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A Good Example of What is Not Foreign Policy​; By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0059/2016  


Courtesy: DNA India

Recent developments in India’s external affairs are most unflattering to a self-proclaimed “leading power”. These have exposed the government as being confused, bad at coordinated action and in the grip of powerful interests working at cross-purposes. These developments also betray the prevalent public perception of foreign policy as a matter of crude theatrics, for which the ruling party has itself to blame.

Pulling back at the eleventh hour from inking the Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA) with the US during Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent visit and cancelling just-issued visas of Chinese dissidents for an inter-faith conference called by the Dalai Lama indicate lack of clarity in policy and poor preparation.

Carter’s second visit after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister was to clinch the LSA. In 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had accepted President George Bush’s proposal for the LSA, but put off its signing indefinitely. Thus, what the high-level meeting did was postpone what had already been (accepted and) postponed 10 years ago.

Clearly, the government, or sections that enjoy the Prime Minister’s confidence, had decided to take the critical leap towards making India a partner in US military actions in the region. But, the government was pulled back from the brink of signing the LSA by far more powerful interests, which may have felt that the LSA does not sit well with the dictates of nationalism in the present political climate.

As a result, the government has been forced on the defensive by sections which reinforce Modi’s power as well as by parties opposed to him.

Close on the heels of this about-turn on the LSA came the flip-flop over the visa to Dolkun Isa, the Uyghur activist living in Germany and wanted as a “terrorist” by China. For the record, Isa of the World Uyghur Congress and other Chinese dissidents abroad were invited to Dharamsala by the Tibetan government in exile for a conference on democracy and human rights in China, which is backed by influential US bodies. Between the Carter visit and the visa fiasco, India and China had high-level exchanges: two in Beijing during the visits of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval; and, one at the 14th Russia-India-China (RIC) meeting in Moscow. These interactions went off well in an atmosphere that was friendly enough for both countries to raise contentious issues — such as India’s position on the South China Sea dispute and China’s veto in the UN Committee against declaring Pakistan’s Masood Azhar as a terrorist.

In the event, when Isa was given a visa, China was quick to make its displeasure known. In the pause before the blow-back came, much of the media and social media in India gleefully rejoiced over this perceived tit-for-tat “policy” as a diplomatic masterstroke that showed India’s guts and muscle to stare down China and Pakistan. This was unfortunate because the action was neither the outcome of policy nor diplomacy. Both the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs went scurrying for cover; with the MEA disclaiming any knowledge or responsibility and making it known that the MHA had issued the visa.

The Prime Minister had to step in for damage control although little could be done about the loss of face over an issue which served no purpose. Subsequently, two more Chinese dissidents were denied visas.

Modi crying a halt to what his trusted officials had carried too far was then flayed — by the very sections which had earlier cheered him — for kowtowing to China. Such irrational outbursts are only to be expected from a public that has been conditioned to see chest-thumping jingoism as policy.

(The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator. The views expressed are his own.)

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