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Restoring India’s foreign policy horizons

LiveMint logoLiveMint 19-05-2014 Livemint

Narendra Modi comes to power at a time when India has experienced loss of its strategic bearings. In the last years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government foreign policy became a holding operation. From the confident, even triumphal, posture evident after the 2005 India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, India has largely lost its élan in dealing with other countries. Modi will have to do much to march the country out of this rut.

His tasks can be divided into two parts.

The immediate priority of his government should be to improve ties with two neighbours in particular—Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Dhaka he has a willing partner in Sheikh Hasina. Fulfilling India’s unkept promises will give Hasina the domestic traction she needs to overcome domestic hurdles in furthering relations.

Fixing the relationship with Sri Lanka and Pakistan is a more difficult matter. In Sri Lanka’s case, it is India’s relative weakness—economic and political—that has emboldened the government of that country to take a hostile approach. As India regains economic strength and the political will—something that should not be a problem for Modi—the Lankan government can be expected to fall in line. His independence from regional parties in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal will help him greatly.

Pakistan, as always, poses special problems. Attitudes towards India in Islamabad are more or less frozen. Unless, Pakistan can muster the will to give up its claims in Jammu and Kashmir, no progress is likely in building a normal relationship. In fact, as matters stand now, Pakistan has few incentives to normalize relations with India. With its western flank more or less likely to be in its control as Nato troops withdraw from Afghanistan, Islamabad may end up trying more adventures in India this year and the next. Much will also depend on who becomes the president in Kabul—Abdullah Abdullah, a leader desiring friendly relations with India, or Ashraf Ghani who prefers equidistance between India and Pakistan.

This set of relations can be managed with relative ease. A special envoy, directly responsible to the prime minister, will be an ideal instrument for this task.

India’s bigger problem lies to the east. The country has no coherent vision for ties with China. Reactions vary from knee-jerk military responses in case of border incursions to hopes that deeper economic relations with Beijing can somehow push contentious issues in the freezer until India is better prepared to tackle China. That will not work. China’s moment of greatness is at hand and it will want to change the status quo—from borders to primacy in Asia—in its favour soon. It will not wait for India.

In the meantime, something can be done. Modi should move fast and develop much deeper politico-military ties with Vietnam and Japan, the two countries that want such relations with India. He should visit both countries at an early date, preferably in close succession. Instead of the usual baggage he should take with him officials who are specifically tasked to implement measures to further ties. He or someone sufficiently empowered in the Prime Minister’s Office should monitor progress regularly.

Dealing with China not only requires caution but a great deal of clarity. The border issue is difficult to resolve as Chinese claims are unacceptable. But far more than that, China has done a very good job of keeping India locked in South Asia. Getting out of this box will be difficult as the UPA government did not devote the attention required. China is more than willing to be a big trading partner to India. Modi is well-known to advocate trading ties. But trade alone won’t solve the Chinese puzzle. India has to reach out boldly to East Asian countries. At one time, the Manmohan Singh government tried to do this. It lost energy and did not do enough. Modi should pick up the baton and move fast.

What should Modi focus on first: China or Pakistan?

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