In May 2014, then PM-elect Mr. Modi, known for having a keen interest in foreign policy matters, in an unprecedented diplomatic move invited leaders of the neighbouring countries for his oath-taking ceremony. Later in 2014, he visited Bhutan, Nepal (twice) and Myanmar, while presidents of China and Bangladesh visited India. Prioritising the Neighbourhood First policy, PM Modi wanted to stamp his personal, charismatic authority on relations with leaders of neighbouring countries. However, not much has been achieved on the diplomatic front then, and, worryingly, it has all gone down-hill since.
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Relations with Nepal severely deteriorated after allegations of India imposing an ‘unofficial economic blockade’ surfaced in September, 2015. According to academia, the alleged blockade severely dented India’s image in the psyche of the Nepalese people and gave rise to a ‘new nationalism’. Under influence of this ‘new nationalism’ and other domestic factors, people of Nepal voted to power a communist regime in December 2017, which is led by PM K. P. Oli. PM Oli, who was in power during the alleged economic blockade, had severely resisted India’s demands and instead signed trade and transit treaties with China. The worsening of relations can be gauged by the fact that during December, 2017, in an unprecedented move, India reported Nepal to the UNHRC over ‘lack of political process’, ‘extra-judicial killings’, and ‘ethnic discrimination’. In response, PM Oli criticised India in Geneva for bringing up old issues, tacitly pointing towards malice intent – which some consider as being a support for the monarchy of Nepal over its democratic institution. In the recent past, China has bagged many big-money projects in Nepal, while, there have been attacks on India-sponsored projects. Taking differences to new heights, or new lows – to be precise, there is an attempt, most probably by the ‘Sangh Parivar’, at ‘saffronisation’ of not just domestic politics, but also of diplomatic relations. In July, 2018, Nepal’s Foreign Minister announced former Chief Election Commissioner of Nepal, Nilkantha Upreti, as Nepal’s ambassador to India, but PM Oli’s ‘disapproval’ due to Mr. Upreti’s association with Hindu Swayam Sevak Sangh – which closely works with India Foundation – stalled the appointment.
Since the BJP formed the government at the centre, Maldives foreign policy has consistently moved away from India, and closer towards China. It started with President Xi Jinping’s visit to Maldives in September 2014 – first ever by a Chinese president. During the visit, China bagged the contract for the Male airport, which was earlier taken away from India. In 2015, Maldives enacted legislation allowing foreigners to own land. Keeping in mind the conditions of the legislation and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ambitions, China is expected to be the main beneficiary of this legislation. In August 2017, Male’s commercial harbour hosted three Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) ships. In December 2017, Maldives signed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, its first ever with any country. On top of all the bonhomie with China, mishandling of the February, 2018 political crisis of Maldives by the Indian government has made the Maldivian government averse to India. Implications of the averseness can be seen form the fact that, recently, Maldivian government has told India – its prime military and civilian aid provider – to withdraw its military helicopters and personnel posted there.
Despite PM Modi’s desperate attempts at ‘hugplomacy’, and even going to the extent of inviting the Pakistani agencies to survey Indian defence establishment at Pathankot, the BJP government only received cold-shoulders from the erstwhile Pakistan government. In response, the PM Modi-government conducted ‘surgical strikes’ across the LOC to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson’, but PM Modi had got it wrong with ‘hugplomacy’ and he got it wrong with ‘surgical strikes’, and both instances show PM Modi’s naivety at diplomacy. Surgical strikes conducted across the border only emboldened Pakistan’s military, and this is best represented by facts. According to government’s data, there have been 942 ceasefire violations along LOC till 23rd July, 2018, already breaching the figure for the whole of 2017. Also, when compared to 2015, ceasefire violations along LOC have gone up by 500 percent, according to reports. Similarly, there have been 450 instances of cross-border firing along the international border as of June, 2018, a rise of 4.5 times compared to the whole of 2017. Moreover, In May 2018, Pakistan complained to the World Bank regarding the inauguration of Kishanganga Hydro-electric Project (KHEP) in Jammu and Kashmir, and this happened while Indian experts had revived ‘Neemrana Dialogue’. In March 2018, there were reports of continuous harassment of Indian diplomats in Pakistan. In February 2018, Pakistan decided to press additional charges of terrorism on Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav.
However, the worrying trend in India-Pakistan relations is not just limited to India and Pakistan. Pakistan is slowly, but steadily, courting Indian allies. In April 2018, Pakistan’s army chief visited the Maldives – a rare event. This was also the first visit by any high-ranking official to the Maldives after the imposition of emergency. In July 2017, erstwhile PM Nawaz Sharif visited the Maldives as the chief guest on the occasion of independence day and extended a $10 million Defence Line Credit.
While there was a lot of rhetoric and chest-thumping, by the BJP and people aligned with it, surrounding India’s alleged ‘victory’ over China in the Doklam plateau, the reality, as always, is much different. To sum it up in one fact, days after the ‘victory’, then Foreign Secretary of India had told Parliamentary Standing Committee on external affairs that ‘it was possible that Chinese troops were present in North Doklam’. This was reaffirmed by Mr. Vijay Gokhale, present foreign secretary. Yet another Jumla by the PM Modi-led government, but one of grave concern to national security. This begs the question – how far will this government go to mislead the people of India?
However, while the Modi government is still unsure of what a proper response in Doklam would be, there are equally grave issues, if not more, that have surfaced in the Indo-Pacific region. There are growing debates about China as a rising ‘sharp power’ and its ‘creditor imperialism’. A glaring example of Chinese ‘creditor imperialism’ is the Maldives, which at present owes 70 percent of its debt to China; interest payments comprise one-fifth of Maldivian economy. According to experts, on the grand chessboard of Indo-pacific region, a ‘New Great Game’ is being played. China is playing a dual-game, where it offers to build ports and towns as part of BRI initiative, but intends to use them as strategic assets, when needed. The mirage of BRI makes it appear as a win-win for all, but in reality, China is furthering its ‘creditor imperialism’ agenda to further encircle India under the ‘string of pearls’ strategy.
Recent ‘informal summits’ appear to be an attempt at building bridges. This reset should be seen in the light of increasing signs of panic shown by the PM Modi-led government, which senses that Doklam has been a failure, the neighbours have deserted India for China, and with an unstable US foreign policy towards India due to President Trump at the helm, India is losing ground. But an even graver issue of concern is that the leadership of China and Pakistan are certainly going to sense this panic too, and, irrespective of the hard talks, are not going to ‘cede an inch’. PM Modi, with his reckless and coercive actions, has pushed India to an inferior position in the ‘bargain for power’ called foreign policy.