Doklam standoff to climate change: 8 ways India stood up in the world in 2017
Since it came to power, the Narendra Modi government has believed India can afford to “bat on its front foot” in foreign policy. Or, as a Chinese newspaper editorialised, India now had a government that would not be scared to offend others. The Modi government believes 2017 was marked by eight foreign policy actions in which, as a senior Indian official said, “defied precedent, didn’t operate within an ideological construct and didn’t do what we were expected to do.” These were:
1. Belt-Road Initiative: New Delhi, with Modi himself deeply involved, carefully weighed what BRI would mean for Indian interests. Once it got a thumbs down, India decided it was prepared to stand alone, do so publicly and oppose the entire Chinese programme. Since then a number of countries including Japan, Germany and most recently the United States have expressed reservations about BRI. “A moment we decided to stand up,” said an Indian diplomat.
2. Doklam. The Chinese had been building a road in the trijunction since 2011. The UPA had concluded it was just normal border road upgrading. But the Modi government decided Beijing had a different plan in mind: force Bhutan to surrender territory, expose India as spineless and drive a wedge between New Delhi and Thimpu. In the game of chicken that followed, Xi Jinping decided to blink first.
3.International Court of Justice. Traditionally, because of fears over Kashmir votes, India has avoided diplomatic confrontations with the big five UN Security Council members. New Delhi waged a “brutal” campaign against the UK to get an Indian judge on the court, admitted a diplomat. But New Delhi sent a message that it will take getting a foothold in such multilateral rules-making bodies more seriously.
4. Kulbushan Jadhav. Tangentially related was India’s surprising decision to take the Jadhav case to the International Court of Justice. India’s Kashmirphobia meant it had a tradition of never taking bilateral issues with Pakistan to the court or to any multilateral body. Islamabad was blind-sided by the move. And it allowed India to make a legal case on the basis of consular access rather than espionage. The first battle went to India and the foreign ministry is already readying for round two in 2018.
5. Quadrilateral. Many strategists in India felt resurrecting the old US-Japan-Australia-India Quadwould be a red rag before China. However, the Modi government has been careful to lay down a Quad agenda that is India-focussed: connectivity and proliferation. This was designed to keep New Delhi an arm’s length from North Korea and South China Sea, the migraines of the other members.
6. Climate change. India took a “counterintuitive position” when Donald Trump decided to pull the US out of the Paris agreement, said a senior Indian diplomat. “We moved left”. The West has reneged on every promise it has made to the developing world since climate talks began. The US’s decision gave India an opportunity to walkout of the climate talks. Instead, partly reflecting Modi’s personal concerns about global warming, India held firm. “This has given us credibility with a large number of other countries,” said an Indian diplomat.
7. Israel. While India’s West Asia policy has been edging in that direction for a while, no government was willing to dehypenate Israel from Palestine in Indian foreign policy. Modi’s stand alone visit to Israel made the formal break. His Palestine visit will carve it in stone. Though many Modi supporters were unhappy with India’s UN vote on Jerusalem, it went with the two-track policy. Behind closed doors, Israeli officials made only a token protest. India made it clear its own multilateral requirements, such as the ICJ campaign, meant that such symbolic events would result in too much collateral diplomatic damage.
8. Rohingyas. This was a case study in the diplomatic equivalent of squaring a circle. Two countries, both being wooed by India, at loggerheads but India unable to absorb any refugees itself. “We squared it on the ground,” said an Indian diplomat. The key accomplishment was to persuade Myanmar that a) they would have to take back some Rohingyas, b) India can make it easier by covering the costs of resettlement and, to Bangladesh, c) providing enough assistance to placate their anger. New Delhi knew they had won when the Myanmar army chief said, “We are grateful for you doing this.”