External Affairs

In 2017, a Large Part of World Foreign Policy Will Likely Be Defined By Trump

A look at what’s coming up in the year ahead on the global foreign policy front.

Donald Trump makes a face at his caucus night rally in Des Moines. Credit: Reuters/Scott Morgan

Donald Trump makes a face at his caucus night rally in Des Moines. Credit: Reuters/Scott Morgan

The first year of the Donald Trump administration in the US is awaited with trepidation and nervousness in world capitals, with foreign policy crafted by an ultra-conservative White House set to have far-reaching consequences. Security concerns and Islamist terrorism will drive US policies in the Middle East, just as Latin America is waiting for the axe to fall over immigration and trade strategies. The rest of the world braces for a confrontation between Beijing and Washington.

While the US president-elect’s tweets and policies will reverberate throughout the planet next year, long-standing active hotspots and internal factors in various regions will keep foreign ministries busy round-the-clock in the Trump era.

Africa

One of the first dimplomatic visitors to India in the new year will be Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. He will be coming as the chief guest to the Vibrant Gujarat summit, but will also take forward the implementation of some of the decisions taken during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit. This will be his second visit to India since the India Africa Forum in 2015. Kenyatta’s visit will take place as his country gets ready for its sixth presidential elections in August, which will have immense significance due to Kenya’s position as East Africa’s economic powerhouse. The presidential elections, which will be in August, have already become controversial due to the efforts to change the electoral law. The opposition’s protests became so loud that the UN Development Programme and ambassadors from Western countries had to issue a statement denying Kenyatta’s accusation that they were meddling in the 2017 polls. The Kenyan government also barred a US NGO from conducting an electoral awareness programme.

President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta waves to his supporters in front of a church in his hometown Gatundu. Credit: Reuters/Marko Djurica

President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta waves to his supporters in front of a church in his hometown Gatundu. Credit: Reuters/Marko Djurica

But even beset with its domestic concerns, Kenya is keeping a strict eye across the border at Somalia, where international efforts to bring stability has faced numerous roadblocks. On December 28, the Somalian parliament postponed the presidential polls for the fourth time till January 24, 2017. A day earlier, a joint statement from the UN and certain Western nations assailed the National Leadership Forum for adding more seats to the upper house after electing MPs, who will then vote for the president. It will only be the second election (the previous one was also indirect) held since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Somalia’s fate is critical to fight the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab who control large swathes of territory and have been trying to subvert the electoral process by threatening to kill electoral delegates.

Besides, there are three other big African electionscoming up, in Rwanda, Liberia and Angola. While Rwandan president Paul Kagame is the frontrunner to win a third term, both Liberia and Angola will get fresh faces with their current incumbent not running in the polls.

The African Union will also have to elect a new chairperson in January, which is seeing the normal divisive politics between the francophone and English-speaking countries, and also regional blocs.

It remains to be seen if there is a smooth transition in government in two other states, Algeria and Zimbabwe, helmed by long-governing but ageing strongmen. In the meantime, local complications will continue to fester in BurundiGabon, the Central African RepublicEthiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

ISIS was ousted by the US military in its last stronghold in Libya in December 2016. But a return of political stability to the war-ravaged country is far from certain, with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli struggling to gain a semblance of legitimacy.

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More than politics, commodity prices are likely to shape not only the destiny of Africa, but the pecking order of countries within. 2016 has been a disastrous year for most large African economies which depend on the export of resources, with prices of commodities like oil, bauxite, copper, gold, timber and diamonds crashing. Global lenders have predicted a modest recovery, but there will be two rates of growth – a higher one for the resource-poor but diversified nations and a lower level for commodity-dependent countries.

As the economies of South Africa and Nigeria continue to stumble, the voices of smaller but relatively better-governed countries like Botswana and Rwanda could become more prominent.

