To­wards a re­gional re­set?

Bold moves to nor­malise ties with China and Pak­istan will en­hance In­dia’s stand­ing

The Hindu - - EDITORIAL - Suhasini Haidar suhasini.h@the­

Change of­ten comes unan­nounced, and the gov­ern­ment’s for­eign pol­icy moves over the past few months rep­re­sent an unan­nounced but pro­found shift in its think­ing about the neigh­bour­hood. This could change the course of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s for­eign pol­icy be­fore the gen­eral elec­tion next year.

On the mend

The most ob­vi­ous in this is what is now be­ing called the “re­set” with China. While the trig­ger for the rap­proche­ment be­tween the two neigh­bours was the peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of the Dok­lam stand­off and Mr. Modi’s meet­ing with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in Xi­a­men last year, the out­come of the easing of ten­sions is be­ing seen in New Delhi’s pub­lic pos­tures this year.

To be­gin with, the gov­ern­ment has taken care not to re­spond with any heat to re­ports of the Chi­nese build-up at Dok­lam. Con­struc­tion by the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army of new bases, bunkers and he­li­pads, as well its troops stay­ing in the erst­while graz­ing grounds there through the win­ter is far from nor­mal ac­tiv­ity. Keep­ing its re­sponses cool, New Delhi has been re­peat­ing that the Dok­lam stand­off point is un­touched and Chi­nese con­struc­tion on their side of the bound­ary is “not a threat” to In­dia. The gov­ern­ment has also gone to some lengths to tone down planned cel­e­bra­tions mark­ing the an­niver­sary of the Dalai Lama’s ar­rival from Ti­bet. New Delhi and Bei­jing have now em­barked on a flurry of high-level vis­its that are meant to lead up to a sum­mit meet­ing be­tween the two lead­ers; they may even meet more than once. The shift has given rise to spec­u­la­tion that the two sides are in­tent on mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant progress in smoothen­ing ties on out­stand­ing is­sues such as bound­ary ne­go­ti­a­tions and also nar­row­ing the trade deficit, an is­sue dis­cussed dur­ing the Chi­nese Com­merce Min­is­ter’s visit to In­dia re­cently.

This flex­i­bil­ity is also mir­rored in the gov­ern­ment’s deal­ings in the South Asian re­gion. De­spite sev­eral ap­peals by the Mal­di­vian op­po­si­tion, and nudges from the U.S., the Modi gov­ern­ment de­cided not to ex­ert hard power in bring­ing Mal­dives Pres­i­dent Ab­dulla Yameen around af­ter he de­clared a state of emer­gency in the coun­try. Nor did it en­gage China in a con­fronta­tion when Mr. Yameen sought Bei­jing’s sup­port in this re­gard. The gov­ern­ment re­mained silent as Male went a step fur­ther and held dis­cus­sions with Pak­istan’s Army Chief, Gen. Qa­mar Javed Ba­jwa, on joint pa­trolling of its Ex­clu­sive Eco­nomic Zone, an area of oper­a­tion in the In­dian Ocean con­sid­ered to be In­dia’s do­main.

With Nepal, in­stead of see­ing red when a vic­to­ri­ous Prime Min­is­ter K.P. Oli made it clear that he would step up en­gage­ment with China in in­fras­truc­ture de­vel­op­ment, In­dia rolled out the red car­pet for him ear­lier this month. Nor did In­dia raise con­cern over Nepal’s Con­sti­tu­tion which had sparked the con­fronta­tion be­tween In­dia and Nepal in 2015-16. There has also been out­reach to Bhutan and Bangladesh in re­cent weeks. Both Bhutan and Bangladesh are to hold elec­tions this year, and with in­cum­bent gov­ern­ments more favourably dis­posed to New Delhi than their chal­lengers in the op­po­si­tion, the re­sults will have an im­pact on In­dia’s in­flu­ence in these coun­tries as well.

Quiet progress with Pak­istan

One area of for­eign pol­icy where few would bet money on a re­set, namely Pak­istan, has also seen some quiet move­ment. This year, the gov­ern­ment ad­mit­ted in Par­lia­ment for the first time that Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser (NSA) Ajit Do­val had met his Pak­istani coun­ter­part, Nasser Khan Jan­jua, as a part of “es­tab­lished chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at var­i­ous lev­els” be­tween the two sides in the past few years, post-Pathankot. Of­fi­cials have con­firmed that talks be­tween the two NSAs have also taken place on the side­lines of con­fer­ences as well, and quite reg­u­larly tele­phon­i­cally. Mean­while, the res­o­lu­tion of the stand­off over the treat­ment of diplo­mats in Delhi and Is­lam­abad in­di­cates that nei­ther gov­ern­ment has the ap­petite for es­ca­la­tion at this point.

