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India’s balancing act: Improved foreign relations in India’s interest is visible

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It goes without saying that India’s geographic location and contemporary history offer immense potential and challenges as India becomes one of the poles in a multipolar world in the first half of the twenty first century. Keeping revanchist Pakistan under check, balancing China, dealing with a string of near failed states on the periphery, securing energy security from the Middle East and managing tensions between Russia and the United States require India to be nimble footed and more accepting of realities.

India’s foreign policy has never been about knee-jerk decisions. There has been remarkable continuity and bipartisan consensus from PV Narasimha Rao to Vajpayee to Manmohan and to Modi. Starting with the normalization of relations with Israel, pursuing stronger economic ties with China by keeping the border dispute on the back burner, alignment with the United States and deepening military ties Russia, each Prime Minister has built on his predecessor’s work.

The time period between 2016 and 2021 was dramatic in the sense that India was forced to accept hard realities and make suitable adjustments to its foreign policy which were unprecedented. China’s border provocations starting with Doklam and culminating in the deadly clashes in Eastern Ladakh brought the border dispute to the center of India’s relations with China. India’s stale approach of negotiating for Chinese withdrawal each time by agreeing to freeze infrastructure building and keeping the entire relationship to ransom failed spectacularly.

It forced India to reorient its Pakistan centric army to the northern borders. It has also led to massive construction of hard infrastructure for a credible defensive posture. It appears to be that the Line of Actual Control would be demarcated on the ground by troop presence and infrastructure.

Keeping Pakistan unstable, off balance and bankrupt is in India’s best interests. Hard military deterrence against major terror attacks, putting an end to clown acts called peace talks, lobbying the West for grey listing Pakistan on the FATF terror financing watchlist and persuading major Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE to see India’s point of view on Pakistan and terror have been India’s major foreign policy achievements in the last five years.

India has slowly but surely managed to bring Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives to behave after short lived and unsuccessful attempts to play off India against China. As of 2022 February, the Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka are entirely dependent on India for their maintaining their regime’s financial stability as is the government of Maldives. India has enough levers in Nepal and Bhutan to keep China’s influence under check.

Myanmar poses an unprecedented challenge to India. The military coup has little to do with it. India has perfected the art of dealing with the hybrid democracy-military regime in Myanmar. This is the first time since independence that Myanmar is facing a full-blown civil war. Anti-India insurgent groups with bases in Myanmar would ultimately side with either the military or the NLD led armed movement. And neither of the two protagonists have an upper hand in the civil war at the moment.

Bangladesh is one military coup or Islamist movement away from creating a Pakistan-like headache on India’s eastern front. It is not if but when this would happen. It is important to note that India has had such a situation whenever Sheikh Hasina has lost power. Sheikh Hasina’s friendly policy towards India has nothing to do with her domestic agenda of brutalizing the Hindus of Bangladesh whose population has dwindled from 30 percent in 1947 to 7 percent in 2021.

India faces no dearth of challenges in its relations with the GCC countries. Sunni-Shia schisms, Turkey’s neo-Ottoman delusions, Israel and Palestine’s intractable conflict and Israel-Iran relations have made India’s life worse in the Middle East. Convincing Saudi Arabia and UAE on Pakistan and terror financing, improving India’s energy security, open embrace of Israel and Palestine (Modi became India’s first Prime Minister to visit Israel and Palestine on separate trips) and simultaneously deepening relations with Iran (as much as the United States’ unilateral sanctions on Iran allow) have been India’s gains in the short term.

It is India’s balancing of relations with the United States and Russia that deserves special praise. The United States is now India’s largest trading partner with over 160 billion USD worth of trade in 2021. Russia continues to be India’s all-weather friend when it comes to co-operation on sensitive military and dual use technologies. It ranges from leasing of nuclear-powered submarines to missiles and aircraft carriers to civilian nuclear power plants.

As the decade progresses, it remains to be seen how India navigates troubled waters. Deterioration of US-Russia relations pushing Russia deeper into the Chinese orbit poses the most difficult problem for India’s foreign policy practitioners in my opinion. The positive signs are there to see.

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