Modi’s foreign policy: Hits & Misses

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Summary: While Modi’s proactive engagement with South and Southeast Asia,

and with middle powers like Israel, have added dynamism to India’s foreign

policy, he still has a lesson or two to learn in handling India’s great power

relationship – especially with the US which continues to use New Delhi to

further its Asian ambitions – example the talks on joint patrol in the South

China Sea; at the same time contradicting India’s interest in its immediate

neighbourhood – example the F-16 Fighter jets deal with pakistan

Much as we criticize PM Modi for his foreign trips, a closer look reveals these

excursions may afterall yeild some significant outcomes. Of course, managing great

power relationships with adequate deft remains a huge work in progreass.

Take a look.

1) Consolidating India’s position in South Asia by:

A) Checking China’s advance: If India were to remain a credible leader of the

South Asian region, a key factor would be to keep any competing power at

bay – in this case China and its growing interest in South Asia. As China

continues to threaten India along the LAC, Modi’s foreign trips and alignments

seem to be quietly countering this exploring Beijing’s vulnerabilities – most of

which remain outside the Indian subcontinent.

Act East policy:

Apart from reaching a $100 billion business with the ASEAN, the shrouded motive of

Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy is deterring China by stepping up India’s engagement with

Southeast Asian countries having counterclaims with China in the South China Sea

(SCS). Consider the defense agreements India is forging. India has high level

military agreements with both Brunei and Thailand. With Vietnam – which fiercely

opposes China’s claims in SCS – among other defense agreements, India

announced it may create a satellite tracking and imaging center in Vietnam for

civilian purposes. Security experts these could be used for military purposes. That

Beijing is worried is evident from this news report that cautions China of the growing


Ocean Diplomacy:

Indian Ocean comprises a vital part of China’s sea line of communication (SLOC)

which it is fiercely trying to guard by stepping up investment in the Indian Ocean

Region (IOR).

Modi is countering this with a joint front.

The first part of this front comprises the IOR nations. In 2015, during his Indian

Ocean Yatra Modi entered into a number of military cooperation countries including

Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka. The idea is to consolidate New Delhi’s

influence in the IOR.

Unfortunately China lost its political leverage in the region during the Sri Lankan

election of 2015 that brought in two pro-Indians in the country’s key leadership –

Maithripala Sirisena as the President and Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime

Minister overthrowing the China leaning Rajapaksa. The constant high level

interaction – with Sushma Swaraj recently having concluded her Lankan visit –

indicate India is leveraging this change. Additionally, Maldives is also upping its

engagement with India as is evident from the late last year’s high level visit by

Maldivian foreign minister Dunya Maumoon.

The second component of this front are the key world leaders namely – US, Japan

and Australia – with stakes in the IOR. India has stepped up its defense cooperation

with these countries at the Indian Ocean.

B) Stepping up engagement in regional security: Afghanistan

Till recently India’s involvement in Afghanistan has been strictly civilian

reconstruction of the country and non-military. However this changed in November

2015 when India agreed to transfer four Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghanistan. This

not only marked India’s first transfer of offensive weapons to the country, but also

made a considerable addition to Afghanistan’s air power.

It is also an important statement about India’s resolve to play a greater role in the

key security issues confronting the region. That India must have continued its back

channel interaction with the administration in Kabul is evident from a recent interview

that The Hindu conducted with the visiting Afghanistan CEO Abdullah Abdullah who

stated that India has been kept in the loop concerning all development in the peace

talks with Talibans.

C) Economic interconnectedness – Bangladesh

The SAARC region despite being resource rich remains grossly underutilized,

economically disjointed. Connectivity and infrastructure bottleneck are sighted as

one of the key reasons.

In this light with the signing of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Motor

Vehicles Agreement (MVA) for the Regulation of Passenger, Personnel and Cargo

Vehicular Traffic Modi has taken a significant step towards initiating the economic

interconnectedness of the region.

