2017: A year of many firsts in foreign policy

By Indrani Bagchi

In 2017, India’s foreign policy tried to defy precedents and confound expectations. The result — India ventured into areas it had not dared to before.

The Doklam crisis was a defining moment in ways more than one. Quite apart from military lessons, India chose this time to object to a creeping action by China that has gone unmarked by Indian governments for years. Doklam has placed India and China squarely on opposite sides, no matter how the two countries try to dress it up. The standoff and its resolution showed maturing of the two rising Asian powers, but also showed once again the precarious nature of Indian defence preparation. India was lucky the crisis happened in an area where its forces are at a situational and military advantage.

There are two takeaways — first, how would India have showed up against China in a different theatre? On the other hand, India showed it was willing to go far, very far, in its stand against China. That was an inflexion point for both India and China.

New Delhi’s opposition to ‘One Belt, One Road’ put it in a minority until other countries gradually discovered OBOR was another mode of Chinese colonialism. Here, India was again willing to defy its tested precedent of not seeming to be isolated in world affairs. In the coming years, India will need to put teeth to this opposition, either by presenting a credible alternative, or by getting China to change its ways.

The decision to take the Kulbhushan Jadhav case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) surprised even Indians because it is an article of faith in India’s foreign policy template to not take bilateral issues to the international level. Successive Indian governments have made “internationalisation” a bad word. The early success of getting the ICJ to stay Jadhav’s execution will draw attention to the final arguments and verdict in the coming weeks. But the ghost has been slain.

India’s multilateral appetite has only grown in the past year. The campaign to put Dalveer Bhandari back as ICJ judge was brutal to say the least, but once again defied conventional practice that India did not go up against a P-5 member (the UK). The MEA and the PMO burned phone lines and pumped flesh in the kind of outreach that is normally seen in Indian domestic elections. It was tough work — even India’s closest ally, Japan, voted against Bhandari in these elections!

Ironically, India’s victory might make it difficult for it to get into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) — a consequence of the Indian determination to plod along its trajectory to becoming a “leading power” appears to have convinced the Chinese system to double down on its opposition to India. According to sources, their calculation appears to be this — If India gets into the NSG, it would have overcome the “non-proliferation treaty hurdle” and its path to a permanent seat in the UNSC would become easier. China will, therefore, contest India’s determination with its own. So, the jury remains out on whether it’s a good thing for India to have an open global appetite. Some say India should “bide its time”, but proponents of this policy in the government say New Delhi should take what is available and wait for the next level to open up.

In 2018, the Indian system will go all out once again to get back into the Human Rights Council and one can expect another high-energy campaign. This is also one of the reasons why India voted the way it did in the recent UN General Aassembly resolution on Jerusalem. On one level, India believes, like most others, that Jerusalem’s fate is tied to a final resolution. On another level, India could have defied precedent and changed its vote for two best friends — Israel and the US. It did not.

Similarly, India took a decidedly left turn when it refused to take up the opportunity of walking out of the Paris accord after Donald Trump opened the way for a cop-out. Instead, India is now a champion of climate change policies, and the forthcoming International Solar Alliance summit will demonstrate it, sources said.

Modi became the first Indian leader to visit Israel this year, a sign of the growing relationship between the two countries. But the important piece of signalling was the de-hyphenation — something no previous government had the political courage to do.

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