Prime Minister Narendra Modi moved dexterously across the globe from May 2014, making high profile foreign visits and hosting dignitaries in turn, with the aim of entrenching India as a strategic pillar in a changing world. The United States, Russia, China, Australia, Israel, Japan, neighbouring SAARC and ASEAN nations, Arab and Muslim States, Europe, Africa, and even Pacific Islands States received meticulous attention. Geopolitical exigencies have dictated the priorities of Modi 2.0, viz., getting India acknowledged as a legitimate stakeholder in Afghanistan; adding heft to the Indo-Pacific alliance; rising to the challenge of the Coronavirus pandemic; and strengthening ties with traditional allies.
In highly emotive symbolism, India conferred the Gandhi Peace Prize 2019 on late Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman, and the Gandhi Peace Prize 2020 on late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, first President and later Prime Minister of Bangladesh. These indicate the government’s commitment to its immediate neighbourhood and to West Asia, which is critical for India’s energy needs.
United States, Quad and Indo-Pacific
At the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018, Prime Minister Modi outlined the geographical span of India’s idea of the Indo-Pacific, stretching from the East Coast of Africa to the West Coast of the United States. Earlier, Modi had enunciated India’s concept of oceans through its vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), emphasising the inclusive and open nature of the oceans which must conform to a rules based order. This marked a welcome shift from the post-1947 perception of India as only a continental power and reflected a desire to reclaim its strong maritime heritage.
Since 2014, India has deepened military ties with the United States, agreed to a 2+2 defense and foreign ministers dialogue, and become an active member of the “Quad.” During the face-off with China in 2020, the Trump Administration gave India two advanced surveillance drones on lease and cold weather gear for the soldiers. An issue facing both countries now is whether the Biden Administration will apply or waive sanctions on India under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) due to India’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system (to be delivered this year).
The Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) was born on December 28, 2004 in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 that killed 230,000 persons along the Indian Ocean rim. In mid-January it handed over the task to the United Nations and faded away. It was reborn in November 2017 and met twice a year in 2018 and 2019. Maritime strategist James Holmes views the Quad as an entente cordiale rather than an Asian NATO.
The first ever virtual summit of Quad leaders (Joe Biden, Narendra Modi, Scott Morrison and Yoshihide Suga) was held at the initiative of President Biden on March 12, 2021. The joint statement, “The Spirit of the Quad,” recalled the tsunami of 2004 and upheld “a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.” They pledged to jointly face the global devastation wrought by Covid-19, combat climate change and security challenges facing the region (including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief). The Quad endorsed ASEAN’s unity and centrality and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the role of international law in the maritime domain, especially the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and to collaborate to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.
In a joint article for The Washington Post, the leaders stressed the need to strengthen the Paris agreement, adding, “We are determined to end the Covid-19 pandemic because no country will be safe so long as the pandemic continues.” They agreed to expand production of safe, accessible and effective vaccines in India and ensure that vaccines permeate the Indo-Pacific region by 2022. The Quad tasked India’s Biological E firm to produce one billion Covid-19 vaccine doses by end-2022, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine; India could thus emerge as the manufacturing hub for Quad countries. At the time of writing, India had gifted/sold around 80 million vaccine doses to 85 countries.
The four nations also plan to build a rare-earth procurement chain to secure elements critical in manufacturing smartphones, high-performance motors, EV batteries, etc. Currently China produces nearly 60% of the world’s rare earths (neodymium for electric vehicles; and lithium for batteries, wind turbines and other “decarbonization” infrastructure). Given China’s frenetic port-building along the Indian Ocean, India is increasing naval exercises with the Quad and other allies to build a “credible deterrence” against China. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin visited New Delhi (March 19-21) amidst the India-China stalemate in eastern Ladakh, though troops disengaged at Pangong Tso in February 2021. He discussed enhancing the bilateral defence relationship and ensuring “a free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific region in talks with defence minister Rajnath Singh.
Gen. Austin also tweeted that the Western Indian Ocean would be an areas for collaboration as hitherto Washington has focused on the Eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, but India faces threats in the Western Indian Ocean from piracy, the Pakistani navy, and a Chinese base in Djibouti on the east coast of Africa. India has a large diaspora in the Middle East and imports of energy from the region. The Trump Administration included the Western Indian Ocean in the Indo-Pacific by expanding its boundaries from the west coast of India to the east coast of Africa. It invited an Indian liaison officer at US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in Bahrain.
