Gujarat or India?s foreign policy: Which is more important?

By Aman Bagaria

The Gujarat elections had the attention of the entire nation as it would be a test for the BJP to maintain their stronghold over the state government for the sixth straight time. The effect of the policies of the NDA Government would be pitted against a reformed Congress party and many were waiting for the results and considered them to be a precursor to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP might have formed the state government but a closer look at all that came to be over the last couple of months—or so would show—that while all the leaders of the country were focusing their efforts on the elections of one state, other nation-states around the world were busy building and maintaining relations with India’s neighboring nations which might indeed turn out to be harmful to India in the long run.

While almost all eyes across the nation were glued to the outcome of the Gujarat elections, the foreign policy of India took a back-seat. To put things in perspective, while the Prime Minister made 14 international trips between May and September, he has made only one such trip for the remainder of the year. While Prime Minister Modi took a break, which might be welcomed by most people, to try to consolidate his party’s position in the upcoming elections, other nations, especially China, took major steps towards achieving their respective foreign policy goals.

China’s foreign policy

This year, India and China relations have already been murky at best with the Doklam issue being at the forefront, however, foreign relations between the nations have always been an issue with both nations developing into different ends of a multipolar world order. One of the major foreign policy goals of China that India is opposed to is the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. The OBOR initiative is a development strategy that focuses on connectivity and cooperation between nations of Europe and Asia and to develop trade relations among these nations with China at the centre of this trading network. Successful implementation of such an initiative would result in China establishing itself as a world power with pomp and show and leaving India with nothing to show for its efforts in the development of the region.

Developments over the last few months

Over the last couple of months China has made definite progress with establishing relations with nations like Afghanistan, Maldives, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka; all of which have been counteractive to India’s efforts to neutralize the growing influence of China. The most recent of such foreign policy initiatives taken by China have been in relation to Afghanistan becoming a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Border (CPEC).

The CPEC was already a program for the efficient functioning of OBOR and with the possible inclusion of Afghanistan in the proposal, it opens up more avenues for China. Afghanistan’s inclusion in the program may have been envisioned to enable it to gain access to the Gwadar port that has been developed as a part of the CPEC. It is a move that is likely to balance the trilateral agreements between India, Iran and Afghanistan in relation to the establishment of the port of Chabahar. The inclusion of Afghanistan in the CPEC has been done in the garb of China encouraging peace between the nations of Pakistan and Afghanistan and bettering connectivity issues in the region in view of the urgency of improving people’s lives. India has always been opposed to the CPEC as the routes pass through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) on grounds that it infringes the territorial sovereignty of India. The addition of Afghanistan is only going to fuel the cause of the CPEC which is against India’s foreign policy interests. Pakistan’s increasingly improved relations with China may also be harmful to India’s cause for Kashmir and other territorial integrity issues.

Forging new and useful friendships

Another nation that China forged a better relationship with over the last couple of months was the Maldives, with the president of Maldives’, Abdulla Yameen’s visit to Beijing. With the signing of a Free Trade Agreement and the promise of infrastructure development in the Maldives in the form of a seven-kilometre long bridge for better connectivity, the relations between Maldives and China are at an all-time high. Till date, Maldives was always considered to be India’s backyard but China’s OBOR initiative has seen it make its presence felt over all nations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Another foreign policy lapse on the part of India has been the way the elections in Nepal were handled by the top leaders of the company. The formation of a coalition government supported by the leftists that have been traditionally close to China did not help matters. KP Oli, upon his party’s victory, visited the only trade and transit point on the border of China and Nepal and promised for it to be upgraded to international standards. This can only be a sign for the upcoming strengthening of relations between Nepal and China. Although India has announced engagements that are to be taken up with Nepal in the coming future, one might think if it’s too little, too late.

Action proves better than non-alignment

In the case of Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, India’s move of practicing non-intervention or having a hands-off approach at best was again upstaged when China took it upon itself to broker peace negotiations for the refugees to be returned to their homelands within a period of two months. China promised a solution for the crisis and delivered, however, it is yet to be seen if the solution as proposed by China actually works. This move also affects China’s relations with Bangladesh as the ‘solution’ was welcomed by them with equal vigour.

With procuring a lease of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka for a period of 99 years, another major link in the Silk route seems to have been expertly manoeuvred and taken control over by the Chinese. While India may still be vying to gain control of an unused airport not far from the port to counter China’s activities, China’s influence in the nation-state is on the rise and it may very well be chosen to manage the defunct airport, giving it powers to properly operate a significant port out of Hambantota.

Motoring through

It is pretty evident that China has ticked all boxes as far as it comes to developing relations with India’s neighbours over the last couple of months. An all-out approach has actually seen China benefit on all fronts as every single nation on its dossier was checked. New relationships were forged where no such relations existed or developments were made, where the relations had either become stagnant or had turned sour, or like in the case of Pakistan, a general improvement in the situation was seen.

All of this happened while all the frontrunners for India’s cause were busy dealing with elections in the state of Gujarat and not being able to do anything about China’s increasing influence in India’s predominant areas of control even though it happened right in front of their noses. Better management of time and energy by such frontrunners was required to ensure such developments hadn’t taken place and now that they have, it might need significant exertions to counter or repair the damage that has been done.

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