New Year thoughts

  • Salman Haidar

    January 3, 2017 | 03:25 AM

Donald Trump (Photo: AFP)

The New Year brings with it an unusual amount of questioning and uncertainty. The festive season is marked not so much by the customary sense of renewal as by the feeling that the times are unpredictable and full of challenge. Globally, the predominant consideration must be the impact of the impending change of incumbency in the US White House. Over the years, Obama became a valued interlocutor for India and developed relations of mutual respect and confidence with his successive counterparts in New Delhi, irrespective of party allegiance. The striking turnaround in Indian politics with Mr.Modi's electoral triumph had a strong impact within the nation but did not greatly affect the country's relations with the world, and the ties between India and the USA continued to develop and remain productive. Now, with the imminent advent of Mr. Trump, the balance has to be renewed and reshaped. It had seemed at one stage during the prolonged US election campaign that India-US relations could be affected by the populist rhetoric associated with Mr. Trump, especially his anti-immigrant attitudes, but adjustments of approach have already begun to take shape. Mr. Trump has begun to sound more like a mainstream US leader as he readies to move into the White House and his appointments of top officials in his Administration give much the same picture. It can thus be expected that the advances in India-US relations of the Obama era will essentially be maintained, and there is little present apprehension of any reduction of the important links developed in the days of the Obama Administration, including expanded ties in defence matters.

Elsewhere, however, continuity may be interrupted and New Delhi may need to do some repair work. In recent months its very important relationship with Russia, on which India has always relied, has been under discussion as a result of some new Russian regional initiatives in South Asia. The hitherto limited relations between Russia and Pakistan have been significantly upgraded as a result of these two countries, along with China, entering into political consultations on the subject of Afghanistan. This is a consultation from which Afghanistan itself was excluded, to its considerable displeasure, and India too, among others of the contiguous countries, was not among those that took part. Another new development with substantial regional impact was the Russian decision to sell a certain amount of military equipment to Pakistan, something that has often been in the air but is now brought to implementation. The implications of these developments need careful assessment in the context of the long established structure of India-Russia relations.

In this recent phase, India-China ties have also displayed some unwelcome features from India's point of view. Notwithstanding the considerable international dismay at the ambiguities of Pakistan's policy towards identified individuals and groups responsible for terrorist activities, of which India is the main target, China has not abated its support for men like the Jaish chief, Masood Azhar, and has successfully blocked action against him at the UN. China has also not agreed to the entry of India into the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), which is an important Indian goal, and has insisted on linking Indian entry with that of Pakistan. Despite these setbacks, trade and economic relations between India and China have continued to prosper but their divergences on important global and regional matters need to be addressed. To be noted, too, is that the more active Chinese policy in Asia has brought it into closer proximity with regions where Indian interests are paramount, including its land and its maritime frontiers. These are matters that will need continued attention in the coming year and on into the future, as they have in the past.

As ever, some of the most demanding issues for India lie in its immediate neighbourhood and must figure in any forward view for the coming year. Neighbouring Nepal has done much to come to terms with its internal problems but it remains divided and fractious, and its internal divisions encourage the kind of external initiatives that can create complications in its regional dealings. The basic understanding for India-Nepal bilateral relations is the 1950 treaty that confers important reciprocal benefits to the two countries, and provides the necessary assurance of security on the Himalayan frontier. On the other side of the mountain barrier is the rapidly advancing capacity of China whose plans and projects for closer linkages with the Himalayan states have economic and strategic implications that India has always found uncomfortable. Maintaining the security provided by the mountain ramparts requires constant updating of the close understanding that has always existed between India and Nepal, especially now when fresh challenges have taken shape.

How to handle relations with Pakistan is the abiding issue for policy makers in New Delhi and the new year comes at a time of particular stress in this always strained relationship. Repeated terror attacks on India from across the border have triggered demands for an active response, which can have dangerous consequences. Throughout the previous year, the border has been unquiet and there is nothing to suggest any significant change in the coming year ~ if anything, the rhetorical exchanges have become more strident and less compromising. Yet even in the midst of the high decibel exchanges there are moments of easing up and abated hostility ~ one such was provided by PM Modi when just a few days ago he sent a word of birthday greetings to his counterpart Mr. Nawaz Sharif. Though neither side has made much of this gesture, it is nevertheless a reminder of what could become possible if proper conditions existed. This year, as in every previous year, ameliorating this bilateral relationship cannot but be near the forefront of the foreign policy challenges before the country.

There are many other issues to be faced, familiar ones in the main that continue to demand attention. What is to be noted is that matters are in a flux and some of the normal assumptions that have guided foreign policy for so long may require readjustment. Major global players are shifting ground, established partnerships have come under question, and new leaders have emerged who may put a different stamp on events. In these circumstances the MEA establishment will need to hone its professional skills and come up with innovative answers to keep abreast of the new situation. MEA has been in some sort of eclipse in recent times, overshadowed as it is by a flamboyant top leadership. But in the coming months what is needed is the re-emergence of a weighty MEA to provide the solid professional advice needed to face the mounting challenges ahead.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary.