External priorities

A year into its second term in office, the United Progressive Alliance’s record on foreign policies and strategic issues has been decidedly mixed. During the previous innings, the government’s political and diplomatic energies were channelled towards concluding the nuclear accord with the United States. In the past year, however, there has been no one issue that has dominated the government’s international agenda. By the same token though, foreign policy has not been stalked by divisive coalition politics. And yet, while significant progress has been made on much neglected fronts, major challenges remain to be addressed.
The most important, if underrated, breakthroughs were with Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. Bangladesh’s relationship with India has always been intertwined with its domestic politics. The Awami League government under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina made important moves against groups that had long opposed closer ties with India: the decisive action against the mutineers; the execution of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s assassins; and the initiation of war crimes trials. New Delhi wisely capitalised on this favourable trend by concluding a series of agreements during Ms Hasina’s visit earlier this year.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia gave much needed impetus not only to bilateral relations but also to India’s wider engagement with West Asia. The Saudis tended to agree with India’s views on the interconnections between various terrorist outfits operating in Pakistan. The Saudis’ refusal to consider the Taliban the sole representatives of the Pashtuns went down well with their Indian interlocutors. It is significant that the Riyadh Declaration included an unequivocal condemnation of terrorism, and support for Indian efforts for development and reconstruction in Afghanistan. Equally important were India’s endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute and its call for a West Asia free of nuclear weapons.
The last point signalled an attempt at calibrating India’s stance on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It suggested that while India opposed the development of nukes by Iran, it was also cognisant of Iran’s security concerns and of the problems created by Israel’s nuclear status. New Delhi has also cautioned against punitive sanctions on Iran. During his recent visit to the US, Dr Singh made it clear that sanctions were unlikely to achieve their objective. As the drive to impose international sanctions gathers pace, India should not remain discreetly enveloped in diplomatic silence. Not least because of Iran’s salience to Indian efforts in Afghanistan, especially in light of the projected American drawdown beginning mid next year.
Indeed, India’s policy towards Afghanistan has not been sufficiently flexible and forward looking. Owing to excessive solicitude for Pakistani perceptions and ensuing American concerns, India limited itself to developmental activities and refrained from extending any help in the security sector — such as training of the Afghan Army and police. At the same time, New Delhi insisted that there should be no efforts to reach out to section of the Taliban insurgency. The London Conference came as something of a surprise. None less than President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan pushed for reintegration and reconciliation albeit within the framework of the Afghan Constitution. New Delhi undertook some course correction and affirmed cautious support for Mr Karzai’s efforts. But its willingness and ability to shape the unfolding events in Afghanistan remains limited.
The Indian government is right in thinking that Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan. But it is not clear that limiting our engagement with Kabul is going to yield dividends vis-à-vis Islamabad. Dr Singh is transparently sincere in his desire to improve relations with Pakistan. But his room for manoeuvre on this front depends on his ability to convince his own party and to carry public opinion. The Congress Party has been cagey about opening towards Pakistan. While it has not expressed its opposition, it has also not strongly endorsed the move — quite a contrast with the Indo-US nuclear deal. Further, the government has not convincingly laid out the rationale for reaching out to Pakistan. Why will engagement work at this point when it has failed in the past? Is the current dispensation in Pakistan indeed suitable to bridging the “trust deficit” let alone doing anything else? If there is a good case for engagement, it is yet to be made. And unless public opinion is informed and shaped, the government’s efforts will at best be halting.
The major challenge that remains to be squarely addressed is not Pakistan, but China. The Sino-Indian relationship in the recent past has been marked by a paradox. While bilateral relations have been buffeted by a number of problems, both countries have been able to work together on wider international issues. The Group of Twenty and the Copenhagen negotiations have highlighted the trend that has been observable for some time now. The climate change negotiations underscored the fact that China too needs India’s cooperation in shaping and working the architecture of global governance. During his visit to China last month, the Indian foreign minister rightly observed that the rise of both countries could fundamentally transform the global order. But translating ambitious rhetoric into tangible outcomes will require considerable effort.
In the past 18 months or so, bilateral relations have been subject to a series of strains, starting with China’s attempts to block the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver for India down to its recent practice of issuing separate visas to residents of Kashmir. The boundary negotiations have been drifting along as well. Both sides have affirmed their commitment to maintaining peace along the contested frontiers. They have quite properly insisted that this issue should not hold hostage the rest of the relationship. But allowing it to fester without any forward movement will be problematic; for it provides a convenient rallying point for hardliners on both sides. The boundary issue, however, is only one facet of an increasingly complex strategic relationship that encompasses issues such as maritime power and space, terrorism and piracy, Afghanistan and Pakistan. With so much at stake, the case for a deeper engagement with China hardly needs to be made.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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