Donald Trump’s win in the U.S. presidential elections, Britain’s Brexit vote, Russia’s successes in Syria, Chinese actions in South China Sea and North Korea’s testing of H-bomb parts — in the uncertainty that 2016’s most dramatic moments unleashed on the world, Indian foreign policy took a decided step away from multilateral platforms to focus on bilateral relations to shore up its place in the world.
From the United Nations (U.N.), to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to BRICS, SAARC, SCO and others, the Modi government seemed to make limited headway. This has led officials to argue that it was India’s bilateral engagements that were propelling it forward, as with the U.S., West Asia, or Japan; or holding it back, as with China and Pakistan.
“Global blocs and alliances are less relevant today and the world is moving towards a loosely arranged order,” said Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar in an address to the press this year, shortly before India announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was going to drop out of attending the Non-Aligned Summit in Venezuela.
The decision was significant: except for one occasion in 1979, an Indian Prime Minister has always attended the NAM summit which it helped found. The decision seemed not just bound by the decision to move away from the bloc, that has been seen as less relevant in the post-Cold War era, but also not to upset India’s partnership with the Obama administration that was at odds with Venezuelan President Maduro. At the previous summit in Teheran in 2012, the UPA government had chosen to ignore pressure from the U.S. to give NAM a miss.
Blocked at world bodies
With the U.N., the government has felt “frustration” at its inability to move on issues important for India. No headway was made on India’s bid for a permanent Security Council seat, on the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, or on specific requests to ban Pakistan-based terror group chief Masood Azhar, leading India’s envoy to the U.N. Syed Akbaruddin to say the world body suffers from a “mix of ad hocism, scrambling and political paralysis”.
Similar frustration was felt when India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group was scotched not once but twice in the year, due to China’s objections. Despite making the NSG membership the centre-point of all of Mr. Modi’s high-profile summits with countries ranging from Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Switzerland to New Zealand and other members of the 48-nation body, the government will have to wait for next June to take its request forward.
In an unusually direct statement, the MEA blamed the failure on “one country” that created “persistent procedural hurdles” to India’s ambitions.
Meanwhile, India’s attempts to introduce Pakistan-specific anti-terror strictures into the the BRICS declaration at the Goa summit came a cropper too, bringing into sharp light India’s limited options when it comes to multilateral organisations like BRICS, RIC (Russia-India-China) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which are dominated by the growing Sino-Russian partnership.
The bright spots for Indian foreign policy, instead, came from its strengthened bilateral relationships: most notably with the US, that saw the Prime Minister’s address to the U.S. Congress, the signing of the Logistics Agreement, and India’s agreement to join the Climate Change convention. As the year drew to a close, President Obama signed the Defence Bill that names India a “major defence partner” — a designation that seems most akin to a strategic ally without being one. Another leap forward came from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, which are forging closer ties with India despite their OIC reservations, and from Iran and Afghanistan. Russia remains ambiguous, as 2016 saw it draw closer to Pakistan with military exercises and an interest in the China-Pakistan economic corridor.