From Balakot to Mahabalipuram via Houston: India's foreign policy report card for 2019

Through the 'Howdy Modi' event in the US and the historic informal summit with China back home, India took a few more strides in its journey towards becoming an influential player in world politics.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 'Howdy Modi: Shared Dreams, Bright Futures' event at NRG Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Houston. | (Photo | AP)
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 'Howdy Modi: Shared Dreams, Bright Futures' event at NRG Stadium, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Houston. | (Photo | AP)

It was an action-packed year on the foreign policy front for the Narendra Modi government.

The Balakot air strikes back in February helped Modi boost his strongman image in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls which the BJP won by a thumping margin.

Through the 'Howdy Modi' event in the US and the historic informal summit with China back home, India took a few more strides in its journey towards becoming an influential player in world politics.

However, it was not a complete bed of roses for Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and his office who had to counter Pakistan's anti-India narrative across major global forums with a vigorous outreach to brief partners abroad on the abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship Act.

Here are some of the key incidents that dominated India's foreign policy discourse in 2019:

Pulwama terror attack, Balakot bombing and dogfight over Kashmir airspace 

On February 14, 40 CRPF officers and jawans were killed on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway at Lethpora (near Awantipora) by a suicide attacker who rammed the bus carrying the paramilitary personnel with a car filled with explosives. The bus was part of a 78-vehicle convoy which was transporting more than 2,500 CRPF soldiers from Jammu to Srinagar.

While Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the incident and released a video of the attacker Adil Ahmad Dar, a 22-year old from the Valley, the Imran Khan government denied any role in the terror attack.

Indian armed forces killed four Jaish operatives, including the alleged mastermind of the attack, four days later. While a ban was imposed on Pakistani actors and artists working in India, the Modi government also revoked the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to its neighbour, resulting in the rise in customs duty on all Pakistani goods imported from India to 200 per cent.

Pulwama suicide bomb attack site. (File Photo | PTI)
Pulwama suicide bomb attack site. (File Photo | PTI)

The incident quickly brought the two nuclear-powered South Asian neighbours close to a full-blown confrontation. On February 26, twelve IAF Mirage-2000 fighter jets set off from the Gwalior airbase armed with Spice-2000 and Popeye precision-guided munitions, crossed the Line of Control during the early morning hours and dropped the payload in the vicinity of Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, targeting a Jaish terror camp reportedly housing more than 300 recruits.

Pakistani authorities claimed that the IAF jets retreated and released their bombs after being intercepted by PAF F-16s. They also said that the bombs hit an open area and merely destroyed some trees, contrary to Indian media reports which suggested that around 250-300 terrorists were killed. Third-party satellite data suggested that the airstrike did not significantly impact the target. However, the IAF displayed high-resolution satellite pictures to the media, showing three holes in the roof of one of the Balakot buildings, which were later reported as a 'classic signature of a SPICE bomb strike'.

On February 27, Pakistani fighter jets crossed the LoC and entered Indian airspace. However, they were soon chased by IAF Mig-21 Bison aircraft. While the IAF said that no military installations were damaged in the PAF raid, they also confirmed that bombs were dropped from three Pakistani jets over Nadian, Laam Jhangar, Kerri in Rajouri District and Hamirpur area of Bhimber Galli in Poonch,
before being pushed back.

Pakistani reporters and troops visit the site of an Indian airstrike in Jaba, near Balakot, Pakistan ( File | AP)
Pakistani reporters and troops visit the site of an Indian airstrike in Jaba, near Balakot, Pakistan ( File | AP)

During the skirmish, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman shot down one F-16 aircraft, before losing his own jet. He remained in Pakistani captivity for more than 48 hours before the Imran government released him on March 1. While subsequent tests established that he was tortured during his captivity, India also criticised its neighbour for releasing the fighter pilot's photographs and interrogation videos against the Geneva Conventions. Abhinandan, who became the only MiG-21 pilot in the history of combat aviation to down an F-16, eventually rejoined combat duties in September.

While Pakistan claimed it had downed two Indian aircraft during the skirmish, the other one turned out to be an IAF MI-17 V5 chopper which crashed on the Indian side of Kashmir on the morning of February 27 after being hit by friendly fire.

As Pakistan denied the role of its US-made F-16 jets in the whole episode, the IAF countered it by showing pieces of aircraft wreckage and missile remains which were reportedly discovered on the Indian side.

