In a world where impact of foreign policy is not only about security but increasingly about growth in bilateral investments and trade, Modi's performance is a mixed bag. While Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) into India is at a record high now, aided also by Modi's high-profile visits to many countries; India's exports has been falling continuously for the past 16 months. While it may be too premature to speak of a “Modi doctrine”, the Prime Minister is leaving no stone unturned in his quest for projecting India as a leading power in global politics. By giving unbridled attention to foreign affairs, Mr Modi has virtually sidelined his de-facto External Affairs minister Ms Sushma Swaraj and laid emphasis on abandoning talk of a foreign policy based on non-alignment. This behavior is hardly surprising because as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi showed unusual interest in other countries by paying visits to Japan, China and Britain and hosting gala investor summits in his state. And now as Prime Minister, it is safe to lay claim that he has put more energy into foreign policy than anything else. However, like most PMs, Modi too has fallen prey to the “excessive style, little substance” syndrome. The obvious deviation has been on the perception front, where his singular goal of being seen to play an international role has attracted global eyeballs. But the pertinent question to be asked is what has been the net result of Modi’s extravagant globe-trotting?
In the BJP’s election manifesto, one observes the propensity to project itself as being a ‘soft power’ determined to undo the “slip-ups” committed by UPA-II and redefining the importance of taking neighbouring countries into confidence: “BJP believes that political stability, progress and peace in the region are essential for South Asia’s growth and development. The Congress-led UPA [United Progressive Alliance] has failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours. India’s relations with traditional allies have turned cold. India and its neighbours have drifted apart. The absence of statecraft has never been felt so acutely as today.”
Fast forward to 2016, many political observers will conclude that what began as an inspiring neighbourhood policy with Modi’s glamorous tour of the region at the backdrop of an equally glittering swearing-in ceremony, has sadly manifested into an unimaginative diplomatic debacle which has done nothing more than alienate the region. In fact, the disastrous outcome has not just managed to make more enemies than friends, but has sent unwanted signals of New Delhi being a bully inviting the ire of its neighbours.
India’s top diplomat S Jaishankar had quipped that “you cannot be a leading power if your neighbourhood is not with you, you need it to root for you”. Agreed, India has made efforts to promote cross-border trade and a regional electricity grid, creating infrastructure on its borders, relaxing visas and offering relief aid to earthquake-hit Nepal and war-torn Afghanistan. But the perception that it meddles and bullies has clearly outweighed the good work demonstrated. Although the MEA has been steadfast and proactive in bringing back its stranded NRIs and harbouring aspirations for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, its bilateral priorities have indeed gone for a spin. India realizes its influence in the region, but there is an increasing likelihood that the government is drifting away from its core commitment towards regional stability and instead vying for the status of “Big Brother” with the dragon across the border. It’s a choice between adopting a mature and subtle diplomacy against a muscular and patronizing version of the same. India’s westward tilt is understandable but by antagonizing its neighbours, New Delhi runs the risk of harming its prospects in the region. While making foes along the way is an inevitable trend, Modi government could learn a thing or two by engaging in some genuine soul-searching. The friction caused hasn’t been massive but surely merits introspection. Well, there is always scope for some damage control. After all, the art of diplomacy is all about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.
The Nepal Conundrum:
Until the passing of the new Nepalese Constitution in September 2015, India and Nepal shared a remarkable relationship stemming from years of common cultural and strategic ties to a shared spiritual tradition. More recently, India played a leading role in the rescue efforts, after its landlocked neighbor had been devastated by an earthquake, by offering financial and humanitarian aid and even promising to help revive its crippling economy. However, New Delhi made its displeasure with the elements of the new secular constitution amply clear by backing the legitimate feeling among the people of Terai, especially the Madhesis and Tharus, living close to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who felt they got a raw deal. The problematic part was twofold: the manner in which New Delhi publicly expressed its displeasure with Nepal’s sovereign act of Constitution-drafting; and the manner in which India allegedly abetted the Madhesi blockade of essential supplies to Nepal. In response to the blockade, Kathmandu complained to the United Nations, prompting its Secretary-General to highlight “Nepal’s right of free transit, as a landlocked nation as well as for humanitarian reasons”. Some reports even claimed that attempts were made by the Modi government to topple the K.P Oli regime, backed by mostly left-leaning parties.
