Indian diplomacy: Year of some highs, a few lows (2016 In Retrospective)

New Delhi, Dec 31 (IANS) If signing of the trilateral agreement on developing the Chabahar port in Iran, the civil nuclear deal with Japan and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (Lemoa) with the US marked the major highlights of Indian diplomacy in 2016, deteriorating relations with Pakistan and China stalling India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) are the negatives.

With two major cross-border terror attacks from Pakistan and the Islamic State’s attacks in Europe, the fight against terrorism figured majorly in India’s diplomatic initiatives.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Brussels in March fresh after bombs ripped through the Belgian capital’s airport and a Metro station, claiming dozens of lives, including that of an Indian techie, and injuring an Indian air carrier’s staffer.

Modi’s visit to Brussels also marked the resumption of summit-level talks with the European Union after a gap of four years following the case of two Italian marines being charged with killing Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala.

Though India managed to draw the support of Switzerland, Mexico and South Africa for its membership of the NSG during Modi’s visits in June and July, China stalled New Delhi’s bid on the ground that for a country to be a member of the 48-member bloc, it has to be a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Despite two rounds of discussions between India’s Joint Secretary (Disarmament) and the Chinese Director General leading the NSG talks, Beijing continued to block New Delhi’s membership bid.

This, when India and Japan signed a historic civilian nuclear deal during the Prime Minister’s visit to Tokyo for the annual bilateral summit. Japan being an active player in the civil nuclear market, the agreement will help major companies like GE and Westinghouse of the US in setting up nuclear plants in India.

Though China said the test firing of the Agni V intercontinental ballistic missile earlier this month should help the strategic balance in South Asia, Beijing’s blocking of New Delhi’s NSG membership should be seen in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) perspective. India has raised concerns over the CPEC that passes through Pakistan-adminsitered Kashmir (PoK) ending at the newly-developed Gwadar port in southwest Pakistan.

Against this, what can be seen as a major boost to New Delhi’s Act East Policy is its strengthening of ties with Myanmar that has newly acquired democracy. After Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) assumed power in March, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Nai Pyi Taw in August which was followed by a visit to New Delhi by Myanmarese President U Htin Kyaw within a week.

India’s relationship with Southeast Asia was further emphasised with Modi’s visit to Vietnam in September during which the bilateral relationship was elevated from “Strategic Partnership” to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”. India also offered a $500-million defence credit line, part of which will be used for the construction of offshore patrol boats by Larsen & Toubro.

This came in the wake of the an international arbitration tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague ruling in July that China violated the Philippines’ rights in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest commercial shipping routes.

India urged all stakeholders to follow the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (Unclos). During Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit to New Delhi earlier this month, both sides agreed to ensure safety and security of the sea lanes while prioritising defence and security cooperation.

On the western front, India’s ties with Pakistan dipped to a new low with two major cross-border terror attacks at an Indian Air Force Base in Pathankot in Punjab in January and at an Indian Army base at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir in September. A peace initiative that was launched by Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad in December 2015 and Modi’s visit to Lahore on Christmas Day the same year was thrown completely off the tracks.

But New Delhi gained significant upper ground when it signed a trilateral agreement with Kabul and Tehran for developing the Chabahar port in Iran, boosting connectivity with Central Asia.

Modi visited Iran in May after inaugurating a redeveloped mega dam in Afghanistan signifying India’s Neighbourhood First policy with its western neighbour. In December last year, Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani jointly inaugurated a new building of the Afghanistan parliament that was built with Indian aid.

India’s engagement with its extended neighbourhood in the west can be gauged from the fact that the Prime Minister visited Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar across May and June in quick succession.

Following the India Africa Forum Summit hosted by New Delhi in October last year, Modi made his first trip to mainland Africa visiting Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. India-Africa ties were further boosted by the visits of President Pranab Mukherjee to Ghana, Ivory Coast and Namibia, and Vice President Hamid Ansari to Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria and Mali.

India’s growing ties with the US got a significant boost with the signing of the Lemoa. Earlier this month, the US made India a “major defence partner” during the visit to New Delhi of US the Defense Secretary. What India-US ties will see in the incoming Donald Trump administration is the subject of much speculation

On the multilateral front, India hosted the annual BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa) Summit in its role as the chairman and the Sixth Ministerial Heart of Asia Istanbul Conference on security and development.

(This is a part of a series from IANS that look back at the year that was. Aroonim Bhuyan can be contacted at aroonim.b@ians.in)

–IANS

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