Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 31, 2017

Significant advances have been made in relations with several strategic partners and progress has been registered in critical areas.

Modi’s foreign policy@3

Source Image: Narendra Modi/Facebook

Last week marked the completion of three years of the NDA government, led by Narendra Modi. It is an appropriate juncture to assess how well the government has performed on the foreign policy front, what have been its achievements, what are the shortcomings, and what are the challenges it confronts as it moves into the last lap of two years before it presents itself before the people of India for their verdict.

While undertaking this appraisal, it needs to be recognised that PM Modi has had to navigate the country through vicious and tectonic shifts taking place in the global order, several of them close to our borders. Three major imponderables that torment Indian policy makers include the continuing unpredictability of US President Donald Trump, the relentless rise of a hegemon in its backyard and the chronic policy of Pakistan to promote terrorism with a view to "bleed India with a thousand cuts."

Although the above threats have grown in intensity over the last few years, Modi has exhibited grit, vision and determination in dealing with these perils.

It also needs to be recognised that all policies in the external domain, conceptualised and implemented by the Modi government have not yielded the desired results, primarily because of the rapid and unforeseen changes in global, geo-strategic equations. The international situation is in a state of persistent flux. Some policies would need to be suitably modulated and fine-tuned as circumstances evolve.

Several successes of Modi's foreign policy can be enumerated. Some of the more significant ones include the enhanced dynamism as well as enhancement in scope of engagement with the US, Japan, Germany, Australia, West Asia, Africa and Israel, Act East Policy, Link West Policy, use of soft power, connecting with the Indian diaspora and others.

Barack Obama during his first visit to India in November 2010 had termed the India-US relationship as "the defining partnership of the 21st century." The next four years, however, did not witness any significant improvement in intensity or expanse of bilateral ties.

Bilateral ties with the US witnessed substantial rejuvenation only after Modi's arrival on the scene and subsequent to his first visit to Washington DC in September 2014, followed by the first ever participation of the US President as the Chief Guest in India's Republic Day celebrations in January 2015. The period from 2014 to January 2017, when Obama relinquished charge of the US Presidency, saw nine meetings, including three summits between the leaders of the two countries. This resulted in decisive impetus to collaboration in many areas. Cooperation expanded from trade and investment to the strategic realm with the issuance of the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region during Obama's visit in January 2015. As Modi remarked  in his Address to the US Congress in June 2016, India had overcome the "hesitations of history" in taking its relations with the US to a new level.

International political situation over the last four months has undergone a dramatic change with the assumption of office by Donald Trump as the President. On the bilateral front, it can be expected that the rationale for robust bipartisan support for strong bilateral ties will continue to hold and relations will continue to grow and expand. Modi's decided push for economic reforms and modernisation and the large size of the Indian market should appeal to the businessman in Trump to continue the strong upward trajectory in bilateral ties.

India's relations with Japan have witnessed a momentous jump, reflected in the conclusion of the civilian nuclear deal between the two countries as well as the commitment to invest USD35 billion in India over the next five years. Japan's increasing engagement in building the infrastructure in India's Northeast, possibility of collaboration in the Chabahar project in Iran as well as bilateral initiatives to execute projects in Africa are welcome moves in the right direction which underline the growing strategic content of the relationship.

In addition to the above mentioned momentous strides by the government in advancing India's security, strategic and economic interests, relations with most of India's neighbours have shown considerable improvement over the last three years. Relations with Bangladesh are the best today than they have ever been over more than 42 years. The unanimous ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement and the highly successful and productive visits by PM Modi to Dhaka in June 2015 and Sheikh Hasina to New Delhi in April 2017 have provided considerable fillip to bilateral partnership. Relations with Sri Lanka have also shown a marked upward movement, partly due to the change in government in Sri Lanka in January 2015. While Sri Lanka is likely to continue in China's debt trap for the Hambantota seaport and Colombo port city, the government has adopted a balanced approach while demonstrating sensitivity to India's security and strategic concerns.

