India Faces Daunting Challenges Ahead

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Credit: Wikimedia CommonsBy Shastri Ramachandaran*
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - As the New Year ushered in, the concern in India was how it would acquit itself in dealing with the formidable challenges looming on the foreign front. On present reckoning, the big tests for India in 2012 would be relations with China and the United States, and neighbourhood 'management'.

India would need to show sensitivity as well as savviness to reach the right equilibrium in its relationship with a rising China, which has acquired enormous leverage in the aftermath of the US-Pakistan estrangement and the fraught transition in North Korea. Much of the world, including Washington is looking to China, as a responsible power, to rein in Pakistan and North Korea – which are accused of covert nuclear "cooperation" – and stabilise the situation in the region.

This implied admission of China's supremacy amidst prevalent uncertainties could make it harder for New Delhi to restore a balance in its ties with Beijing, which took a dive in 2011.

India-US relations could do with a bit of buoyancy after the stagnation of 2011 – a result of both being preoccupied with domestic concerns, including the economic slowdown but also much else. Although the appointment of Nancy Powell, one of the ablest US career diplomats with enviable experience of South Asia, as ambassador to India is a welcome development, complexities arising out of the situation in Pakistan could take the focus off what are strictly India-US bilateral issues.

In fact, with North Korea and Pakistan being top priorities, also for Washington, the points of divergence – as for example, Afghanistan – rather than cooperation between India and the US are likely to grow in 2012. The policy paralysis, economic slowdown and compulsions of electoral politics at home are factors common to both the US and India; and these may severely limit their potential for infusing new vibrancy in their relationship.

The UPA – United Progressive Alliance, a ruling coalition of centre-left political parties – heading the government of India can either resign itself to this scenario or decide to halt the drift and recover the highs of 2010 that made India the toast of the global power circuit. After all, there is little of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's performance on the world stage in 2011 that is not forgettable. This was in sharp contrast to 2010, when his leadership made India the star attraction at every high table, including the G-20 (the group of 20 major industrial and developing economies), and the world listened with respect when Manmohan Singh spoke.

In 2011, India's relations did not move forward with any of the superpowers. On the contrary, the year ended badly for India-China ties with the boundary talks having to be cancelled at the insistence of Beijing.

The talks are now expected to be held in January 2012. With China keen to ensure that the bad taste of the postponement does not pall other tracks of engagement, New Delhi can bring an upbeat note to the relationship. Besides being the biggest influence on Pakistan and North Korea, China is also bracing for a major power shift. The present leadership would be making way for the first of the post-Revolution breed in the party and government. Hence, equations have to be carefully calibrated to get the best out of the outgoing leaders while sending positive signals to those waiting in the wings.

In the region, India needs to build on what it accomplished in 2011. As former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh told this commentator, "India did well in the neighbourhood. There were breakthroughs in both the west and the east. In the west, where we were on the back-foot, India signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan".

This agreement, the first that Afghanistan has signed with any country, is a big step forward, said Mansingh, who has the distinction of being on the Board of Trustees of the prestigious Brussels-based International Crisis Group. India-Afghanistan ties entered a new phase, and the Prime Minister’s visit to Kabul in May brought Hamid Karzai to Delhi in September.

On the east, the Prime Minister's visit to Bangladesh in September was no less significant. Historical baggage, such as the residual demarcation of the boundaries and formalising the status of enclaves in both countries, has been dealt with to the satisfaction of both sides. India-Bangladesh ties are set on a new, promising path and 2012 could be a time of opportunities.

In dealing with Pakistan, Mansingh said, the government showed courage and stuck to a policy of dialogue, when the popular mood favoured punishing Pakistan. "The government's logic – you can't shut your door and not talk – was right", in his opinion.

Which raises the question: Will Manmohan Singh's quest to normalise relations take him to Pakistan in 2012?

Doubtless, there are many important parts of the world such as Africa (where China is ahead of India) that the Prime Minister should visit, but has not. Yet a small step across the border would seal his place in history and memory.

*The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi, and a member of IDN-InDepthNews editorial board. A version of this article appeared in DNA – Daily News and Analysis. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 1, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters >

Picture: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India (left) with US President Barack Obama
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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