Testing time ahead for Indian diplomacy

No external support can ultimately be relied upon. Chinese actions have to be met through national resolve. That requires social cohesion and peace but can that be possible amidst the no-holds-barred political clash and ideological contestation? The political class seems oblivious to the gravity of the Chinese challenge and the government’s focus is on avoiding embarrassments.

Testing time ahead for Indian diplomacy

Quiet affair: There will be no chief guest at the Republic Day parade this year because of the circumstances created by the pandemic. PTI

Vivek Katju

Ex-secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

For the second straight year, there will be no chief guest at Republic Day. The Modi government will be deeply disappointed this year because the parade will be held on a re-developed Rajpath and media reports indicate that the leaders of all five Central Asian Republics (CARs) had been invited as chief guests. In 2018, all 10 ASEAN leaders were present at the Republic Day as chief guests. However, the absence of the CAR leaders is understandable because of the Covid pandemic, apart from fluid conditions in Kazakhstan. Indeed, Indian diplomacy has had to cope with extraordinary requirements imposed by the pandemic. How has it fared, operationally and in addressing the main substantive challenges, since the coronavirus struck?

Modi maintained an active diplomatic schedule both bilaterally and in the multilateral context till the beginning of the pandemic. He travelled to the major world capitals to develop personal equations with world leaders for he believes that personal chemistry assists the diplomatic process. It is doubtful if it really does when essential national interests are at stake, but that is another matter. Under Modi’s leadership, other political leaders also travelled to capitals which had not witnessed political visits for decades. Thus, Indian diplomacy was energetic; External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar also made regular visits to meet his counterparts. Indian political leaders and diplomats made abundant use of the virtual mode too. Hence, Indian diplomacy adapted to changed conditions in a creditable manner.

Now to substantive matters! Over the past two years, India has faced four significant diplomatic and security challenges. These arose from Chinese actions, navigating the great powers’ game, the Afghanistan-Pakistan scenario and a conviction in some international quarters that India was moving towards fascism.

The main external difficulty in the past two years arose out of China’s decision to go back on the 1990s agreements to maintain stability along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Its actions to change the status quo in eastern Ladakh in April/May 2020 signalled an aggressive intent which was also witnessed in its disdain for Indian concerns in its actions in South Asia. While China is maintaining its full relationship with Pakistan, its intrusiveness in other South Asian countries is also vigorously continuing. India engaged China in military-to-military and diplomatic talks but close to two years on, the fact remains that status quo ante has not been reached.

India’s response to China’s provocation has been to strengthen defences and infrastructure along the LAC, focus on building its own manufacturing and joining hands with democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific; the Quad is a manifestation of building partnerships with countries concerned at China’s aggressive rise. These are valid approaches but it will not be easy to reduce supply chain dependency on China as trade figures of the past two years reveal. And no external support can ultimately be relied upon. Chinese actions have to be met through national resolve. That requires social cohesion and peace but can that be possible amidst the no-holds-barred political clash and ideological contestation? The political class seems oblivious to the gravity of the Chinese challenge and the government’s focus is on avoiding embarrassments.

China is threatening the contemporary world order in which the United States has undoubted pre-eminence. Through its assertive rise, it has demonstrated that it will not be restrained by the norms of international conduct or the rulings of global institutions. The clash between the established world power and the challenger is the overarching feature of current international life and all countries, including India, have to navigate it. India’s interests demand a closer relationship with the US and the steps taken by the Modi government over the past two years to strengthen the processes begun by previous governments have been largely on the right track. However, India has to be mindful that its concerns, both vis-à-vis China and on other matters, and those of the US are not always on all fours. This is especially demonstrated on Russia. While it is a critical country for India, it has an adversarial relationship with the US. The issue of Ukraine will now show how India and the US manage their differences on matters which both consider vital. This will be a testing time for Indian diplomacy.

The Taliban captured Kabul on August 15 last year. It marked a major setback for Indian interests not only in Afghanistan but in this country’s entire western neighbourhood. It need not have been so if Indian foreign and strategic policy managers had seen the writing on the wall and had not believed that the US was really serious in accepting a strategic defeat and moving on. Worse still, when the Taliban was signalling that it wanted to establish a relationship, India held back and even today is unwilling to establish a presence in Kabul, leaving the field to Pakistan and China. The despatch of assistance to Afghanistan is good but will not fill the void created by the absence of a mission in the Afghan capital.

Diplomacy requires nimbleness in thought and action and this was clearly wanting in Indian diplomacy on Afghanistan which gave an advantage to Pakistan. Pakistan’s back-channel efforts, prodded by some states, yielded a ceasefire along the LoC last February, but the promise that it would lead to a larger normalisation was belied because of Pakistan’s continuing lack of realism on J&K.

The Modi government has received great criticism for its domestic social and political actions from liberal circles in the West, including in the media. This has been especially so in its second term. It has sought to dismiss it as motivated and inconsequential, but its worries are shown by its desire to invigorate contacts with Central and Eastern Europe to ensure that it is able to counter criticism in formal EU structures. India’s soft power has not only been its ancient achievements such as yoga but also its modern democratic traditions which flow from the Indian renaissance. The country will pay an external cost too if these traditions are diluted.

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