2018 has not been an easy year to manage. India has struggled to adjust to an increasingly polarized world with US-China relations entering a phase of open and probably irreversible confrontation. Russia’s growing closeness to China is a further complication.
India’s immediate neighbourhood has become a zone of contestation with China’s profile expanding. The continuing and undiminished turmoil in the Gulf and West Asia put at risk India’s energy security and the welfare of its more than six million citizens living and working in the region. Given these trends, how did India fare in the year gone by?
Taking into account the growing power asymmetry with China, the dangerous confrontation at Doklam at the India-Bhutan-China border, in 2017 gave way to a more nuanced policy in 2018. There was a return to the earlier more cautious stance on the Tibet issue.
The public association of government figures with functionaries of the Tibet government in exile (which India does not recognise) came to an end. The sharply critical rhetoric on China’s Belt and Road Initiative became muted as did the loud complaints over Chinese opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. China, for its part, welcomed India into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, offered a few trade concessions and projected a more benign and congruent relationship even though in substance, the relationship remains adversarial. China’s security and economic relationship with Pakistan stands undiminished.
It continues to seek enhanced influence in Nepal and is maintaining pressure on Bhutan to settle the boundary on terms it has already offered, exchange embassies and open border trade. Recent political changes in Sri Lanka and the Maldives appear favourable to India, but China’s economic leverage remains unmatched. The return of Sheikh Hasina as Prime Minister of Bangladesh in just concluded elections must have been received with a sense of relief but concerns over China’s growing economic and military profile in a strategically important neighbour will remain.