Latin America

After Africa in 2015 and West Asia in 2016, 2017 could be finally be the year for India to do strengthen its Latin America outreach. In June 2016, when Modi landed in Mexico city for a few hours to get a promise on support for India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group membership bid from Enrique Peña Nieto. The host obliged, but the guest also promised to be back for a substantial visit. And if Modi finally makes it to Latin America this year, he is likely to tick off more countries in the region. Brazil could be one of them, as the Brazilian president Michel Temer would also be in India in mid-2017 for the second time within 12 months for the IBSA summit. He was earlier in Goa to attend the BRICS summit in October 2016.

Of course, both of Modi’s potential hosts in Brazil and Mexico are on a sticky wicket, domestically, this year.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto gestures during a news conference in Mexico City. Credit: Reuters/Edgard Garrido

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto gestures during a news conference in Mexico City. Credit: Reuters/Edgard Garrido

Peña Nieto will have to deal with Trump in power in the White House, still smarting from his only foreign foray during his campaign. The visit hurt the Mexican president even more, with a majority of Mexicans blaming him for the ‘strategic misstep‘ of inviting Trump. With Trump likely to be under pressure to show some action on his fundamental campaign platform to ‘build the wall’ and rip apart the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico will have its work cut out to attract foreign investors who were usually drawn by prospects of tapping into the US market.

In Brazil, a modest recovery forecast of less than 1% GDP growth coupled with unpopular economic reforms could cause Temer to have a tough fight on his hands in the 2018 presidential elections. That is if he retains his seat amidst widening corruption allegations that have emerged from investigations into the Petrobras scandal.

The first presidential election will be in Chile in November 2017, where the ruling centre-left coalition faces a challenge from a conservative former president and an independent left-leaning senator.

The big question in Venezuela is, of course, whether Nicolás Maduro will survive yet another year of daily streets riots, an opposition dominated-National Assembly and a devastated economy. He will probably scrape through.

Demonstrators clash with members of Venezuelan National Guard during a rally demanding a referendum to remove Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal, Venezuela October 26, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Demonstrators clash with members of Venezuelan National Guard during a rally demanding a referendum to remove Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in San Cristobal, Venezuela October 26, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Things look more positive for the other left bastion, Cuba, with President Raul Castro predicting a 2% growth in GDP. But with Venezuela continuing to be in the economic doldrums and Trump likely to make attempts to unravel Barack Obama’s policy normalisation of relations, Castro has a difficult last year left to make his mark, before handing over to a successor by early 2018.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos will not only have to justify his Nobel Peace Prize, but also keep an eye ahead on the 2018 legislative and presidential elections with former president and Yoga practitioner, Alvaro Uribe, snapping at his heels. The next 12 months will be critical in implementing the peace agreement with the leftist militant rebel group FARC. Santos skipped a referendum after he re-negotiated the agreement with the former guerrillas. But he will have to show that he is punishing some of the rebels charged with serious crimes to ensure that his legacy remains intact and the ruling party returns to power.

For Latin America, the victory of Trump, with his campaign platform of immigration curbs and tariff barriers, was not good news. It came at the end of an already tough year of low commodity prices which shrunk the region’s GDP by 1.1%. After the second consecutive year of contraction, hope is on the horizon with the World Bank forecasting GDP growth of 1.8% in 2017 as copper and oil prices are expected to rise substantially.

The rightward, pro-business political swing in the region is likely to persist and even strengthen in 2017. But if the economic recovery is just moderate, left politicians are still in the game to tap onto a rising swell of frustration.

Just like other parts of the world where US influence could retrench under an inward-looking Trump administration, China may step in to the subsequent void – but not without fuelling growing resentment over the largely commodity-driven relationship. This could be a window of opportunity for India to boost its presence, just as Latin America scouts around to diversify its circle of partners beyond the US, China and a faltering Europe.

Europe

Trump will encounter his counterparts from the rest of the world, including India, at the G-20 summit in the north German city of Hamburg in July. This will probably be the first time that the new and old world leaders will take measure of each other at an international summit after the real estate tycoon takes over the White House. Indian officials believe that it would be also be the stage of the first meeting between Modi and Trump.