Admittedly, Nepal has a long way to go in terms of delivering a more inclusive constitutional settlement. But, India’s arm-twisting tactics will only have an adverse impact on how its other neighbours will increasingly come to view the subcontinental giant. The joint statement issued by the EU-India Summit in March 2016, cautioning the political leadership of Nepal to take urgent steps to defuse the tension in the affected regions hasn’t gone down well with the latter. Due to this purportedly unwise move, Kathmandu enjoys an ever stronger bilateral partnership with China.
Lessons from Lanka:
If Rajiv Gandhi’s ill-advised military intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war set an unfortunate precedent, the Modi government’ alleged interference in the island nation’s elections last year sparked fresh concerns over New Delhi increasingly meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. New Delhi had proactively promoted the coalition led by Maithripala Sirisena to defeat the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa whose anti-Tamil record and pro-China tilt was resented by New Delhi. Several reports at the time claimed that Colombo had asked New Delhi to withdraw the Research and Analysis Wing’s station chief in Sri Lanka for allegedly working to ensure the victory of the anti-Rajapaksa coalition.
By playing a discreet role in the regime change, the Modi government may have anticipated that the Sirisena administration would return the favor. However, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, while visiting India last year, shocked New Delhi by saying, “Sri Lanka is neither pro-India nor pro-China.” This came as a massive blow to India’s attempt at winning over a hitherto time-tested partner. Meanwhile, the new government in Colombo has been vigorously cosying up to Beijing for economic and infrastructural assistance, something it knows fully well that New Delhi can only provide in miniscule proportions.
In 2013, while in the Opposition, Rajnath Singh mocked the Manmohan Singh regime for meekly surrendering not only to major regional players like China and Pakistan but also to smaller countries in a veiled reference to Maldives. Three years down the line, he finds his own government in an embarrassing position vis-à-vis Maldives.
New Delhi, being highly critical of how the pro-India former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed was jailed by the current regime under terrorism charges, publicly stated that “we are concerned at recent developments in the Maldives, including the arrest and manhandling of former President Nasheed”. The Maldivian government responded by saying it hoped that India would “adhere to the principle of Panchsheel and will not intervene in domestic politics of Maldives”.
During External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Maldives in October last year, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen’s office issued a sharply worded statement that his “government will not tolerate foreign parties interfering with the country’s domestic issues”. To make matters worse, China has been aggressively offering economic and infrastructural assistance to Male thereby strengthening an otherwise indifferent bilateral relationship. Atleast in this case, New Delhi quickly realized its folly and has since remained mum about Maldives’ domestic affairs and made amends with the signing of a number of bilateral agreements during Mr. Yameen’s visit to New Delhi last month.
Paranoid Over Pakistan:
The biggest foreign affairs challenge for any Indian Prime Minister is the problem that Pakistan poses. Modi gave the impression of following in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s footsteps but has so far only managed to remain under his shadow. The usual back and forth of diabolic dialogues and gross ceasefire violations have once again provided a very grim reminder of the frosty relationship between the nuclear rivals. Pakistan’s non-committal attitude, especially with respect to the investigation into the 26/11 attacks, has exacerbated the situation beyond repair while India’ continued refusal to bring the Kashmir issue to the table has antagonized Islamabad. En route to Delhi from Kabul on the return trip from Russia, the Prime Minister made an “impromptu” stopover in Lahore to wish Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday. This evoked euphoric headlines in the Indian media. Not everyone, however, saw this as heralding a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations, with long-time Pakistan watchers well aware that the “path to Pakistan’s perfidy” is usually paved with good intentions on India’s part. The Gurdaspur and Pathankot attacks reaffirmed the apprehensions and the government witnessed widespread criticism over inviting the Pakistani Joint Investigation Team to the IAF airbase. Their embarrassment knew no bounds after the Pakistani JIT blamed India for ‘staging’ the terror attack.
