The year started with a big high in the Indo-Israeli relations, when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a six-day visit to India, where he made a keynote speech about the strength of Indo-Israeli bilateral relations at the annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, where he was the chief guest as well.
Last year was full of twists and turns in India’s relations with other countries in the international system. The year started with a big high in the Indo-Israeli relations, when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a six-day visit to India, where he made a keynote speech about the strength of Indo-Israeli bilateral relations at the annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi, where he was the chief guest as well. Netanyahu’s visit was seen as a key step in normalising India’s bilateral relationship with Israel.
The next big event was when 10 heads of states from ASEAN countries were invited to be the chief guests for India’s 69th Republic Day. This was seen as Narendra Modi government’s conscious effort to bolster its Act East policy and make India an active player in the Indo-Pacific region. Hosting 10 heads of states at the same time was an uphill task for the Indian government, but having done it successfully showcased India’s growing diplomatic prowess and strength.
However, the real test of Indian diplomacy came in its immediate neighbourhood where a lot of political upheaval took place, especially in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan. In Maldives, where emergency was imposed and the country was in a deep political crisis, many expected India to intervene in the matter. However, India behaved with great caution and restraint by underplaying its hands in the matter. As an aspiring regional hegemon in the South Asian region, with an aim to counterbalance China, India didn’t want itself to be seen by Maldives as an aggressor.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, a constitutional crisis took place, and again the world was watching India carefully to see what it will do in that situation. Like in the case of Maldives, India just came out with a statement that it is aware of the developments in the island nation and is watching the situation closely. This was a rather predictable behaviour on India’s part, but again a good move overall. Sometimes, showing restraint and underplaying becomes a mark of deft diplomacy. This seems precisely to be the case with India’s engagements in its immediate neighbourhood.
However, with Pakistan, the story was replete with many twists and turns. When Imran Khan got elected as the Prime Minister, few saw genuine hopes of relations between the countries getting restored. But within weeks after Khan’s ascendancy, it became pretty clear that it would be business-as-usual between the two South Asian neighbours. The reason being that, on one hand, Khan expressed his desire to reach out to India and start a bilateral dialogue through constructive re-engagement, while on other hand brutal killings of Indian soldiers by Pakistan-based entities continued. India, therefore, had to say ‘no’ to the proposed talks between the foreign ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting 2018, as talks and terrorism cannot go together.
However, commentators were puzzled why India initially agreed for a bilateral dialogue, considering that Pakistan has historically not been a trustworthy neighbour. As usual, Pakistan raised the ‘K word’ (Kashmir) at international platforms like the UNGA, thereby souring its relations with India even more. To cut short, the arrival of Khan at Pakistan’s helm of affairs didn’t make any significant changes to Indo-Pak relations.
The most interesting aspect of India’s external affairs in 2018 was seen in its relations with great powers like the US, Russia and China. India has tried its best to have cordial relations with all these nations, without upsetting any of them. However, with India’s growing power in the international system, great powers want the country to take sides and align itself with one or the other. Gone are the days when India could easily adopt a middle-path, a madhyam marg, and manoeuvre itself in the great power politics to satisfy its interests.
With Russia and the US being antagonistic to each other on various fronts in 2018, both the countries wanted India to align with them. However, India managed to stick to its non-aligned approach in foreign policy, which has served it pretty well in the past. Russia’s growing proximity with China and Pakistan has been a cause of great concern to India, as it has the potential to hamper India’s larger security interests. Therefore, when PM Modi visited Sochi in Russia in May, it was perceived by many as India trying to recalibrate its ties with Russia, which has been the country’s most trustworthy ally and a time-tested friend in the past.
India also reached out to China when Modi visited the country for the Wuhan Summit in April. China is India’s biggest trading partner, and any conflict with that country will harm India’s business interests. As a rule, cooperation is always better than conflict, but the caution is that cooperation should not be received at the expense of self-respect. The inaugural Indo-US 2+2 dialogue in September in New Delhi was the highlight of Indo-US diplomatic relations, which reflected Delhi’s deft diplomatic efforts.
Not gaining entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group in June was definitely a setback for India, but overall the year was a mixed bag for Indian diplomacy.
(Author is Junior research fellow, School of International Studies, JNU)