The location of Europe for the intermingling of the old and new could not be more appropriate, with the EU going through a crisis of confidence in the 50th anniversary year of the Treaty of Rome. Europeans are still processing the last 12 months, when it witnessed multiple terror attacks, the largest-ever refugee crisis and the stunning Brexit result. But, as they enter 2017, the latest results from a Eurobarometer survey show that exactly half of Europeans are optimistic about the future of the EU, while 44% remained pessimistic. The most optimistic and most pessimistic countries were not a surprise – Ireland and Greece, respectively.

The biggest challenge to the Eurozone, according to many observers, may come from Italy in 2017. Italy, which takes over G7 presidency on January 1, had already a very tumultuous 2016 with the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi over the resounding defeat of the referendum to bring in constitutional reforms.

The date to watch is January 24, when the Constitutional Court will decide if the ‘Italicum’, an electoral law passed in 2014 to bring political stability, will stand. A decision to abrograte the law, which provides for more seats to a party with over 40 percent of the popular vote, could keep out the populist anti-euro Five star movement from forming the next government. With the main opposition parties currently being anti-euro, any referendum in Italy on the single currency would be a close call.

A potential decision to leave the Eurozone by the third largest economy in EU would certainly put the European project in serious jeopardy – already reeling from Brexit.

In the same month as EU commemorates the Treaty of Rome with a special summit, it will have to gear up for an unprecedented divorce. British Prime Minister Theresa May has committed to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty by the end of March to begin formal negotiations for UK to leave the EU. So far, there have been no gaps among the Europeans who have been united in their collective wish to see UK ‘punished’ with a ‘hard’ Brexit. This unity is likely to persist, with the UK not having much leverage to introduce dissension in the opposite camp which could allow it to have some sort of access to the common market. Due to Brexit, the UK economy is forecasted to grow only at 1.3% in 2017, down from 2% in 2016.

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

It will not just be Brexit that will haunt the European project this year – a hectic electoral calendar with an uncertain outcome in major economies will keep the internal environment churning.

Netherlands will be first country to watch, where the candidate to defeat is the ultra-right Geert Wilder who has improved his standing in polls after his conviction for inciting violence. But even if the anti-immigrant and anti-Islam Freedom Party becomes the largest party in the 150-member Dutch parliament in the March elections, it is unlikely to form the next government with no political parties ready to align themselves to form a coalition.

A month later, the French will also have to troop to the polls for the first round of voting in the presidential elections. Following Trump’s win, the anti-immigrant National Front’s Marine Le Pen has had a surge of confidence, claiming victory. But all polls so far have termed conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon as the favourite to succeed the deeply unpopular Francois Hollande. But even if Fillon wins, it will be interesting to watch if he tilts France towards Russia. Fillon has nurtured a friendship with the Russian president, dating back to his tenure as prime minister. He has also previously criticised the imposition of EU sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

The Germans would definitely prefer Fillon to Le Pen – but they also have an election to go through by September. Angela Merkel’s popularity has bounced backed to around 57%, after having dipped over her handling of the refugee crisis. So armed with a tougher immigration position, Merkel is very likely get elected to a fourth term but with smaller number of seats, which will make coalition formation critical. Meanwhile, alarm bells are already ringing that Russia is conducting a cyber disinformation campaign to meddle in the German elections.

With the elections requiring a stronger position on immigration, the deep divisions within the EU may be bridged a bit, but tensions remain as to the integration of the remaining refugees within the borders. It will not take rocket science to forecast that Russia – and China – will continue to exploit these differences by creating informal groupings.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Credit: Reuters

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Credit: Reuters

Individual EU members may be more amenable to work with the Trump administration as Washington works on a deal with Russia on the removal of sanctions and Syria. The Iran deal could be one matter on which the EU relies on the moderating influence of Putin to ensure that it is not torn up by the incoming US president. But Moscow will certainly enjoy the show if Washington and Europe go head-to-head over NATO, an institution on which Trump has vociferously expressed his opinion.