Strides by the government in advancing India's security, strategic and economic interests, relations with most of India's neighbours have shown considerable improvement.

Relations with Pakistan and China, however, have not improved over the three-year period. In fact, they have got worse. Two aspects, however, need to be kept in mind as far as these relations are concerned. It is not for want of trying that ties with these neighbours have failed to improve. It is in spite of the sincere and strenuous efforts made by Modi and his government that ties have deteriorated.

With Pakistan, Modi tried to break the ice and walked the proverbial extra mile by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony and paying an impromptu, unplanned visit to Pakistan on the occasion of Sharif's birthday and his grand daughter's wedding ceremony. All of Modi's initiatives have met with fresh terrorist attacks and increased cease-fire violations from across the border. As is well known, it is the Pakistan army and its spy agency and not the civilian administration that control the country's relations with India. Consequently Sharif has not been able to ever fulfill his part of the bargain. Attacks in Pathankot, Uri, Nagrota and the recent arrest and death sentence to former Naval Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav are an attempt to increase pressure on India and to internationalise the bilateral Kashmir dispute.

Pakistan Army's heightened activity against India is an attempt to snub the Sharif government which has been reeling under the impact of Panamagate and Dawn leak scandal, as also to win brownie points from China. India needs to urgently review and recalibrate its policy of dealing with Pakistan so that the latter is subjected to unacceptable pain as a consequence of terrorist attacks launched as well as ceasefire violations and infiltrations engineered by it. India has the capacity, capabilities and assets which it should utilize in a calibrated manner to effectively counter the Pakistan's policy of "bleeding by a thousand cuts."

With China also, Modi made all the right moves on the assumption of power. He invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to India at the beginning of his term and went out of his way to establish a personal rapport with him. It would appear that Xi had already made up his mind in 2013 to make Pakistan the pivot of China's foreign policy, both to access the warm waters of the Indian Ocean through the land route, as also to use Pakistan to continue to apply increasing pressure on India. China has not let go of a single opportunity to needle India and act against its interest, be it the case of designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist or India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group or to raise the ante on Dalai Lama's visit to Arunachal Pradesh, to an unacceptably high level. China had expected to receive India's endorsement of its Belt Road Initiative at the Belt Road Forum in Beijing on 14-15 May 2017, although it had totally disregarded India's concerns about the violation of its sovereignty and the territorial integrity by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). All these developments, climaxing in India's refusal to attend the Belt Road Forum have brought the bilateral ties with China to the lowest level in many decades.

India can work towards creating a string of middle powers, including Germany, Japan and Australia, as also from Latin America, Africa etc., to withstand the economic and geo-strategic pressure emanating from China.

The significant role that the US and Russia could play in the medium term in balancing China should not be overlooked.

Although some uncertainty has been introduced in India's robust ties with Russia because of the latter's warming up to Pakistan, the fundamental fabric of India-Russia ties continues to be sturdy. There is, however, need for a more candid dialogue between the leaders of the two countries so that mutual trust and confidence is maintained and further enhanced. Prime Minister Modi will be meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on 31 May to 2 June, and again in Astana, Kazakhstan on 8-9 June for the SCO Summit. All such opportunities should be put to the fullest use to get a complete understanding of each other's thinking and concerns.

Rapid changes in the international situation produce many challenges but also present an equal number, if not more, of possibilities. India needs to identify and fully exploit these opportunities so that it can effectively overcome the gamut of new challenges, particularly reflected in the belligerence and aggressive stance of China. In addition to India's huge, untapped economic potential, it has limitless reservoirs of soft power and vast assets in the form of its diaspora stationed all over the world.

Significant advances have been made in relations with several strategic partners and progress has been registered in many vital and critical areas. However, challenges persist in dealing with some of our neighbours — especially Pakistan and China — issues of terrorism, climate change etc. Overall, the Modi government merits a "Distinction" for its performance over the last three years in the area of foreign policy.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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