Unpublished piece from Nov 2017: India’s foreign policy is getting outmaneuvered?

January 13, 2018

i wrote the attached in november, when the ICJ win over britain was being trumpeted. i sent it to an editor who said he’d publish it, but didn’t: i don’t think it was out of fear, but out of other, more mundane considerations, like i’d fallen off his roster of columnists for lack of activity. anyway, i thought it lost timeliness.

but now i think it may add a little oil to the current fire about foreign policy. my general thought is that though it was well begun, the PM’s foreign policy has now lost its way. the MEA is doing too much low-level stuff of no great value. i’ve been urging @vijay63, the BJP foreign policy cell head, repeatedly on twitter to step up and make sure there was triage, and that real foreign policy issues are paid attention to, and not trivialities.

also, i was right in forecasting that the chinese proxy party in nepal would win, and that nepal would fall into china’s lap.

here’s the original copy:

India’s foreign policy: are we getting outmaneuvered?

Rajeev Srinivasan

There was much celebration over the fact that the Indian candidate for the International Court of Justice won a hard-fought victory over the British candidate. Since this is for a term of nine years, Justice Dalveer Bhandari will, one imagines, champion India’s causes there, including the pending issue of Kulbhushan Jadhav, jailed on false charges in Pakistan and threatened with execution.

It is a signal victory for Indian diplomacy, and those at the UN, especially mission chief Syed Akbaruddin deserve to be congratulated. It is said that despite strong opposition by China and Pakistan, there was support from the Arab world, and also from Europeans who are peeved with Britain over Brexit. There is, however, the question of how many silver bullets India would have used up in this election, and whether in the long run it was the optimal use of foreign policy resources.

In the meantime, at least three other events took place that suggest that India’s position in foreign affairs is not as strong as it could be. The first is the release, just a few days before the tenth anniversary of the 11/26 attacks on Mumbai by Pakistani terrorists, of the alleged mastermind, Hafiz Saeed. The second is the successful intervention by China in the Rohingya affair. The third is the elections in Nepal, which is seen as a proxy battle between friends of Indian and friends of China.

But back to Hafiz Saeed. He had been under house arrest for some months (although he suffers no great hardship in his Lahore mansion) and the US had placed a reward of $10 million for information leading to his conviction. The Lashkar-e-Toiba founder was released when a Pakistani court found that he was not a threat. The US made its customary distressed noises, saying this act would have “repercussions on bilateral relations”.

The very fact that, thumbing its nose at India just before the anniversary of 26/11, Pakistan felt free to release Saeed and not rearrest him on further charges (as the US demanded) suggests that there is a tacit understanding between the two countries. It is back to business as usual, although the strong words from President Donald Trump last year, and the sidelining of much of the Deepstate, had led us to expect that there would be a sea-change. Sadly, it does not appear to be so.

This is despite the glad-handing and bear hugs between Trump and Prime Minister Modi and the recent visit of the US Secretary of State Tillerson, the Malabar joint naval exercises, and all the talk of the US-Indo-Japan-Australia Quad. All of that is helpful to the US in its competition for China, but it’s not clear how the US is willing to go to bat for India in its concerns: which means we’re back to square one.

On to the Rohingya crisis. The Lutyens types made many noises which amounted to wanting to settle large numbers of them in India (by the way, I guess nothing has happened about deporting those illegally settled in Jammu and in Hyderabad?). But there was nothing constructive about ending the crisis. Now it appears as though China has brokered a deal whereby Myanmar will take back those who had fled, and rehabilitate them. The details are not clear, but the big picture is that benevolent China, the neighboring superpower, has been able to persuade two Asian countries to do something sensible.

Now why didn’t India do this? After all, China has no borders with Bangladesh, nor did it help it through a painful civil war. India also has a fair amount of goodwill in Myanmar. Instead, the Chinese have rescued Ang San Suu Kyi from a tight spot: she was getting to be a little persona non grata among the western countries that had championed her. There will surely be a quid pro quo for China.

The third is Nepal’s elections. Early indications are that there is a lot of money being spent, and no prizes for guessing the money is coming from China. In effect, the elections are being seen as a proxy fight between India and China. Given prior form in the subcontinent, where India is seen as a bit of a Big Brother, chances are that the election will go China’s way.

In addition, something that worries me is the fact that the Minister of External Affairs, the kindly Sushma Swaraj, is constantly being swamped on twitter by Pakistanis seeking medical visas. And being the compassionate soul that she is, she does respond to them and help them. My concern is moral hazard: by encouraging this behavior, India gains nothing; instead, let them go to China or Saudi Arabia.

800 words, Nov 27 2017

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