Does the > leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi mark a significant watershed in India’s foreign policy ? Classically defined, the foreign policy of a country is the product of both geography and history. Changes in leadership or government do not essentially alter its basic and underlying premises. What Mr. Modi has done is to bring the stamp of his zeal and personality to impact well-entrenched policies, imparting more determination to the process. But the shadows of history and geopolitics are omnipresent.
Like leaders before him, Mr. Modi wants India to be a peaceful and prosperous country. And, he has been dealt a respectable hand: the political legitimacy of durable democracy, the country’s ability to manage the deep and extensive pluralism of its society, the geographical advantage of its positioning in the Indian Ocean, its scientific and technological capital, a reputation for responsible behaviour, and >growing international recognition of India’s credentials to be a leading global player.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Mr. Modi does not come to the arena of foreign policy with decades of exposure through parliamentary experience or extensive cosmopolitan, global interaction. Yet, > his gift of communication skills, his grasp of strategically targeted image-building, and his innate assertiveness, combine to make for an impressive effect. In Kautilyan terms, he is the vijigishu , the ambitious king or leader.
The ‘neighbourhood first’ policy His outreach to leaders in the subcontinent, to attend his assumption of office, was an embrace of risk and openness to fresh solutions. The image of a rare South Asian conclave captured the imagination of a global audience, the intended target. Serendipitously, a more holistic appreciation of the logic of South Asia as an integer, a space unified by history and geography but torn asunder by contemporary political and cartographic divisions, was made evident. The hope for a more interconnected and integrated future was offered.
Delineating a more integrated South Asia is no mean task. In the South Asian context, the centrifuge operated by India-Pakistan relations draws the region apart. Mr. Modi inherited a difficult hand in this regard, and the reversal of historic trends is not easy to realise. The Inchcape Rock of India’s neighbourhood policy is Pakistan. Many a visionary initiative has run aground and the terrain is difficult, the atmosphere dystopian. > Prime Minister Modi commenced his term seeking the ways of peace rather than tension or conflict. But he too cannot wish away the interminable contradictions in India-Pakistan relations. For successive Indian governments, the defence of the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty against the hubris of Pakistan’s generals and intelligence operatives is a constant challenge.
In the India-Pakistan context, thus, history is prone to repeating itself. The spectacle of terror never fades and Pakistan-based and nurtured terror groups chaperone Pakistan’s diplomacy with a malevolent eye. >The recent attacks in Pathankot bear testimony to this continued trend , coming soon as they did after the >Prime Minister’s Lahore visit of December 25, 2015 . Learning from experience, however, Mr. Modi has been wise not to jettison the path of dialogue with Pakistan even as he demands that it account for the involvement of the Jaish-e-Mohammad in the attacks at Pathankot. However, like governments before it, this government is yet to deploy effective deterrence against terror attacks from Pakistan. Sustainable diplomacy by India must be assisted by continued and effective deterrence since the tools of unconventional war are an intrinsic part of Pakistan’s playbook.
The challenge is at the same time, to work for movazaneh — the Persian word for balance and equilibrium — within South Asia. Greater economic integration even if it cannot include an unwilling Pakistan, the absence of tension in relationships with India’s other neighbours, care not to cede strategic space, and catalysing South Asian regional cooperation in trade, economy and infrastructure is how this balance can be defined. If India’s smaller neighbours (as was the recent case with Nepal) perceive the outcomes of their relationship with her as unequal or unfair, then cooperation will be difficult to secure, defeating the realisation of a South Asian ‘commons’.
Breakthrough diplomacy on the land boundary with Bangladesh and acceptance of the verdict of international arbitration on the maritime boundary case with the same country has had a salutary impact. In Sri Lanka, there is need for greater effort to encourage the implementation of initiatives for constitutional reform and devolution that >steer clear of both Sinhala hyper-nationalism and Tamil chauvinism , and gain the middle ground on both sides of the ethnic divide. Similarly, ties in the defence and strategic sector need to be consolidated with greater confidence.
