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India's Foreign Policy: Three Years, Three Cheers

By virtue of his deft moves in foreign policy, Modi has mastered the art of balancing between Beijing and Tokyo, not getting caught in their crossfire and yet secure India's bilateral gains and interest

Photo Credit : PTI

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When Narendra Damodardas Modi became the Prime Minister of India in 2014, he was expected to don a new role, that of the magician. The economy was crumbling thanks to the policy paralysis of the earlier dispensation. The BJP as a party was itching for a revamp and replicate the 282 seat feat in all the states. Expectations ran high, but there was little doubt about Modi's capability to meet all challenges and accomplish everything that was expected of him. The only area where people anticipated a slower kick-start was the foreign policy where a chief minister was not expected to be experienced enough to know the diplomatic nuances.

But ironically enough, Prime Minister Modi has surpassed expectations and surprised everyone. He invited all the neighbouring heads of State for his swearing-in ceremony, akin to holding his first regional conference on day one in office, thus sending strong signals of his robust foreign policy direction.

India's neighbours have occupied much of its attention in its overall foreign policy matrix for long. Modi's foreign policy strategy therefore is fundamentally aimed at protecting our core national interests; safeguarding territorial integrity and sovereignty, and achieving economic prosperity simultaneously tackling the most significant challenge of regional imbalance, military asymmetry in the region and New Delhi's oscillation between soft and hard power options.

The lack of a comprehensive neighbourhood policy strategy and dearth of broad understanding of security challenges blurred India's prospect of becoming an effective regional power and play a pivotal role in emerging Asia. Asian consolidation and emergence of united Asia is feasible if the three powers, India, China and Japan work in unison. The fact is that given the strong undercurrent of history and civilizational perspectives, they do lack the initiative to work in harmony.

By virtue of his deft moves in foreign policy, Modi has mastered the art of balancing between Beijing and Tokyo, not getting caught in their crossfire and yet secure India's bilateral gains and interest.

Modi's foreign policy thinking has taken the ground reality of China's rapid economic rise into consideration. At a time when the only superpower, the mighty US was touting China as the Asian pivot, Modi struck a personal chord with the then US president Barak Obama and successfully placed India on par with China in the foreign policy formulations of the White House. But the real success of Modi's balancing act came when he refused to toe the US line of choosing between US and China. Modi extended the olive branch to China by allaying Beijing's apprehensions of New Delhi's one-way foreign policy. The subsequent visit of Chinese President Xi Jin Ping to India sent a strong signal to the world about India's commitment to work with China and Japan for Asia's progress and yet secure global interest in the future of emerging Asian century.

PM Modi has been quick to realize that economic engagement has made it mandatory for India to recognize the importance of networking with regional powers with global anchorage. The Indo-Pacific region has developed into an important and strategic area of great influence. Modi's decision to work out a strategy for closer cooperation with Japan and increase its strategic presence in the area has come at an appropriate time.

The Indo-Japan relationship, necessary to strengthen the regional security environment, could go on to prove pivotal. This was emphasised by the Indo-Japan joint statement following the November 2016 summit, which outlined convergence of interests on bilateral issues like nuclear cooperation, counter-terrorism and defence and industrial cooperation. India and Japan also signed a civil nuclear agreement in 2016, making India the first non-NPT signatory country to have signed such a deal with Japan. The two countries have also agreed on coordination on regional issues and "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy".

But it is in the Indo-Pacific Ocean zone that one sees the geopolitics of this century being played out, and the play seems to be getting more acrimonious with many regional heads of state looking to India to play an active role in regional forums. Realising the importance of India's role, the Modi government energised the BRICS and invited the heads of states of BIMSTEC for an outreach meeting for greater regional cooperation. This strategic move will give India greater manoeuvring space in the region.

It is likely that in the days to come, Prime Minister Modi may gradually adopt a more proactive foreign policy approach, winning over the friendship and cooperation of allies in Asia and Africa. The Africa Summit held last year has laid a strong foundation for New Delhi to play a leading role there, paving the way for Asia Africa Growth Corridor to cement partnerships for development.

The alternative to Modi's foreign policy line in Asia was the likelihood of major Asian actors being pitted against one another and also other regional States jostling for strategic space, influence and resources.

From this point of view, it would be interesting to study the long-term effects of the Prime Minister's policies and the conduct of Asia's larger economies to determine whether they cooperate, compete and/or leverage power and relationships to shape their strategic space within the dynamics of politics and economics in countries of Asia and South East Asia.