While Putin would be rather smug at having ‘won’ 2016, he also has domestic concerns – mainly about the economy. The optimistic forecast of rising oil prices could help to bring the economy out of the doldrums, but it may not be enough to dispel the gloom and compel Putin to undertake much-needed reforms. The support of the Republican establishment to Obama’s targetted sanctions and expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats could be a complication, but is not likely to derail the steady march towards a formal Trump-Putin ‘bromance‘.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s cosy relationship with Moscow, which seems to be further reinforced after Russia’s mild response over the killing of the Russian ambassador, will certainly worry EU as Ankara is the gatekeeper of its refugee control plan. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was already miffed at the EU for its criticism of the ongoing nation-wide post-coup purge of ‘Gulenists’. But Turkey holds the reins in this deal and EU will have to hold its nose and pay up.

Middle East

India will begin the year with the highly symbolic visit of the Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. A few months later, Modi will be travelling to Israel and Palestine as the first Indian prime minister to make the journey since the establishment of diplomatic relations. The Middle East (or West Asia as India prefers to call it) will certainly be high on New Delhi’s foreign policy priority list in 2017.

The region is already getting much attention from a certain resident in a sky-high tower in New York, even before he takes over the most powerful job in the world. Outgoing secretary of state John Kerry’s warning that the two-state solution was in high peril will just be shrugged off, with Trump expected to increase support for Israel, turning a blind eye to settlement expansion and possibly move the US embassy to Jerusalem. But it will become rapidly clear to Trump that the US and Israel will largely have to march on their own drumbeat, with new friend, Russia not willing to endanger its burgeoning ties with the Arab world. The Palestinians are, therefore, more and more likely to take their case to an international platform where Israel can be easily shown to be isolated – just as it pushed for the year-end UNSC resolution.

With Trump not willing to arm rebel fighters and ready to cut a deal with Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to survive 2017. The US will concentrate on the fight to retake Raqqa and Mosul from ISIS. This will only highlight the inherent contradiction within Trump’s Syria policy – projecting Iran as the enemy number one at a time when both are essentially fighting the same enemy. The Russians, now the dominant player in Syria, will ensure that a sidelined US does not imperil its deal with Iran and Turkey.

While ISIS may lose most of its territory in Syria and Iraq this year, this will not be the end of the road. Though Trump could trumpet it as his ‘mission accomplished’, ISIS will continue to flourish as a ‘brand’ for Islamist insurgencies and lone wolf attacks from North America to Southeast Asia, with security agencies anxious about spillover effects from the return of fighters.

A member loyal to ISIS waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa. Credit: Reuters/Stringer/Files

A member loyal to ISIS waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa. Credit: Reuters/Stringer/Files

By now, the conventional wisdom is that the Iran deal will not be thrown into the bin. But the dominant anti-Iran sentiment in Trump’s cabinet picks will have to find some outlet – and Tehran is understandably wary with presidential elections due in May. President Hassan Rouhani will be standing for a second term, but Washington’s hostile position could reinvigorate Iranian hardliners who had been subdued in the last few years by the support of supreme leader Ayatollah Al-Khamenei for the nuclear deal.

In the Gulf, Oman could play an important role. It has been the outlier Gulf state to maintain ties with Tehran and even facilitated secret talks between Iran and the US. Whether this move by Muscat – known for its strategic hedging – is a bellwether for the road ahead of the new US administration, is now a much-asked question.

Saudi Arabia is projecting Oman’s joining the fold as a diplomatic victory, but it would be the only silver lining in an otherwise difficult year. Rising oil prices in 2017 due to a Saudi-brokered OPEC agreement will bring in much needed cash into the treasury emptied out by expensive ventures like Yemen. But despite a recovering economy, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman may adopt a much more reticent foreign policy – even avoiding ratcheting up tensions with Iran beyond a point. This is despite Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations having a good relationship with the incoming cabinet members like General James Mattis. The unpredictable nature of Trump’s response to rising temperatures in the Middle East could moderate any adventurism.

