India's new Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, known as a maverick diplomat who has served in sensitive missions such as China and the US as Ambassador is preparing to embark what is coming to be known as the 'SAARC yatra'.
Nearly a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited all SAARC leaders to his swearing in ceremony in New Delhi, which was hailed as an important and substantive event highlighting the popularity and mandate through which he arrived to take charge from a decade of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule.
The SAARC yatra is set to begin on March 1 in Bhutan, continuing to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, in that order on consequent days. Out of all these trips, the one most anticipated is of course Jaishankar's visit to Islamabad where the foreign secretary is expected to lay groundwork for talks to resume between the two countries.
However, the story of India and Pakistan's diplomatic dance is not new, not going to change drastically any time in the near future, and has now become predictable and cyclical. As important as it is for New Delhi and Islamabad to have a continuous and non-disruptive dialogue process, today the high stakes for India's neighbourhood policy lie elsewhere, namely in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and Afghanistan.
The tiny nation of Maldives is going through a fresh phase of political crisis weeks before Modi is slated to visit the country. Former President Mohamed Nasheed, who had been under house arrest on and off for months, was physically dragged into court as proceedings were set to begin against him orchestrated by the current government of President Abdulla Yameen. Reports also suggested that Nasheed was being denied proper legal representation, and this prompted India to release a statement calling for fair and due process.
India's voice on the issue was greeted with hostility in Male, as Maldivian Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon made it clear that the government did not appreciate lecturing from foreign governments on the country's internal affairs. Former foreign minister and member of Nasheed's party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, Ahmed Naseem had also aired his displeasure at China remaining silent over the on-going crisis in the country.
China is making aggressive policy moves towards the IOR, with its planned 'Maritime Silk Route' seen as a critical economic opportunity by countries such as Maldives. China on the other hand, has refused to comment on the on-going crisis and has not joined India, UK, the Commonwealth, the US and others in condemning the treatment vetted to Nasheed. China maintained its 'non-interference' line, which is traditionally how Beijing reacts to such situations, publicly at least.
For India, a growing Chinese influence in IOR is a cause for concern and the government's apprehensions on growing Chinese naval presence were made clear when in November Chinese Navy submarines docked in Sri Lanka. This event underlined the magnitude of the growing Chinese presence in what traditionally has been India's sphere of influence. This sphere of comfort is now being challenged, and countries such as Maldives and Sri Lanka are coming up as prime examples of the battle for diplomatic supremacy between New Delhi and Beijing in the Indian Ocean.
Not far from the contentious diplomacy of the IOR, China has also built a port in the coastal city of Gwadar in Pakistan. Not only has Beijing financed it, but it also operates it on a first hand basis. This installation gives a vital tributary to China's IOR plans by not just giving it a hold in the Arabian Sea, on India's doorstep, but giving access to Central Asia, where it has invested heavily in minerals, and equally importantly, in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is possibly the only country where India operates a by-definition 'bullish' foreign policy. India has invested and donated billions of dollars to the reconstruction process of the country as it works to build up after years of political, social and economic destitution under the Taliban, and till date remains a major influence in the country both via diplomatic presence and soft power alike. However, with the new power-sharing governance system now in place in Kabul, New Delhi needs to revisit on how it plans to take its Afghan policy forward.
President Ashraf Ghani shares the power centre in Kabul with his political rival during elections, Abdullah Abdullah, occupying the newly created and non-traditional post of 'CEO'. While India maintained great ties with former President Hamid Karzai, Ghani is going to be a more hard leader to deal with as he will not allow New Delhi, or anyone else, as open an access as it enjoyed under Karzai without securing considerable gains for Afghanistan itself. Ghani has already visited China and Pakistan as President, and is only now planning a visit to India. While the visit will be crucial, it is perhaps two countries too late for New Delhi's liking.
India is also worried, like the new government in Kabul, about the planned phase out of US led troops from Afghanistan. Currently, the US plans to finish a complete pull out of its military by end of 2016 except the number of troops that will stay back as per the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed between Washington and Kabul in September last year after months of delay under Karzai's administration. Under the BSA, around 10,000 US troops can stay back post 2016, but if the recent visit of America's new Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter to Afghanistan is to go by, this number may increase. All these recent developments ring as good news for New Delhi.
Foreign Secretary Jaishankar's SAARC yatra is already being viewed from the tunnel vision of India-Pakistan ties, however, this time the stakes are much higher in other parts of the neighbourhood even though, eventually, the public discourse along the SAARC yatra at least will be stuck, as per traditions, on the Delhi-Islamabad dynamic.