India's Foreign Policy Options in 2017: China Looms Large
NEW DELHI: The beginning of the new year is probably a good time to take stock of the major developments in Indian foreign policy in 2016 and what needs to be done to safeguard and promote the country’s interests in 2017.
In the interest of brevity, only the most important developments will be discussed.
The year 2016 began on a discordant note with a terrorist attack on an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot on Jan. 2, in which seven Indian security personnel were killed by six Pakistani terrorists belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which was designated a terrorist group by the UN in 2002.
The JeM is sponsored and backed by the notorious Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), known as the epicenter of global terrorism.
The attack came as a surprise because hopes of improvement in India-Pakistan relations had risen, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unscheduled visit to Lahore on December 25, 2015, to attend the wedding of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter.
PM Modi’s gesture was widely seen as an attempt to generate goodwill and improve the atmosphere between the two countries. Clearly, it failed to do so.
On the other hand, the Pathankot attack was seen in India as the Pakistani Army’s response to PM Modi’s visit to Lahore. It set the tone for the relations between the two countries throughout the year, during which another major ISI-sponsored attack took place on September 18 against an Indian Army camp in Uri, Kashmir, in which 18 Indian soldiers were killed.
India retaliated by carrying out a “surgical strike” against “terrorist launch pads” across the Line of Control (LOC) in the early hours of Sept. 29. Indian Special Forces destroyed seven bases in Pak Occupied Kashmir (POK), used for launching terrorist strikes against India.
A significant number of Pakistani soldiers and terrorists were killed in the operation; there were no Indian casualties.
One fallout of Pakistan’s terrorist attacks was that India announced in September that PM Modi would not attend the SAARC Summit in Islamabad scheduled in November 2016. Around the same time, Bangladesh and Afghanistan also announced, for their own reasons, that they will also not attend the Summit.
As a result of the boycott, Pakistan had to abandon the Summit.
The cancellation of the SAARC Summit did not discourage Pakistan from launching another terrorist attack on Nov. 29 against an Indian Army base in Nagrota, Kashmir, in which two officers and five soldiers were killed.
The year, therefore, ended on the same note on which it began; relations between the two countries touched a new low, with no improvement in sight.
Pakistan’s “Sugar Daddy,” China, did not behave much better during 2016. In March, it blocked India’s request in the UN Security Council (UNSC) to designate Masood Azhar, Chief of the JeM, as an international terrorist under UNSC Resolution 1267.
Azhar was the mastermind behind the terrorist attack in Pathankot mentioned above. He also directed the terrorist attack in Mumbai in Nov. 2008, commonly known as 26/11.This was the second time that China shielded Azhar in the UNSC; the first was soon after 26/11.
China protected Azhar for a third time in the UNSC on Dec. 30, 2016.
By shielding Azhar—the leader, financier, and motivator of JeM—China is seen in India as a supporter of state-sponsored terrorism. It belongs to the same category as its client Pakistan—a rogue and immoral state, which uses terrorism as an instrument of state policy. China is the grandfather of Pakistani terrorism in India.
On the other hand, China has brutally crushed dissent in Tibet and Xinjiang, where it has murdered dozens of people protesting peacefully against its repressive policies. China calls them terrorists.
Then, in June, China blocked India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) at its plenary meeting in Seoul, on the procedural ground that India had not signed the NPT. That made it crystal clear that China would do everything possible to thwart India’s aspirations to play a bigger role on the global stage.
A major objective of Chinese policy is to keep India bogged down in South Asia, preoccupied with Pakistan. For this purpose, China clandestinely provided nuclear and missile technology and material to Pakistan in the 1970s and 80s, which enabled that country to acquire nuclear capability.
Under its nuclear umbrella, Pakistan launched cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and other parts of India in 1989 without fear of retaliation.
China again displayed its contempt for the UN system when it summarily rejected in July 2016 the verdict of the UN International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) at The Hague, which ruled that there was “no legal basis” for China’s claims in the South China Sea (SCS). India has interests in oil exploration in the SCS.
China claims about ninety percent of the SCS, demarcated by its “nine-dash-line,” which the rest of the world does not recognize. The ITLOS also rebuked China for constructing artificial islands in the SCS.
Chinese President Xi Jinping rejected the ITLOS verdict and re-asserted China’s claim to sovereignty over the SCS “since ancient times.” The Chinese foreign ministry said the Tribunal’s decision was “invalid and had no binding force. China did not accept or recognize it.”
Chinese plans regarding the so-called “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC),” which passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), are also aimed at strengthening Pakistan, with the objective of containing India. Whether the CPEC is viable, however, is another matter. It is not clear if it is, in view of Pakistan’s serious internal problems.
The Chinese behaviour and policies described above provided a reality check to PM Modi, who has been a great admirer of China since he became the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001. He paid several visits to China in that capacity, which only increased his admiration for the country.
Hopefully, he is a wiser man now, after the Masood Azhar and NSG fiascos.
India’s relations with the US continued to develop steadily. In June 2016, PM Modi paid his second official visit to the US in two years. India was accorded the status of a “Major Defence Partner” of the US, making it eligible for the sale of advanced military technologies.
Some progress was also made regarding site work in India on six Westinghouse nuclear reactors. Cooperation was also increased in the area of “clean energy.”
In August Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar visited Washington, where he signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), one of the four “Foundational Agreements” that the US enters into with its defence partners.
The LEMOA will give militaries of both countries access to each other’s facilities for supplies and repairs. However, it is an enabling agreement; it does not make logistical support automatic or obligatory for either party. It does not involve military bases either; each case will require individual clearance.
By signing LEMOA, India has concluded two of the four “Foundational Agreements” with the US.
During the visit, both US Defence Secretary Carter and Minister Parrikar repeatedly referred to “freedom of navigation on the high seas” and the “fight against terrorism” to illustrate shared values. In reality, they were referring to Chinese and Pakistani activities.
Indian critics of LEMOA point out that the US stands to gain more from the Agreement than India, because the US has a global military presence with around 800 bases around the world, while India is unlikely to send its armed forces for combat operations far from home. It is a valid point.
(Tomorrow Part 2: India and Russia)
(Ambassador Niraj Srivastava is retired from the Indian Foreign Service.)