India’s foreign policy in 2020 saw recalibration following Chinese misadventure
New Delhi: India embarked on a major foreign policy overdrive in 2020, bringing its vision for a rules-based Indo-Pacific as a cornerstone of its diplomacy and displaying a steely resolve to fashion a regional environment conducive to its strategic interests in the face of China’s transgression attempts in eastern Ladakh that caused the most serious damage to the bilateral relations in over four decades.
As the bitter border standoff with China forced it to recalibrate its external engagements, India mounted a diplomatic push, focusing on boosting ties with major global players like the US, Japan, the UK and France with a larger goal to increase its geo-political heft and position itself as a credible force wedded to peace, stability and international law in contrast to Beijing’s expansionist behaviour.
The ties between the two Asian powers nosedived significantly following a fierce clash in the Galwan Valley that left 20 Indian soldiers dead in mid-June. The Chinese side also suffered casualties but it is yet to give out the details. According to an American intelligence report, the number of casualties on the Chinese side was 35.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar bluntly told his Chinese counterpart that the “unprecedented development will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship”.
Drawing a firm and clear line on its China policy, India held the neighbouring country accountable for triggering the Ladakh standoff by violating rules of engagement on border management and conveyed that peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) are the basis for progress of the rest of the relationship and they cannot be separated.
In the midst of the standoff that erupted in early May, Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed on a five-point pact to resolve the row at a meeting in Moscow on September 10. However, a concrete breakthrough is yet to be found to end the faceoff at the friction points.
“India’s rise will evoke its own reactions and responses. There will be attempts to dilute our influence and limit our interests. Some of this contestation can be directly in the security domain; others could be reflected in economics, connectivity and even in societal contacts,” Jaishankar said at a think-tank recently.
Outlining the broad contours of an assertive foreign policy, Jaishankar held that India’s “relationship with the world” cannot be the same as when its ranking was much lower, adding the country now matters more on key issues and its global view must process that in all its aspects.
With the region witnessing new geopolitical alignments, India too redoubled efforts to boost strategic cooperation with countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood, Gulf region, Central Asia and member nations of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) grouping.
However, India’s relations with Pakistan remained unchanged as Islamabad continued with its support to cross border terrorism to create instability in Jammu and Kashmir while New Delhi maintained a policy of hot pursuit to deal with the menace.
India also continued its diplomatic offensive against Pakistan on the issue of terrorism and remained firm on not having any talks with Islamabad until it stops cross border terrorism.
One of the key takeaways of India’s diplomatic engagement in 2020 was major expansion of strategic partnership with the US including on key regional and global issues like resolve to work jointly for a free and stable Indo-Pacific.
The two countries elevated their ties to a “comprehensive global strategic partnership” during a two-day visit to India in February by President Donald Trump, accompanied by First Lady Melania, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner and a host of top officials of his administration.
“This relationship is the most important partnership of the 21st century,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his media statement after talks with Trump on February 25, reflecting growing congruence in ties between the two leading democracies.
In October, India and the US sealed the long-pending BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) agreement to further boost bilateral defence ties. The pact provides for sharing of high-end military technology, logistics and geospatial maps between the two countries.
India expects the relations to grow further under Joe Biden’s presidency as he is known to be a strong proponent of closer India-US ties since his days as a senator in the 1970s.
In many ways, New Delhi’s efforts to further improve relations with Russia, Australia, Germany, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the African continent resulted in rich dividends.
In the neighbourhood, India’s relations with Nepal came under some strain after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80-km-long strategically crucial road connecting the Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand in May. Nepal claimed the road passed through its territory.
The relations appeared to be back on track to a significant extent following visits to Kathmandu by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Army Chief Gen MM Naravane in November.
In the last eight months of 2020, India played a key role in calibrating a comprehensive approach in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic globally. It also supplied medical assistance to over 150 countries to help them deal with the pandemic that infected over 79 million people and killed 1.7 million.
In May India launched a mega evacuation mission under which commercial jets, military transport aircraft and naval warships were deployed to bring back hundreds of thousands of Indians stranded across the world in view of the coronavirus lockdown.
Nearly, 39 lakh Indians have been brought back home under the mission, billed as the biggest repatriation exercise in India’s history.
As Chinese actions in key maritime channels fueled greater concerns, foreign ministers of India, the US, Australia and Japan held extensive in-person talks under the framework of the Quadrilateral coalition or Quad in Tokyo on October 6, signalling serious resolve to work vigorously towards a collective vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.
In the overall policy framework, concerns relating to Indo-Pacific and the way forward found greater salience in India’s diplomatic engagements with majority of the countries as well as leading blocs.
India also focused on improving regional connectivity with countries in its neighbourhood as well as well with several central Asian nations as China’s opaqueness in rolling out projects under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) continues to draw suspicion.
In another important development, India scored a major diplomatic victory in June to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2021-22 term. India won 184 votes out of 192 valid votes in the elections held for the vacant non-permanent seats.
With the pandemic bringing to fore the prospect of a new global power-play, India also focused policy initiatives to deal with the complexity and pace of change.
In 2020, India also carefully focused on consequences of Brexit, the Abraham Accords, fast evolving scenario in the Gulf region and overall relations with the African continent.
The Abraham Accords are agreements that Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain marking the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two Gulf nations and the Jewish state.