Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Top 10 foreign policy events in India

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Top 10 foreign policy events in India

A year of continuing coronavirus worries, some hope and a lot of despair worldwide, is ending. What does 2022 have in store for Indian foreign policy? Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar takes a look at the top 10 events of 2021, that will most impact India’s diplomatic moves in 2022.

A year of continuing coronavirus worries, some hope and a lot of despair worldwide, is ending. What does 2022 have in store for Indian Foreign Policy? 

1. COVID-19 diplomacy and Delta variant disruption: India began the year on a diplomatic high- shipping vaccines around the world, eventually, more than 100 million doses to nearly 100 countries under a Vaccine Maitri programme, but as the COVID-19 virus mutated, India became the centre of the world’s concern, and the government had to cancel all plans to export both medicines and vaccines. The year ended on a more sober note, and though vaccine exports have resumed, India is no longer being seen as the single most important vaccine manufacturer in the world. 2022 will be a year to regain its credibility on both counts. 

2. Taliban takeover Afghanistan: In February, a virtual summit between Prime Minister Modi and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani saw India reaffirm its role as a development partner to Afghanistan and committed to ensuring a peaceful Afghanistan- but events overtook all plans- Ghani fled Kabul as the Taliban took over the country, aided by Pakistan- and the U.S. and its allies all left. Contrary to its past record, India closed its doors to Afghan refugees and cancelled all existing visas, has not extended support to the counter Taliban resistance, and its efforts to send aid via road have been stymied by Pakistan, although India sent some medicines by air. India and Pakistan did some parallel diplomacy, inviting various NSAs and FMs to Delhi and Islamabad for separate conferences in Afghanistan. In 2022, PM Modi hopes to welcome Central Asian leaders to the Republic Day celebrations, covid willing, and it remains to be seen if India can gain a foothold on Afghanistan’s future along with the other countries in the western neighbourhood. 

3. China’s territorial claims get shriller: China’s aggressive moves in the region, not the least at the Line of Actual control continued, where nearly a lakh Chinese and Indian soldiers spent the second consecutive winter in a faceoff position.   While there was no major violence in 2021, like the Galwan clash of 2020, there was no let up, after the initial disengagement of troops at the beginning of the year.   But then the world’s attention was taken by Taiwan, where China sent nearly 150 aircraft into Taiwan’s Air defence zone in October, sparking a flurry of concerns over Chinese President Xi Jinpings vows to reclaim Chinese territory, including Taiwan.   India’s challenge in 2022 is to not only ensure Chinese troops return to status quo from April 2020 when the aggression at the LAC began, it is to keep the balance in the neighbourhood, where China is making deeper inroads.   At the same time, Moscow appears keen to arrange a trilateral summit with PM Modi and President Xi Jinping, two leaders who haven’t spoken directly once since the standoff began, and if it happens, it will be the big surprise of the year. 

4. Two Quads and an AUKUS: 2021 should have been the year of the Indo-Pacific Quad of Australia-India-Japan-US, given that the first two summits, including one in person summit in Washington were held, and a number of intiatives on vaccines and technology launched, but other coalitions made more headlines.   First, just a week before the Quad summit in Washington, the US UK and Australia announced an AUKUS alliance for nuclear powered submarines.   This set off protests from China and Russia, which were expected, but unexpectedly caused France to protest, as it lost its submarine deal with Australia.   Even New Zealand was hurt because it wasn’t consulted about a possible nuclearization in its ocean waters.   And then another quad was announced, with India-Israel-UAE-US coming together for economic cooperation.   In 2022, the second Quad may see an in person Foreign Ministers meet, and even a summit, but New Delhi’s challenge will be to balance all of these with its ties with Russia on the one hand and Iran on the other. 

5. Russia-NATO tensions: Tensions between Russia and NATO countries have risen sharply at the end of the year over Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, and although US President Joseph Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met once, and spoke a number of times in 2021, tensions are unresolved and likely to spill over into 2022. India, which did not oppose the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014, is now facing a tough tightrope over the US sanctions over Crimea- and the US’s CAATSA law that threatened financial and visa sanctions against big defence deals with Russia.   If the US-Russia tensions ratchet up, it will be difficult for the US to give India a clean waiver on the sanctions against India’s purchase of the S-400 missile system, as US Congressmen have tried to do.   In 2022, India might have to make some tough choices, as Russia remains a major defence supplier, and the US becomes a bigger strategic partner. 