Asia-Pacific

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with the president-elect and his trip to Pearl Harbour are part of an effort to ensure that the new Trump administration continues to be invested in a strong US presence in the Asia-Pacific. With Trump favouring a more transactional foreign policy, Abe is hoping to gain first-mover advantage in crafting a personal relationship with the incoming US president.

While Trump’s commitment to the Asia pivot may have alarmed allies, his willingness to bait China – as demonstrated by the phone conversation with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen – will find silent supporters in Tokyo, Delhi and other capitals in Southeast Asia. At the same time, an economic trade war between China and US may not be exactly what Beijing’s detractors would desire, with Chinese consumption being a critical engine to drive the global economic system.

With Trump describing most trade agreements from bilateral FTAs to the TPP as ‘bad deals’, negotiators for the ten-member, China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will be under pressure to wrap up talks at the earliest to take advantage of this opportunity. India, which is worried about the impact of relaxation of duties on its domestic industry, will host a RCEP negotiation meeting in July 2017.

Philippines, which is the 2017 ASEAN chair, has already indicated that it considers speeding up of RCEP negotiations as a priority during its helming of the regional group. This contrasts with its intent to keep the South China sea on the backburner, with President Rodrigo Duerte keen to normalise ties with China. When Philippines won the case in the arbitral tribunal in July, there was hope that the ruling could provide the springboard for a more united ASEAN position on South China Sea vis-à-vis China. While ASEAN remains a divided house, Vietnam will continue to be China’s chief heckler. Undeterred, China will keep on building up its military presence in the region and high-sea confrontation will become more frequent, which would automatically require a response from Trump’s Washington, if it wants to be seen as a serious player in Asia.

Incidentally, incoming US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has worked with Vietnam as ExxonMobil CEO in some of the disputed offshore blocks in the South China Sea. This may be good news for Vietnam, but Trump’s own ability to withstand pressure from China in a high-stake diplomatic face-off is still a moot point.

The shadows of spectators are seen through a Chinese national flag during the men's kayak (K1) semifinal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 12, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Phil Noble

The shadows of spectators are seen through a Chinese national flag during the men’s kayak (K1) semifinal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 12, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Phil Noble

China’s external environment, actually, is much less complicated than its own domestic situation. At the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th national congress in November, there is an expectation that the politburo reshuffle will unveil the next line-up of leaders to take over from 2022. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has an unassailable position, will certainly be able to put his stamp on the succession – if Xi abides by the retirement rules and there is one, that is.

But even before that, Beijing will have to navigate the dangerous waters of the election of the Hong Kong chief executive on March 26. With troubles between leaders publicly aired last month, there is little chance that the frontrunner in the polls, finance secretary John Tsang, will get the green light from Beijing. Tsang had on his official blog termed the protest movements as another manifestation of localism which could be a “strong and constructive force”.

Meanwhile, the US’s other ally in Asia, South Korea, is going through a domestic crisis which could lead to early presidential polls if the impeachment of Park Geun Hye is upheld by the constitutional court. The frontrunner in the polls to be next president, Moon Jae-in, has indicated that the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system should be delayed until the new administration takes over. The US ambassador to Seoul called for “policy continuity” on THAAD even under a new regime. The deployment of the anti-missile system is in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, but China and Russia have been critical. There are already indications that North Korea could be getting ready for another nuclear test to grab the attention of the new US President or to influence South Korean presidential polls.

Thailand is scheduled to hold an election in the second half of 2017 – the first since the military took over in 2014. The Thai army has already pushed through a constitution which institutionalises its power in law-making and, therefore, a new government is not likely to bring about much change in policy or unite a divided country. More interestingly, the first year of King Rama X will be carefully monitored for his political inclinations, as the Thai population emerges from mourning the end of the long reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

South Asia

Mattis, former central command commander and the new US secretary of defence, is likely to be a votary for long-term US commitment to Afghanistan. That is the good news for India. Another positive expectation is that while the political stability of the National Unity government remains suspect, observers believe that it will scrape through its term, with external pressure ensuring that the top leaders work together.