All around, it would ap­pear that In­dia’s hard power strat­egy in the re­gion is be­ing re­placed with a more con­cil­ia­tory one. How­ever, the next steps will be de­fined not by a quiet or de­fen­sive ap­proach to re­defin­ing In­dia’s for­eign pol­icy in the re­gion, but with a more bold and proac­tive one. The re­set with China will work only if there are trans­ac­tional div­i­dends for both New Delhi and Bei­jing, in case the two gov­ern­ments go back to the de­fault an­tag­o­nism of the past af­ter the sum­mit meet­ings. Two is­sues on which both gov­ern­ments can show flex­i­bil­ity are China’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI) and In­dia’s bid for Nu­clear Sup­pli­ers Group (NSG) mem­ber­ship.

On the NSG, China could re­move its block to In­dia’s mem­ber­ship by adopt­ing a more in­clu­sive ap­proach within the nu­clear ex­port con­trol or­gan­i­sa­tion. In­dian mem­ber­ship, which the Modi gov­ern­ment seems to have made its ob­jec­tive, will only strengthen the in­ter­na­tional nu­clear regime. Even if with­drawal of China’s ob­jec­tions does not soften the ob­jec­tions of more hard­line “non-pro­lif­er­a­tionists” or Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty-pro­po­nents, the good­will from such a move would pro­pel In­dia-China re­la­tions for­ward.

On the BRI, if there is po­lit­i­cal will on both sides, they needn’t look too far for cre­ative so­lu­tions around In­dia’s three con­cerns: on ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity, trans­parency of projects and their sus­tain­abil­ity. The so­lu­tion to the first is con­tained in a pro­posal under con­sid­er­a­tion — to ex­tend the China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. While it may have not been the out­come dis­cussed, the shift from the CPEC to what could be called PACE or the Pak­istan-Afghanistan-China Eco­nomic cor­ri­dor would ne­ces­si­tate a shift away from projects in Gil­git-Baltistan and Pak­istan-oc­cu­pied Kash­mir. Those projects may still be built and funded by China, but then would not con­sti­tute a part of the BRI route; as a re­sult, In­dia’s con­cerns on sovereignty could be dis­pensed with.

Mean­while, sev­eral coun­tries, from Europe to Cen­tral and East Asia, are now echo­ing In­dia’s con­cerns about the en­vi­ron­men­tal and debt trap risks that BRI projects pose. In­dia could take the lead in cre­at­ing an in­ter­na­tional tem­plate for in­fras­truc­ture and con­nec­tiv­ity pro­pos­als, one that would seek to en­gage China and other donor coun­tries in a struc­tured ap­proach to­wards debt fi­nanc­ing. This would win In­dia good­will in the neigh­bour­hood too, where ev­ery other coun­try (apart from Bhutan) has signed on to the BRI, but has felt alien­ated by In­dia’s rigid op­po­si­tion to the ini­tia­tive.

SAARC re-en­gage­ment

How­ever, the real tip­ping point in In­dia’s re­gional re­set will come if the gov­ern­ment also de­cides to re­con­sider its op­po­si­tion to the South Asian As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­gional Co­op­er­a­tion (SAARC) sum­mit this year, with Pak­istan as the host. At a press con­fer­ence re­cently, the For­eign Sec­re­tary re­peated In­dia’s con­cerns over cross-bor­der ter­ror­ism from Pak­istan, say­ing: “Given the cur­rent state of play where there is cross-bor­der ter­ror­ism and where this is a dis­rup­tive force in the re­gion, it is dif­fi­cult in such cir­cum­stances to pro­ceed with [SAARC].” But the ar­gu­ment is be­gin­ning to wear thin.

Afghanistan, which sup­ported In­dia’s move to pull out of the SAARC sum­mit in Is­lam­abad in 2016 fol­low­ing the Uri at­tacks, is en­gag­ing with Pak­istan again; Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani and Pak­istan Prime Min­is­ter Shahid Khaqan Ab­basi signed a sev­en­point Afghanistan-Pak­istan Ac­tion Plan for Peace and Sol­i­dar­ity early this month. Sri Lanka and Nepal, both sym­pa­thetic to In­dia’s out­rage over Uri, are push­ing for a sum­mit this year; their sen­ti­ments were con­veyed pub­licly by Mr. Oli in Delhi, and by Sri Lankan Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena on his visit to Is­lam­abad in March.

The trick is for Mr. Modi to at­tend the sum­mit in Pak­istan when some of In­dia’s neigh­bours are still ask­ing “why”, and not when all of its neigh­bours be­gin to ask “why not”. While this may re­quire the gov­ern­ment’s much touted “Do­val Doc­trine” to take a leaf out of the much de­rided “Gu­jral Doc­trine” book, it may be in keep­ing with a larger de­sire for a re­gional re­set, bring­ing Mr. Modi’s last year in this term of of­fice more in line with his first.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.