India has a “SAARC-minus-one” strategy of integrating South Asia’s economies over the next decade, working with the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation but isolating Pakistan. So far Mr Modi’s handling of the old rival has not been coherent: he welcomed Nawaz Sharif, its prime minister, to his inauguration in May last year, and then used some pretext to cancel talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries. Relations deteriorated as the bloodiest border clashes in 11 years broke out in October, but this relationship looks unlikely to shift much for better or worse.
The Multi-directional West-Asia Policy:
The chilling events panning out in the “Middle East” has been a matter of household discussion for quite some time now. As the ISIS aspires to leave its footprint in the multi-religious societies of Asia, India needs to develop strategic and military ties with its friends from the Gulf countries namely Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran. There is a near consensus in foreign policy circles that maintaining vibrant ties with Saudi Arabia is crucial to serving India’s national interest: Today, Saudi Arabia is India’s largest supplier of crude oil. Besides, India is the largest recipient of foreign remittances from the Sunni kingdom, owing to the 3 million-odd NRIs working there. However, of late, both countries have moved beyond economic partnerships and looked to explore strategic options especially in the realm of counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing. Riyadh also extradited several terror suspects to India in a clear departure from its established policy towards New Delhi. But what remains to be seen is if there will be a major overhaul in their South Asia policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. Although considered to be historic allies, Pakistan has been warming up to Iran post the lifting of sanctions, something which Riyadh hasn’t taken too kindly. Also, Pakistan’s refusal to be a part of the war-coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen showed signs of strain within their relationship. A delicate issue that should concern the Modi government is Riyadh’s abysmal human rights record and continued patronage for the Sunni-Wahhabi Islamic groups, which threatens stability in the region.
Saudi Arabia is not always a source of stability in West Asia, it is a disruptor too. India will have to factor these developments in its overall West Asia approach. The best way to do it is to restore the balance in its West Asia policy. This is where relations with the Shia-majority Iran gains relevance. The trilateral transport corridor project in Chabahar, inked in Tehran by Modi and the leaders of Iran and Afghanistan has the potential to alter the geopolitical map of South and Central Asia and surely boost trade with the two countries. However, it is the strategic position of Chahabar, situated just 100 km from Pakistan’s Gwadar port (where China has invested $46 billion for the economic corridor) which will act as a gateway for India to Central Asia bypassing the China-Pakistan arc. Also, the proposed free trade zone in the Chabahar area offers Indian companies a new investment destination at a well-connected port city. With Tehran becoming the new destination of global powers, India needs to energise its diplomacy to keep engagement with Iran on an even footing, irrespective of outside pressure.
The visit of an Indian Prime Minister to UAE after 34 years marks the beginning of a new and comprehensive strategic partnership between India and UAE in a world of multiple transitions and changing opportunities and challenges. The two nations reject extremism and any link between religion and terrorism. They condemn efforts, including by states, to use religion to justify, support and sponsor terrorism against other countries. They also deplore efforts by countries to give religious and sectarian colour to political issues and disputes, including in West and South Asia, and use terrorism to pursue their aims. Proximity, history, cultural affinity, strong links between people, natural synergies, shared aspirations and common challenges create boundless potential for a natural strategic partnership between India and UAE. In an otherwise volatile region, UAE has won many friends for its commitment towards economic development while shunning requests for participating in sectarian violence.
Yet, in the past, relations between the two governments have not kept pace with the exponential growth in relations between their people or the promise of this partnership. However, the need for a close strategic partnership between UAE and India has never been stronger or more urgent, and its prospects more rewarding, than in these uncertain times. The key takeaway from the crucial bilateral meeting has been the enhanced cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, intelligence sharing and capacity building.
