Since assuming power at the centre in May 2014, the Narendra Modi-led government has faced a number of challenges on the foreign policy front, both in the immediate neighbourhood and beyond. Barring the die-hard critics of the Modi government, the more or less unanimous view among the foreign policy watchers has been that the government has fared reasonably well in the matters of foreign affairs. It also helps that the present incumbent in the External Affairs Ministry, S. Jaishankar, is an ex-diplomat himself.
The major challenges that the NDA government at the centre faced in the domain of foreign policy beyond the neighbourhood included, inter alia, rescuing Indian nationals stranded in war-torn Ukraine, coming to terms with the new Democratic dispensation at Washington D.C., anti-India/anti-Hindu activities of ‘Khalistan’ supporters (in Canada, UK, Australia and USA), pursuing fraudster fugitives like Mehul Choksi and Nirav Modi across various countries etc. Nearer home, takeover of power by the radical Islamist Taliban forces in Afghanistan threw up multitude of problems, not the least being rescue of Indians from that country without explicitly engaging with the hostile Taliban dispensation. Add to that the usual and frequent pinpricks from the hostile neighbours Pakistan and China and the foreign policy mandarins had their plates full.
Amidst the number of foreign policy challenges faced by the Indian Government, one stands out due to the unique nature of the players involved in it. It is none other than the Russia-Ukraine conflict. To call it a conflict between the unequal neighbours (Russia, heir of the mighty Soviet Empire and the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine) would be an understatement. It was a full-scale invasion by big brother Russia of the smaller and weaker Ukraine. Notwithstanding the various provocations (actual or perceived) offered by Ukraine and other western powers/NATO to Russia, the attack on Ukraine didn’t have any moral basis. So, inevitably, it invited condemnation of the Russian action from most of the countries with Western democracies like USA, UK, etc. on the forefront. Considering the moral aspects of the crisis, ideally, India should have stood with the Western liberal democracies (Russia is at best a controlled democracy and a dictatorship at the worst).But there lay the catch. Russia has been a steadfast ally of India since ages through the cold war era and even after disintegration of the USSR, the earlier warmth of friendship between the two nations still persists. On the other hand, the USA, having been opposed to India’s interests in many cases, has been an untrustworthy ally as vindicated by the sudden and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and handing over the latter to the Taliban. So, it made sense for India to adopt a stance of strategic neutrality with no open condemnation of Russian action. It was interpreted by Ukraine and its backers as a pro-Russian stance.
But what is interesting about India’s present stance on Russia-Ukraine conflict is the almost universal support that this stand enjoys among the Indian public. Considering that presently the Indian polity is most fractured in the country’s history and there is no love lost between the opposition and the Modi Government, there hasn’t been any strong expression of resentment against India’s stance inside and outside the parliament. This is a unique moment in India’s history when the hostile opposition is almost in complete agreement with a major foreign policy stand of the incumbent government headed by a person loathed by almost all opposition supporters. The fact that India has been beneficiary of discounted Russian oil over the last few months also cemented the support for the Indian Government’s stance on the issue.
As opposed to the relative ease in dealing with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China’s continuous provocations and misadventures have confounded the Indian Government to no end and they continue to flummox the latter as to how to contain the dragon’s hostile actions having far reaching implications. The list of provocations from the Chinese side is quite long, significant among them being (i) establishing human settlements close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), (ii) renaming villages on the Indian side, (iii) protesting visits of important government functionaries to Arunachal Pradesh etc., not to mention the occasional hand to hand fights between the Chinese and Indian Military personnel deployed on the LAC. Fortunately, emotions have been restrained and no arms and ammunition have been used lest a full-scale war break out.
The lowest point in the strained Sino-Indian relationship in recent years happened at Galwan area in the contested cold desert of Ladakh in 2020 when in an unexpected bestial ambush by the Chinese Army men, some 20 Indian army personnel lost their lives. After the 1962 Indo-China war, this was the second highest number of casualties on the Indian side. China, true to the ruling Communist Party’s policy of suppressing the inconvenient truths, never acknowledged the true number of deaths of their army personnel.
Now, the question is how to contain the hostile actions of China. India has historical albatrosses around her neck like recognizing annexation of Tibet by China, reverses suffered by India in the 1962 war etc. China has several strategic advantages viz. the areas under its control adjacent to LAC are sparsely populated and major Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong etc. are too far away from the Indian borders. However, Indian capital New Delhi and most big cities are within the range of Chinese missiles from the LAC. Further, many important rivers like the Brahmaputra originate in China and the latter has been trying to put pressure on India by building dams on the same and by subtle threats of causing flood on the Indian side. Thirdly, China being a totalitarian state, decision making on waging wars etc. is secret and fast. India being a vocal democracy with a fractured polity, any decision to resort to war would be time taking and not so secret. The clinching factors are the strength of Chinese economy and perceived superiority of China’s army and arsenal vis-à-vis India.
Considering the abovementioned advantages of China, India has to tread cautiously. Any bold action like derecognizing Tibet as a part of China or establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan (which is considered as a renegade province by China) will aggravate the frayed relationship and risk an all-out war which India can ill afford. China being a one-party dictatorship can ride roughshod over the opinions of its citizens and look the other way if war brings misery to its populace. But as a vibrant democracy, India can’t afford to do that. Perhaps all these considerations force the otherwise vocal top BJP leaders including PM Modi to not issue direct warnings to China by taking its name which often invites ridicule from the Opposition leaders about the BJP leaders being scared of the dragon. The Government of India is at its wit’s end about how to contain the Chinese threat and avoid a potential two front war with China and its lackey and India’s sworn enemy Pakistan. However, there is a palpable sense of reluctance to antagonize China as evidenced from lack of full-scale preparation to meet the Chinese challenge, half-hearted steps like becoming a member of the 4 nation QUAD or improving infrastructure along the LAC notwithstanding.
As is said, there are no permanent friends or foes in international relations, only permanent interests. In case of Russia-Ukraine confrontation, Indian Government, by its policy, has served the country’s national interests rather well. However, the actions taken by the GOI to counter the Chinese threats pale before the strategies adopted by our bigger neighbour though as per foreign media reports, India has lost 40% of patrolling points in Ladakh to China. Perhaps, the need of the hour is some serious out-of-the-box thinking and actions to match it. Whether the central government can rise up to these expectations or not, only time will tell. Till then, eternal vigilance has to be exercised at the LAC and along with strengthening our logistical framework and army presence along the LAC, all efforts must be made to make China realize that any misadventure from its side will have substantial costs for it also.
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