There were also reports of ceasefire violations along the LoC from February 26 to March 7, in which four civilians on the Indian side died and eleven were injured. Pakistan on March 5 alleged it had thwarted an intrusion attempt from an Indian Navy submarine, a claim which India rejected immediately.

India-Pakistan diplomatic duel at FATF 

The Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering or FATF became the next stage of the India-Pakistan duel. Immediately after the Pulwama terror attack, India approached the anti-terror watchdog to keep its neighbour on the 'Black List'. The Imran government, in order to save its skin, allegedly registered fake and weak FIRs in July against terror groups operating from its soil.

Hafiz Saeed. (Photo | AP)
Hafiz Saeed. (Photo | AP)

The FIRs were registered against members of the banned Daawat-al-Irshad, a subsidiary of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), which is headed by Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. The FIR did not contain the names of Saeed and four others including Abdul Ghaffar, Hafiz Masood, Amir Hamza and Malik Zafar Iqbal. It also did not mention anything about the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) or Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF).

On March 5, Pakistan arrested 44 members of various terror groups in connection with the Pulwama attack. It also said those arrested will be held for at least 14 days and if India provided further evidence, they would be prosecuted. JeM leader Masood Azhar's son Hamad Azhar and his brother Abdul Rauf were among the men arrested.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (File Photo| AFP)
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (File Photo| AFP)

While the Imran government submitted its action plans against terror groups to FATF during August, September and October, it didn't help matters as the anti-terror watchdog's Asia Pacific Joint Group first put Pakistan on the 'Enhanced Expedited Follow Up List' on 23rd August and then the country was kept in the 'Grey List' till February 2020 and was told to complete its full action plan against the terror groups operating from its soil by that timeframe.

As per media reports in December, the FATF has again sought more clarifications and data from Pakistan on actions taken by it against madrassas belonging to the banned terror outfits. At least 150 questions were posed in response to a Pakistani government report comprising answers to 22 questions to the FATF, submitted on December 6.

The next FATF meeting is scheduled from January 21 to 24 in Beijing where Pakistan will be given an opportunity to defend its case. The Imran government, on the other hand, expects another relaxation probably up to June 2020 from FATF to comply with the remaining 22 action plans.

Article 370 fallout between the two neighbours 

On August 5, the Modi government revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution which, along with Article 35A, gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir and allowed the state's residents to live under a separate set of laws compared to residents of other Indian states.

However, the move displeased Pakistan which started an all-out diplomatic assault against India. Apart from downgrading diplomatic ties and stopping cross-border bus and train services, it also imposed a ban on Indian cultural content. Pakistan did not stop there as it went ahead and denied Indian flights access to its airspace, resulting in losses for Indian air carriers and the diversion of VIP flights carrying the President and PM.

Imran himself took the lead to address the world on Kashmir. Pakistan reached out to the US and China, along with raising the issue at various global platforms such as the UN General Assembly, UNSC and Parliamentarians' summits. There were also veiled threats from some Pakistani ministers to unleash nuclear strikes against India. The country also decided to open Kashmir desks across its embassies.

Security forces patrolling Kashmir Valley. (File Photo| PTI)
Security forces patrolling Kashmir Valley. (File Photo| PTI)

The fallout also left a mark on the UNGA summit on September 27 where Imran for a good 50 minutes, invoking Congress and RSS references, spoke only about Kashmir.

He also used terms like 'bloodbath' to predict a civil war kind of situation between the Kashmiris and the Indian Army, while saying that there would be radicalization in J&K and Pakistan will be blamed again if a Pulwama-like attack happens.

He also accused India of 'locking up' eight million Kashmiris, while appealing to the world community to give Kashmir the right to self-determination.

Although Imran told the Western media that his speech had successfully diverted global attention to Kashmir, in reality, he got only Turkey and Malaysia's support, with countries like the US and China putting the onus on the two South Asian neighbours to sort out the matter through bilateral talks.

India maintained its diplomatic composure during the entire episode, be it successfully convincing key countries that Kashmir was its internal matter or giving it back to its Pakistani counterparts across global forums by raising issues such as state-sponsored terrorism or the increasing attacks on Pakistani minorities under Imran's rule.

Detention of Kulbhushan Jadhav, another bone of contention between the two countries 

On July 17, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) directed Pakistan to review the death sentence awarded to former Navy officer Kulbhushan Jadhav and grant him consular access. The court also nullified the death sentence given to Jadhav and said that Pakistan informing India about the former Navy officer's arrest only after three weeks was a clear violation of the Vienna Convention. The court pointed out that Pakistan also deprived India of the right to communicate with Jadhav and arrange for his legal representation.

