Within two weeks of taking charge, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have a clear idea of the strategic vision that would guide him for the next five years. Focussed on reviving a stagnant economy and pivoting India towards greater economic and political assertion on the global stage, Mr. Modi seems to be consciously leveraging a quickly evolving foreign policy to realise his strikingly ambitious goals.
Already, a distinct “Look East” accent is prominent in Mr. Modi’s complex geopolitical vision, resting on Japan and China as its main anchors. It was, therefore, not by accident that President Pranab Mukherjee, voicing the Modi administration’s tour d’ horizon , during his address to the joint session of Parliament, advocated a deeper engagement with Tokyo and Beijing — two countries with whom New Delhi would have multiple points of interest, including hefty investments in the cash-starved infrastructure sector.
China has been earmarked as a country with which India will work to further develop a “Strategic Cooperative Partnership”. Japan, India’s lead partner in the development of the Delhi-Mumbai industrial Corridor (DMIC) — one of the keys to an Indian renaissance in manufacturing — has been identified as India’s lead partner in the infrastructure arena. Both China and Japan would have an enormously significant role in developing the “Diamond Quadrilateral” of high-speed trains that the Modi government hopes to show-case during its tenure.
Yet, Mr. Modi’s aspiration for a robust and simultaneous engagement with China and Japan — two countries whose ties are in tailspin—will test his capacity to multi-track India’s diplomacy, in a larger geopolitical environment that is strikingly murky. There is considerable literature available in the public domain that suggests that the escalating rivalry between China and Japan, of which the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands has emerged as a flashpoint, feeds into the larger and growing competition for geopolitical dominance between Washington and Beijing, anchored in the United States’ Pivot to Asia.
The challenge for the Modi government as it reinforces its bridges with Tokyo and Beijing is to steer clear of a China-containment strategy pursued by Washington and its allies, or of a possible China-backed riposte, that could potentially draw post-Ukraine Russia, into a Cold-War style gridlock in the Pacific.Border tightrope
As he canvasses for a national effort to transform India at the blistering pace of China, Mr. Modi will be tested in his attempt to forge a complicated relationship with Beijing that has multiple points of cooperation and rivalry, including a festering border dispute. This is a tightrope that the Prime Minster must walk.
While welcoming Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, who arrived in New Delhi as the special envoy of President Xi Jinping, India’s new leadership had already signalled to Beijing that it had no intention of relinquishing its aspiration for regional leadership in South Asia. To drive home the point, the new government invited top leaders from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for Mr. Modi’s swearing-in. While the focus has been on South Asian economic consolidation, analysts acknowledge that in seeking out SAARC leaders, New Delhi has also signalled to China that it was willing to compete in South Asia and the Indian Ocean with Beijing, which has steered the development of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota and the Pakistani port of Gwadar, near the mouth of the energy-rich Persian Gulf.
Yet, as it strives to manage China’s assertion in South Asia, there are common areas of interest, such as Afghanistan, where cooperation between New Delhi and Beijing could prove mutually beneficial. With common stakes in its stability as NATO stages a withdrawal and terrorist threats to China’s energy hubs in Xinjiang expand, Afghanistan has become a welcome addition to the ongoing strategic dialogue between New Delhi and Beijing. With an unrivalled leverage over Pakistan, China, along with India, can work together to impart a sense of calm in Kabul in a post-U.S. withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan. Mr. Modi’s meetings with the top leaders of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping later this year, would provide him yet another opportunity to engage with the heads from China and Russia — two countries that are working together to redefine the contours of Eurasia.
As it focuses on its extended neighbourhood, Mr. Modi will have to take a call on Iran, as chances of a thaw in its relationship with the global powers improve. Diplomatic sources say Mr. Modi, during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, had shown interest in the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, or its variant that might evolve in the future. On their part, the Iranians are keen on establishing an undersea power line from the Iranian port of Chabahar to Gujarat’s Mundhra port.
As the Modi-government begins to embellish its strategic vision, it might need to peg its focus on a multipolar world, based on a doctrine of non-alignment 2.0, which envisages a bold and multi-vector engagement across the globe, tethered to an approach of “principled pragmatism”.