By Shastri Ramachandaran*
The world could be too much with us in 2018, in a sense that Wordsworth may never have foreseen. In fact, the New Year would begin with a lot of the world in India when leaders of 10 ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations), governments come as Republic Day guests to commemorate 25 years of India-ASEAN relations. Never before has the R-Day had so many international guests.
That may set the tone for another year of hectic diplomacy when Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be supping at the high tables of the G20 (Group of 20), SCO (The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation), BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) even as the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) may have to deal with serious challenges looming large in the neighbourhood. It is a moot point whether 2018 would be better than 2017.
India has quite a bit to show for 2017. It became the 42nd member of the elite Wassenaar Arrangement, which could ease the way towards the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Justice Dalveer Bhandari’s re-election to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in November was a major diplomatic victory. He won 183 of the 193 votes in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and all the 15 votes in the Security Council after the UK opted out of the race in the 12th round. The year ended on a high Nehruvian note with India defying the U.S. to join 127 other countries in the UNGA to condemn and reject President Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Although miffed, Israel is determined to strike it rich in business, including sales of military equipment, with India. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the first high-level visitor in the New Year; and, he expects to clinch scores of deals for the business delegation coming with him on his four-day trip. However, there is the small matter of an ongoing police probe against Netanyahu on charges of corruption and fraud. He has been interrogated five times, and Israeli press reports suggest that Netanyahu could be arrested any time.
Should that happen, the question is whether Modi would proceed, as planned, with his tour of Palestine, a few weeks after Netanyahu’s visit. Regardless of that, January promises to be hectic, with Modi slated to make his debut at the World Economic Forum in Davos – the first by a Prime Minister in 20 years, the last one being H D Deve Gowda in 1997; and, the India-ASEAN Summit in New Delhi. On the calendar for 2018 are also visits by the King of Jordan, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron.
The BRICS Summit in South Africa, Sixth IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) Summit in Delhi and SCO in China are events where Modi has proven that he can perform like a past master for making India’s presence felt. And, preparing for these comes naturally to the seasoned hands in the MEA.
The worrying part — politico-diplomatic — is in the neighbourhood. It is no small matter that Bhutan did not vote with India but was among the 35 countries that abstained on the UNGA vote against Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. National elections in Bhutan are due in October 2018, and according to those in the know, this time, too, the battle is likely to be on pro- and anti-Indian platforms.
The Maldives is another part of South Asia where India is not the flavour of the season. It is out of favour with President Abdulla Yameen, which raises the question of whether Modi would be able to visit the islands in 2018.
After the landslide victory of the Left Alliance in Nepal, and given the time it took for the Indian government and the Prime Minister to greet the electoral winners, reviving the warmth in India-Nepal ties in 2018 could be a Himalayan task.
The Chinese deciding to sit out the winter in Doklam is a rude reminder of a new front where India has to be on high alert and work overtime to ensure that: one, diplomacy prevails; and two, Sino-Indian differences do not erupt into a dispute.
And it is not all quiet on the western front either. Pakistan will continue to trouble India, and relations between South Asia’s nuclear powers is expected to remain troubled; and, the general election in Pakistan in July 2018 is unlikely to make any difference.
All things considered, despite the pitfalls, 2018 is not without promise.
*Shastri Ramachandran is a senior editor of IDN-INPS and independent commentator on regional and global affairs based in New Delhi. This article first appeared in DNA on 1 January 2018. It is being reproduced by arrangement with the writer.