. have fallen flat. In view of these circumstances, analysts are of the opinion that the best way forward is to build leverages. This can be done by involving itself in situations challenging China’s aspirational leaps, encouraging investments in large projects such as infrastructure and then conditioning support to these based on China’s support to India on the international platform.
Joe Biden, Vice-President of the US rightly said-
Foreign policy is like human relations, only people know less of each other.
To fulfill its national interests and aspirations to spearhead a new and better world order, India must consistently work towards achieving better understanding with its neighbors and most importantly pursue a principled and pragmatic foreign policy.