24 January 2021 09:50 PM

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SURENDRA KUMAR | 26 DECEMBER, 2020

Annus Horribilis

Foreign policy year ender


The Time magazine has featured Joe Biden & Kamala Harris on it’s year end cover thus acknowledging their election as the most impactful development of 2020.Yes, the election of the oldest American with the highest ever popular votes to be the 46th President of the US and the election of the first woman of African & Asian descent to be the US Vice President are historic milestones.

But the Global impact of Covid -19 which has caused unprecedented deaths, destruction and disruption overshadows everything else. With 78 million positive cases worldwide, 1.6 million deaths, economies pushed back to minus growth rates, more than 600 million full time jobs lost, cities and towns locked down, national borders closed, universities, colleges and schools shut, even the most advanced nations failing to cope with the requirement of ICUs and ventilators and witnessing unclaimed bodies and mass burials, this invisible enemy has left our lives shattered as never before.

Notwithstanding the population of 1.35 billion, with 10.1 million positive cases, 9.66 million recoveries and 146000 deaths, India seems to have fared better than many countries. Though countrywide lockdown did cause enormous difficulties to migrant workers and resulted in disruption of supplies, loss of jobs and severe contraction of economy, pro active measure of the Central and State Govts and exemplary services of the doctors, nurses and other healthcare personnel have contributed significantly in containing the spread of the Corona virus and escaping it’s second and third wave.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the country from the front by organizing banging of thalis and lighting of candles in balconies to express people’s gratitude to health workers and sporting his mask. He interacted virtually with CMs of states & leaders of opposition political parties.

Holding a virtual summit with SAARC leaders, supplying hydroxychloroquine to over 165 countries and dispatching doctors and nurses to some Gulf countries were acts of smart soft power diplomacy in medical emergency.

Having visited 94 countries from June 2014-Nov 2019 but none in 2020, Modi held virtual Summits with counterparts in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh Australia, Luxembourg & Denmark and received the President of Myanmar & Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman, Afghanistan High Council of National Reconciliation.

US President Donald Trump accompanied by his wife, daughter and son in law was received by 150,000 people in Motera stadium in (Namaste India- Feb24-25, 20) and taken to Taj Mahal.

Another agreement for defence supplies worth US$ 3 billion has touched the value of the US Defence exports in the last 6 years to US$ 20 billion.Trump’s visit sent out a strong message of growing India-US strategic partnership to China and Pakistan, reiterated commitment to fight terrorism and signaled possible collaboration on higher technologies including 5 G.No wonder,Trump has conferred the Legion de Merit on Narendra Modi,making him the first Indian PM to be so honoured.

Trump’s visit followed by the visit of the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper (27 Oct, 2020) 2+2 dialogue and signing of BECCA, the latest Malabar Joint Military exercises with the participation of the US, India, Japan & Australia and strong denunciation of China’s aggression against India across the LAC have brought India & the US closest ever short of a formal alliance.

EAM’s participation in the SCO, CFM in Moscow (9-10 Sept) and the Meeting of QUAD Foreign Ministers in Tokyo(6-7 Oct) and visits to UAE, Bahrain and Seychelles(Nov 24-30) underline India’s determination to further bilateral, multilateral and strategic interests in spite of Covid -19.The SCO offers outreach to CRS, QUAD is emerging as a group to restrict China’s assertiveness; relations with the gulf are important for energy security and welfare of Indian Diaspora and Seychelles has evoked India’s strategic interests.

However, 2020 proved to be a difficult year for relations with China, Pakistan and Nepal. Efforts to balance trade deficit with China haven’t succeeded. India’s close scrutiny of FDI from China and ban on over 400 Chinese IT applications is resented by China; it continued supporting Pakistan blindly.

China’s deepening influence in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Maldives causes serious strategic concerns in India. On June 14 2020, the PLA breached 43 year long peace and tranquility on the border by brutally killing 20 Indian soldiers in Galwan valley. Though not admitted by China, the number of deaths on her side might be as high as ours.

Eight rounds of talks at the level of border Commanders and meeting between Jaishankar and the Chinese FM Wang YI in Moscow haven’t resulted in disengagement and de-escalation. While Indian soldiers have occupied some strategically important heights on the Indian side of the LAC, China shows no inclination to return to status quo ante .It views India’s growing closeness to USA and active participation in QUAD with suspicion.

Nepal’s PM KP Sharma Oli has taken a more pro-China stance. He even got a resolution passed by the parliament claiming that Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiadhura belonged to Nepal. India which has earned the wrath of Madheshis for not safeguarding their interest in the new constitution and anger of the Nepali people at large for imposing blockade on the border will have to deal with Nepal with sensitivity and large-heartedness to allay their apprehension of the big brother trying to squeeze the smaller one. Ironically, the Chinese ambassador, not Indian, is trying to stall the vertical split of Nepal’s Communist party.

Pakistan continues to send terrorists across the border and hasn’t taken any action against the perpetrators of 26/11.Balakot airstrike hasn’t dampened their anti-India misadventures nor their campaign to internationalize the Jammu and Kashmir issue. Whatever action it has taken against the likes of Masood Azhar is to avoid more strictures from FATF. Bilateral relations in 2020 have remained in limbo.

In spite of India’s humanitarian assistance of US$ 3 billion in building infrastructure: schools, colleges, hospital and even the Parliament and training Afghan security personnel, thanks to Pakistan’s influence on Taliban and acquiescence of the US in hurry to exit, India is being sidelined in Afghanistan, notwithstanding EAM Jaishankar’s virtual address to the Conference on Afghan peace process in Doha on 12 the Sept. and reiteration that “the peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled.”

While relations with Russia remained good (India hasn’t dropped purchase of S-400 air defence system and cooperation in energy sector continues) Russia is wary of QUAD and considers it anti-China. On the other hand, India views growing Russian-Pakistan relations with unease.

Modi’s assiduously cultivated relations with France smf Germany have remained steady. With an eye on the post Brexit phase, he has decided to upgrade relations with the UK. Inviting Boris Johnson, who has struck a deal with the EU to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade on January 26 is a smart move.

Thanks to Modi’s push, 34 visits at the level of the President, Vice President and the PM have been undertaken to the African continent in the last 5 years. Thirty two African Heads of state/government have visited India. Eighteen new resident missions are being opened. This intense engagement drive slowed down a bit in 2020.India has supplied medicines to scores of countries to fight Covid-19.

Besides Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, India is building relations with Pacific island nations. Brazilian President, Bolsonaro was the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade Jan 20.

Relations with Saudi Arabia,UAE, Bahrain, Qatar & Oman have remained good. There is some strain in relations with Iran as we don’t buy their oil, thanks to American pressure. Besides Iranian comments on J&K irked us.

Similarly, statements of Malaysia & Turkey about the Abrogation of the article of 370 and creation of UTs of J&K & Ladakh were objected to by India.

Relations with ASEAN & South East Asia remain positive but long shadows of China are visible everywhere. Future of Indo Pacific will be clearer after President Biden settles down.

Ambassador Surendra Kumar is retired from the Indian Foreign Service

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