The Foreign Policy of Narendra Modi

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By Jayantha Dhanapala*

Within two months the newly elected Prime Minister of India has had summit meetings with the Japanese Prime Minister, the President of China and the President of the USA. India, Japan and China are the Asian giants while the US remains the sole global super power. Thus the evolving relationships amongst them have special significance. It has become a cliché today to describe all friendly bilateral relations as “strategic partnerships” but obviously some relations are more “strategic” than others.

In the halcyon period of Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership of Indian foreign policy good relations with China was a cornerstone governed by the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence or Pancha Shila embodied in the Sino-Indian Treaty of April 29, 1954. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 blighted that relationship and although some normalcy has been restored, especially in terms of trade and other economic ties, bilateral relations have never been the same. India’s dramatic economic development and the election of a strong leader in Narendra Modi has created a new climate for reaching out to Asia and the world after the symbolic first steps towards South Asian neighbours were taken with the problem of Pakistan shelved for the moment.

Sandwiching Xi Jinping’s visit to India between Modi’s own visits to Japan and the USA sent a signal that here was a self-confident leader with many options open to him. Modi had already visited Japan as Chief Minister of Gujarat. The decision to embark on a five-day visit to Japan as his first foreign visit was deliberate. Relations between China and Japan have been cool with the election of Abe in Japan and the controversy over the islands in the East China Sea. Conservative commentators in India rejoiced.

"Mr. Modi has already bared a two-fold focus to build a pragmatic, dynamic policy that ends the era of belated, reactive diplomacy: proactively regain India's clout in its own strategic backyard and build closer but differentially calibrated collaboration with major powers", analyst Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Hindustan Times.

"The India-Japan partnership holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China's rise or Barack Obama's 'pivot' to Asia. This win-win partnership can help to drive India's infrastructure development and great-power aspirations, while catalyzing Japan's revival as a world power," he continued a trifle too enthusiastically. Another Indian newspaper described the visit as India and Japan's attempt to "balance the rising weight of China across Asia".

At the end of the visit Japan announced doubling of its private and public investment in India to about $35 billion over the next five years. The 3.5 trillion yen ($34 billion) of investment from Japan to India including Official Development Assistance (ODA) during a 5-year period will be under the aegis of India-Japan Investment Promotion Partnership for development of projects including infrastructure and building of “smart cities”. Investment by Japan in Indian railway development was assured but a civil nuclear deal remained elusive while penalties imposed on Indian companies after the 1998 Indian nuclear tests were lifted.

Most significantly Modi deplored the "expansionist" tendency among some countries which "encroach" upon seas of others, in oblique comments against China which is having a maritime dispute with Japan. He said, "The whole world accepts that the 21st century will belong to Asia. But I have a question. How should the 21st century be? We have to give an answer to this. It will depend on how deep and progressive our relationship (between India and Japan) is."

Prior to Xi Jinping’s September 17-19 India visit the Chinese Consul-General in Mumbai sought to set the stage for a visit that would outshine the Modi visit to Japan and predicted an investment of over $ 100 billion. In fact a much lesser sum of $30 billion dollars was committed by the Chinese delegation. $20 billion of public money would go to a fast train corridor and a new strategic road. $6.8 billion were allocated to industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra. 24 Chinese companies would buy products (pharmaceuticals, farming…) for $3.6 billion.

Euphoria deflated

The attempt to outdo the Japanese figure of $ 33.58 billion had failed despite all the bonhomie and Modi’s personal touch. Indian cynics pointed to the deficit in bilateral trade which would not be bridged by this investment. More importantly there was the badly timed Chinese incursion over the disputed border. On the September 18, 1000 PLA soldiers in Southern Ladakh, one of the two contested regions along the Sino-Indian border, made an incursion into territory claimed by India. The troops were bringing heavy equipment and claiming to build a “provisional road”.