While Pakistan has maintained that it arrested Jadhav in 2016 due to alleged espionage activities, India refuted the claim and said that the former Navy officer was kidnapped from Iran. He was awarded the death sentence by a Pakistani military court in 2017.

Death-row convict Kulbhushan Jadhav (File Photo | YouTube Screengrab)
Death-row convict Kulbhushan Jadhav (File Photo | YouTube Screengrab)

Even as India celebrated the verdict, Pakistan said it would proceed as per the law. India got consular access to Jadhav only in the first week of September when the Charge d’Affaires of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad Gaurav Ahluwalia spent two hours with the former Navy officer. External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar remarked on the meeting, "While we await a comprehensive report, it was clear that Jadhav appeared to be under extreme pressure to parrot a false narrative to bolster Pakistan’s untenable claims."

While Pakistan ruled out any deal with India to ensure Jadhav's release, reports emerged that the Imran Khan government may amend the Army Act to allow the Indian prisoner to appeal against his death sentence in a civilian court.

Kartarpur Corridor seemed like a ray of hope for Indo-Pak ties but got politicised 

On November 9, PM Modi inaugurated the Kartarpur Corridor, the link between Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev's final resting place Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan and the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Punjab's Gurdaspur. While he thanked Imran for ensuring the timely completion of the pilgrimage project, Congress leaders Navjot Singh Sidhu and Manmohan Singh hoped that the corridor would forge better ties between the neighbours.

Pakistan, however, chose to politicise the occasion, be it by including pro-Khalistani leader Gopal Chawla in one of the project committees or putting out anti-India posters such as 'Kashmir is Pakistan' at the gurudwara. They even displayed a small bomb that was allegedly dropped by the IAF during the 1971 Bangladesh war, besides releasing a welcoming song featuring three Khalistani separatist leaders, including Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, in the video.

Sikh pilgrims stand in a queue to visit the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan. (Photo | AFP)
Sikh pilgrims stand in a queue to visit the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev at Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur, Pakistan. (Photo | AFP)

During the corridor launch on the Pakistan side, Imran again raked up the Kashmir issue, while Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi joined the bandwagon by criticising the Indian Supreme Court's Ayodhya verdict (in which the court paved the way for the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site at Ayodhya and directed the Modi government to allot a five-acre plot to the Sunni Waqf Board for building a mosque) which also came out on November 9.

Pramila Jayapal vs S Jaishankar episode over Kashmir resolution 

In the first week of December, Indian-American Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal introduced a Congressional resolution on Kashmir and urged India to end the internet restrictions in the state, apart from preserving religious freedom for all residents there. The Indian-American community felt 'betrayed, cheated and saddened' by the move which happened during the visit of an Indian delegation comprising Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh for a '2+2 dialogue' in the US. Jaishankar refused to meet Jayapal and said that the resolution was not a fair characterisation of the situation in J&K.

He was criticised by another Indian-American Democrat Kamala Harris, who said, "It's wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill." Jayapal, the first Indian American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, also found support from Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic presidential candidate for the 2020 US elections. Despite the US House of Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) insisting that Jaishankar should meet Jayapal, New Delhi decided against it.

Indian-American Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. (Photo | AP)
Indian-American Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. (Photo | AP)

"A distorted narrative is being put out by some about EAM's meeting with the US Congress. The External Affairs Minister asked to meet the leadership of the Senate and House Foreign Affairs Committees. The Senate meeting took place as envisaged with a very open conversation. Some members of the HFAC also met the minister and discussed issues. But the HFAC invited others without even seeking consent. That is at the heart of the issue. No Foreign Minister of any independent country should be pressurised into meeting such politicians with their own agendas," a government official said.

Harley Davidson, H-1B visa row and deadlock on trade pact impact ties with US 

On February 27, US President Donald Trump raked up the issue of high import duties on Harley-Davidson motorcycles by India, saying the US was 'getting nothing' with the recent announcement by the Modi government to slash the customs duty on imported motorcycles from high-end brands to 50 per cent. While emphasizing fair and reciprocal trade deals from India, he also mocked PM Modi, calling him a 'fantastic man' who said that India had reduced tariffs on imported motorcycles, but in reality, the US was 'getting nothing'.

"He (Modi) gets 50 (per cent), and they think...they're doing us a favour. That's not a favour," Trump said.