But, on the security front, the signs are grim. Even as reports come in that Taliban remain an effective military force, there are also indications that its cash supply may be drying up – which would impact its operations. But, there are doubts that the Afghan army will be able to exploit these opportunities, with soldiers and policemen still crippled by widening gaps in leadership, logistics and equipment.

The banding together of Russia, Pakistan and China to take forward the peace talks with Taliban, is partly a result of anxiety that US presence will acquire a permanence – despite earlier drawdown – under the guise of broadening support for ill-equipped Afghan forces. The fear of ISIS taking root in Afghanistan and spreading to Central Asia has also led Russia to arm Taliban groups in certain areas, according to Afghan security agencies. With Afghanistan protesting the recent troika talks, it may end up sharing the same fate as the moribund Quadrilateral Coordination Group. The key issue for India and Afghanistan and even for some in Washington is whether there could be a way to bring the Taliban to the table, but without Pakistan in the picture.

Islamabad will certainly not deviate from its strategy to be perceived as the indispensable security partner for foreign countries in Afghanistan. To maintain its leverage, Pakistan will continue to provide shelter to terror groups from the other side of Durand line. This, however, will keep its relations with Afghanistan at a boiling point. Nevertheless, the visit of the new Pakistan army chief, Qamar Ahmed Bajwa to Kabul may provide the opening for a thaw in the relationship – even as there will enough sceptics to term it as another false start.

Asif Ali Zardari. Credit: Reuters

Asif Ali Zardari. Credit: Reuters

With 2017 being the penultimate year before the next general elections, Pakistani politics is likely to witness a lot of activity. Former President Asif Ali Zardari’s surprise announcement that he and his son, Pakistan People’s Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, will contest in the byelections for National Assembly could lead to a much more combative opposition party, which is yet to see a revival in its fortune under the scion. The latter’s strident anti-India rhetoric did not work in either elections in Pakistan-administered Kashmir or Gilgit-Baltistan.

Politically, the ruling party and the prime minister are in a rather comfortable place with neither the PTI or PPP likely to mount a strong challenge in the next elections. This is despite the ongoing Supreme Court hearings on the Panama Papers that will resume in January. If the hearings are actually able to find a smoking gun which points directly to Nawaz Sharif and his family, then the opposition may get re-energised to return to the streets.

In the meantime, the civilian-military sharing of responsibilities is likely to follow the pattern set by the previous army chief. This would mean that there is not much scope for a return of the bonhomie between Modi and Sharif.

With no visible improvement in India-Pakistan relations, SAARC will also largely remain under mothballs next year, with India diverting its attention towards BIMSTEC and the sub-regional BBIN network. To ensure that Afghanistan does not get cut-off from South Asia if SAARC does not function, Indian officials said that special efforts will be made to keep Kabul part of international connectivity projects which link to Indian transport hubs.

At the start of 2016, Sri Lanka was ready to return to China’s embrace, with the West having disappointed with an inadequate response to its economic crisis.

A year on, all the stalled Chinese infrastructure projects have restarted and Beijing has returned with a bang with even bigger investments. The Maithripala Sirisena government has given an 80% stake in Hambantota harbour to a Chinese firm and another 15,000 acres to construct an economic zone in the surrounding areas. In an ironic twist, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the one opposing the Chinese investment in Hambantota, his hometown. To be fair, Rajapaksa is also opposed to the the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India as it will allegedly lead to an influx of Indian professionals.

Colombo has been pushing India for an early signing of ETCA, which will be inked in mid-2017, along with separate bilateral free trade agreements with China and Singapore next year. Despite the slew of economic pacts, there is not much scope for optimism on the economic front, with IMF forecasting a GDP growth of 4.8% in 2017, much less than the government’s projection of 6.3%.

