In 2018, focus on our neighbours

Deccan Herald Jan 10 2018, 00:41 IST

India's stature in the global community grew in 2017 with its diplomatic efforts proving successful on several fronts. It gained entry into the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and its candidate Justice Dalveer Singh got elected to the International Court of Justice. India also signalled to China and the world that it is no pushover. It refused to be intimidated by China's military might during the Doklam crisis. Indeed, it came in for praise for its restraint in the face of Beijing's provocative baiting. That it did not buckle down to Chinese military pressure won India praise among China-wary countries in the region and outside. However, India's relations with its neighbours, in particular, were hardly in the best of health in 2017. Relations with Pakistan remained frozen and although India strengthened ties with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and the Maldives, it was unable to contain Chinese cultural, economic and military influence in these countries. With the exception of Bhutan, all of India's neighbours expressed interest in participating in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India may have isolated Pakistan on the question of terrorism in 2016 but in 2017, China managed to isolate India on the issue of BRI.

The New Year will bring India new opportunities to build bridges in its neighbourhood and beyond. Leaders from 10 Asean countries will be chief guests at India's Republic Day parade, signalling the priority the Narendra Modi government accords Southeast Asia. Delhi's 'Act East' policy should get a fillip from this engagement. This is a big chance for India to build bonds with Asean. India would do well to focus on economic cooperation with its member-countries, rather than harp on its grievances with Pakistan. India's relations with China will prove challenging in the coming year. Delhi must explore options to the Special Representative mechanism that has proved to be unsuccessful in finding a solution to the border dispute. India needs to think through its rejection of BRI. If it is determined to stay out, it must develop other corridors. Linking Chabahar port and the India-Afghanistan-Iran trade corridor with the International North-South Trade Corridor should be speeded up.

Pakistan will remain India's main foreign policy challenge in 2018. India failed to show initiative or ideas to re-imagine a new relationship with this troublesome neighbour. The Modi government can be expected to avoid making any major outreach to Islamabad for the better part of the coming year. General elections in Pakistan are due in July 2018 and Delhi will wait to see who wins that election before making its move. However, the Modi government could use this time to engage in quiet back-channel diplomacy.

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