However, Darshana M. Baruah points out that Madagascar and the Comoros were excluded from the Indian Ocean Division of the Ministry of External Affairs until December 2019. Both nations are still excluded from the Indian Ocean Coastal Surveillance Radar Network and India has no defence attaché in either country.
The Quad members joined France’s “La Pérouse” exercise in the Bay of Bengal (April 4-7, 2021), where India deployed its stealth frigate INS Shivalik, helicopters, and P-8I maritime patrol aircraft from the Eastern Naval Command at Vizag. The exercise aimed to project dominance in the Indo-Pacific from the Gulf of Aden to the north and far Pacific, touching the western coast of US. The UAE is joining the “Varuna” naval exercise between India and France in the northwest Arabian Sea near the Persian Gulf (April 25-27, 2021). France has deployed its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier FNS Charles de Gaulle with Rafale-M naval jets for the exercise. France, Germany and Canada are also enhancing maritime collaboration with the Quad. The “Malabar” naval war games in the Indian Ocean in November 2020, the first-ever Quad military drills, were followed by “Sea Dragon,” an anti-submarine warfare exercise of Quad members and Canada, in January 2021.
India has inked reciprocal military logistics pacts with Quad partners as well as France, South Korea and Singapore to enhance its strategic reach in the entire Indian Ocean region and is building ports in Chabahar, Chittagong, Colombo and Sittwe; Japan has offered access to its facility in Djibouti. India is also developing an air and naval base on the Mauritian island of North Agalega in the south-western Indian Ocean, with communications and electronic intelligence facilities. Agalega will support India’s P8I fleet, and facilitate maritime patrols over the Mozambique Channel through which large commercial ships, especially oil tankers, pass. It will enable the Indian Navy to observe shipping routes around southern Africa, through which China’s energy imports pass.
Quad-Plus ties are being developed with Vietnam, New Zealand, South Korea, Brazil and Israel. France and Indonesia could join the Defence and Security Plus group, while Taiwan, Korea and The Netherlands could join the group on semiconductors. Britain is trying to return to Oceania; it will have to determine its role in the region.
India’s relations with Russia are strong, tied through a strategic partnership and long-standing friendship. US hostility to Russia has compelled the latter to buttress ties with China—a nexus likely to grow in coming years. However, Moscow refused to take sides between India and China during the standoff in eastern Ladakh in 2020, and expedited military supplies to India several weeks after the Galwan clash and “responded positively to every defence requirement that India had.” Michael Kugelman states that Russia discretely aided bilateral negotiations between the two nations after the Galwan conflict.
In his visit to New Delhi (April 5-7, 2021), Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed Beijing. Speaking to The Hindustan Times, he said Russia was “closely watching the process of normalization” along the border. Lavrov however showed discomfort with the term “Indo-Pacific,” preferring “Asia Pacific”. Acknowledging close ties with Beijing, he said Moscow eschewed “military alliances” and cautioned that groupings such as “Asian NATO” (Quad) can be “counterproductive” and at odds with “inclusive cooperation”. Disregarding South Block’s new taboo on hyphenating India and Pakistan, Lavrov proceeded to Islamabad to discuss the Afghan peace process and bilateral cooperation. In Islamabad, Lavrov said Russia and Pakistan had “convergent positions” on the Afghan peace process. The bilateral cooperation in the field of energy, security, including counter-terrorism and defence, was within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
New Delhi is keen to promote links between the Indo-Pacific and the Russian Far East. Visiting Vladivostok in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi averred, “the Far East will become a confluence of the Eurasian Union on one side and the open, free, and inclusive Indo-Pacific on the other.” Currently, India, Russia, and Japan are mulling joint economic projects in the Far East and the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime trade route. Visiting Moscow to prepare for the India-Russia annual summit 2021, Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla hoped Russia would play a role in three strategic geographies: Eurasia, Indo-Pacific and Russian Far East, and the Arctic. As both India and Russia broaden their respective diplomatic outreach, the bilateral relationship, despite the Russia-China-Pakistan nexus, remains strong with commitments in defence and energy, space and nuclear sectors.
