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Kanwal Sibal

Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary of India and former envoy to the US and Russia

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The Evolving Equations

China can raise the costs for India by strengthening its grip on India’s periphery

Our foreign policy challenges are of enduring nature and will therefore continue in 2018. Managing China’s overt hegemonic ambitions with a mixture of countervailing steps and positive engagement would remain a complex exercise. How China will try to retrieve the face it lost at Doklam, will require vigilance in 2018. China may avoid a direct border confrontation with India as its bilateral and international cost will outweigh any achievable gain in showing its muscle. A preferred option will be to raise the costs for India by strengthening its grip on India’s periphery and exacerbate our problems with our neighbours. In Nepal, China interfered in the recent elections by financing the success of the leftist parties and instaling a pro-China government in power in Kathmandu. The return of Oli will complicate our Nepal ties.

Pakistan’s hostility towards India in 2018 will continue unabated. The military there has increased its hold over political power and jihad-nurturing extremist religious parties are being mainstreamed. Pakistan’s defiance of the US and India on the terrorism issue derives from the unstinted support it receives, and will continue to receive, from China. Any soft noises from Pakistan are propaganda-oriented and meant primarily for international consumption. The Indian military has been given a freer hand to respond to Pakistan’s provocations on the line of control (LOC) in Jammu & Kashmir, which means that India-Pakistan tensions will not subside. China has made worrisome inroads into Maldives already; our concern in 2018 will be to prevent Maldives from taking any decision that seriously compromises our security interests. India will hope that Bangladesh’s general elections towards the end of 2018 will return Sheikh Hasina to power, for which we will have to explore constructive ways to facilitate it. Consolidating our position in Afghanistan will remain a challenge with the deterioration of the ground situation there. China’s political activism in Afghanistan as a counter to the growing India-US understandings on issues there will present a sharper challenge in 2018. If the Trump administration decides to repudiate the nuclear agreement with Iran, our relations with Iran, already difficult to conduct, could be adversely affected, though the Chabahar project can be isolated from the impact. Our concerns about heightening tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with their Sunni-Shia dimension, with the US playing a partisan role in favour of the Saudis, could deepen in 2018, given our manpower, financial and energy equities in the region.

The 2017 National Security Strategy document of the US conveys that the positive trajectory of India-US will continue, with the US establishment now favouring a fortification of the strategic partnership with India, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Progress towards establishing the US-India-Japan-Australia Quad, however, will be unhurried. While the US is increasingly forthright in demanding that Pakistan ceases to provide safe-havens to terrorist groups directed at India and Afghanistan, it will remain reluctant to sanction it. On issues of trade, intellectual property rights, market openings, World Trade Organization-related issues and so on, India and the US will continue to have differences. With Japan, strategic ties will continue getting cemented but economic ties may comparatively lag.

In 2018 we will continue to consolidate our partnerships, play on diverse chequerboards — RIC, BRICS, SCO, G 20, India-US-Japan and India-Japan-Australia trilaterals —as part of our preserving our strategic autonomy.

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