India's foreign policy for the next 5 years: Imran Khan's offer for talks needs profound backing from China, Russia for serious consideration

Editor's note: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tour of the Maldives is his first international visit after having taken oath for the second time. His 2014 swearing-in ceremony featured leaders from SAARC nations as special invitees, while in 2019, it was the BIMSTEC leaders and those from Kyrgyzstan and Mauritius who were in attendance, underlining the importance the prime minister places on international relations. This is the sixth in a series of articles that looks at key foreign policy targets for the Modi government as it looks to the next five years.

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Pakistan's recent almost desperate overtures to India to resume talks and normalise India-Pakistan relations have a situational gamble behind them. To his credit, Imran Khan has been at it for fairly long, almost immediately after his election. He issued statements that it would only be under the BJP dispensation that relations would improve and difficult decisions taken to normalise the relationship.

When Pakistan virtually gifted national security as the agenda for India's recent general election by refusing to rein in the so-called friendly terror groups, it had sounded the death knell of any contemplated normalisation anytime too soon in the future. Pulwama and then Balakote ensured that India’s general election was contested with national security as one of the core issues. It threw up an even stronger BJP back to power. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would probably bide his time involving himself with many other foreign policy issues before returning to look at Pakistan. That is evident from the renewed focus on the neighbourhood less Pakistan, something Modi started in 2014 but probably could not give it his desired priority due to many other pressing issues.

 Indias foreign policy for the next 5 years: Imran Khans offer for talks needs profound backing from China, Russia for serious consideration

File image of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. AP.

On 13-14 June 2019, Prime Minister Modi is going to be at Bishkek for the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Both India and Pakistan are recent entrants with full member status. Last year armies of the two countries participated in a peace exercise at Chebarkul, Russia; the first time ever, although both armies have earlier together participated in UN missions, and continue to do so.

Pakistan’s expectations for a possible early movement towards a peace process based upon some potential ice breakers with India are based upon three factors. First, that Modi has returned stronger and is no longer hamstrung by electoral pressure. Second, there is a comparative lull in the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir with the ceasefire violations at the LoC at a low, infiltration attempts noticeably reduced and agitational approach being witnessed only sporadically. The presumption is that Pakistan is desisting from raking up the situation in Jammu and Kashmir this summer unlike what has been witnessed in the last 30 years when the peak summer months are usually the most intense in terms of manifestation of sponsored proxy war. Third, Pakistan is under intense international pressure to deconstruct the narratives of state-supported violent extremism and demonstrate intent towards more responsible behaviour in return for the economic bailouts that it expects from the international community.

There have been reports that Pakistan is keen on even appointing a National Security Adviser (NSA) who can engage meaningfully with India’s NSA Ajit Doval who has been recently promoted to cabinet status while performing the same job. Khan’s relationship with the Pakistan Army has become awkward over the last few months and it is reported that he wishes to follow a more independent track towards the relationship with India. That will always remain a difficult call.

How far should India respond to Khan’s overtures and what should the initial policy of the new Indian government be towards Pakistan? Among the factors which influence decision making in this regard are first, the trust deficit and Pakistan’s refusal to rein in India focused terror groups which have brought both countries several times to the brink of war. Landmark terror events such as Pulwama, Uri, Pathankot and Nagrota are yet fresh in public memory, not to forget even bigger events of the past. Second, the Pakistan Army which in effect controls Pakistan’s foreign and security policy is unlikely to relent and discharge what it considers its strategic assets. Even if it does under international pressure it will only be a tactical measure to gain reprieve while its economy improves.

Modi appeared to indicate his government’s stance right at the outset when he chose to invite leaders of the BIMSTEC countries for the new government’s inauguration on 30 May. It ensured that niceties and positive indicators to Pakistan were ignored signifying that India was unwilling to forget the recent past when Pakistan sponsored terror groups targeted Indian military facilities. Relenting at this moment and involving into parleys with Pakistan without any assurances about terror could be perceived as weakness which a decidedly stronger Indian government cannot afford to project.

During the tenure of the previous government under Modi, it took the better part of the 15 months before the Ufa initiative was undertaken. India would be under pressure from China and perhaps from Russia to take initiatives towards peace with Pakistan. If that be so both China and Russia must equally pressurise Pakistan to abide by the basic requirements of India; the most important being the stoppage of state-sponsored terror in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. This will not upend bilateralism that India seeks under the Shimla Agreement.

A demonstrable resolve by Pakistan will mean an absence of violence in Jammu and Kashmir for a reasonable period of time. This is what Modi will probably discuss and want to seek from Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The role of the US cannot be underestimated as financial bailouts are all under its sponsorship, now or in the future. It also wishes peace between India and Pakistan to enable facilitation of withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Of course, Pakistan has in no way demonstrated its resolve for peace which its prime minister seeks and that is fundamentally due to the Pakistan Army. On 23 May 2019 even as India’s election results were being announced Pakistan went to the extent of test firing the Shaheen II guided missile. Its army continues its maverick and unpredictable attitude and will remain an obstacle to peace, preventing the confidence-building measures such as steps towards trade and economic cooperation to perpetuate its hold over Pakistan’s politics. Its public relations wing continues a vituperative psychological campaign against India.

Under the circumstances outlined how prudent would it be for India to take the next step in accepting Khan’s offer? Equally, how prudent would it be for India not to exploit the current constraints whereby Pakistan is under severe economic and international pressure? Given Pakistan’s dependence on China, the latter’s own constraints rising from the US trade pressure and the cooperation that China seeks from India to offset some of the US pressure, it could be a moment when both China and Russia can play a more positive role in coercing Pakistan towards greater sincerity in seeking peace with India.

The answer probably lies in diplomacy, seeking more assurance from China and Russia; something more enduring which could transcend and travel beyond the situation Pakistan finds itself in. In other words, Khan’s initiatives need to come with a greater international guarantee to be meaningful. The US would in all probability support such initiatives as these would facilitate Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.

It’s a risk that India would yet be taking because situations that are facilitating such an approach could rapidly change. The SCO summit probably provides India with an opportunity to assess how far China and Russia are willing to go in influencing Pakistan’s behaviour towards a more enduring engagement with India. Direct parleys between India and Pakistan are as yet a far cry and should not even be attempted unless there is a greater guarantee of the desired international influence over Pakistan’s future behaviour and attitude.

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Part I: India's foreign policy targets with respect to Pakistan

Part II: India's foreign policy targets with respect to Pakistan's obstructionist role in Central Asia

Part III: Chumming up to US sure is beneficial for New Delhi but it can't ignore robustness of ties with Russia

Part IV: Expanding bilateral ties with Bangladesh vital for New Delhi's 'Act East' targets

Part V: India's foreign policy for next 5 years: New Delhi should convey to US in no uncertain terms how importance of better ties hinges on favourable trade policies

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Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 13:31:51 IST