Virtual Meets, a China Problem, Domestic Issues: 2020's Highlight Reel for Indian Diplomacy

New modes of interaction this year brought a large shift to most diplomats' roles. Officials, accustomed to having a packed travelling case at all times, found that they had not logged a single air mile this year.

New Delhi: In the extraordinary year of 2020, India’s external landscape was largely shaped by crises from two fronts.

Just as India faced the COVID-19 pandemic which brought its economy to its knees, New Delhi grappled with its most serious border conflict with China in over four decades.

From South Block’s reworked aid strategy to India’s re-balanced relations with great powers and neighbours, both these factors were at the top of the mind for Indian policymakers.

Along with these tides of international politics, Indian diplomats had to also deal with the public airing of diplomatic concerns due to domestic policies. This year was punctuated with countries – including the US – and senior UN functionaries expressing their apprehension on the fallout from various subjects – from the Citizenship Amendment Act, Kashmir, arrests of activists and then finally, the farm laws issue and protests.

Here is a review of the main trends in Indian diplomacy in 2020.

The Big ‘C’

Between 2014 and 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone on 59 foreign trips. In the sixth year of his prime ministership, he did not make a single outgoing visit.

Modi’s first foreign trip was to be to Brussels for the annual India-EU summit and then to Dhaka for the birth centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both were cancelled just a week before the scheduled date over fears arising from COVID-19.

As countries locked down, diplomats had to reinvent their craft. In a world where key breakthroughs take place on the side-lines and ‘pull-asides’, this year has proven to be the end of an era for foreign offices worldwide. Officials, accustomed to having a packed travelling case at all times, found that they had not logged a single air mile this year.

Other leaders are visible in the screenshot with PM Modi at the virtual SCO Summit on November 10, 2020. Photo: PTI

The new age of online diplomacy began with an initial dependence on Zoom. But, with the rising tide of security concerns over the platform, most foreign ministries, including the MEA, eventually opted for in-house tech solutions.

Summits essentially became souped-up webinars, with strict protocol adapted for the online world. The extraordinary G-20 summit, hosted by Saudi Arabia on COVID-19, was the first major global meeting in the online summit, but it was just the start.

It took the United Nations a few months to get the systems in place. However, eventually, even sensitive Security Council meetings were held online and votes were sent through emails. The UN General Assembly held its plenary virtually, as did all multilateral groups from the IMF to FATF to ASEAN.

Will (hopefully) vaccinated world leaders get back for their annual jamborees in 2021? No doubt. Despite the convenience of teleconferences, leaders need to ‘size’ up each other to establish the oft-abused term, ‘personal chemistry’. However, foreign travel may not be as prolific as before, with a hybrid of flagship summits co-existing with virtual meetings in the future.

Besides the operational changes brought to diplomacy, the first appearance of COVID-19 in China meant that the national response was layered with geopolitical tension.

India had put early restrictions on travellers from China by cancelling existing visas, which led to the Chinese ambassador to ask for its review in February.

Medics screen Indians who arrived in New Delhi from Wuhan on February 2, 2020. Photo: PTI

A major part of the work burden for the MEA was acting as the coordinator between various government agencies to facilitate people’s movement through walled-off borders. India stopped all international commercial air traffic on March 22, that left thousands of foreign nationals stranded.

Foreign governments were ready to charter special flights to take away their citizens. However, the main challenge had been to corral and bring in foreigners through multiple locked state borders to the main airport.

While India had organised some special flights from China’s Hubei province, Italy and Iran in March, it took about two months to get the pieces to fall in place for the Vande Bharat mission to start from May 8 officially. With the passengers having to buy their tickets, there were complaints of steep fares and other logistical snafus. There was immediate heartburn that Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders were not allowed on the flights.

Also read: Vande Bharat Mission: My Experience From New York to New Delhi

However, the most challenging COVID-19-related emergency was one which took place immediately before lockdown. In March, the home ministry called for sweeping arrests of foreign Tablighi Jamaatis for allegedly attending a ‘super-spreader’ gathering and violating visa conditions.