Once implemented the agreement is said to have the potential to increase intra-

regional trade within South Asia by almost 60% and with the rest of the world by over


2) Less ambiguity in international relations: Example West Asia

For the first time under Modi, has India very vocally spelt out its engagement with

Israel. Israel is important as New Delhi strives to diversify its defense sources. With

over $10 billion of defense acquisition, Israel assumes great importance in ‘Make in

India’ with its consent to transfer advanced technologies as corroborated by Daniel

Carmon, Israel’s Ambassador to India during a press interaction.

However more important is the message that India’s recalibrated policy towards

West Asia sends across the Middle East.

It is a clear indication that henceforth in his international alignments Modi will give

precedence to India’s strategic interests over the the need to project a particular

image. This might constitute an important component of the template India will follow

in the Middle East especially as relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran – two of

India’s most important partners in the Middle East – start to fall out and New Delhi is

forced to take sides in the conflict.

3) Strengthening India’s position at multilateral platforms in Global South

India became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in

2015. The same year presidency for the New Development Bank (NDB) founded by

the BRICS nations came to an Indian – Mr K.V. Kamath.

What is interesting is the push that different members gave to get India onboard in

these platforms. Russia wary of China’s advance in its traditional sphere of influence

– the Central Asia – wanted India onboard in the SCO. Many Central Asian nations to

avoid a single power hegemony in their region wanted greater role for a balanced

power like India.

Smaller South Asian nations anticipating a monopolistic role of China in the NDB,

where the BRICS Bank could become another WTO or IMF with China becoming

what US is to these Bretton Woods Institutions, wanted India – a harmless power

with zero expansionist interest – to play a role of more substance.

While the struggle for greater visibility in institutions like the UNSC might not end any

time soon given the inherent desire of its members to continue the status quo of

being able to call the shots in world affairs, as a first step India would do good to

emerge as a leader of the Global South – a power no one can bypass if anybody is

serious about approaching this part of the world.

4) Utilizing great power relationships

India – with its effort in rejuvenating its relationship with its neighbourhood and

around the region at large, strong democratic records and a resurgent economy

when the ones in Europe are diminishing – has greatly risen in importance for world

powers especially the US.

For Washington India serves three purposes:

1) serving as a huge market for its finished goods, especially defense with India’s

recent impetus on refurbishing its military capabilities.

2) India converges with the US in its strategic interest of deterring China.

3) India is sort of a gateway to a great part of South Asia – being a country with a

considerable voice in this region. US has for long looked at India as a ‘net security


For India these multiple alignments help maintain a balance where a contender like

China will step back before launching a full fledged offensive on India given the

number of friends that it has, especially the world powers.

On the contrary Beijing – with its growth especially in military realms is constantly

threatening the global status quo where the US has led for decades – thus raising

suspicions among the US and its allies about the consequences of China’s rise.

Added to this is Beijing’s proximity to West’s adversaries like Russia.

In Asia, India provides a credible counterforce to China. Modi should be credited for

being able to foresee this and overtly come out in the open befriending the US.

However, India still needs to be wary of its great power relationships in Asia –

especially with the US. While Washington will readily pull New Delhi to further its

ambitions in region – India’s talks with the US for a joint patrol in the South China

Sea being a case in point. Washington’s stance in India’s neighbourhood still

remains contradictory to New Delhi’s interest. The recent report on Washington’s

decision to sell Pakistan a batch of F-16 Fighter jets, speaks volumes of the amount

of convincing the Modi government needs to do to drive the message that such deals

could work against India’s security.

The key is to take into confidence the rising voices within the American

administration opposing such deals. Some members of the US Congress say despite

American investments to help Pakistan crackdown on terror, the country continues to

destabilize the region. As per a report on The Hindu Republican Senator Bob Corker

, also the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a letter to

Secretary of State John Kerry, said the decision was “problematic.” Senator Corker

and other lawmakers, are expected to block any move to subsidise the sale through

the US’s counter-terror reserve funds as well.


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