Millennium Post

Is Indian foreign policy walking on its knees?

The government appears to be in a self congratulatory mode as India and China ended their weeks long standoff in Ladakh. Even as the government has been giving itself a pat on its back for playing ‘hard diplomacy’ but the truth is that the episode has yet again cast aspersions on South block’s decision-making tactics. 

On the face of it the recent three-week long face-off appears to be a matter of few tents, soldiers from both the sides and a never demarcated line in an unpopulated region. Chinese troops had entered 19 km inside the Indian Territory across the Line of Actual control (LAC) in the Daulat Beg Oldi Sector in Eastern Ladakh. The Indian troops had also established tent posts facing the Chinese forces at a distance of 300 metres. The first three flag meetings failed to reach any conclusion. 

China, since the very beginning had remained adamant that India should dismantle its forward observation post at Chumar close to the LAC since it overlooks Chinese highways and can detect any troop movement there. The fourth one resulted in both sides agreeing to pull back their troops. Speculations are rife that some quid pro quo arrangement of give and take was followed. Even as the government has declined to have agreed to removal of bunkers from Chumar or similar concession, it is difficult to see Chinese troop withdrawal without any face saver.

India’s response to the entire incident has come across as that of a person with a weak spine. Initially, the government blacked out reporting on the incursion. A public response came only in the wake of China issuing denial of the intrusion in response to Indian media reports quoting army sources. While the incursion seemed like a well planned exercise in the wake of China’s Premier Le Keqiang visit to India, New Delhi brushed it off as a ‘localised problem’. The most interesting comment, however, came from External Affairs minister Salman Khurshid who likened the intrusion to just ‘one little spot’ of acne on the otherwise beautiful face of the bilateral relationship – a mere blemish that could be treated with an ointment. Such comments followed by inaction only reflect a deeper problem on how India time and again has signalled fear and timidity in facing up to its neighbour’s provocation.

Earlier as well India’s response to China has been weak. A few years ago, staking its claim on the territory in Arunachal Pradesh China flexed its economic muscle in the ADB to block a loan to the north-eastern state. India responded by a meek withdrawal of loan request, sending out a signal to the international community that its claim over Arunachal was indeed ‘disrupted’ as being claimed by Beijing. Last year, Chinese defence minister breached protocol and insulted India by offering a cash gift of Rs 1 lakh each to two IAF officers but New Delhi chose to look the other way. India’s non-reaction to several such instances has only extended manoeuvring space for Beijing.

Not only China but even with other countries, Indian government has failed to score a single major diplomatic success. Summing up India’s failures on the foreign policy, noted columnist M J Akbar had recently succinctly noted that India has become a joke in Maldives, a foe in Sri Lanka, a doubt in Bangladesh, a shrug in Nepal, a snigger in Pakistan and a taunt in China. Sarabjit’s is not the case in isolation, continuing terror attacks, beheading of an Indian soldier on the LoC and Pakistani Parliament passing resolution against India’s execution of Afzal Guru, convict in 2001 attack on Indian parliament shows how utterly India’s engagement with Pakistan has failed to bear fruit. It underlines not only the lack of a direction but also a need failure of the Indian policy makers in pushing the envelope with affirmative strength. 

Bangladesh, which was tipped a big foreign policy initiative by the UPA government, also failed to bring in the desired results. The internal political wrangling acted as a dampener as the Centre failed to draw out the Teesta water sharing agreement from the clutches of the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s whimsical demands. In 2011, the air was pregnant with the possibilities of land boundary demarcation and sharing of Teesta water. But Banerjee’s sudden withdrawal from the PM’s entourage and reservations on the water-sharing treaty retarded the momentum in bilateral relations. Now, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) have together stalled the constitutional amendment that would ratify the crucial land boundary agreement (LBA) with Dhaka.

The coalition compulsion was also visible in case of Sri Lanka where the UPA government backed the UNHRC resolution against the country in Geneva order to please coalition partner DMK. As general elections are less than a year away the Congress-led coalition is dependent on 18 Tamil Nadu MPs to continue in office. Obviously, keeping these leaders in good humour was more crucial for the government than asserting its foreign policy. China was quick to take advantage of the situation. It has successfully flirted with Colombo thereby making considerable strategic gains and bagging the Hambantota port and international airport projects, along-with another highway project and investments in other sectors such as agriculture. In Maldives also India botched its own strategic goals and showed a lack of diplomatic finesse in handling the Nasheed affair. Maldives is particularly crucial for India especially in the context of today’s geopolitics. There is a fear that it could become a breeding ground for fundamentalists that could be inimical to the sovereignty and security of not just India, but the whole of the South Asia.

But the government showed a lack of foresight by exposing Nasheed’s Indian connections and his over-reliance on our diplomatic support. The result was that the Indian envoy was packed back for allegedly taking sides in their domestic politics to Indian companies like GMR. India also failed to take note of Nepal’s political and constitutional crisis after the political parties failed to deliver a constitution before the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in May last year. Meanwhile, China and Pakistan continue to use Nepal as a fertile ground for anti-India vendetta.  

It is but evident that all these countries, and especially China, have been successful in exploiting the political disarray currently haunting India. The government has been caught napping on most of the foreign policy issues. It is the pertinent need of the hour that Raisina Hill ensures that it does not send confused or mixed signals.

There is a requirement to look out for our own strategic interests and developing counter strategy  against belligerent nations. But most importantly there is a need for the government to rise above its domestic troubles and isolate them from pursuit of achieving strategic international goals. 

Shreya Upadhyay is a research scholar at JNU.
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