Prime Minister Modi has surprised his own people and, no doubt, external observers, by his foreign policy activism since he took office. In his year in power he has travelled abroad 16 times- and 19 if the forthcoming visits to China, Mongolia and South Korea are included- inviting some criticism that these peregrinations have meant less attention devoted to domestic affairs. This is misplaced criticism because today, with the change in the nature of diplomacy, the heads of governments play a critical role in external affairs. Frequent personal contacts at the highest political level have now become the norm, leaders often are on first name terms and difficult knots are untied by exertions at their level, sometimes in an unorthodox manner. Modi, even if seemingly inexperienced in the foreign policy domain, has had to, therefore, wade into the deep waters of diplomacy as soon as he took over because his position has demanded this. But no one was prepared for a Modi with a natural flair for diplomacy, to which he has brought a surprising degree of imagination and self-assurance. From the start, he seemed to have a clear idea of where the interests of his country lay and the initiatives needed to advance them.
All Indian Prime Ministers on taking over give priority to ties with neighbouring countries. The belief is that either India has neglected its neighbours or has been insensitive and overbearing, leading to their alienation and consequent opportunities for external powers to intervene at the cost of India’s interests. Modi too began by reaching out to the neighbours, but in a manner not anticipated. He invited all the SAARC leaders to his swearing-in, with the intention no doubt to signal that his elevation to power would usher in a new era of South Asian relations, that the clear victory in elections of a supposedly nationalist party did not denote a more muscular policy towards neighbours and that, on the contrary, India intended to work together with them to move the whole region forward towards peace and prosperity. This gesture had most meaning for India-Pakistan relations, and Nawaz Sharif’s decision to attend the swearing-in was “rewarded” with the announcement of FS level talks between the two countries.
Continuing the emphasis on the neighbourhood, he chose Bhutan as the first country to visit in June 2014. This made sense as Bhutan is the only neighbour that has not played an external card against us or politically resisted building ties of mutual benefit. His August 2014 visit to Nepal made a notable impact in local political and popular thinking about India as a well-wisher. His extempore address to the Nepalese parliament was a tour de force. He handled sensitive issues during his visit with finesse and played the cultural and religious card dextrously. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Bangladesh in June 2014. A very notable development is the approval of the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh approved by the Indian parliament in May 2015. Modi visited Myanmar in November 2014 to take part in the East Asia summit and for bilateral discussions with this strategically placed neighbour whose honeymoon with China is waning.
SAARC figures prominently in Modi’s foreign policy vision. He invited all SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, which was unprecedented. It is true that SAARC is one of the least integrated regions economically speaking, which means that the potential of the region remains unexploited. This also means that external actors find it easier to intrude into the loose equations in the subcontinent. While in terms of aspirations for the region, Modi is right in imagining a more tightly textured SAARC, India’s capacity to do this is limited in the face of Pakistani recalcitrance. A strengthened SAARC means a stronger Indian role in it, which is anathema to a Pakistan that is obsessed with countering Indian “hegemony” in South Asia. Pakistan will be reduced to its true importance if it ceases to confront India, which is why it will continue its confrontational policies. it also means that Afghanistan will not be adequately integrated into SAARC structures as that is contingent on Pakistan’s willingness to facilitate access to this landlocked country. At the Kathmandu SAARC summit in November 2014, Modi encouraged neighbours to benefit from opportunities provided by India’s growth, promised a special funding vehicle overseen by India to finance infrastructure projects in the region and announced India’s readiness to develop a satellite specifically for the region by 2016. He warned at the Kathmandu summit that regional integration will proceed with all or without some, which suggested that if Pakistan did not cooperate, others could go ahead without it, though under the SAARC charter this is not possible and other countries may not support a strategy of isolating Pakistan.
Modi seems to admire China’s economic achievements, which would not be surprising given China’s spectacular rise. His several visits to China as Gujarat Chief Minister no doubt gave him familiarity with the country and take its pulse. His view that economic cooperation is the key driver in relations between countries and that all countries give more importance to economic growth and prosperity for their peoples than creating conditions of conflict evidently guides his thinking towards China. He was quick to court China after assuming power, with reinforcement of economic ties as the primary objective. The huge financial resources at China’s disposal, its expertise in infrastructure building, its need for external markets for off-loading the excess capacity it has built in certain sectors has made cooperation with China a theoretically win-win situation. The Chinese Foreign Minister was the first foreign dignitary to be received by Modi. He invited the Chinese President to make a state visit to India in September 2014, during which unprecedented personal gestures were made to him in an informal setting in Ahmedabad on Modi’s birthday. This imaginative courting was marred by the serious border incident in Ladakh coinciding with Xi’s visit- one more case of China reaching out to India and simultaneously staging a provocation so that India remains unsure about China’s intentions and finds it difficult to make a clear choice about what policy to pursue, and in the process has to accept faits accomplish that are to China’s advantage.
Unlike the timidity of the previous government to treat such incidents as acne on the beautiful face of India-China relations, Modi raised the border issue frontally with XI at their joint press conference, expressing
“our serious concern over repeated incidents along the border”. His call for resuming the stalled process of clarifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and mention of “India’s concerns relating to China’s visa policy and Trans Border Rivers” while standing alongside Xi Jinping at the joint press conference indicated a refreshing change from the past in terms of a more open expression of India’s concerns. With regard to Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor that China has been pushing hard, Modi was cautious. Why we accepted to discuss such a proposal in a working group in the first place is a puzzle. Engagement with China ought not to mean that we let it set the agenda when the downsides to us of what it seeks are clear. Equally importantly, he did not back another pet proposal of Xi: the Maritime Silk Road, which is a repackaged version of the notorious “string of pearls” strategy, as the joint statement omitted any mention of it. Since then China is pushing its One Belt One Road (OBOR) proposal which seeks to tie Asian and Eurasian economies to China, create opportunities for Chinese companies to bag major projects in this region financed by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that China has floated. This ambitious concept is intended to establish China’s hegemony in Asia and outflank India strategically.
On a more positive side, during Xi’s visit, the two sides agreed to further consolidate their Strategic and Cooperative Partnership, recognised that their developments goals are interlinked and agreed to make this developmental partnership a core component of this partnership.