OPINION

A shift from style to substance

In the first half of his second year in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made 61 interventions on foreign policy, in the form of speeches, press releases, op-eds, media interactions, and community receptions. Nearly a quarter of these (14) were delivered in India, and the rest on visits abroad. During this period, Mr. Modi managed the unprecedented feat of addressing every major multilateral grouping — barring the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) — in which India is a member: the United Nations, the East Asia Summit (EAS), the G20 bloc, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the India-Africa Summit and the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation. Save Egypt and Indonesia, the last six months account for Mr. Modi’s engagement with almost every major leadership.

Foreign policy interventions

Consequently, this period could help assess three questions on the National Democratic Alliance’s foreign policy. First, has the Prime Minister’s post-election rhetoric of the first year given way to more substantive comments on foreign policy? Second, have Mr. Modi’s “legacy” foreign policy issues — areas in which the Prime Minister is personally invested — begun to emerge? And third, do these interventions indicate where India’s foreign policy on new and previously unaddressed themes is headed? All these questions can be answered in the affirmative.

The Prime Minister’s foreign policy interventions during this period reflect efforts to institutionalise the norms his government articulated in its first year. Take, for instance, the principle of “Asian solidarity” that has been a key theme in Mr. Modi’s speeches. In the last six months, he has repeatedly defined this principle through three key markers — the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a cyber-security architecture for the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the settlement of disputes through multilateral rules. On maritime concerns in Asia, Mr. Modi has calibrated the Indian position, without straying too far from the traditional line. The India-Japan Joint Statement of last week referred to the “Indo-Pacific”, officially bringing this strategic phrase into India’s foreign policy lexicon. However, the Prime Minister’s speeches on the subject themselves allude to the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean as distinct regions connected by history and destinies, “however we choose to define them”.

His second-year interventions indicate areas of foreign policy where the Prime Minister’s Office is likely to invest political capital. Cyber-policy is one such theme, reflected in nearly a third of all of his speeches. At intergovernmental venues like ASEAN, BRICS or the G20, Mr. Modi has highlighted the importance of securing “cyber networks” from state and non-state actors. At the East Asia Summit — markedly in the presence of China — the Prime Minister called for “norms of behaviour” in cyberspace. To the private sector, Mr. Modi has flagged “data privacy and security” as a key concern, notably during his visit to Silicon Valley in September. These are norms that he has not broached at home, even in the context of the Digital India initiative.

Themes of trade and energy

Trade partnerships are a major theme in Mr. Modi’s interventions. He has repeatedly called for an “early conclusion” of RCEP, while acknowledging the existence of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. This is not a break from India’s traditional position on the World Trade Organisation’s centrality to international trade.

At the G20 summit in Antalya, he asserted this clearly, warning that regional agreements “should not lead to a fragmentation of the global trading system”.

Renewable energy is another area of priority. His COP21 interventions skew the numbers, but the last six months have seen Mr. Modi consistently talk up India’s renewable energy capacities (175 GW by 2022). The NDA’s position on climate change is closely aligned to that of previous governments: in Paris, the Prime Minister called the principle of common but differentiated responsibility the “bedrock” of any climate treaty, even tipping his hat to the United Progressive Alliance’s “leadership” at the Copenhagen talks in 2009.

These foreign policy themes are closely connected to three initiatives that the Indian government has mooted: the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, and the International Solar Alliance. Figure 2 illustrates their key properties.

What do Mr. Modi’s assertions in his second year signal for India’s foreign policy? With the rhetoric of the first year giving way to substance, there is continuity between the stated views of previous governments and the NDA. Take two contested areas, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and export control regimes. While there has been much hand-wringing at home over the government’s “shift” in IPR policy vis-à-vis its TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) obligations, he asserted that innovation initiatives “should be driven by public purpose, not market incentives, including on intellectual property.” He has consistently highlighted the need for India’s entry into export control regimes — the Missile Control Technology Regime, Wassenaar Arrangement and Nuclear Suppliers Group — indicating that India’s special bilateral relationships cannot substitute for inclusive multilateral arrangements.

The prognosis as he consolidates his government’s foreign policy is optimistic, but much will depend on India’s economic performance. Mr. Modi’s interventions suggest that the foreign policy priorities of 21st century India are undergoing a sea change. The NDA’s litmus test will be in ensuring that multilateral regimes can accommodate India’s concerns on cyberspace, IPR and climate change, while balancing requests to move to selective and plurilateral arrangements.

(Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)



The prognosis as Mr. Modi consolidates foreign policy is optimistic, but much

will depend on India’s economic performance