India has been late in securing its strategic space in Asia and Africa while China moved very fast almost a decade ago. Modi's priority therefore, was to reframe India's two-and-half decade old Look East policy and put in place an administrative mechanism to make it functional.
Modi's foreign policy template therefore, had to recognize that as an emerging regional benign economic power beginning from the reform era in the nineties and a vibrant democratic country in Asia, India is poised to aspire for political leadership to preserve peace and stability in the region. Modi very rightly began to prepare a road map to transform this aspiration into reality.
This aspiration however, will take time to fructify due to India's complex and frosty and at times not so harmonious relationship with one of its immediate neighbours, Pakistan.

Pakistan today is a picture perfect of chaos and confusion, offering little solace to India as events in Pakistan have a tendency to spill over. With the civil society in Pakistan practically having no role to play, India has to deal with not just a failed state but a rogue state and a nuclear one at that.

India needs to insulate her internal security apparatus from the terror machine of Pakistan and at the same time prepare for a regional peace arrangement after the badly bruised US finally quits Afghanistan. The region cannot be left to the mercy of Taliban, 'good' and/or 'bad', and the ISI. India has to take a lead in stabilizing Afghanistan and keep the area sanitized enough to avoid violence and internecine warfare. More importantly, the ongoing genocide of Baloch population and targeted killing of Baloch and Sindhi leadership as well as the inhuman crass mass executions of opponents poses a grave challenge to the civilized world.

By mentioning Balochistan in his Independence Day speech the Prime Minister has not only voiced India's concerns at the human rights violations, but drawn world attention to the volatile situation in Pakistan. The political will shown by Modi has been noticed by the US, but New Delhi will have to take concrete steps like recognizing the Balochistan and Sindh governments in exile and be more pro-active in dealing with Pakistan.

SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, continues to be an instrument for fostering better relations in South Asia. Despite its sluggish growth in the past, it has made progress in the last two years. There is an overall agreement on a South Asia Preferential Trade Arrangement (SAPTA) among six of the seven SAARC countries, the only exception being Pakistan. Even Pakistan subscribes in principle, though not in practice, to the substantial tariff reductions in relation to a large number of items the other six countries have introduced. The same is the situation about the move from preferential trade arrangements to a South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA).

India looks upon SAARC and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) not as competitive but as complementary organizations. Indeed, these two are seen as part of a chain that extends to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the east. India is a full dialogue partner of ASEAN and a member of the security-related ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The support for Indian membership of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation entity, is growing.

Modi's Foreign Policy Objective

As a three-time Chief Minister and a keen observer of international affairs, Modi's view on foreign policy has been honed by past experience which suggests that the use of hard power vis-à-vis neighbours is counter-productive in the long-term. Yet, the concept of soft power needs to be refined within the larger South Asian regional context. Modi is aware that while embarking upon any regional leadership role, India has to bear in mind the need for political stability and economic prosperity of for its national security and progress.

India's strength lies in her size and continuity of the policy of being a 'benign and non-interventionist power'. But such an approach alone will not serve its purpose anymore. India cannot be expected to remain unconcerned with the events in the immediate periphery nor can we afford to see our neighbours through an American prism. While the region needs to be out of bounds to foreign powers, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of China as an economic power have introduced a new dynamism in our foreign policy conduct.

Developing effective mechanisms in the near term for regional cooperation on non-traditional security issues may yield rich dividends in the long term and allow India to move towards resolving some of the region's long-standing chronic security problems. There is an urgent need for an in-depth and comprehensive study that will examine opportunities for cooperation on shared non-traditional security concerns as potential building blocks toward developing a viable regional India centric security architecture.

The foreign policy perspective of a country is the sum total of events and experiences of the past and the geo-political realities of today. While neighbourhood remains an important element in foreign policy formulations, the global strategic discourse has changed to building multi lateral and intra-region and inter-region strategic architecture. India's priority should be; (a) ensure regional security, stability and peace, (b) strengthen the economic structure through a robust 'Make in India' initiative and outreach in the region, (c) fine tune regional organizations to interlink the region, (d) keep India's strategic importance relevant and (e) catapult a strong India to the centre stage of global affairs.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Seshadri Chari

The author is the Secretary General of Forum for Integrated National Security (FINS) and Foreign Policy, Strategy and Security analyst. A member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP, he is the former Editor of English weekly Organiser

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