India is committed to a political solution that leads to an independent and democratic Afghanistan and a peace process that is Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled and Afghan-owned. India has made significant contribution to Afghanistan’s civilian reconstruction effort and earned tremendous goodwill amongst the Afghan people. However, with President Biden announcing a complete withdrawal of US troops by 11 September 2021, barring limited personnel to guard US installations, including the embassy in Kabul, the security landscape in Afghanistan is changing dramatically.
Earlier, President Donald Trump’s insistence on ending the long war in Afghanistan culminated in a unilateral deal with the Taliban at Doha, Qatar, on 29 February 2020, excluding Afghanistan’s elected government. The Biden administration has recognised India as a legitimate stakeholder in Afghanistan, and has proposed a regional conference on Afghanistan, under UN auspices, with the foreign ministers of US, India, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran. This is a major relief for India that has made strenuous efforts to reach the negotiating table. Former Afghan vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum visited India in September 2020, former Afghanistan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah (now chair of High Peace Council) and Afghan leader Ata Mohammad Noor arrived in October 2020. India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited Kabul in January 2021. India is also engaging Iran and its investment in the Chabahar port can provide Afghanistan access to the sea.
US Defence Secretary Gen Lloyd Austin discussed new initiatives with the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, and National Security Advisor during his visit to New Delhi (19 March 2021). The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who visited New Delhi recently along with Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, also endorsed a prominent Indian role in the peace process.
Russia, now an important player in the Afghanistan peace process, hosted a meeting on March 18, 2021 between the Taliban and Afghan government, with international observers. The meeting failed, as did the 9th Heart of Asia Ministerial Conference at Dushanbe, Tajikistan on March 30, where India was represented by Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar. The Moscow conference alarmed Afghan women who fear loss of agency and legal rights. Later, the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan issued a joint statement that they “do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate” and that “Any peace agreement must include protections for the rights of all Afghans, including women, men, children, victims of war, and minorities, and should respond to the strong desire of all Afghans for economic, social and political development including the rule of law.”
Turkey was to host a meeting of the Afghan government and the Taliban, but at the time of writing the Taliban announced a boycott of the conference. President Biden then announced a complete withdrawal of troops by September 11, 2021. The stage will now shift to the proposed regional conference under UN auspices with the foreign ministers of US, India, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran.
President Ghani boldly offered to hold early elections with international observers, to enable the Afghan people to elect their representatives, and rebuffed an Interim Administration as mooted at Doha, saying it would lack legitimacy and contravene the Afghan constitution. As the Taliban are vehemently opposed to free elections, the situation remains fluid but prospects for peace appear dim. India would have to prepare for a worst case scenario in the event of the country slipping into civil war.
Tensions with China rose when, on June 15, 2020, a clash between troops in the Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers including Col. Santosh Babu, commanding officer of 16 Bihar. Both sides ratcheted up force accretions on their respective sides, including air power. After initially denying any losses, Beijing admitted four casualties in February 2021 when it agreed to disengagement in Pangong Tso region along the Line of Actual Control after nine rounds of high-level military talks. However, Chinese reluctance to disengage in other sectors has stalled further progress, as evident after the 11th round of talks on 10 April 2021.
While the long standing boundary dispute has strained ties, differing worldviews have contributed an element of mistrust. Beijing’s insensitivity to India’s core concerns, as reflected in support to Pakistan, opposition to India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and stance on international terrorists such as Azhar Masood, amongst other issues, cause concern in New Delhi. Further, China has made no attempts to address the trade imbalance between the two countries which weighs heavily in Beijing’s favour. Moreover, China, which is vying for superpower status, views India’s growing proximity to Washington and the Quad with suspicion.
The Rajiv Gandhi–Deng Xiaoping consensus is over. For a reset, China must reconcile to an India seeking its place in the sun. India understands China’s desire to assert on the international stage with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but India cannot join this project as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key component of the BRI, passes through Indian territory that is illegally occupied by Pakistan.