The US also dragged India to the WTO over the latter's export subsidies in March 2019 and asserted that these incentives were harming American companies and creating an uneven playing field. India's Commerce Ministry in July expressed fears about the possibility of losing the dispute at WTO, resulting in the end of subsidies for Indian exporters. However, it said that while direct subsidies to exports could not be given, the Modi government can legitimately support regulatory compliances required in other countries.

US President Donald Trump (Photo | AP)
US President Donald Trump (Photo | AP)

Towards the latter part of 2019, Trump said that he won't let India and China take advantage of the 'developing nations' tag from the WTO. The apex trade body in November said that Washington had failed to fully comply with a five-year-old ruling in a dispute over import duties on Indian steel products.

While Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in October said that trade deal negotiations between the two nations were going ahead at "full speed" and expressed the hope that they would conclude soon, reports emerged in November saying that India was very near to resolving the trade dispute and intensive talks were likely to be held later that month when a US trade delegation came to New Delhi. However, the deadlock is yet to be settled. 

The issue of H-1B visas became another bone of contention between the two countries. The US House of Representatives in July passed legislation to remove the seven per cent country cap on Green Card applicants in a bid to end the long wait of professionals from countries like India who prefer seeking permanent residency. The bill also increased the per-country cap on family-based immigrant
visas from seven per cent of the total number of such visas available that year to 15 per cent. 

In November, a study carried out by the National Foundation for American Policy showed that the Trump administration's restrictive immigration policies have led to a massive increase in the rejection of petitions for H-1B visas with the highest denial rate among major Indian IT companies. Then the US government in the same month revised its visa selection process and hiked by USD 10 the application fee for H-1B visas. Another study showed that things would only get worse for Indian IT companies in the US as the denial rate of H-1B visas touched 24 per cent in the third quarter of the current fiscal year.

For Representational Purposes. (File Photo | AP)
For Representational Purposes. (File Photo | AP)

The US Department of Labor also came out with a list of firms disqualified from applying for H-1B visas. Some of the prominent names were Azimetry, Inc., Bulmen Consultant Group, Inc., Business Reporting Management Services, Inc., NETAGE, Inc., Kevin Chambers and E-Aspire IT LLC. In December, Indian IT major Infosys decided to pay USD 800,000 (nearly Rs 5.6 crore) to settle allegations of misclassification of foreign workers and tax fraud. The company, between 2006 and 2017, let approximately 500 employees work in California on Infosys-sponsored B-1 visas rather than H-1B visas.

Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, during his visit to the country in December, said that the Trump administration should not obstruct the flow of skilled manpower from India as it is an important part of
the economic cooperation between the two countries.

India ignores US reservations to go ahead with S-400 deal 

India in 2018 signed a USD 5 billion deal to purchase the S-400 air defence system from Russia during Vladimir Putin's New Delhi visit. However, the move drew US ire, with the Pentagon saying in July that it was against any country purchasing the missile defence system from Russia, which is designed to counter sophisticated US fifth-generation aircraft like the F-22 and F-35. Then Admiral Philip Davidson, Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, admitted that India acquiring the S-400 from Russia was a "problem" for the Trump administration.

S-400 long-range surface missile ( Photo| PTI)
S-400 long-range surface missile ( Photo| PTI)

While Russia said that the sophisticated missile systems would be delivered to India in strict accordance with the schedule, which is 18-19 months from the deal's signing, Jaishankar, during his Washington visit in October, reiterated that India was discussing the US concerns. He also said that the Trump administration would understand India's rationale behind signing the missile deal.

The US has so far not declared anything about imposing sanctions on India for buying Russian weapons under a 2017 law, introduced due to Moscow's military involvement in Ukraine and Syria and alleged meddling in the 2016 US elections. Turkey, a NATO ally, came under similar sanctions in June 2019 by going ahead with the S-400 purchase, with the US ending Turkey's involvement in the F-35 fighter jet programme.

Trump, Modi bonhomie at Howdy Modi 

Houston, known as the 'energy capital' of the world, saw the pinnacle of Modi-Trump bonhomie in the last week of September when the Indian PM, during his journey to New York to attend the annual UN General Assembly session, stopped there and spoke to over 50,000 Indian-Americans at an event named 'Howdy Modi', the largest ever gathering for an elected foreign leader on US soil.

