Indian Foreign Policy Challenges in 2017

    2017 ushered in dramatic challenges and potential policy changes. The UN would need to await the new US Administration’s approach to the recent Security Council condemnation of Israel’s Occupied Territories. A new UNSG with a proven record on assisting refugees had been sworn in, along with a new US President in a hurry to change and re shape US foreign policy. His election also changed the US and Russian dynamics and greatly strengthened President Putin’s international standing. The IS is on the run. Would they seek new havens? Would that make our difficult neighborhood more dangerous? Would the Iran nuclear deal survive, along with the Paris agreement on Climate Change and the trade agreements of WTO? This would be the year when UK Prime Minister would invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to commence the formal Brexit process. In India’s neighborhood, there is a new Pakistan Army Chief whose predecessor was forced to return home from Saudi Arabia, after announcing that he would lead the Saudi Coalition forces. Would this strengthen Nawaz and how would it impact the India Pakistan troubled relationship? These are only a few of the many new global strategic challenges of 2017? How will we respond?

    There were also issues of principle which could be addressed in 2017. Why we are still attached to Non-alignment? Our lip service to NAM makes a mockery of the positioning of our national security interests in the global reality of 2017. The Movement itself started losing its credibility in the 90s when it came under the control of a coterie of non-democratic states that were opposed to globalisation. It is ironical that at a time when people in Venezuela were facing starvation, the ‘strong man’ President of Venezuela took over chairmanship of NAM. How do our interests fit into this new NAM?

    One of our greatest challenges is to revive the declining India-Russia strategic partnership. In 2016, the unthinkable happened with the Russians conducting military exercises with Pakistan in POK. Many say that President Putin believes that India’s strategic priorities have shifted with the India-US alliance. Others note that this neglect of a time tested friend is based on superficial Western projections of Russia’s declining status and its future collapse. The reality is that Putin is a world leader and a master strategist. He is sitting on Crimea. Even Ukraine accepts this reality. The West now acknowledges that the end of the crisis in Syria and the defeat of the IS can only be achieved with the Russians on board. With the election of President Trump, there could be a dramatic change in American Foreign Policy, with Trump’s focus on arresting China’s rise and moving closer to Russian Federation. In that event, India could be in a ‘win-win’ situation with both Russian Federation and the USA.

    Then there is the core question of the Indo-US partnership with a Trump Presidency. How will it affect our terms of engagement with America? To this may be posed another question: should Indian foreign policy in South Asia and the extended neighbourhood be re-oriented to make it consistent with a strategic alignment with America’s new anti-China tilt? Whether Pakistan is an existential or ideological adversary and China a sub-regional competitor and rival, the question arises will President Trump’s conception of South Asia’s order coincide with India’s? Pakistan used to be a rare area of agreement between America and China in an otherwise mistrustful relationship. Will this change? Will there be a tacit Indo-American convergence of interests in the Asia Pacific and Western Pacific where America’s strategic presence could be a countervailing check on China’s strategic expansion? How will this impact Chinese aggression in the South China Sea or its rise globally?

    India’s neighbourhood policy did not seem to have worked well last year. We continue to grapple with the issue on how to engage and how much space to engage? Will 2017 bring more terrorist attacks on Indian territory which may result in outbreak of active hostilities? Should we continue with surgical strikes? 2017 could be the year when we reflect on whether our core principle that a stable Pakistan is in India’s best interests holds true. Similarly with China, do we have any other option but to engage?
    The New Year brings a welcome opportunity for us to brainstorm our future foreign policy directions. Should we formally break with non-alignment? How should we re-balance our relation with USA and Russia? As for Europe, India needs to carefully re-craft its relations with the European Union and UK in the context of Brexit.

    2017 could be a year when we vigorously campaign for membership of the NSG which has been held up by the Chinese on technical grounds. With a new UN Secretary General and a new US President, the reform process of the UN Security Council seems to be deadlocked. That would impact our own campaign for permanent membership. This development needs continuous monitoring.

    Our foreign policy parameters would need to take these developments into account while evolving our reactions in 2017. Many of them could, unless we are vigilant, directly impact our national security. What is required is a sober assessment of our short, medium and long term priorities based on our projection as an emerging power. Our foreign policy need to reflect and be calibrated on these requirements. 2017 could be a wakeup call for India.

    (The author is a former Indian Ambassador and head of the Europe desk of the MEA)