Counting on Uncle Sam to Keep the Dragon at Bay:
At the time when Shiv Shankar Menon called the shots as the Foreign Secretary, India was already drifting westwards as memories of the cold war faded, economic ties strengthened and Pakistan’s relations with the West became more strained. But India hedged, keen to avoid confrontation with China.
Under Modi the westward tilt has become more explicit. That was partly China’s doing. During a visit to India by President Xi Jinping, Chinese soldiers crossed a disputed border and camped in Himalayan territory that India considers its own, humiliating a man who had boasted he would secure the frontier. Later, China twice sent a military submarine to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Mr Modi took offence.
In January Barack Obama, as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations, the two leaders issued a joint security statement on stability in Asia, calling for freedom of navigation in and over the South China Sea, where China is needling its neighbours. The same visit delivered what Mr Obama called a “breakthrough in understanding” over the liability of suppliers to any civil-nuclear power plants. Details remain fuzzy, but heavy American investment in energy would deepen ties.
Overall, the Prime Minister has steered the relationship with China with a steady hand. Some views have been expressed that the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region throws the gauntlet before China. Although there are expressions of Chinese unease over this development, enunciated in the discussions between Modi and 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.
Modi’s visit in June could turn out to be the last substantive interaction between the two leaders before Obama demits office early next year. The previous three visits have been nothing short of splendour but the upcoming visit would comprise of an address to the U.S Congress and a state banquet. Although both countries have underscored the importance of a mutually-beneficial relationship, certain thorns have been difficult to pluck out. Firstly, the recent decision to give Pakistan more F-16 fighter jets, remains an irritant in bilateral relations and there remains a dangerous gap in the high-level views on global economic issues, particularly trade. Even so, India’s co-operation with the US will become closer as it buys less military hardware from Russia (and as Russia becomes friendlier with Pakistan). That co-operation extends even into space: last September India got a spacecraft to orbit around Mars, with some navigational help from NASA. Whatever the nature and depth of their relationship, the Chinese dragon would continue breathing heavily down their necks.
Renaissance in the Offing: Indo-EU Relations:
Before Modi’s March visit to Brussels, where he attended the 13th European Union-India Summit in addition to a bilateral summit with Belgian officials, the last such summit took place in 2012. The meeting with his counterpart, Belgian PM Charles Michel had utmost significance in the wake of the devastating terror attack in the Belgian capital. The world had taken note of Europe succumbing to terror attacks and the failure to effectively share intelligence inputs amongst EU states to counter terrorist operations. Modi placed perhaps a greater emphasis on counter-terrorism cooperation than he might have done at the EU summit had the attacks not taken place. Modi and EU leaders adopted a Joint Declaration on Counter-terrorism and renewed a 2010 declaration on terrorism. The joint statement alludes to increased cooperation between the EU and India “to counter violent extremism and radicalisation, the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, sources of terrorist financing and arms supply.”
On the trade front, the EU-India free trade negotiations received relatively little attention in the joint statement, with both sides noting that “both sides have re-engaged in discussions” on the matter. The EU and India began negotiations for a possible Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2007. Trade volume between the two sides stood at 72.5 billion euros in 2014. The EU remains concerned about trade barriers in India.
Notably and somewhat unsurprisingly, the EU-India summit failed to produce any resolution for a long-running dispute between India and Italy over the fate of two Italian marines accused of murdering two Indian fishermen. The case remains in arbitration proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Italy has compensated the families of the fishermen who were killed and maintains that the marines were immune to prosecution as they were in international waters, escorting an oil tanker on a United Nations anti-piracy mission.
Although the marine dispute began as a bilateral spat between Rome and New Delhi, it has broader implications. For instance, without Italy’s acquiescence, India cannot join the Missile Technology Control Regime. Though challenges no doubt persist in the relationship, both sides see each other positively and sense opportunities going forward.