The main political job to be tackled by the Sirisena government in the first month of 2017 is the debate on the draft constitution on January 9-11, with the opposition and ruling coalition expected to clash on all proposals from the federal structure and power of provincial governors to the role of languages. Two months later, the UN Human Rights Council will consider a resolution on Sri Lanka after a gap of a year. But after a sympathetic report of the UNHRC chief Zeid Al Ra’ad Al Hussein in 2016, there are indications the Colombo will get more time to implement its accountability mechanisms as mandated by the 2015 resolution.

In another part of the Indian ocean, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen is expected to keep his post till the next elections in 2018. There is not much that the international community has not done in order to try to broker a dialogue between the opposition and the government, but all efforts have fallen on the road-side. With most of the opposition leaders in jail or exile, the international community will have to make a serious effort in 2017 to ensure that the next presidential polls are inclusive.

In early 2017, Maldivians will also have to take part in the local council elections. The conduct of the Election Commission in setting the dates for the polls has been controversial – which does not hold out much hope for the fairness of the presidential elections.

China’s presence in the Maldives (as well as South Asia) will continue to rise. After heavy investment in infrastructure projects, the economic linkages are also becoming stronger. Along with Sri Lanka, Maldives is also likely to sign a free trade agreement with China in 2017.

By February 2017, Bangladeshis will have a good indication whether the opposition Bangladesh National Party will take part in the next general elections in 2019. On December 18, Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid began the process of dialogue on formation of the next Election Commission, which will oversee the 2019 polls. Hamid will have to inaugurate his proposal by early February, so as to choose the new elections commission members before the end of the tenure of the chief election commissioner.

During their meeting, BNP president Khaleda Zia on December 19 handed over a set of demands, which included names for a search committee to choose the next election commissioners and to formulate a ‘permanent system’ for the polls. The Daily Star’s Mahfuz Anam writes that for the talks to go anywhere, BNP has to be “realistic in its demands”. “AL (Awami League), on its part, must be as accommodative as possible knowing that democracy cannot be a personal gift but an institutional phenomenon that will survive time and transformations,” Anam wrote.

If, as expected, a neutral government is not part of the template, then there could be some compromise on the names for the search committee. However, it remains to be seen if the BNP considers that enough. It had previously boycotted the 2014 polls on this very demand.

In February, the Bangladesh prime minister is likely to visit India, during which agreements are expected to be signed which will allow for India’s participation in development of the Payra deep sea port. Two Chinese companies have already been given a contract for the deep sea port, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also maintaining close ties with Beijing.

One of the reason for Bangladesh getting special attention from Modi has been the unprecedented level of security cooperation, because of which Hasina can hardly do any wrong. Even coordinated mob attacks on Hindu temples in Bangladesh have not jolted the strong links. At the same time, Indian officials are aware that Bangladesh is also a weak link with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent finding ample recruits amongst the disaffected youth. In fact, there is fear that if ISIS loses its territory in Iraq and Syria in 2017, it could turn its effort to sustain its franchisees, like in Bangladesh.

The stability of Bangladesh is also critical for India’s regional ambitions. For both BBIN and BIMSTEC, Dhaka is an important lynchpin with an economy which is second to India in terms of size.

Speaking of regional connectivity, Bhutan will have to make another push to get the BBIN motor vehicles pact through the parliament with a joint sitting during next session in 2017. This will be the last step available to get the parliament to ratify the regional pact, which had been promoted as the flagship initiative of the sub-regional group.

Across the Himalayas, the deadlock in Nepali politics will have to be broken in 2017 so that consensus is reached to allow for the organising of local, provincial and parliamentary elections by January 21, 2018 as required by the constitution. The opposition CPN-UML has been stalling parliament and holding street protests to demand the rollback of the second constitutional amendment which would modify the borders of two of the proposed provinces. After negotiations, the three big parties had suggested that the elections be held by mid-2017. In turn, CPN-UML was asked to allow the tabling of the election-related laws and the constitutional amendment in parliament. If the amendment is put on the backburner, the Madheshi political parties will likely return to the streets in the Terai. With UML adamant that election bills can be tabled only after the constitutional amendment is withdrawn, the government does not seem to have many options left, with all Nepali political parties continuing to be in thrall of their votebanks.