After a busy, eventful and successful diplomatic year 2017, India gets ready for yet another calendar year of diplomatic engagements. The first month of 2018 is itself packed with two blockbuster events. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting India from 14th to 17th January. The second event is the Heads of 10-member ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries will be the Chief Guests at the Republic Day ceremony. With such a start 2018 promises to be a year to eagerly look forward to.
Netanyahu’s visit to India holds significance from two aspects. Firstly on bilateral level. The friendship between India and Israel is only growing since establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992. In this relatively short span of time Israel has quickly established itself as a major defence partner of India. Israel is India’s second largest supplier of defence equipments after Russia. For Israel, India is its largest buyer of defence equipments. The trade between the two countries is also increasing with each passing year. So Netanyahu’s visit would be an important step towards strengthening the bilateral relations. It is significant to note that Netanyahu will only be the second Israeli Prime Minister to visit India after Ariel Sharon who visited in 2003. This visit is also important from the point of view of addressing the instability that both South Asia and Middle East are facing due to terrorism.
The second aspect of Netanyahu’s visit deals with India’s broader policy with respect to Middle East. With the developments taking place in the Middle East region, it is necessary for India to respond to these changes and make alterations to its policy. The issues of Jerusalem and the growing divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran are driving the region towards instability. As far as Israel is concerned India has been balancing its relations with Israel and Palestine. While Prime Minister Modi’s de-hyphenating visit to Israel indicated that India is looking to deal with both separately. However in the United Nations India voted in favour of resolution which opposed recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. So Netanyahu’s visit offers India an opportunity to (once again) balance its relations.
The second event in January 2018 is the visit of Heads of the 10-member ASEAN countries. This is a unique event since it is the first time that there would be multiple guests for the Republic Day function. It has been a convention of inviting a Head of State of any country as a guest on Republic Day. Inviting the Heads of ASEAN countries indicates another step in India’s Act East Policy. The Modi Government, after coming to power in 2014, had made Look East Policy as Act East Policy in order to give an increased thrust to India’s engagement with the Southeast Asian Region. The new Act East Policy seeks to increase focus on the strategic aspect of India-Southeast Asia relations. China pursuing an expansionist policy in the South China Sea poses a strategic challenge to the Southeast Asian countries. From India’s point of view Southeast Asia has its strategic importance on its own as well as a region that connects Indian Ocean Region and the Indo-Pacific. Since there has been emphasis on strategic aspect in foreign policy it is in India’s interest to engage with Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian countries also demand more involvement from India in the region. India is taking steps towards becoming an important stakeholder in the Indian Ocean Region and the Indo-Pacific. Strategic engagement with Southeast Asia would strengthen India’s position in all the three regions. It would also pose a competition to China and eventually protect India’s strategic and economic interests in these regions.
The New Year is starting with India’s interaction with two regions where India is looking to increase its participation in the strategic sphere. This aspect is relatively new in India’s foreign policy. But it is an important step for India to be a major power at regional and global level. Such a promising start to a new diplomatic year can certainly make one hope for yet another fruitful year ahead.
(The Author is an Independent Researcher based in Vadodara and can be reached at – [email protected])