China's fixation on dominating Asia and of ringing India with its “string of pearls” strategy has led to a paradigm shift taking place in New Delhi’s foreign policy mantra.
Three apparently unrelated international events have highlighted a new paradigm in India’s foreign policy matrix. The first of these events was the virtual Quad summit hosted by US President Joe Biden.
The second was India’s decision to abstain from voting on a resolution – sponsored by the UK, Germany, Canada and a few others – to give UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet the mandate to collect and preserve evidence of crimes related to Sri Lanka’s civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The third decision was to confer the Gandhi Peace Prize, India’s most prestigious international award posthumously to Sheikh Mujibur Rehman on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh by the Indian Army.
As noted above, there is little to apparently connect these three events. But, foreign policy analysts noted, there is a strong thread tying all these apparently disparate developments together.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the looming and sinister shadow of China.
Diplomatic circles in New Delhi are almost unanimous that Beijing will try every trick in the book to corner India strategically in the future, if only to save its face.
“The ongoing disengagement may be proceeding at a snail’s pace, but there’s no doubt that India thwarted China and prevented it from securing its military objectives. This has been noted in various capitals around the world, especially in Asia. But this will not be the end of the matter. China will try again to show India down militarily, economically, diplomatically and strategically… it has to… otherwise its carefully cultivated image of invincibility will be irreparably damaged,” said a retired Indian diplomat who has served in China.
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The Quad summit was quite clearly about China and no one made any effort to even mask the fact.
The unprovoked military aggression on the LAC last year that led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and, according to media reports in Russia, up to 45 fatalities on the Chinese side served as a wakeup call to India.
Similarly, Beijing’s brazen efforts to economically arm twist Australia by placing severe restrictions on the exports of wine and other products showed that China would blatantly bend internationally accepted rules of engagement when it suited it.
These two events showed the two large Indo-Pacific democracies the limitations of the policy they had followed of engaging China economically to temper the rough edges of its meteoric rise up the global power ladder.
By agreeing to elevate the Quad meeting to the level of a summit, Modi and Morrison have signalled that they could be shedding their historical hesitations and that China should not be taking their neutrality for granted.
The issue of alleged human rights violations against LTTE cadre and civilian Tamils by the Lankan forces in the closing days of the civil war on the island nation is a hot button political issue in Tamil Nadu. This has been exacerbated by the ongoing assembly elections in the southern Indian states.
Previous Indian governments have handled the issue with kid gloves. On the one hand is the sentiment of people in Tamil Nadu. On the other hand, is India’s relations with Sri Lanka, especially given the inroads that China has made in India’s southern Indian Ocean neighbour.
The re-election of the Rajapaksa brothers to power has made the Indian administration wary, given their not-so-secret tilt towards China. Colombo recently cancelled a prestigious port project that had been awarded to India.
In such a scenario, it was imperative for India to ensure that its moves at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) did not push the Rajapakshas closer into a Chinese clinch. The Indian administration decided to abstain from the vote on the resolution titled ‘Promotion of Reconciliation Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’.
Its statement said: “India supports the call by the international community for the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitments on the devolution of political authority, including through the early holding of elections for Provincial Councils and to ensure that all Provincial Councils are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution…. At the same time, we believe that the work of OHCHR should be in conformity with mandate given by the relevant resolutions of the UN General Assembly.”
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India’s approach was guided by two fundamental considerations. “One is our support to the Tamils of Sri Lanka for equality, justice, dignity and peace. The other is in ensuring the unity, stability and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. We have always believed that these two goals are mutually supportive and Sri Lanka’s progress is best assured by simultaneously addressing both objectives,” said Pawan Kumar Badhe, the First Secretary at the Indian permanent mission.
In India’s immediate neighbourhoods, Dhaka is, arguably, its closest ally. Not surprisingly, Modi chose to visit Bangladesh on his first foreign visit after the Covid-19 pandemic.
The highlight of the visit was the conferring of the prestigious Gandhi peace prize to the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, whose daughter Sheikh Hasina is currently Prime Minister of the country.
By honouring Mujib on the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s liberation, Modi completed a task left unfinished by Congress governments of the past and further cemented bilateral ties that have, in recent time, seen a concerted challenge from China, which has been pouring in billions of dollars’ worth of investments into Bangladesh in a bid to bring it into its own sphere of influence.
This apart, India and Bangladesh also signed five agreements and the two Prime Ministers inaugurated a new passenger train connecting the Bangladesh capital with the north Bengal town of New Jalpaiguri.
“India and Bangladesh signed MoUs in key sectors such as disaster management, sports and youth affairs, trade, technology and more. These will add strength to our development partnership and benefit the people of our nations, especially the youth,” Modi said.
“Commerce and connectivity, cooperation and water resources, security, defence, power and energy, Artificial Intelligence, environment and societal application of nuclear energy were also part of the discussion. A significant part of our third line of credit will go to civil nuclear cooperation. Transmission lines of Ruppur Nuclear Power Plant will be developed by Indian companies under the line of credit. Value of these transmission lines will be worth over $1 billion,” India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla said.
All these moves are part of the elaborate game of chess that India has begun playing with the aim of containing Chinese incursions into what it considers its own sphere of influence.
Diplomatic experts, however, warned, these should be considered the opening moves only. China is fixated on dominating Asia and of ringing India with its “string of pearls” strategy. India, they cautioned, cannot let its guard down and should be prepared to slug it out for the long haul.