The MEA had to deal with the diplomatic fallout as it was the only communication channel for foreign missions to get information about their arrested nationals. It took months for several countries to get the final tally of citizens put behind bars. While most of them, on the advice of the Indian government, decided to plead guilty to be allowed to leave the country even when the trial was on, several stayed on to fight the charges. Nearly all courts have issued judgements that their arrests had been against the law.

While MEA headquarters was fighting the fire, Indian missions abroad had to also cope with their drastically changed job profile. Major Indian missions had to turn into procurement hubs for various equipment required to combat the pandemic – from masks and testing kits to ventilators.

The Indian embassy in China quickly became the focus of the procurement mission with special cargo flights organised to Chinese cities. It was an uphill task with all foreign governments desperate to secure their own supplies. The Chinese also put in tighter regulations amidst complaints about quality. India also saw concerns about rapid anti-body test kits from China, which led the Chinese embassy to intervene into damage control.

Bihar elections

Volunteers pack masks, sanitisers and other essentials for polling officers at a COVID Protection Kit Packaging Centre, ahead of Bihar Assembly polls. Photo: PTI

The Chinese viewed the supply of COVID-19-related equipment as part of their strategy to overcome the setback in their public perception after the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan. With its domestic manufacturing infrastructure bouncing back faster than any other country, China went around the world bearing gifts of equipment and medicines.

Early into the pandemic, US President Donald Trump became an enthusiastic advocate for the use of malarial drug hydroxychloroquine and claimed that he had started to take it to stave off COVID-19. With India being the largest manufacturer of the drug, South Block saw this as an effective diplomatic instrument. India first put restrictions on exports of HCQ, which it stated was part of a stock-taking exercised.

Also read: What’s up With Hydroxychloroquine?

After Trump himself called for lifting these controls, the MEA announced that it was deciding on a case-by-case basis on supply requests from foreign countries. While many countries, including the US, purchased the medicines, India also provided it on a grant basis to countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

On its efficacy – India washed its hand early. “We are only meeting the demand. It is entirely up to the receiving countries what they want to do with the HCQ that they import from India…,” said a senior MEA official in April.

India’s attempt to project its leadership on fighting COVID-19 meant that Modi even went on multilateral platforms that had gathered dust for several years. Modi chaired a SAARC summit on the pandemic and even attended a Non-Aligned Movement meeting for the first time as Indian prime minister.

The northern neighbour

At the start of the year, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar stated that he was “reasonably sure” that China shared the view that it was “very important” for the two giant neighbours to find “equilibrium and understanding on the key issues which effect each other”. “The challenge would not be [on the lines of] ‘do you get along with each other’ or ‘not get along with each other.’ We have to get along with each other,” he said at the Raisina Dialogue on January 15, adding that the challenge was on what “terms”.

When Jaishankar said those words, the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India was only two months old. The relationship still had friction, but the leaders’ consensus would be enough to keep away any big surprises. Or so New Delhi believed.

The year had not started auspiciously with China convening the second informal meeting of the UN Security Council on Kashmir in January. On the way to Pakistan, a Chinese ship was seized at Kandla port in February with a ‘mis-declared’ item that could be used in ballistic missiles. The ship went on its way, but without the item.

In April, India revised foreign direct investment policy to curb “opportunistic takeovers or acquisition” of Indian companies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The rules stated that any entity of a country that shared a land border with India had to invest only under the government approval route. While many countries could fall under this category, it was pretty clear that it was aimed at Chinese investment.

The new rules were primarily aimed at non-resident entities from countries that share a land border with India. This includes China and other nations such as Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. The Chinese embassy objected, terming it a violation of “WTO’s principle of non-discrimination”.

