Running to stand still: There were many positives to Indian diplomacy this year, even if it closes on a dismal note

There is no more polite way of saying this: India ended 2019 on a dismal note. It isn’t every day that we get frozen out by two of our closest strategic partners, Bangladesh and Japan, within the space of a single week. The chill isn’t only in the weather.

The year opened with Pulwama, Balakot and Masood Azhar’s overdue terror listing, which segued neatly into Narendra Modi’s security-heavy campaign that resulted in an unprecedented victory at the hustings. Since then, Modi checked off boxes on a political agenda that began with negating Article 370 and reorganising Jammu & Kashmir into two union territories, and ending with the alphabet cocktail CAA-NRC-NPR.

The better part of diplomacy this year has been to dodge bullets and fight fires in global capitals, with Modi’s image needing a drastic makeover. The effort to convince the world that this was not some diabolical Hindu plan to turn Kashmir into Xinjiang, start a war with Pakistan or annex PoK; turn Muslims into second class citizens or stick them into detention camps has not been entirely successful. Kashmir will remain a diplomatic challenge in 2020, until a political process can be started and the unconscionable act of keeping elected politicians under detention is reversed.

Nevertheless, Modi 2.0 has come with a more aggressive, risk embracing foreign policy, as articulated by S Jaishankar, Modi’s most inspired appointment. Describing the aim of his policy as “persistent striving to expand space and options”, Jaishankar sees a “combination of greater diplomatic activity, more intensive development partnerships, stronger security engagements and growing global profile” as essential tools for a robust foreign policy palette.

Jaishankar observes, presciently, change is upon us as never before. “What defines power and determines national standing is no longer the same. Technology, connectivity and trade are at the heart of new contestations. In a more constrained and interdependent world, competition has to be pursued perforce more intelligently. The global commons is also more in disputation as multilateralism weakens”.

Risk is best played with an economic cushion, or as Jaishankar says, “the economy drives diplomacy.” India turned away from trade when it left RCEP at the altar, a decision we will rue for a long time. We negotiated in bad faith and cowardice for six years, ultimately leaving the government little choice but to back off. Frankly, it makes more sense to disband the commerce ministry, which is little more than a honey-pot for protectionists and vested business interests. Instead, we should create a separate trade negotiating office tied to MEA and MoF.

Post RCEP the operative word is “bilateral”, but with a sluggish economy and popular turmoil in the country, little movement is discernible. Brexit is about done, we should move on a trade deal with the UK and revive the EU sleeping beauty from its 2013 slumber. Hell, we can’t even get a trade deal done with our best buddy, Israel, though we’re complementary economies. A “limited” trade deal with the US is struggling to be written.  We might be real close on defence and security, but the Trump administration is really interested in the trade part, which India is not.

Washington’s patience with India is wearing thin. Peter Navarro – the ideological brain behind Trump’s China trade policy – told US media this week he’s preparing for a “showdown” with India. This will make 2020 much more challenging than we believe today.

On the other hand, India moved decisively to shape its Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean policies, bringing both together quite nicely to span multiple geographies. Jaishankar presided over the first upgraded Quad this year, which gives a whole new weightage to this grouping. India is now openly engaging with the other top Indian Ocean powers – France, Indonesia and Australia. We will see more activity with all three countries – France is a staunch ally, while Australia is moving up the pecking order very quickly. Indonesia is a partner India should nurture. India worked very well to engage a new Maldives government but Sri Lanka will be the key to India’s successful oceans policy.

South Block is also looking at Europe with new eyes, and both sides are trying to go beyond an FTA towards a deeper economic, security and technology relationship. As Europe begins to worry about China, India could be the go-to Asian power. In fact, on climate change, India and Europe are converging like never before. However, Europe is probably the only continent where soft power matters along with a performing economy – so Kashmir and CAA will matter.

Some things won’t change in the new year. China will remain India’s topmost challenge and America India’s big opportunity. Both will need a relook from this government. If we have to change one thing on the China front, let’s do away with the informal summit. It serves no purpose apart from sending strange signals – India thinks China appreciates it more and China believes it is kowtow-lite. Neither works. In US, India has to find a new language to engage the Democrats with – this party of Jayapals and Omars is more than a group of liberal jihadis, they continue to be the party of choice for many Indian-Americans.

Finally, the arbiter of effective foreign policy is and will be technology. That includes, but is not confined to how India decides on 5G. China is moving at a fast clip to set the rules at global bodies like ITU. If we’re not careful, the only compliant hardware might be Chinese! The choice is actually not Huawei or someone else. It’s a strategic choice going beyond telecommunications to strategic, defence and space.

We can like the promiscuity of multi-alignment, we just don’t have to believe it.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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