A way with the world

The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, scored most in foreign policy in his first year in power. No one anticipated Modi’s natural flair for diplomacy, to which he has brought imagination and self-assurance. Modi has been more emphatic than his predecessors in giving improvement of relations with neighbors greater priority. He invited all the SAARC leaders to his swearing-in, to signal that the decisive election victory of a supposedly nationalist party did not denote a more muscular policy towards neighbors. On the contrary, India would take the lead in working for shared regional peace and prosperity.

Bhutan, the only neighbor that has not politically resisted building ties of mutual benefit, was the first country he visited in June, 2014. He handled his August 2014 visit to Nepal with sensitivity and finesse, and followed it up with exceptional leadership in providing immediate earthquake relief to Nepal in May, 2015. In obtaining Parliament’s approval of the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh in May, 2015, Modi showed his determined leadership again.

He did falter with Pakistan, seemingly unsure about whether he should wait for it to change its conduct before engaging it, or engage it nevertheless in the hope that its conduct will change for the better in future. He announced foreign-secretary-level talks during Nawaz Sharif‘s visit to Delhi, but cancelled them precipitately. He ordered a robust response to Pakistan’s cease-fire violations, yet sent the foreign secretary to Islamabad in March, 2015, on an unproductive SAARC Yatra. Relations with Pakistan remain in flux. In Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani’s tilt towards Pakistan and China has challenged the viability of India’s Afghanistan policy. Ghani’s delayed visit to India in April 2015 did not materially alter the scenario for us, but India has kept its cool.

Modi’s foreign policy premise, that countries give priority today to economics over politics, has been tested in his China policy, which received a course correction. After courting China economically, Modi had to establish a new balance between politics and economics. President Xi’s visit to India in September, 2014, was marred by the serious border incident in Ladakh. Modi showed a sterner side of his diplomacy by expressing serious concern over repeated border incidents and calling for resuming the stalled process of clarifying the Line of Actual Control. During his China visit in May, Modi was even more forthright by asking China to reconsider its policies, take a strategic and long-term view of our relations and address “the issues that lead to hesitation and doubts, even distrust, in our relationship”. He showed firmness in excluding from the joint statement any reference to China’s One Road One Belt initiative or to security in the Asia-Pacific region. The last minute decision to grant e-visas was puzzling, especially as the stapled visa issue remains unresolved. The economic results of his visit were less than expected, with no concrete progress on reducing the huge trade deficit and providing Indian products more market access in China. The 26 “agreements” signed in Shanghai were mostly non-binding MoUs involving the private sector and included the financing of private Indian companies by Chinese banks to facilitate orders for Chinese equipment.

Modi’s visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in March, 2015, signified heightened attention to our critical interests in the Indian Ocean area. Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Seychelles in 33 years. His visit to countries in China’s periphery in May, 2015, was important for bilateral and geopolitical reasons. During his visit to South Korea the bilateral relationship was upgraded to a “special strategic partnership’, but Korea nevertheless did not support India’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. Modi’s visit to Mongolia was the first by an Indian prime minister to a country whose position is geopolitically strategic from our point of view.

Belying expectations, Modi moved decisively towards the United States of America on assuming office. He set an ambitious all-round agenda of boosting the relationship during his September, 2014, visit to Washington. In an imaginative move, he invited Obama to be the chief guest at our Republic Day on January 26, 2015. To boost the strategic partnership with the US, he forged a “breakthrough understanding” on the nuclear liability issue and for tracking arrangements for US-supplied nuclear material. Progress on the defense front was less than expected with four low-technology “pathfinder” projects agreed under the defense technology and trade initiative. The important US-India joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region, issued as a stand-alone document, high-lighted the growing strategic convergences between the two countries, with China in view. A special feature of Modi’s September, 2014, US visit was his dramatic outreach to the Indian community, which has since then become a pattern in his visits abroad, whether in Australia, Canada or Beijing. No other prime minister has wooed the Indian communities abroad as Modi has done.

President Putin’s visit to India in December, 2014, was used to underline politically that Russia remains India’s key strategic partner. Modi was effusive in stating that with Russia we have a “friendship of unmatched mutual confidence, trust and goodwill” and a “Strategic Partnership that is incomparable in content”. He was careful to convey the important message that even as India’s options for defense cooperation had widened today, “Russia will remain our most important defense partner”. Civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia got a boost with the agreement that Russia will build “at least” ten more reactors in India beyond the existing two at Kudankulam. All this was necessary to balance the strengthened strategic understanding with the US and its allies.

Modi bolstered further our vital relations with Japan, which remains a partner of choice for India. Shinzo Abe announced $35 billion of public and private investment in India during Modi’s visit to Japan in September 2014, besides an agreement to upgrade defense relations.

Modi’s visit to France and Germany in April, 2015, recognized Europe’s all-round importance to India and was timely. He rightly boosted the strategic partnership with France by ensuring concrete progress in the key areas of defense and nuclear cooperation by announcing the outright purchase of 36 Rafale jets and the MoU between AREVA and L&T for manufacturing high-technology reactor equipment in India. Modi’s bilateral visit to Canada in April, 2015, was the first by an Indian prime minister in 45 years. Bilateral relations were elevated to a strategic partnership and an important agreement signed for long-term supply of uranium to India.

Relations with the Islamic world received less than required attention during the year, although the Qatar Emir visited India in March, 2015, and the political investment we made earlier in Saudi Arabia aided in obtaining its cooperation to extract our people from Yemen. Gadkari went to Iran in May, 2015, to sign the important agreement on Chabahar. Modi did well to avoid any entanglement in the Saudi-Iran and Shia-Sunni rivalry in West Asia. He met the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the sidelines of the UN general assembly meeting in September, last year, to mark the strength of India-Israel ties. So, Modi’s handling of India’s foreign policy in his first year is impressive. He has put India on the map of the world with his self-confidence and his faith in the nation’s future.

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