File photo of Pangong Tso lake. Photo: Shome Basu/The Wire

A month later, in early May, the first clashes took place in eastern Ladakh. However, the gravity of the situation was not clear in media reports. The army chief General M.M. Naravane and the Ministry of External Affairs had even characterised them as routine clashes, which occur due to the lack of a settled border.

The news of the death of 20 Indian soldiers during a violent hand-to-hand fight at the Galwan Valley was the lightning bolt that brought the news to the front pages and prime time of Indian media. It was the first time that lives were lost at the Line of Actual Control since 1975. The Chinese never acknowledged any fatalities, but it was apparent that they had moved far beyond their traditional patrolling lines on the LAC.

For the first time, China lay public claim to the Galwan Valley, which could provide dominant positions to over the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road that connects Leh to the Karakoram Pass.

There was another round of publicly-known confrontation in September when firing took place at the LAC. India had claimed that it has taken up defensive positions to occupy peaks on its side of the LAC.

Outside the military realm, India banned mobile applications of Chinese tech companies, including the highly popular TikTok. At a UN human rights commission session, India asked China to address “concerns” about Hong Kong. Ruling party leaders called for higher engagement with Taiwan.

Meanwhile, there were meetings and phone calls between the two countries at high levels of the government. The foreign and defence ministers met in Moscow, while the special representatives also spoke with each other. There were also multiple rounds of talks between military commanders and the foreign office-led mechanism, known as WMCC. There were also joint statements released at various levels.

But as 2020 slips away, there is still no disengagement on the ground.

After the Indian prime minister claimed there had been no intrusion into Indian territory, the official line has been “attempted transgressions” by China, but no long time occupation. This is a bit inexplicable, as Indian soldiers have not been able to go on their usual patrolling patterns on the LAC for months.

Since September, the Indian foreign ministry’s leadership has described this conflict as the most serious since 1964 and claimed that diplomacy was the only way out.

In a lecture on October 31, Jaishankar acknowledged that the relationship is under “severe stress”. “To restore normalcy, (border) agreements between the two countries must be respected scrupulously in their entirety. Where the Line of Actual Control is concerned, any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo is unacceptable. The relationship cannot be immune to changes in the assumptions that underpinned it”.

In the last weeks of 2020, Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria articulated the Indian security establishment’s overwhelming focus on China. “Our most important national security challenge is firstly to understand China, their possible game plan and the deepening and evolving Sino-Pak relationship”.

An Indian Air Force (IAF) chopper flies over the Ladakh region amid the prolonged India-China standoff, in Leh, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. Photo: PTI

How the two ‘C’s shaped the rest of India’s external engagement

One of the key aims of Indian government strategists to understand China’s latest conflict has been to find out the motivation for Beijing to give the green light to allow thousands of soldiers to pour into eastern Ladakh. A certain answer may not be possible, but the inkling is that Beijing may have been attempting to punish India for its growing closeness with the United States.

The sharply polarised international environment has led all countries to revise their external outlook – and India is no different.

The physical meeting of the ‘Quad’ foreign ministers at Tokyo was significant in a year when most such conferences had gone virtual. It was followed by Australia’s participation in the Malabar naval exercises. Many observers looked at this as the nascent militarisation of the Quad, which was also how Beijing viewed it. Chinese state councillor Wang Yi criticised the ‘Quad’ as the “Indo-Pacific Nato”.

This year, India signed military logistics agreements with Japan and Australia. This means that New Delhi now has this basic foundational pact with all members of the Quad.

A new ‘buzzword’ that has emerged due to the pandemic has been “resilient supply chains,” first emanating from western capitals. India has also embraced this term, wholeheartedly.

As the November presidential elections loomed larger, the Trump administration’s rhetoric became more vitriolic, as divisions between the United States and China became more sharply drawn.

There were signs that even the European Union was moving closer towards the US assessment about China. India noted that EU’s “revived interest” in Indo-Pacific had strengthened engagement.

