Insights into Editorial: Prime Minister’s schedule of foreign visits
Prime Minister’s schedule of foreign visits has been extremely impressive, and he has managed to inject a degree of dynamism into a system accustomed to a more leisurely pace. Estimating outcomes from these visits is, however, more difficult. One can easily see the contrast in outcomes in his two most recent visits.
1.U.S. tilts towards transactional rather than strategic aspects.
The U.S. visit was a carefully calibrated one, concentrating mainly on counter-terrorism and the defence security partnership, avoiding contentious trade-related issues.
- The naming of the Hizbul Mujahedeen chief as a “specially designated global terrorist” and a new consultation mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designations listing proposals” were the high points of the counter-terrorism agenda.
- Reiteration of India’s position as a major defence partner and confirmation of the sale of the Guardian Unmanned Aerial System to India reflected the deepening security and defence cooperation.
- An oblique reference made in the joint statement to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and reiteration of support for “freedom of navigation” in the Indo-Pacific.
- De-hyphenating Israel from Palestine
This being the first ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to that country, the euphoria of the standalone visit, de-hyphenating Israel from Palestine, was understandable.
It also produced better dividends, including elevation of the India-Israel relationship to the level of a ‘strategic partnership’.
The main focus of the visit was on
- Defence cooperation,
- Joint development of defence products and
- Transfer of technology.
Most of the agreements signed related to transfer of technology and innovative technology-related items and India expects to benefit substantially, considering that Israeli export rules are far more flexible than those of the U.S.
Both countries also expressed a strong commitment to combat terror.
The reality, however, is somewhat different.
- The two countries speak of terrorism; they speak of very different things. Iran and Hezbollah are the main targets for Israel, which has little interest in the Afghan Taliban or Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba. For India, it is the latter that matters.
- The euphoria of the visit cannot, however, conceal China’s importance for Israel.
- China is a far bigger investor and trading partner of Israel than India.
- On this occasion, India and Israel decided to set up a $40 million Innovation Fund to allow Indian and Israeli enterprises to develop innovative technologies and products for commercial applications, but it is clearly dwarfed by the Israel-China comprehensive innovation partnership which has an outlay of $300 million.
- India and Israel also have differences over China’s BRI: Israel is eager to participate in it, unlike India, and possibly views this as an opportunity to develop a project parallel to the Suez Canal.
- An assertive China, a hostile Pakistan
Two countries where India’s diplomacy, despite the impetus given to it, is currently facing heavy odds are China and Pakistan.
- China in Asia is already exercising some of the political and economic leverages that the U.S. previously possessed.
- China has a significant presence in East and Southeast Asia, is steadily enlarging its presence in South Asia, and is also beginning to expand into West Asia.
- For instance, China’s influence in Iran today appears to be at an all-time high, whereas India’s influence seems to be diminishing.
- India has differences with China over BRI and now standoff at Doklam plateau in Bhutan.
In the case of Pakistan,
The implosion of the state arising from its internal stresses and problems, together with the virtual standoff between India and Pakistan has enabled the Pakistani Deep State to further entrench itself.
- As Pakistan becomes still more deeply mired in problems, its dependence on China is growing.
- This is contributing to a strategic imbalance in the South Asian region.
- A divided ASEAN
- A divided ASEAN again has provided China with an opportunity to demonstrate its economic and military muscle.
- Most countries in the region also demonstrate a desire to join China-based initiatives.
South Asia neighbours
Despite India’s commanding presence in South Asia, China has been successful in winning quite a few friends among India’s neighbours such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
- Russia-China-India triangle – then and now
It is a moot point whether India and Indian diplomacy can do something to rectify matters in the above context, but for the present it confronts Indian diplomacy with one more serious dilemma.
- Notwithstanding India’s efforts, the diplomatic scene vis-à-vis Russia also could be better. Russia is undergoing a strategic resurgence of sorts, sustained in good measure by the close relations recently established with China.
- Buoyed by developments in the Ukraine and Crimea, and the uncertainties surrounding U.S. commitment to NATO, the new Russia-China ‘strategic congruence’ is certain to impact Asia.
The problem for India and Indian diplomacy is that at this time India-Russia relations appear less robust than at any time in the past half century.
- India’s ‘Act East and Look West’
Policies have given a new dimension to Indian diplomacy in both East and West Asia.
In West Asia:
- Despite its long time presence in the region, a 9-million strong diaspora, and the region being its principal source of oil, India is not a major player today.
- Both Russia and China have overtaken India in the affairs of the region.
- This is particularly true of Iran where the Russia-China-Iran relationship has greatly blossomed, almost marginalising India’s influence.
- India’s absence from West Asia, even as the region confronts a split down the line between the Arab and the non-Arab world is unfortunate
A series of confrontations between an increasingly powerful Shiite Iran and a weakening Saudi Arabia will impact India adversely and Indian diplomacy’s inability to make its presence felt will matter.
The ‘Act East’ policy has produced better results:
Closer relations with countries in East and South East Asia, especially Japan and Vietnam, are a positive development.
However, in the Asia-Pacific, India has to contend with an increasingly assertive China.
Our Prime minister’s diplomatic styles have changed but it would seem that the substance has altered little. His recent visit to Israel was, no doubt, a resounding success, but Israel was already one of the very few countries which had shown a complete understanding of India’s defence and security needs, even ignoring the sanctions imposed on India by some countries. Israel’s supply of critical defence items during the Kargil conflict (of 1999) is an excellent example.
What Indian diplomacy currently needs to do is to find a way to steer amid an assertive China, a hostile Pakistan, an uncertain South Asian and West Asian neighbourhood, and an unstable world. The strategic and security implications of these, individually and severally, need to be carefully validated and pursued. Indian diplomacy may possibly need to display still higher levels of sophistication to overcome the odds.