Spotlight

Will India play a bigger global role in 2019?

Uncertainty piles on the South Asia region where China wants to run a ring around India with its Belt-and-Road programme. Although its military controls the levers of power, Pakistan has a new civilian government that appears to be waiting for a change in Indian government to plot its next diplomatic move, writes Arul Louis for South Asia Monitor. 
Jan 19, 2019
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The speeding kaleidoscopic shifts in the global strategic, political and economic scenarios and the forthcoming Indian elections will herald for India and the world a pall of uncertainty as 2019 dawns. The new morning will be a time for reality checks for India's foreign policy, and, perhaps, a reboot in some areas, as it will be globally.
 
Around the world, Indian Prime Minister Natrendra Modi's trademark bear hugs and confident rhetoric have become the face of a re-assertive India, the product of a resurgence that had already been underway for several years. His strength rests on the massive electoral victory of 2014 and any serious weakening of his position in the 2019 elections could affect his standing and, also, domestic politics could also interfere with some aspects of his diplomacy – as was seen during the India-United States nuclear agreement preparations.
 
Of course, it would be a wholly different scenario if the elections were to spawn a change in leadership, although, in many components of India's foreign policy, there is broad national consensus, except for the extreme ends of the political spectrum.
 
An important pillar of Modi's foreign policy was continuing to build – but with more vigour – the close ties with the US. President Donald Trump has reciprocated by giving India the status of a NATO-level ally, an agreement on communications and security coordination, high-level strategic meetings between the top defence and foreign policy cabinet officials, and exemptions from Iran sanctions for the India-developed Chabahar port with an eye on Afghanistan.
 
But now Trump, who himself faced a midterm election reverse losing the House of Representatives to the Democrats (while increasing his party's lead in the Senate, which has a greater say on foreign policy), is unleashing a tidal wave of uncertainty that hits close to home for India.
 
His decision to halve the US military presence in Afghanistan risks a repeat of former President George W Bush's disastrous scaling down of the military deployment soon after the initial victory over the Taliban and the al-Qaeda. If the structure of the Afghanistan government were to weaken – with or without a Taliban peace deal with US participation – it could lead to a boost for terrorism in the region and a victory for Pakistan, which could be free to increase the proxy war on India.
 
China has, meanwhile, tried to raise its diplomatic profile in Afghanistan working with Pakistan. Trump had asked India to take up a bigger role in Afghanistan as a counterweight to Pakistan, but could end up outsourcing dealing with that country to Beijing.
 
Trump has sought to have India counterbalance China, but India is not ready for the role, however flattering it may sound, because it can't match its economic prowess that translates to strategic power. India has gone along with the Washington-sponsored India-US-Japan-Australia quadrilateral arrangement – and within it the bilateral and trilateral elements – careful to declare they are not anti-China, while the intent is obvious.
 
The opportunity for large-scale military sales to India is another motivation for Trump to court India. But the controversy the deal to purchase French Rafale jetfighters could complicate any US arms deal – a situation that could be exacerbated by election outcomes.
 
Meanwhile, India is buying the S-400 missile defence system estimated to cost USD5 billion just as Washington is targeting sanctions against Russian defence suppliers. New Delhi has to figure out how to navigate this – and other aspects of relations with Moscow. For all the magnetism of the West, India is not free of the pull of Moscow as well as the nonaligned nations. For example, India's Dalveer Bhandari was re-elected to the International Court of Justice in 2017 defeating the British candidate because the developing countries in a show of solidarity rallied behind India, while the US and others went with Britain.
 
Uncertainty piles on the South Asia region where China wants to run a ring around India with its Belt-and-Road programme. Although its military controls the levers of power, Pakistan has a new civilian government that appears to be waiting for a change in Indian government to plot its next diplomatic move. Sri Lanka has for now barely managed to pull itself out of a political crisis, and so has the Maldives, which has a newly-elected government friendlier to India. Bangladesh is set to end 2018, a year of protests, with an election swaddled in controversies.
 
Trump's decision to get US military out of Syria also has repercussions for the region possibly impacting India. Displaced Islamic terrorism could flow from there into a weakened Afghanistan. On the other hand, a strengthening of the positions of Iran and Russia in Syria – and by extension, Tehran's in the region may not be totally bad for India. 
 
However, concomitant with that is the uncertainty in the region from that development as well as Turkey's increasing influence at a time when Saudi Arabia is under cloud over the killing for the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They will send ripples across the Gulf region economically and strategically important to India.
 
And uncertainty stalks Europe, where Emmanuel Macron's Paris was burning from the revolt against a tax to ironically further the agenda of its eponymous climate change agreement. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is singing her swan song, having upended the European Union from the fallout of her ill-conceived invitation to open migration from the Middle East that adversely affected several countries. Britain is on the precipice of Brexit, which, despite the naysaying, could open up economic opportunities for India.
 
India wants to, and could forseeably, play a much bigger global role to fill expected global voids but its diplomatic and strategic futures depend on its economic development – its still a fifth of the Chinese's economy – and although it is projected by the International Monetary Fund to be the fastest growing major economy next year at 7.4 percent, it would have to do better to be able to match China's clout and influence.
 
Protected to some degree from the global economy's turmoil because it is less dependent on exports and its growth is propelled by domestic demand, a higher growth rate would depend on external factors that influence inflow of investments. As a backup to its foreign policy objectives – besides the overwhelming domestic exigencies – India will have serious rethinking ahead and expectations to be met in 2019.
 
(The author is a non-resident Senior Fellow of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS). He can be contacted arullouis@spsindina.in) 

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