But, history never travels in a straight line. On December 30, EU and China agreed in principle to an investment treaty after seven years of negotiations, despite US concerns. The incoming Biden administration had called for a less unilateral approach towards confronting China. However, it may not be an easy path due to Beijing’s deep geostrategic networks.

This is very apparent in India’s neighbourhood, where even a friendly government – in Maldives and Bangladesh – cannot put a big dent in Chinese presence.

While China did suffer a setback on account of the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, it aggressively pushed back and went around countries in South Asia with offers of assistance, medicines and vaccines.

But, it has not been easy going. In Bangladesh, there is a dispute over the funding of the late-stage trial of Sinovac. During the India-Bangladesh summit in December, India has promised to provide three vaccines at a “friendship price”, according to the Bangladesh foreign minister.

This reflects the broad picture in most South Asian countries, where India and China continue to jostle for influence through various instruments – from foreign aid to vaccines in the post-pandemic scene.

Even if India’s policy response to a development in the neighbourhood does not seem to have a visible link to the pandemic this year, Indian calculations would likely have looked at China’s looming presence. India had no objection when the Maldives decided to sign a defence agreement with the United States, in sharp contrast to its position six years ago.

When relations with Nepal dipped low over territorial disputes this year, there was speculation in a section of Indian media about a Chinese angle due to Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s previous stance. There was a thaw in ties in the fourth quarter, with Indian foreign secretary making a long-awaited visit to Kathmandu.

Also read: Map Issue or Development?: Nepal-India Ties Remain Under Cloud of Agenda Setting

China’s political activity in Nepal again picked up after Oli announced the dissolution of the House of Representatives, which caused a virtual split in the ruling Nepal Communist Party. For a change, however, India would rather have the spotlight on China to fuel the narrative that Beijing is micro-managing events in Nepal.

Consequences of controversial domestic policies

In the first few months of 2020, the international fallout from India’s policies on Kashmir and the CAA were still being felt.

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina publicly said that the citizenship amendment act was “unnecessary”. The act, approved by parliament in December 2019, provided for fast-track citizenship for six minority non-muslim religious communities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A slew of senior Bangladeshi officials had also cancelled their visits to India, which raised eyebrows.

Representative image of an anti-CAA protester at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh on January 14. Photo: PTI

The European Parliament was scheduled to vote on a draft resolution submitted by five political groups against the CAA in January. After European lawmakers agreed to defer the vote, India hailed it as the victory of “Friends of India” over “Friends of Pakistan”. The deferred vote was scheduled after the annual summit of India and EU in March. Due to the COVID-19 situation, the summit finally took place in the virtual mode in July.

In the second week of January, MEA took the first batch of foreign envoys to Kashmir, which had remained out of bounds to foreign nationals following the change in constitutional status in August 2019. Following 11 European envoys’ visit to Kashmir in the second batch, the European Union stated that while the Indian government has taken some positive steps to restore normalcy, restrictions on the internet and mobile services should be “lifted swiftly” and detained political leaders released.

In February, Kashmir again figured when a UK labour member of parliament Debbie Abrahams was deported on arrival at Indira Gandhi International Airport.

The District Development Council elections in December were projected as a sign of return to normalcy, with the Indian foreign secretary briefing foreign envoys and raising the spectre of Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks. For the first time, foreign journalists were allowed inside Kashmir – albeit in an organised trip – after one and a half years.

During US President Donald Trump’s state visit, the worst riots that the Indian capital had seen in decades were taking place about 20 kilometres from his hotel. It elicited only a passing clarification: that Trump did not bring up the topic during discussions with Modi.

Security forces patrol in a riot affected area in New Delhi, February 27, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

While Trump remained silent, there was a steady drumbeat of criticism from US lawmakers, US Commission on Religious Freedom, and a parliamentary debate in the UK parliament. The Indian government largely dismissed all these concerns, describing the UK junior foreign minister’s comments as “irresponsible”.

