Throughout 2023, India encountered significant challenges in the international environment. Going by the trend, India’s ties with the big powers as well as countries in the neighbourhood, will continue to pose challenges in 2024.

To take relations with the United States first, Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine kept testing India’s strategic partnership with the US. India refused to comply with US sanctions against Russia, bought Russian oil at a concessional rate, and sold refined Russian oil to energy-starved Europe.

India had to delicately balance its “strategic partnership” with the US with the need to be friendly with Russia, given its traditional dependence on Russian oil and Russian defence equipment and its long history of excellent relations.

India not only defied US sanctions but proudly proclaimed that it had a sovereign right to exercise “strategic independence” given its status as the fifth largest economy in the world and its history of exercising independence in foreign affairs.

As part of its Indo-Pacific strategic blueprint, the US was nudging India to be combative towards China. But India refused to toe the US line, preferring to tread the path of negotiations with China on the border issue.

India’s conception of the Indo-Pacific alliance was at variance with the US’, which had an unmistakable military undertone. Seeing the dissonance, US think tanks dubbed India as an unreliable ally, putting a question mark on the future trajectory of the US-India relationship.

India would have been at odds with the US over the recently released US foreign policy blueprint which identified Russia as “enemy number one”, which must be crippled and destroyed by both economic and military means. In contrast it described China as an economic power with which the US could coexist and compete without decoupling.

India does not see Russia as an enemy at all. During his recent five-day visit to Moscow, India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar described Indo-Russian ties as an enduring one that had stood the test of time.

Breaking protocol, President Putin met Jaishankar. Jaishankar handed over a message to Putin from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Putin in turn invited Modi to visit Russia. India and Russia thus cemented their relationship which was developing cracks due to the US-India strategic partnership.

Despite Russia’s war on the Ukraine front, India plans to increase cooperation with Russia in the field of defence and nuclear energy. It also aims to jointly develop the Russian Far East and establish connectivity through it.

Jaishankar asked Indians doing business with Russia to explore avenues of trade to reduce the trade deficit that India has with Russia and also explore ways of doing Rupee-Rouble trade circumventing the US dollar payment route. Indian firms worry about attracting US sanctions against them but on Jaishankar’s prodding, they might find a way to increase trade with Russia.

Dissonance in the India-US relationship came to a head when the Americans charged India with plotting to kill a Sikh separatist, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a US citizen, on American soil. India denied the charge but eventually agreed to look into the evidence provided by the US.

Washington’s displeasure over this and other issues led to President Joe Biden’s declining India’s invitation to be the Chief Guest at the January 26, 2024 Indian Republic Day parade.

Unfazed, India promptly got French President Emmanuel Macron to agree to be the Chief Guest. The French, who had already sold Rafale jet fighters to India and wanted to sell the naval version of it also, accepted Modi’s invitation with alacrity.

Like India, France was also at odds with the US over the latter’s bid to marginalise it by entering into a deal with the UK and Australia to form an Anglo-Saxon alliance called AUKUS. This led to France losing a multi-billion dollar contract to make nuclear submarines for the Australian navy.

The Modi government’s relations with China were enigmatic. Miffed by China’s aggressive actions on the border in violation of solemn agreements, New Delhi banned many Chinese apps and went after some questionable Chinese investments in India. India also asked Sri Lanka not to entertain Chinese warships and stop some economic investments from China citing security concerns.

However, the Modi government baulked at taking military action against China. On the contrary, it pursued the path of negotiations tirelessly and saw to it that bilateral trade was also not hindered. In sum, a stalemate marked the Sino-Indian relationship.

The unexpected crisis in Gaza put India in a tight spot. On the one hand, it needed Israel to meet its defence and intelligence needs, and on the other it could not entirely abandon the Palestinians being the purported leader of the Global South.

India’s incoherent actions and statements in the UN on the continued massacre of civilians in Gaza resulted in its marginalisation in a significant global issue.

As regards Iran, which was also under US sanctions, India did what it could to maintain links, circumventing the sanctions. The US was a mute spectator as it needed India to be a bulwark against China’s expansionism in Asia.

Thanks to some deft handling by both India and Qatar, the issue over the death sentence passed on eight retired Indian naval personnel on a charge of spying for Israel, was resolved. Commutation of the sentence was the best that India could get under the circumstances.

In so far as India’s neighbourhood was concerned, it was largely smooth sailing for New Delhi, except for the setback in the Maldives and the routinized tension with Pakistan.

In the Maldives, the pro-Indian government of Ibrahim Solih was voted out and a pro-Chinese government led by Mohamad Muizzu took its place. Moizzu was committed to fighting “Indian hegemony.”

The January 7 parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, are likely to see Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League coming back into power because the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) will be boycotting the elections.

Sheikh Hasina is seen as a steadfast friend of India. But New Delhi should worry about the situation in Bangladesh after the elections.

The frustrated BNP, which is anti-India, could whip up street violence and anti-India rhetoric and force Hasina to resort to repression, which in turn, might lead to crippling US economic sanctions against Bangladesh. The US has already signalled a resolute opposition to Sheikh Hasina.

The year 2024 will see elections in Sri Lanka too. The Presidential election in the middle of the year followed by parliamentary elections. None of the parties that would be in the fray, other than the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), is antagonistic to India. And the JVP is not a frontrunner.

In 2022, India won over the Sri Lankan population by sending much-needed essentials like food and fuel to the tune of US$ 4 billion when the country was in dire straits economically. It had defaulted on its foreign loans, which stood at US$ 58.7 billion.

But China is worming its way into Sri Lanka by offering much-needed infrastructure projects. It has already landed some like the Colombo Port’s Container Yard with huge tax concessions.

China is offering to survey the sea around the island, an offer which India considers a threat to it. India has seen to it that Sri Lanka imposes some restrictions on the Chinese when its security interests are in jeopardy. Sri Lanka has now devised a system to regulate the conduct of all foreign vessels.

When the pro-Chinese Mohamad Muizzu won the Maldivian Presidential election, he demanded that India take back its troops (about 77 to 100) and also the helicopters they were flying. He also declared that he would review a hundred agreements that his pro-Indian predecessor Ibrahim Solih had entered into with India. Muizzu’s proclaimed goal was to restore the Maldives’ sovereignty and independence.

But after making anti-Indian announcements, Muizzu went into his shell. He did not raise the pitch after India stated that there would be a “core group” to examine all contentious issues. Nor has Muizzu handed over any project to the Chinese as his political mentor former President Abdulla Yameen had done.

India too has been restrained in its response to the Maldivian electoral setback, preferring dialogue over confrontation. If there is all-round restraint, with even China not pushing the envelope, Indo-Maldivian relations would be on an even keel in 2024.