Linking Central Asia via Iran In Afghanistan, South Asia’s gateway to Central Asia, the real challenge is the scenario that ensues after the withdrawal of foreign troops and the threat to nationhood if the war with the Taliban and Islamist radical and terrorist elements persists. Indian projects and development initiatives in Afghanistan will be further jeopardised, putting paid to 15 years of dedicated ground-level efforts to build friendship and goodwill. In a situation of protracted contest and conflict that is harmful to Indian interests, India needs to step up efforts in concert with other like-minded regional partners to ensure a relatively stable and united Afghanistan. As the Darwinian struggle among terror groups and Taliban elements continues, the Afghan government’s capacity to fight terrorism and extremism must be strengthened. India must, despite Pakistan’s opposition to this, work towards building Afghan government capacity in this field, as also strengthening the training of Afghan defence forces and their air force capability.
For years there has been talk of >India’s participation in the development of Chabahar port in Iran : this is a project that has now become the responsibility of the Modi government to complete and must acquire critical mass and momentum. It will provide much-needed access through Iran into Afghanistan for trade and transit (given the blockages that are Pakistan-created for the entry and exit of Indo-Afghan trade across Pakistani territory.) It also ensures connectivity into Central Asia, thus becoming a vital point of access for energy exports from the region and facilitating a re-imaging of historical geographies that linked India and Central Asia.
Building an Indo-Pacific entente “The future of India will undoubtedly be decided by the sea.” This quote of scholar-diplomat K.M. Panikkar rings true despite the passage of time. The morphing of the Look East policy into an Act East policy, as also Mr. Modi’s visits to Mauritius and the Seychelles, together with Sri Lanka, have helped spell out a more coherently defined maritime policy in the Indian Ocean region. The visit to Fiji in the far reaches of the Pacific, an island nation with a significant population of Indian origin, conjoins Indian interests and concerns in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, providing ballast to the term originally coined by the Japanese of the “Indo-Pacific”.
>In Singapore last year, Mr. Modi rightly said that the most critical need in Asia was to uphold and strengthen rules and norms of collective behaviour built not on the strength of a few but on the consent of all. Unlike the East and South China Seas, the Indian Ocean is an open and largely uncontested peaceful expanse of water apart from the threat of piracy in some of its reaches. India’s unique geographical position and the series of naturally endowed harbours along its vast coastline give her many advantages. When to this are added the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as sentinels on the approaches to the Straits of Malacca, the picture of this natural endowment is more complete.
The need, as China no longer bides its time and hides its capability, is to ensure that the peaceful equilibrium of the region is not broken. As India’s foreign and external security policy grows its maritime dimension, besides ties with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Mr. Modi must concentrate on the development of bilateral and regional ties with both the African littoral and hinterland in the Indian Ocean region. He has made a good beginning both with some visits, as to Mauritius and the Seychelles, as well as the successful India-Africa Summit in Delhi last autumn, but the effort must be intensified through more top leadership-level visits and concrete development diplomacy targeted at Sub-Saharan Africa.
Ties with China The Prime Minister has steered the relationship with China with a steady hand. The continuity of policy over the last three decades, despite changes of government in India, has worked towards the avoidance of conflict, the consolidation of confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the border areas, regular leadership-level dialogue and the exponential growth in trade and commercial ties between the two countries.
Cooperation and competition have defined the relationship and a rising India’s projected economic growth and increased strategic and military capabilities provide the best balancer effect to a consciously assertive China and its growing sense of entitlement. India’s ties with Japan, Australia and the United States are of particular salience in this context. Military-to-military cooperation and closer partnership with these countries must be addressed by India with less trepidation or hesitancy. Yet, >no Thucydides Trap needs to be set between India and China . Both countries should continue to avoid strategic miscalculations in the transaction of their relationship.
In this context, China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) concept that combines both the continental and maritime dimensions of connectivity in a structure reminiscent of the ancient Chinese definition of tianxia — a space wherein peoples of varied cultural and regional backgrounds were brought together under the authority of a single ruler or ruling house — merits close scrutiny. In a reprise of the Great Game, China is clearly deploying its comprehensive national strength to carve out that space across the Eurasian landmass and in the maritime Indo-Pacific that will create a Sinosphere of trade, communication and transportation links that helps realise China’s vision of strategic continental and maritime advantage.