The leaders of the world's two most powerful democracies addressed the diaspora and emphasized their personal support to each other, apart from advocating a more pro-business and trade outlook between the two sides as the underpinning of stronger bilateral ties. While the two leaders signed an agreement to enable the US to export natural gas at a low cost to India, Trump also highlighted the growth of US exports to India, especially through defence equipment deals.

President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk around NRG Stadium waving to the crowd during the 'Howdy Modi: Shared Dreams, Bright Futures' event, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Houston. | (Photo | AP)
President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk around NRG Stadium waving to the crowd during the 'Howdy Modi: Shared Dreams, Bright Futures' event, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Houston. | (Photo | AP)

Modi used the stage to target Pakistan on the issue of state-sponsored terrorism and defend India's move to scrap Article 370. He also pitched India as an attractive investment destination, saying that relaxation of norms on single-brand retail, opportunities for 100 per cent FDI investment in coal mining and contract manufacturing as well as a big reduction in corporate tax would make India more globally competitive.

While the event snuffed the life out of Imran Khan's Kashmir outreach in the US around the same time, as Trump eventually backtracked from his repetitive 'mediation' offers on Kashmir, it created a few controversies too. Senior US Democrat Bernie Sanders criticised the timing of the event, saying that it was happening when Kashmir was in lockdown.

There was also a row over Modi allegedly backing Trump's 2020 re-election bid through the slogan 'Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar', with Opposition parties back in India saying the PM breached a key principle of his country's foreign policy -- neutrality. While the Congress slammed Modi, Foreign Minister Jaishankar defended his boss saying that the PM was merely repeating Trump's words, which he had used to pitch his candidature to the Indian American community while campaigning for the
2020 US presidential election.

Modi hosts Xi Jinping at Mahabalipuram summit 

India and China held their second informal summit during October 10-11 in Tamil Nadu's coastal town of Mahabalipuram. PM Modi and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping held a series of talks on a range of issues to strengthen the bilateral relationship. Both the leaders agreed to increase bilateral engagement in the defence and security spheres.

Xi also assured Modi that China will be taking measures to check the increasing bilateral trade deficit, apart from forming a new mechanism to discuss trade, investment and services at an 'elevated level'. The mechanism will comprise Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua and Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit. (File | AP)
File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit. (File | AP)

Both the countries also said that many of the dialogue mechanisms formed or reformed since the 2018 Wuhan summit between Modi and Xi had created a good momentum in bilateral ties. Despite Xi meeting Imran two days prior to his India visit and saying that China was keeping a close watch on the Kashmir situation, the issue found no place in the talks. China, on December 18, also withdrew its request to hold discussions in the UN Security Council on the Kashmir situation.

On December 21, the two countries met again for the 22nd meeting of the special representatives' summit in New Delhi and agreed to maintain peace at the border areas for the overall development of their bilateral ties. The Indian side was led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the Chinese delegation was led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi.

They recognised that an early settlement of the border question would serve the fundamental interests of both the countries. They also agreed to work together for more confidence-building measures to promote exchanges and communication between the border personnel and to ensure predictability in border management and strategic communication. The two countries also reviewed the progress made since the second informal summit in Mahabalipuram.

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) on December 26 said that its ties with the Indian military were improving through the strategic dialogue, practical cooperation and exchanges, all due to the efforts of Modi and Xi.

RCEP barrier becomes bone of contention between the two countries 

On the economic front though, the two countries faced a roadblock in the form of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) as India, in November, decided not to join the China-backed economic grouping, saying that the proposed trade deal would have an adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of Indians.

"The present form of the RCEP Agreement does not fully reflect the basic spirit and the agreed guiding principles of the RCEP. It also does not address satisfactorily India's outstanding issues and concerns. In such a situation, it is not possible for India to join the RCEP Agreement. India stands for greater regional integration as well as for freer trade and adherence to a rule-based international order. India has been pro-actively, constructively and meaningfully engaged in the RCEP negotiations since inception. India has worked for the cherished objective of striking balance, in the spirit of give and take," PM Modi said while justifying India's stance.

PM Narendra Modi (Photo | AP)
PM Narendra Modi (Photo | AP)

As per media reports, China aggressively pushed for inking the deal during the RCEP summit in an attempt to counter-balance the impact of its lingering trade war with the US as well as to project the region's economic might to the West.

The RCEP talks were launched by ASEAN leaders and six other countries during the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in November 2012. The objective of launching the trade talks was to achieve a modern, comprehensive, high-quality and mutually beneficial economic partnership agreement among ASEAN member states and FTA partners. The deal was touted to be the world's biggest free trade agreement, comprising 16 countries, including India.

