Originally Published 2016-05-30 09:08:54 Published on May 30, 2016
Modi has succeeded in improving relations with both China and America

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi enters year three, perhaps the most remarkable feature of his foreign policy has been his ability to leverage relations with both the United States and China. While Beijing remains a long-term strategic challenge — and in contrast Washington, DC, has represented an opportunity since at least the late 1990s — in the medium run India needs both, for different reasons and to different degrees. Not just has the Modi foreign policy team understood this, it has put both bilateralisms in better shape than in May 2014.

Begin with China. There has been no let-up in Chinese promotion of Pakistan as a subcontinental irritant, a process aimed not at any organic strengthening of Pakistani capacities, but simply at building a tactical instrument against India. That mission continues apace; China’s thwarting of attempts to place Jaish-e-Muhammed terrorists under United Nations restrictions is a case in point. There is a suggestion that China may be forthcoming on a renewed Indian text that emphasises individual terrorists and uses less specific language for Pakistan, but that is only speculation.

In the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, China has delayed Indian entry, bringing up Pakistani membership despite knowing that is a non-starter. Yet, there are limits to what the Chinese can do. If the US puts its weight behind a determined push for India’s NSG entry — even under an outgoing president — China will likely take a judicious call. Of course, what the US will do could depend on Modi’s visit to Washington, DC, in June.

Despite this, the Chinese have found in Modi an Indian leader who has made genuine and rigorous efforts to improve market access for Chinese companies, create opportunities for Chinese capital and surplus infrastructure capacities, resolve business visa problems and so on. This has given India space. Even on “One Belt, One Road”, while remaining sceptical of its overall thrust — several of its component projects make sense only as Chinese political investments and have thin commercial logic — India has done an intelligent cherry picking.

It has protested against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor going into areas that were part of undivided Jammu & Kashmir and are at the very least internationally recognised as disputed territory. This has placed some pressure on the Chinese, who have urged the Pakistanis to “sort out” the legal status of Gilgit-Baltistan. Whether that can ever be done to India’s satisfaction is another matter.

Even so India, as founder member and second-largest shareholder of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is indirectly contributing to OBOR projects. In India’s eastern periphery, there is hope that Chinese OBOR initiatives and Indian desire to enhance international connectivity for its east and northeast can find common room. The Modi government has been mature and open-minded, not instinctively hostile. It has been mindful of Chinese aspirations where these are not in conflict with India’s, or with a rules-based system.

The Chinese have acknowledged this. Their activities on the border in Ladakh, for instance, have become that much more predictable and status quoist. The adventurism on display as late as President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in 2014 has receded. What is the big message? Frankly, on China, the Modi government has ensured track 1 is now ahead of track 2. For all the differences — and there are many — the government-to-government understanding is far more comfortable than Delhi’s army of China scholars and strategic specialists believes. This is no small achievement.

The America equation is easier to read. Despite dissimilar backgrounds, Modi has established a bond with President Obama and the Indian leader has come to be perceived as a “problem solver”. Various American interlocutors have used this description, especially after India’s constructive approach at the Paris climate change talks in December 2015. Even though he came to office as an India agnostic, and gave up on the country in the final phase of the UPA government, Obama today sees India as a key element of his foreign policy legacy. In June, at the final Modi-Obama summit, this will provide scope for advance on defence, nuclear and technology-access issues.

The administration is not the sole stakeholder in Washington, DC. Modi has been innovative in broadening the India constituency and particularly in reaching out to US Congress. Evidence of this is the bipartisan support for the Prime Minister’s upcoming address to a joint meeting of both Houses. The address will be followed by a reception co-hosted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. In the past, prime ministers such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee were similarly hosted by just the India Caucus on Capitol Hill, not the entire Foreign Affairs Committee.

As recent legislative moves have shown, US Congress is asking tough questions of Pakistan. On terrorism, on Islamabad’s backing of the Haqqani network and treatment of minorities, individual Congressmen are often more receptive to Indian concerns than say State Department officials. Diplomatic legwork has exploited this political opportunity, just as Congressmen seeking re-election have wondered if standing by India on the Hill could translate to campaign finance and votes from the US Indian community. In that, Modi’s energetic showcasing of the magnitude and potential of the community has yielded concrete diplomatic gains. Overall, not bad for two years.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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