6. Pegasus row and international surveillance operations: The Pegasus scandal, that broke worldwide over the use of very sophisticated spyware sold by Israeli company NSO, allegedly at the behest of former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to countries including India.   A change in government in Israel, coupled with the revelation that even French President Macron was under surveillance has meant the scandal hasn’t died down.   In India, where hundreds of journalists, activists, judges, officials and even government ministers were found to have had their phones hacked using Pegasus, it will be important for the government to prove it was not involved in ordering the surveillance and paying millions of dollars to hack phones in the country and even abroad.   Any revelation in this story will have foreign policy implications for India in 2022. 

7. Climate change promises: 2021 saw major promises made by different countries including India on their commitments to fight climate change at the CoP26 summit held after 5 years. But on the ground, global warming and climate change, extreme weather ruled the headlines: CO2 will go up by 4% across the G20 group this year, having dropped 6% in 2020 due to the pandemic.   China, India and Argentina are set to exceed their 2019 emissions levels a climate report found.   Meanwhile OPEC is being encouraged to increase oil production given rising oil prices.   In 2022, PM Modi’s promises made at Glasgow, for net zero ambitions by 2070, commitments on renewable energy and cutting emissions will be tested against the government’s actions. The first start in 2022 will be for India to update its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that the government has missed filing before the deadline in November. 

8. UN continues to fail: In 2021, the 76-year old United Nations seemed more beleaguered than ever: it struggled to keep the world to its commitments on Climate Change, as UN Secretary General warned there was a “Code Red” alert for the environment which would lead to major climate migrations and rising poverty and inequality.   The WHO also failed to hold anyone to account for the Covid pandemic that has by now led to 5.5 million deaths, and there is little movement on its quest to find the origins of the Covid virus as its teams were blocked by China.   Neither has the US come clean on funding for the Wuhan institute most widely implicated in the spread of the virus.   The UNSC was also unable to take any action that would stop the world’s newest democracies from being taken over by force- first in Myanmar and then in Afghanistan.   And now seems badly hampered in its job to even provide relief for Afghanistan’s people, half of which are stalked by hunger and malnutrition, and girls are banned from an education.   Finally it saw the virtual dismantling of its sanction committees on terrorism, as Taliban leaders on the UNSC lists have been allowed to take power, while Al Qaeda and LeT JeM militants are able to take shelter, unharmed , in Taliban-led Afghanistan and any move towards recognition will see the UN’s Global War on Terror dismantled entirely. India is in the UNSC for another year, heading the Taliban sanctions committee, and a Counter Terrorism Committee, and it is here where India’s global leadership will be tested the most. 

9. Change of guard in Washington and U.S. push for Democracy: The year began with horrifying scenes from Washington where supporters of the outgoing president Donald Trump refused to accept his electoral loss and ransacked the US Congress. As Joe Biden took over, the US administration said restoring democracy in the US and the rest of the world will be a priority, and ended the year by holding a summit for democracies, which PM Modi attended virtually.   In 2022, the US plans to hold an in person summit, with report cards on countries keeping their commitments to further democracy and fighting authoritarianism, fighting corruption and ensuring human rights.   For India, the world’s largest democracy, the US plans pose a 3-pronged challenge: One, they make ensuring democracy, which is a relative not absolute state into a part of India’s bilateral and multilateral commitments.   Two, they pose a challenge in India’s neighbourhood, as Pakistan was included in the summit but not Bhutan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.   In fact US imposed sanctions on Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Finally it allows the US to put a spotlight on India’s internal democracy and question the Modi government’s commitment to values that have thus far been seen as an internal matter. 

10. India’s domestic disturbances: Very rarely has the Ministry of External Affairs and Indian diplomats had to face the impact of developments inside the country on Foreign Policy, as they did in the period 2019-2021. The year began with international concerns over the handling of the farmer’s protests, with the MEA issuing a stiff rejoinder to governments in US, Europe, Canada and celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg over their criticism of India.   Later in the year, the MEA was sharp with embassies that sought help during the Delta variant’s destruction, particularly in Delhi, and then faced the disappointment of countries across the world, especially Africa and South Asia ov er being unable to fulfil vaccine commitments.   Bhutan for example waited till the last minute for a second round of doses promised by India before turning to Europe, and even US and China for vaccines.   Over the year, the government’s crackdown on protestors, violence in Jammu Kashmir and North east, as well as attacks on minorities have all garnered international attention and become a bilateral discussion point.   Above all, India’s image as a successful function pluralistic democracy suffered a hit internationally, not the least when think tank Freedom House downgrade India’s ranking from Free to Partly Free, and the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders called India one of the worlds most dangerous places for media, but also in the neighbourhood, where communal disturbances threaten to spill over the borders and cause reactions. This is a trend expected to continue through 2022, and deserves a long hard introspective look in the country, as Indian foreign policy could be forced into more defensive postures. 

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