2019: One of the most challenging years for Indian foreign policy

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Published: January 1, 2020 5:59:35 PM

Announcing India's decision at a summit of the RCEP countries, the prime minister said the proposed deal would have an adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of all Indians.

In the midst of the frayed ties, the two sides in November, however, went ahead to throw open the Kartarpur corridor facilitating Indian pilgrims to visit one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines in the Pakistani town of Narowal.

India’s tense ties with Pakistan in the aftermath of the Balakot strikes and the changing status of Jammu and Kashmir, the challenge of dealing with an increasingly assertive Trump regime and criticism over the controversial citizenship law — 2019 was a demanding year for foreign policy mandarins. The simmering tension in India-Pakistan relations snowballed into a full-blown crisis after an Indian Air Force pilot was captured by Pakistan during aerial combat on February 27, a day after Indian warplanes pounded a terrorist training camp deep inside the neighbouring country.

The dangerously tense confrontation, the most serious after the 1971 conflict, triggered fears of a war between the two countries, but the situation eased with the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman following a massive diplomatic outreach. Months later, Indian diplomacy again faced a testing period after the government on August 5 announced its historic decision of withdrawing Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and bifurcating it into two union territories. The move drew a sharp reaction from Pakistan, which scaled down diplomatic ties with India by expelling the Indian high commissioner and subsequently indulging in sabre rattling, including issuing indirect threat of a nuclear war.

Pakistan also mounted a major diplomatic offensive against India across the globe, but its efforts did not pay much dividend as the scale of India’s outreach outshone them. India’s decisions on Kashmir also cast a shadow over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in October for the second informal summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Belying the acrimony over the Kashmir issue, both Modi and Xi held nearly seven-hour one-on-one talks in multiple sea-front venues in the ancient coastal town of Mamallapuram, signalling a recalibration of bilateral ties.

The significant outcome at the second Modi-Xi informal summit included setting up a new high-level mechanism to boost trade and investment, enhance defence and security cooperation and work on additional confidence building measures. In the midst of the frayed ties, the two sides in November, however, went ahead to throw open the Kartarpur corridor facilitating Indian pilgrims to visit one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines in the Pakistani town of Narowal.

In what was seen as a landmark people-to-people initiative, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Union minister Hardeep Puri, former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu visited the shrine on November 9 using the corridor. India had to face criticism following enactment of the controversial citizenship law and the External Affairs Ministry mounted a concerted effort to dispel concerns over it. In a significant decision, India in November pulled out of the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) over unresolved “core concerns”, effectively wrecking the China-backed bloc’s aim to create the world’s largest free trade area having half of the world’s population.

Announcing India’s decision at a summit of the RCEP countries, the prime minister said the proposed deal would have an adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of all Indians. In the backdrop of a geopolitical flux in the region, India also demonstrated a certain degree of assertiveness in handling relations in the neighbourhood, and beyond.

In the immediate neighbourhood, India’s ties with Bangladesh were impacted after the roll out of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, an exercise carried out to detect and deport illegal Bangladeshis from the state. India’s defence and strategic ties with Russia saw significant intensity after Prime Minister Modi and President Vladimir Putin’s annual summit talks. However, ties with the US nosedived after the country terminated India’s designation as beneficiary of its Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme in June which provided it export of duty-free goods. The two sides are currently working on a trade deal. Officials said India had to recalibrate its strategy to deal with an increasingly assertive Trump administration. However, the address by Modi and US President Donal Trump at a diaspora event in Houston in September grabbed international headlines, signalling a further deepening of ties. The year 2019 also saw a new momentum in India’s engagement with Africa, Europe, the Central Asia and the Gulf Region, primarily led by Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.

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