India summoned the Turkish and Iranian envoys over highly critical comments by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iran’s foreign minister Javed Zarif. When the Organisation of Islamic Countries condemned the Delhi riots, MEA spokesperson urged the body not to make “irresponsible statements” at this “sensitive time.”

Meanwhile, Indonesia summoned the Indian ambassador and major civil society organisations there vocally protested against the Delhi riots. Photographs of violence against Muslims had gone viral on Indonesian social media.

The Indian government always cited Modi’s concerted courtship of Gulf kingdoms as a successful foreign policy story. Therefore, when newspapers in the region started to report on Indians who were losing jobs due to their offensive social media posts, it started to cause concern.

The matter had peaked earlier when Arab intellectuals active on social media started to give attention to Islamophobic posts, which amplified certain reportage on Indian private television channels on the Tablighi Jamaat controversy. This led multiple Indian missions across the region to caution the Indian community to remain vigilant against “malicious attempts to sow discord”. Indian ambassadors had to issue statements when it became clear that some of the posts were from fake accounts.

Also read: At ‘Government Request’, Twitter Blocks Tweet by BJP MP Tejasvi Surya

Besides, India had to also face frequent criticism from UN organisations, including independent experts in the body, on the proposed implementation of CAA, crackdown on protesters and even the negative aftereffects of the suddenly announced COVID-19 lockdown on migrant workers.

In March, UN human rights commissioner Michele Bachelet filed an intervention application in the Supreme Court against the CAA, which she had earlier described as “fundamentally discriminatory”. India asserted that a third party had “no locus standi”.

Two months earlier, an UN-appointed expert had filed an application seeking to assist the Supreme Court “in the spirit of amicus curiae” on the obligations of countries under international law in a case challenging the deportation of Rohingya people from India.

When the pandemic was spreading at top speed in Asia, UN human rights chief had highlighted that many governments, including India, were suppressing criticism of government policies in the name of “fake news” over coronavirus. The criticised nations immediately released a joint letter complaining that Bachelet should be playing “a responsible role”.

A police officer wields his baton against a man as a punishment for breaking the lockdown rules after India ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, March 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Across the pond, the head of the influential US Congress’s House foreign affairs committee also expressed concern that the Indian government was targeting journalists “who criticise its handling of COVID-19”.

Both the US and the UK also made noises after the international human rights group Amnesty International closed down its offices, claiming that it was impossible to operate due to harassment from Indian authorities.

Also read: Amnesty International India Shuts Down, Blames Government’s ‘Reprisal’

Just as it started, the year ended with Indian foreign ministry attempting to dismiss concerns about another series of protests.

While the Modi government and western countries have often hailed the “living bridge” of a large diaspora, it has also meant that Indian domestic policies have a spillover impact in those countries.

Last year, the change to Kashmir’s status and passage of CAA had led to lawmakers in the UK and the US receiving representations by their constituents to raise the matter. There were demonstrations held outside Indian embassies and high commissions.

The protests against three farm laws led by farmers from Punjab and  Haryana had a similar trajectory. This time due to the concentration of Punjabi diaspora in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the first foreign leader to support the right to peaceful protests. India even summoned the Canadian high commissioner to protest his remarks, but Trudeau reiterated his stance.

Also read: Why Justin Trudeau Is Supporting Protesting Farmers in India

After raising the matter with his Indian counterpart, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab also explained that Indian politics were not just India’s internal matter anymore due to the presence of the diaspora. There is already a letter campaign planned by several UK parliament members asking Prime Minister Johnson to raise it when he visits India to be the chief guest at Republic day celebrations.

While western countries and their organisations do bring up human rights concerns in India at regular intervals, it is not likely to put India in the doghouse, with Washington and other capitals focused singularly on the Chinese threat.

For example, in April, USCIRF recommended that India be listed by Trump administration as a “Country of Particular Concern” due to the deterioration in religious freedom. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, however, did not accept this proposal.