Trade experts back in India called Modi's rejection of the trade bloc a blessing for domestic industries such as dairy and metal, along with the agriculture sector, in the face of unfair overseas competition. They even said that signing the deal would have resulted in increasing imports from China, with which India has a trade deficit of over USD 50 billion.

RCEP aims to cover issues related to goods, services, investments, economic and technical cooperation, competition and intellectual property rights.

Under it, trading partners reduce or eliminate customs duties on the maximum number of goods traded among themselves, apart from relaxing norms like the visa regime to promote trade in services and attract investments.

India in 2018-19 registered a trade deficit with as many as 11 RCEP member countries including China, South Korea and Australia. China in response said that it would try to resolve issues flagged by India such as market access as well as protected lists of goods mainly to shield the latter's domestic market against flooding of cheap Chinese agricultural and industrial products after the deal is signed. India welcomed the statement saying it was open to negotiating with RCEP nations if its concerns were addressed.

Kalapani creates a rift in India-Nepal relationship 

During the first week of November, India issued its new political map after the bifurcation of J&K into two Union Territories. It quickly became a centre of controversy as the Kalapani area, situated in Nepal's far West, appeared as part of Indian territory. As per media reports, Kalapani, located in Nepal's Darchula district, was shown inside Uttarakhand's Pithoragarh, going by the Indian map.

Nepal lodged a strong protest, with its PM K P Sharma Oli saying that he would ask India to withdraw its forces from Kalapani, apart from asserting that his government would not allow anyone to encroach on Nepalese territory.

Nepal's Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali. (File | AFP)
Nepal's Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali. (File | AFP)

However, on December 30, Nepal Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali said that his government would look to solve the issue diplomatically, adding that he had sought dates from India for a meeting. India has so far maintained that the new map accurately depicts its sovereign territory and it had in no manner revised its boundary with Nepal.

Citizenship Act protests put India's image abroad under the scanner 

The contentious Citizenship Act, which gives citizenship to persecuted non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, was passed in the Indian Parliament on December 11, 2019. Assam became the starting point of a nationwide protest which broke out the next day. The situation led to the cancellation of the Guwahati Summit between PM Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, which was scheduled to take place from December 15-17. 

The Indian Foreign Ministry fired verbal volleys at a US federal commission on international religious freedom report, which not only called the Citizenship Act a 'dangerous turn into the wrong direction' but also sought American sanctions against Home Minister Amit Shah among other Indian leaders. A German student and a Norwegian woman were also sent back to their home countries for participating in anti-CAA rallies in Chennai and Kochi, which didn't help India's image overseas.

Activists hold placards during anti-Citizenship Act protest. (Photo| PTI)
Activists hold placards during anti-Citizenship Act protest. (Photo| PTI)

While countries like the UK, US and France called the development India's 'internal matter', Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia thought otherwise. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticised the act, questioning its rationale. 

"People are dying because of this law. Why is there a necessity to do this when all the while, for 70 years, they have lived together as citizens without any problem? I am sorry to see that India, which claims to be a secular state now is taking action to deprive some Muslims of their citizenship. If we do that here, I do not know what will happen. There will be chaos and instability, and everybody will suffer," he said.

This led to a strong diplomatic reply from India, which hit back by saying that Mohamad had made a factually inaccurate remark on the latter’s internal matter. The MEA also advised Malaysia to "refrain from commenting on internal developments in India, especially without a right understanding of the facts."

Protesters gather at Shaheen Bagh to oppose the amended Citizenship Act in New Delhi Tuesday Dec. 31 2019. (Photo | PTI)
Protesters gather at Shaheen Bagh to oppose the amended Citizenship Act in New Delhi Tuesday Dec. 31 2019. (Photo | PTI)

Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen cancelled his India visit immediately after the passage of the law, taking strong exception to Shah's statement in Parliament that religious minorities are persecuted in his country.

He also said that while India has its own set of internal problems, Bangladesh has a robust record in maintaining communal harmony. Then he softened his stand on December 16 and said that Dhaka will take back its citizens illegally entering India if the latter gives a list of those people.

Six days later, he said that the CAA, along with the National Register of Citizens, can create uncertainty in India, which, in turn, can affect its neighbours too.

On January 2, the MEA said that it has reached out to countries to share its perspective on the CAA and NRC and emphasised that they were India's internal matters.

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