This was known just an hour before the banquet that Modi was to host. While 1500 Indian soldiers were dispatched to the spot, Modi asked Xi to order his troops away – Xi acquiesced. Even on September 19 however, the Chinese troops remained. They eventually retreated – but dispatched a small group of 35 men to pitch tents. When this was reported in Delhi the euphoria of the visit was deflated.

Observers were perplexed. Was Xi Jinping not in control of his Army or was this a two-pronged strategy? Who might those opponents of a Sino-Chinese rapprochement be? Some of them were obviously within the Chinese high command – victims perhaps of Xi’s uncompromising anti-corruption campaign. They might also be in the regime’s political circles, high cadres trying to weaken Xi Jinping. Since his accession to power in October 2012, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has caused thousands of casualties among cadres, dozens of them at ministerial level.

Another line of speculation was that this was a shot across Indian bows lest Modi was lured to the US camp. One journalist speculated that opposition could also have been reinforced from the Indian side. An Indian analyst suspects military traders in armament imports, India being now the world number one on this market.

Kishore Mahbubani, the perceptive Dean of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Diplomacy argued in a column that was actually published in China that – “However, just as it is about to become the No.1 economy in the world, China appears to have changed its strategy. Instead of continuing its successful three-decade policy of a peaceful rise, China is perceived to have changed course and is now seen to be carrying out assertive and occasionally reckless actions. If China continues on this course, it will seize defeat from the jaws of victory…it is important for the Western media to understand that China is not monolithic. Like other large complex societies, there is a vigorous debate going on in China about the strategy it should adopt in the world. There are both "hawks" and "doves" in the Chinese establishment.”

So, were the Chinese “hawks” at work to thwart Xi Jinping’s historic fence-mending visit to India? If so they could not have chosen a worse time just as the conservatives in the Indian establishment are pushing Modi to ally firmly with the USA and Japan in an Asian Cold War against China just as Russia is being isolated further from Europe over Ukraine.

Dramatic contrast

From the qualified success of the Xi Jinping visit to India to the rapturous welcome accorded to Modi in the USA, which had once refused him a visa, was a dramatic contrast. Even though the visit was actually an unusual add on to the visit to address the UN General Assembly, it achieved the stature of a state visit. The influential Indian expatriate community accorded Modi a hero’s welcome including a packed Madison Square Gardens gathering. An outstanding feature, apart from the White House lunch in honour of the Indian Prime Minister, was the unprecedented joint op-ed published in the ‘Washington Post’ by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi.

Since Manmohan Singh’s controversial breakthrough with Indo-US nuclear co-operation a welter of problems had plagued Indo-US relations including the humiliating treatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York. The op-ed began -“As nations committed to democracy, liberty, diversity and enterprise, India and the United States are bound by common values and mutual interests. We have each shaped the positive trajectory of human history, and through our joint efforts, our natural and unique partnership can help shape international security and peace for years to come.”

It ended with the agenda for the Washington talks with special reference to the unusual theme of sanitation from Modi’s Independence Day address from the Red Fort –“...we will discuss ways in which we can boost manufacturing and expand affordable renewable energy, while sustainably securing the future of our common environment. We will discuss ways in which our businesses, scientists and governments can partner as India works to improve the quality, reliability and availability of basic services, especially for the poorest of citizens. In this, the United States stands ready to assist. An immediate area of concrete support is the ‘Clean India’ campaign, where we will leverage private and civil society innovation, expertise and technology to improve sanitation and hygiene throughout India.”

There was also the bold announcement to open India’s $250 billion defense sector to private participation and US defence contractors can be expected to rush in.

One commentator has written – “Modi’s foreign policy is likely to be a mix of nationalist-led geopolitics and expedient geoeconomics.” After these series of high-level meetings Modi certainly appears to be following that direction.

*Jayantha Dhanapala is a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka.

[Source: 2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters]

JULY 2017

Vol. 11 - No. 12










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