For India, the SAGAR vision and its Indo-Pacific strategy is as much of a developmental necessity as the BRI may be for China. Hence, a reset in India-China relations requires Beijing to accept Indian aspirations. Currently, we are witnessing a new phase in India-China rivalry as both sides strive to protect their strategic interests in a fast-changing world.
When the BJP-led government came to power with an absolute majority in 2014, Prime Minister Modi made a major foreign policy initiative by inviting the heads of state of the SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony. Many analysts believed the move was driven by a desire for détente with Pakistan. A number of initiatives followed, including a brief stopover in Lahore on 25 December 2015, to greet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and convey felicitations for his granddaughter’s wedding. However, these gestures failed to lessen Pakistani intransigence and a terrorist attack on the Pathankot air base (2 January 2016) and a military base in Uri (18 September 2016) followed.
The Modi government changed gears and decided to respond. Thus, 11 days after the Uri attack, Indian Army commandoes struck at multiple points across the line of control and eliminated several terrorist camps, thereby demonstrating that India will not tolerate such attacks, nor will she be cowed down by threats of nuclear blackmail from Pakistan. After a lull, on 14 February 2019, a Jaish-e-Mohamed (JeM) suicide bomber rammed his car into a vehicle of the Central Reserve Police Forces in Pulwama, killing 40 police personnel. India responded 12 days later (26 February) with an air strike on a JeM base deep inside Pakistani territory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, thus showcasing its willingness to avenge terror attacks on its soil.
The policy of hard retaliation against Pakistani military posts supporting cross border infiltration forced Pakistan to call for an end to cross border firing. In a meeting at the level of the Director Generals of Military Operations of India and Pakistan, Lt. Gen. Paramjit Singh Sangha and Maj. Gen. Nauman Zakaria, on February 25, 2021, both sides agreed to follow all ceasefire accords along the LoC and sectors of the International Border. The ceasefire agreement was first reached in 2003 and reiterated in 2018, but violations were the norm; over 5,000 violations were reported in 2020 and over 600 in the initial weeks of 2021.
Islamabad is under enormous pressure from the international community and Financial Action Task Force to cease using terrorism as an instrument of State policy. The abrogation of laws treating Jammu and Kashmir differently from other States on 5 August 2019, and dividing the State into two Union Territories (Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir) has altered the ground situation in the new UT of J&K. The international community has accepted India’s right to change its internal geography and address terrorist threats emanating across the border. The changed political landscape owing to Governor’s rule, and India’s readiness to show the iron fist, has seriously degraded Pakistan’s ability to promote terror in the UT of J&K and other parts of the country. Strategic analysts, however, believe that the call for ceasefire is a ruse to enable Islamabad to divert resources to lend heft to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
India abstained from a UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka on March 23, 2021, after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa telephoned Prime Minister Modi for support ahead of the vote. Ties between the two nations became strained after Colombo moved closer to Beijing and recently excluded New Delhi from a Colombo Port terminal project while approving a Chinese energy project in the northern islands, close to the Tamil Nadu coast. After New Delhi conveyed displeasure on both moves, Colombo offered an alternative terminal project which is being negotiated with the Adani Group.
Prime Minister Modi tweeted that the conversation covered issues of bilateral and multilateral cooperation, including the Covid-19 pandemic for which India gifted Colombo Sri Lanka its first consignment of vaccines. However, New Delhi had to balance Colombo’s plea with Tamil sentiments at home and the rights of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. During discussions on the report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in February, India’s Permanent Representative in Geneva said respecting the rights of the Tamil community “including through meaningful devolution, contributes directly to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka.” Hence, India abstained; the UNHRC resolution was passed with 22 countries for, 11 against, and 14 abstentions.
To conclude, since 2014, Indian foreign policy has become more robust and focused on India’s core interests. Hitherto, Indian foreign policy strove for a multipolar Asia in a bipolar or unipolar world. Now, as Asia’s economic rise challenges Western economic and ideological dominance, New Delhi has to maintain status in a multipolar Asia and a multipolar world. Like Russia and China, and unlike the (affectations of) Western democracies, India is not averse to dealing with political and/or ideological diversity. The European Union shares some of these perceptions. The current world order is in a flux. We live in interesting times.
India Foundation Journal, May-June 2021