India has in some ways affirmed the OBOR initiative with its membership stake in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an institution where essentially China takes the lead. A complicating factor is the > China-Pakistan Economic Corridor arm of the OBOR that bridges Pakistan and China through territory in the Karakoram, claimed by India. The ‘wiggle’ for India in this scenario is to move with clear-headedness to completing the Chabahar project, and also concretising initiatives under the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) Corridor so that she is not excluded from the connectivity superstructure that is implied in the OBOR initiative. Simultaneously, India can ill-afford to neglect her Central Asia policy or her maritime vision for the Indian Ocean. Mr. Modi’s outreach to the Central Asian nations is important and timely and must be further consolidated. India’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a stepping stone to a more active role for the country in building a strong stakeholder role in connectivity and counter-terrorism strategies for the region.
In many ways, the Middle East, as it is termed in the West, is not endowed with an Asian connotation as it should be. For India, this is West Asia, and the whole region of the Gulf, because of religious and historical ties, the presence of seven million Indians, trade and foreign exchange remittances as well as the crucial aspect of energy security, is vitally important. The century-old definitions of the region from “Aden to Singapore” as constituting the maritime arc affecting Indian security still ring true. For India, the second largest Muslim country in the world in terms of population, the protracted turbulence and conflict that affects the Levant, heightened Sunni-Shia strife, and the attraction of Islamic State ideology for misguided youth are all trends that require unrelenting vigilance and underscore the importance of the West Asia policy.
Natural partners to best partners The India-United States relationship has been one of the star performers in Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy repertoire despite the >persisting irritant of U.S. defence sales to Pakistan. Pragmatism defines Mr. Modi’s approach to a country that denied him a visa through two successive presidencies. Trade, investment and economic ties fuel this relationship, but the strategic aspect is of accelerating importance, leading one American official to recently call this a future anchor of global security. The United States is a major defence partner of India today, and the two countries must engage with less hesitation and more closely in this field — further empowering India’s outreach in terms of Icarian (air power) as well as maritime (sea power) capability in the Indian Ocean.
Some views have been expressed that the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, released during the visit to India of President Barack Obama last year, throws the gauntlet before China. Although there are expressions of Chinese unease over this development, enunciated in the discussions between Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama was the fact that each country has its interests and compulsions in dealing with and transacting mutually beneficial relations with China. India’s Act East policy must envision how the visions of India and China are to be interwoven in the mapping of 21st century Asia. The United States as an Asia-Pacific power also has enormous stakes in the peace and prosperity of continental and maritime Asia.
India’s almost 30-million-strong population of persons of Indian origin across the continents has become an important player in the scheme of foreign policy priorities for the country. Prime Minister Modi has astutely understood the need to consolidate the linkages between Mother India and this vast immigrant presence abroad of people from ‘home’. > Mega shows at Madison Square Garden or at Wembley Stadium go beyond mere spectacle ; they embody Mr. Modi’s ability to embrace this strategic asset for India with confidence and long-term vision, asserting blood ties over mere economic necessity and buttressing a more participatory role for the overseas Indian community in the building of India’s future.
Visible in this foreign policy narrative and discourse is a greater determination to get things done, and an emphasis on the bigger and better. Hesitation and risk-aversion have been replaced with more focus and determination. > Mr. Modi’s style is more fortissimo, and yet more personal — bonding with Shinzo Abe, sitting on a swing with Xi Jinping, tea with Barack Obama, all the things it takes to get India more noticed. Public diplomacy is better deployed as in getting the world to know more about India’s contributions to global peace and a narrative that aims at building “our place in the world”. There are new slogans and symbolism: Neighbourhood First becomes a signature segment of foreign policy; Act East replaces Look East; yoga becomes a leitmotif of Indian soft power; and even on climate change, heritage and lifestyle are introduced into conversations on the subject. There is a new stress on “obtaining recognition of India’s great power status”.
And yet, running through all this is the inexorable unspooling of a thread known as India’s foreign policy. Core interests and concerns for a nation do not change. Hand-holding does not solve strategic headaches. The limited size of the Foreign Service continues to pose a challenge. Optics do well in diplomacy but cannot usurp the show itself. Tangible outcomes are what the people will ultimately seek.
In all fairness to the Prime Minister, he is driven by the need to achieve results but the world, and particularly the region he operates in, is not an easy place. He has shown he has a hardwired ability to right-track foreign policy into a sphere of multiple engagements and a brave new universe. Now, to paraphrase Herman Melville and Moby Dick, let him square the yards, and make a fair wind of it homeward.
(Nirupama Rao is a former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador of India to the U.S. and China.
Twitter: @NMenonRao )