The new year is an opportune time to take stock of the challenges that lie before India on the foreign policy front. Earlier in 2017, India celebrated 70 years of its independence with pomp and pageantry. The country had successfully overcome a few challenges in the foreign policy realm during this period. It had defeated Pakistan in major conventional wars, been one of the founders of the non-aligned movement (NAM), and contributed in a big way to the United Nations peacekeeping operations, among other notable achievements.
On the flip side, it had to bite the dust in a short border war with China in 1962, suffered a setback when it sent the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka, and had to contend with the dissolution of its biggest benefactor, the erstwhile Soviet Union.
This all begs the question: Going forward, what are major foreign policy challenges for India in 2018?
The first challenge for New Delhi would, undoubtedly, be how to manage its relationship with China. The Doklam standoff in 2017 showed that friction between the two Asian behemoths could happen again, as both them are growing economically and militarily at the same time.
Second, India’s relations with Pakistan and the neighboring South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) members will also demand attention from New Delhi. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi started off with a flourish when he invited the heads of state of all the neighbouring SAARC nations to his inauguration, since then much water has flowed down the Ganges. Sri Lanka has also become increasingly cozier with Beijing, in spite of New Delhi focusing greater attention and resources on the island nation. In addition, India faces issues arising from the influx of Rohingya refugees, which is related to civil strife in Myanmar.
Third, increasing its economic engagement with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations and Africa will be key to maintaining New Delhi’s economic growth at present levels. This will help India decrease its huge trade deficit with China. At the same time, the country will have to get more manufacturing done within it’s own borders, in order to create jobs for its young populace, in case it is to take advantage of its demographic dividend. Later in January, at India’s Republic Day celebrations, the heads of state of all the ASEAN member states are likely to be present.
Fourth, relations with Japan have been on an all-time high, but the challenge for both the countries will now be to implement all the deals that have been signed. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shinkansen project and the many infrastructure projects being undertaken with Japanese assistance in India will demand attention from both the governments. However, the trade levels between the two countries is abysmally low and this demands proactive steps from both the governments and private corporations.
Fifth, ensuring a steady supply of energy will be key for India. New Delhi is importing energy from a host of countries across the world, including: the Central Asian nations, Australia, Indonesia, Africa, besides the Gulf countries and now also from the US. Supplies can be volatile at times, especially from the Gulf countries and, hence, New Delhi needs to find out alternate sources of energy, besides going in for less-polluting ones. This is where the civilian nuclear deal with Japan and other similar deals will be critical.
Sixth, on the security front, it will be important for India not just to face traditional security threats, but also to prepare for non-traditional security threats. Climate change would pose a key question to Indian policy makers. New Delhi also needs to protect the interests of the huge Indian diaspora spread across different parts of the world. This will be a key test of Indian diplomacy as sometimes Indian national interests could well be at odds with the interests of the host nation. Indians have also been caught up in conflict zones—like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen in 2017—and the government has done a commendable job in being able to rescue Indians stranded in such conflict zones.
Seventh, as a rising global power, India will be called in to take a stand on key international issues, more often than in the past. Unlike earlier, New Delhi may no longer be able to be a fence sitter on key international issues. In the light of its growing ties with Israel, ties with the Arab countries will require a delicate balancing act.
With more and more nations, including the US, using the terminology Indo-Pacific, it seems that India’s importance in the foreign policy calculus of most nations will increase in 2018. New Delhi did well last year on the foreign policy front, but must be prepared to meet a wide array of challenges this year. As they say, “well begun is half-done.”
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is with the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. His latest book is The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India? He has been an assistant professor of International Relations in India and a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge (UK), the Japan Institute of International Affairs (Tokyo), and the Australian National University (Canberra). The views expressed are personal. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @rupakj.