Modi’s imprint on foreign policy

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, September 3, 2014

One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark

One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism the hallmark

Narendra Modi has surprised many by investing considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy in his first 100 days in office, even though he had little foreign-policy experience when he became Indian prime minister. His hosting of leaders from India’s neighbourhood when he was sworn in, his highly effective visits to two of India’s neighbours, Nepal and Bhutan, his diplomatic dexterity at the BRICS summit in Brazil, and his watershed trip to Japan are coming to define his nimble foreign-policy approach. Since his thumping electoral mandate, foreign dignitaries have made a beeline to call on him.

Instead of bumptiously enunciating a Modi doctrine in foreign policy, the Prime Minister is allowing his actions, including diplomatic successes and breaks, to define his approach. From the big bear hug with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that symbolized the dawn of an India-Japan alliance to his scrapping of scheduled foreign-secretary-level talks with Pakistan after its high commissioner defiantly met Kashmiri secessionists, Modi has managed to put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than Jawaharlal Nehru. Indeed, as India’s veto at the WTO talks in Geneva exemplified, Modi will even stand up to a powerful, rich nations’ cabal when national interest is at stake.

Signalling his intent to boost India’s economic and security interests through multidirectional collaboration with likeminded powers, the Prime Minister has embarked on building a democratic axis with Japan — an alliance that can help reshape Asian geopolitics and accelerate India’s development. Modi deliberately made Japan his first foreign port of call beyond the Indian subcontinent so as to spotlight that country’s centrality to Indian interests. In fact, not only is Abe the most India-friendly of any world leader today, but also Japan is ready more than any other power to assist in India’s economic rise through aid, investment and technology transfer. Proof of that is its $35 billion pledge this week.

To be sure, India’s relationship with Japan began blossoming before Modi assumed office. The real architect of this axis is Abe, whose push for closer ties with India dates back to his first stint as PM in 2006-07, when Japan and India unveiled their “strategic and global partnership”. However, Modi — recognizing Japan’s importance to his own goal to boost economic growth and restore national pride — has been quick to seize the opportunity to build an entente with Tokyo.

This mission has not dissuaded him from reaching out to archrival China, despite increasing Himalayan border transgressions by its military. In a tricky act, he has sought to tame China’s belligerence through economic courtship designed to rope in that country — with its $4 trillion foreign-exchange reserves — as an important partner in India’s development, like Japan.

Indeed, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend China, negating the early assumptions that he would be less accommodating toward Beijing than his predecessor. He even delayed his Japan tour by several weeks so as to first meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. Their body language at that summit indicated the two had formed an easy personal equation. But getting Xi to make progress on the issues that divide India and China won’t be easy.

China represents Modi’s diplomatic gamble. He has invited Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India’s infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks. China’s foreign direct investment in India, however, remains trifling, with Chinese companies preferring to import primary commodities from India while exporting an avalanche of finished products. China, by strategically expanding such lopsided trade with India, has raked in mounting profits, carving out a $30-billion trade surplus in its favour last year.  By dumping its products, it is undercutting Indian manufacturing. How long will Modi be able to walk the tightrope on a country that poses the most difficult challenge for India?

Make no mistake: The extraordinary warmth and harmony that characterized Modi’s Japan tour is unlikely to be replicated in a summit with any other country. In fact, the Prime Minister’s diplomatic skills are about to face a stiffer test in upcoming bilateral summits with Xi — a former military reservist who symbolizes China’s new militarism — and US President Barack Obama, a lame duck increasingly under political siege.

Still, Modi’s actions thus far suggest he has a clear vision of how to proactively recoup India’s regional losses and to boost its global standing. Even his decision to call off talks with Pakistan has made more sense with each passing day, given the political mayhem there. Can any meaningful talks be held at a time the Pakistani military is busy neutering the elected PM and stepping up border provocations against India? Pakistan’s cocky high commissioner is lucky he was not expelled or put in the doghouse for brazenly going against the Indian Foreign Office’s counsel. But he won’t be lucky twice.

One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark. The policy’s overriding objective appears to be to enhance the country’s economic and military security as rapidly as possible. Of course, it is too early to judge the consistency, strength or effectiveness of the Modi diplomacy. But after a long era of ad hoc, reactive, weak-kneed diplomacy, the new clarity and vision represent a welcome change for India.

(c) Mint, 2014.

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