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Modi refocuses on foreign policy after big wins in assembly polls

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-03-2017 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: After wrapping up the elections to four states this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be refocusing attention on foreign policy especially ties with some of India’s immediate neighbours in South Asia next month.

There are at least four key visits lined up next month—two from South Asia and the others further afield. The dignitaries expected in Delhi include the prime ministers of Bangladesh and Australia, the president of Nepal and the foreign minister of Singapore.

The first to arrive will be Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina who will begin a three-day visit on 7 April. This will be Hasina’s first bilateral visit since January 2010 and the two countries are expected to sign a defence cooperation pact during the visit—the first of its kind between the two neighbours. The pact of concluded comes about six months after Bangladesh bought two Chinese built submarines—raising alarm in India over the increased Chinese footprint in India’s immediate periphery.

To strengthen its ties with Bangladesh, India is looking at outlining a roadmap for cooperation in the Bay of Bengal under a programme unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for cooperation with countries on the so called “Blue Economy”. This entails cooperation in the exploitation of hydrocarbons, marine resources, deep sea fishing and preservation of marine ecology besides disaster management. India is already extending help to countries along the Indian Ocean littoral undertaking hydrographic surveys.

The second visitor to arrive on 9 April will be Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is on his first visit to India after taking over from Tony Abbott in September 2015. During his first year in office, Turnbull has focussed on improving ties with countries in the immediate neighbourhood like Indonesia with a visit in 2015 and to major trade partner China last year. This is a far cry from the tempo of India-Australia ties set under the Abbott government with Tony Abbott visiting India in September 2014—just months after Modi took office and the Indian Prime Minister returning the visit in November 2014.

Modi and Turnbull have met bilaterally on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in China last year. The two leaders could exchange notes on the new Trump administration in the US and its strategic and economic implications for the Asia-Pacific region.

Turnbull’s visit comes as India’s Adani Group is facing opposition to its plans to invest $16.5 billion in a coal mine in Queensland. Australia’s largest coal project—which could fuel power generation for 100 million Indians and create 10,000 jobs in Queensland—has ignited protests from environment groups concerned the development will increase carbon pollution and endanger the health of the Great Barrier Reef marine park in northern Queensland. Environmental opposition to the mine, which could begin production in 2020, has delayed the first phase of the project and prompted the company to cut underground capacity by 38 % according to a Bloomberg news report.

The third visitor to India in April will be the Nepalese president Bidhya Devi Bhandari who is expected to land in New Delhi on 17 April. Bhandari was to have visited India last year but her trip was called off at the last minute by the government of then prime minister K.P. Sharma Oli due to tensions with India over sections of Nepal’s new constitution that seemed to marginalize sections of the Nepalese population such as the Madhesis.

The fourth visitor expected in New Delhi is Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan who could arrive in the third week of April. Bilateral ties and the uncertainty over US President Donald Trump’s Asia policy are the likely subjects of conversation between Balakrishnan and his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj.

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