Indian foreign policy achievements in 2013 were mixed. While there was considerable diplomatic engagement, in critical areas there were many problems. At the bilateral level, India engaged at the highest levels with France, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Portugal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Australia, Turkmenistan, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Japan, the US, Singapore, Afghanistan, Iraq, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, to name a few. A large number of agreements and MoUs in diverse areas were signed.
India also maintained a high international profile during the year. The prime minister attended the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. India participated in CHOGM, BRICS, SCO, EAS, ARF and ASEAN-India meetings and hosted IBSA Summit as well as ASEM meeting.
Despite this proactivity, 2014 has begun for Indian foreign policy on a challenging note. The shocking mistreatment of a senior Indian diplomat by US authorities in New York, in contravention of the Vienna Convention for consular matters, has snowballed into an unprecedented crisis in bilateral relations. The incident has incensed public opinion in India creating a hugely negative image of the US. The crisis has also shown the fragility of the bilateral relationship that is going through a lean patch.
Sino-Indian relations, despite the two prime ministerial visits in either side in 2013, remain uneasy. The Depsang intrusion by the Chinese has created apprehensions in India about the behaviour of a rising China. Even today, it is not clear why the Chinese troops stayed in Depsang a good three weeks before the crisis could be resolved. The two sides signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement during the PM’s visit to Beijing but whether it will help avoid Depsang-like incidents in future is a question mark. India would have to be circumspect in dealing with an assertive and nationalistic Chinese leadership.
Relations with Pakistan are going nowhere despite the meeting of the two PMs in New York and the belated meeting of DGMOs. Hopes of a fresh start in Indo-Pak relations after the election of Nawaz Sharif have been totally belied. Repeated violations of ceasefire at the LoC, beheading of Indian soldiers by Pakistani troops, and the continuous infiltration attempts into Kashmir have hardened public opinion in India.
In Bangladesh, the confrontation between the two major political parties over elections has turned violent and disruptive. The BNP is boycotting the elections thereby raising a question mark on their legitimacy. The gains in Indo-Bangladesh relations in the last five years may be undone if the political instability there continues. In Nepal, despite the elections, the Assembly has not been convened, nor a government formed. India-Sri Lanka relations are plagued by several intractable issues. The prime minister had to skip his visit to attend the CHOGM summit in Colombo due to opposition in Tamil Nadu. India’s development assistance to Sri Lanka continues but the warmth in bilateral ties is missing. Indo-Maldives relations need to be rebuilt after the recent setbacks. Bhutan is also showing signs of change.
The Afghanistan situation is entering the endgame. President Karzai has high expectations from India for post-2014 stability there. Presidential polls are due and the US troops may withdraw completely. India must act fast and live up to its commitments under the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement by stepping up its relations with Afghanistan.
The foreign policy has been further complicated by domestic factors and the media’s role. The domestic consensus on foreign policy is fraying. Local interests sometimes take precedence over wider national interests. Institutionalised informal consultations with the states will need to be undertaken to take into account their interests in the overall foreign policy-making.
Likewise, the role of media in foreign policy has increased greatly. High-pitched, ill-informed debates often push the governments into taking extreme positions allowing little room for diplomatic manoeuvre. The tendency of the government to evade complex issues has made the media more aggressive. Experience has shown if the media isn’t informed, a lot of damage can be done inadvertently to sensitive relationships.
In 2014, Indian foreign policy must become bolder and realistic. It is important to repair the relationship with the US at the soonest but the US must respect Indian sensibilities. In dealing with China, India should build its strengths to back its diplomacy. Going beyond government-to-government ties, an effort should be made to reach out to multiple constituencies. Public diplomacy will have to be strengthened for the purpose. Similarly, the Development Partnership Administration, set up in the MEA, should be bolstered to improve deliverance of economic and technical assistance. There is need for greater interaction between policymakers and think tanks on strategic issues. The government should explain its foreign policy to the people better.
Indian foreign policy makers must take a long-term strategic view of international trends. In Afghanistan India should display a bolder policy and enhance its political, economic engagement. The Maldivian president’s visit has shown the country’s desire to engage with India. India must respond to their requests generously. There is ample scope for India to play a more active role in east and west Asia. India needs a Look West Policy to focus on West Asia and the Gulf. The Connect Central Asia policy initiated a few years ago needs to be reinvigorated by building linkages in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics. Indo-Russian relations appear to be in a drift. In 2014, determined efforts should be made to upgrade and overhaul the relationship with Russia. Cementing bilateral ties with Japan in security presents an opportunity.
The PM has emphasised India’s role as a net security provider. Strengthening defence and security cooperation with different nations would help our foreign policy become more robust and realistic. On joining the Indian Navy, the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya should visit friendly nations in the Indian Ocean. Better coordination between the MEA and MoD will strengthen diplomatic efforts. One difficulty in 2014 will be that decision making may slow down due to the nearing elections. The new government will take its time to come up with its foreign policy. A good part of the year may be lost. This will be unfortunate at a time when quick, bold decisions are needed for enhancing India’s engagement with the world.
The author is director general, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.