“The Pacific is likely to take the place of the Atlantic in the future as the nerve centre of the world. Though not directly a Pacific state, India will inevitably exercise an important influence there.”
“India will have to play a very great part in security problems of Asia and the Indian Ocean, more especially of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, as India is the pivot around which these problems will have to be considered.”
I have already talked in the first part of this series about the continuity that pervades Indian foreign policy decision making. Modi’s worldviews as shall be seen do not represent a major break with the past. Nehru’s prophetic words have with the course of time fulfilled themselves. India is the only relative beacon of stability in an unstable region stretching from the Horn of Africa to South East Asia. As the only Asian giant capable of potentially going toe to toe with China or even surpassing it in the course of time, India has the makings of a natural great power in the region.
Whilst much ink has been spilled over the course Narendra Modi’s foreign policy will take, Modi himself has dismissed such talk as anuman (conjecture). Foreign policy has traditionally never been an issue of importance for the Indian electorate which is why Indian political parties devote it minimal attention. The few occasions on which Modi has addressed foreign policy issues his views have been remarkably consistent with the traditional Indian approach to foreign policy. Modi has repeatedly stated how foreign policy begins at home and requires a strong central government. Keenly aware of the important role played by commercial interests in shaping India’s foreign policy, he has stated that, “I believe a strong economy is the driver of an effective foreign policy… we have to put our house in order so that the world is attracted to us.” There are 2 things to be taken away from this statement. Firstly, that Indian economic interests are the organizing principles for the formulation of Indian foreign policy. Secondly, the first port of call for the Indian security establishment is internal security threats to the nation. The appointments to critical posts in the government as covered in Part 1 of this series reflect these priorities as well.
The BJP manifesto (believed to have been personally vetted by Modi) does not devote much space to foreign policy. It explicitly states that the BJP intends to create a ‘web of allies to mutually further our interests’ a clear departure from India’s long cherished notions of non-alignment and strategic autonomy. What exactly lies in the national interest however hasn’t been expounded upon – not even in the traditional rhetorical terms. Another statement saying that it doesn’t intend to be led by big power interests and instead shall choose to engage proactively on its own with other nations, however, reflects the age-old Indian concern with maintaining strategic autonomy. Such potentially contradictory statements are indicative of the wriggle room Modi has created for his government. Given the lack of foreign policy commitments in the run up to Modi’s ascension to power, such a framing gives him just the sort of flexibility he needs. In an era where the flag follows the trade this may very well have been the smart thing to do in the run up to elections.
However, now that he is in power, dilly dallying on a clear articulation of India’s future vision and strategic interests cannot be had. A resurgent India looking to base its foreign policy on predominantly economic considerations must acknowledge the fact that its brightest economic prospects lie Eastwards and not in the West. This is a fact acknowledged by the United States as well as its pivot to the Asia-Pacific recognizes that it is Asia where the future engines of the global economy lie. The US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific has stalled as it is called upon to firefight Russian aggression in Ukraine and a Middle East ripping itself into pieces. Coupled with US financial difficulties on the domestic front and a war-weary population, the US’s regional allies have grown uneasy of its commitment. The United States has repeatedly described India as a ‘linchpin’ in its pivot, expressing hope India would act as a ‘regional anchor’. With US support for greater Indian involvement and even East Asian nations keen for India to play larger role in Asian affairs the environment is optimal for India to make a foray. Whether India has the capabilities or even the intentions to do so though is an entirely different matter. Indo-US relations reached a highpoint beginning with Bill Clinton & culminating with George W. Bush when various nuclear related agreements were signed. President Obama’s tenure though has seen Indo-US relations grow frosty. The treatment of the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade and the US’s consistent refusal to grant Modi a visa when he was a Chief Minister are merely symptomatic of the deeper malaise gripping Indo-US ties. That said, Modi being the pragmatist that he is would not let such blips affect his conduct with the United States. India may, according to some analysts, prefer a US-dominated international order over a Chinese one. Even proponents of this view though would find themselves hard pressed to justify why Washington won’t relegate Indian interests to the trash bin in pursuit of their concern of a stable Afghanistan (which would entail closer US ties with Pakistan). Whilst India has pursued its Look East policy since the early 1990’s whether it is willing to put its money where its mouth is remains to be seen.
Though China is widely perceived to be India’s predominant strategic competitor, Modi’s pre-election tough talk on China has to be taken with a grain of salt. It is clear that the Chinese have high hopes of Modi; Modi himself aims to kick start India’s economy beginning with a massive Indian infrastructure overhaul even as the Chinese are seeking to direct their investments into high yielding emerging markets. Combine all these trends with the present fact that China is India’s largest trading partner and it becomes evident that there is a strong case for Indo-China cooperation. With China in a historically rare situation of finding itself unthreatened via land it is finally able to concentrate on developing its naval, air and missile forces with the increasing US presence in the Asia-Pacific clearly on its mind. As James R. Holmes has noted, for China to inflame its Himalayan territorial quarrel with India would be the height of folly, forcing it to redirect its resources to territorial defence. India has already raised a Mountain Strike Corps created specifically for employment against China. Depending on the variety of internal balancing (armed forces-centric) measures and external balancing (alliances) Modi undertakes, India may well establish a mutually profitable, stable equilibrium with China. To what extent Modi can push for such an arrangement to involve China restraining Pakistan will be Modi’s mark of genius. Pakistan has systematically used asymmetric means against India under the cover of its nuclear weapons. A repeat of 26/11 is unlikely to be met with a response as muted as that of the UPA if Modi’s statements and the past BJP responses to terror attacks are anything to go by.
The Indo-Japanese relationship, one that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called the most promising bilateral relationship anywhere in the world, holds immense promise. Modi and Abe, with a well documented personal friendship, possess more common ground in their shared apprehensions of China’s rise. This relationship though is unlikely to assume military dimensions owing to the complex Indo-Chinese relationship unless China forces India’s hand.
Closer to home, Modi has stressed the importance of sea lanes to drive India’s economic growth. In such a context India’s engagement with middle powers such as Australia needs to be closely watched. Similarly, the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan creates highly interesting and challenging opportunities for further Iran-Indian collaboration in addition to their existing economic ties.
Much has been made of Modi’s decision to invite the heads of SAARC states during his investiture and the fact that by 2014 every SAARC nation will have had democratic elections with the exception of Sri Lanka. The desire to pursue the goal of building a friendly near abroad at a time when the entire region is experiencing a fresh start is indeed commendable. However the Modi regime would do well to consider the words of the former foreign secretary of India Kanwal Sibal who highlights the drawbacks of the soft approach India has adopted vis-a-vis its neighbours for the better part of the past 65 years. While there have been instances wherein India has been perceived as an overbearing bully, preferential treatment needs to be made conditional to reciprocation at the least. The BJP has been critical of the Congress for allowing India’s influence to wane regionally. How exactly the BJP seeks to ensure its policies do not have a similar effect remains an open question.
Intelligent integration into the world economic order is critical for India to acquire the economic, political and strategic capabilities that will allow it to break out of the subcontinent and become a great power. China, whose economic might has accentuated its global profile, and Russia, whose economic decline has heavily impaired its global standing, are clear examples of this reality. At the same time an overly networked country lacking hard power and the will to use it can safely expect to not be taken seriously in the international community as the European Union’s helplessness against Russian aggression has demonstrated. So long as Narendra Modi strikes the correct balance between these two imperatives India may indeed rest assured in Modi’s promise of acche din aa rahe hain (Good days are approaching).
Himanil Raina is a student at the NALSAR University of Law and a freelance writer on geopolitical and international affairs.