In many ways, 2018 was unique for India’s external engagement as the country managed to bring back normalcy in its ties with China, secured a waiver from the US on import of Iranian crude oil, enhanced strategic cooperation with Russia and displayed its intent to play a bigger role in the Indo – Pacific.
In the backdrop of a geopolitical flux in the region, India also demonstrated a certain degree of assertiveness in handling relations in the neighbourhood, including with Pakistan and Abdulla Yameen’s China – backed regime in the Maldives.
Another key signal of India’s resoluteness in its foreign policy approach was the signing of a Rs 40,000-crore deal with Russia to procure a batch of S-400 air defence missile systems, notwithstanding the US’ warning of punitive measures under its sanction regimes against Moscow.
However, the main highlight of the year was a perceptible improvement in bilateral ties with China, following a landmark summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in the Chinese city of Wuhan in April.
The informal summit, which was followed by three other bilateral meetings between the two leaders, imparted new momentum in the relations and enhanced mutual trust, months after the Doklam episode raised fears of a wider conflict between the two Asian giants.
After the talks between Modi and Xi in Buenos Aires on November 30 on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said, “Both sides were optimistic that 2018 was a good year but 2019 would be an even better year.”
Though the relations saw a major transformation, there was no change in China’s position on blocking India’s membership bid at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), resistance to New Delhi’s move at the UN to declare Azhar Masood a global terrorist and to allay apprehensions about the Belt and Road Initiative.
Another important development was India figuring among eight countries, including Japan and South Korea, to get a waiver from US sanctions on buying Iranian oil till the first week of April. The US decision was largely seen as a recognition of New Delhi’s growing global stature.
India’s defence and strategic ties with Russia also saw a significant intensity after Prime Minister Modi and President Vladimir Putin held their first informal summit in the Russian resort city of Sochi in May.
New Delhi’s efforts to further improve relations with Germany, Japan, South Korea, Britain, Australia and the Gulf region were visible in 2018.
Leading India’s diplomatic outreach, Prime Minister Modi travelled to 22 countries in 2018, including a historic visit to Palestine in February.
The situation in the strategically key Indo-Pacific region is understood to have figured in Modi’s talks with the leaders of almost all major powers.
In June, while speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the prime minister unveiled India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, powerfully signalling that the country was ready to play a key role in ensuring peace and stability of the region.
In the address, Modi also underscored the need for India and China to work together as an “Asia of rivalry” would hold back the entire region.
In the neighbourhood, India remained firm on not having any talks with Pakistan until the country stopped cross-border terrorism.
Nearly a month after Imran Khan took over as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, India, in September, agreed on a meeting between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
However, 24 hours later, New Delhi cancelled the proposed meeting citing the brutal killing of three policemen by Pakistani terrorists in Kashmir and Islamabad releasing 20 postage stamps “glorifying a terrorist and terrorism”.
In November, Islamabad heeded to a long-pending request by India to build a corridor linking Baba Nanak village in Punjab to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur in Pakistan.
The Pakistani prime minister tried to project the ground-breaking ceremony of the corridor as a gesture to improve overall ties with India. However, India clarified that it was a religious initiative and should not be linked to opening dialogue.
India’s ties with the Maldives nosedived after President Abdulla Yameen imposed Emergency in the country in February, following an order by the country’s Supreme Court to release a group of Opposition leaders, who had been convicted in widely criticised trials.
The relations were back on track following Yameen’s shock defeat in the presidential polls. Modi attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new president, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, in November, reflecting the renewed vigour in ties.
India’s engagement with Nepal as well as its all-weather ally Bhutan intensified to some extent. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s election victory for a third consecutive term was good news as well for New Delhi.
In tragic news, the government in March said the 39 Indians missing in Iraq since they were kidnapped by terror outfit ISIS four years ago were confirmed dead.