The decision of the Narendra Modi government to call off a meeting between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, drawing a Lakshman rekha on the issue of Pakistan’s official contact with Kashmiri separatists, has surprised many in India and abroad. Coming after an initial unexpected generosity of spirit in the outreach to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, this tough stance has been likened by some to a similar pull back in multilateral trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation after early declarations of intent to be more open to the world.
Critics of the government see inconsistency in this apparently contradictory posture. However, observers of Indian foreign policy and strategic thinking must pay closer attention to the underlying message emanating from Prime Minister Modi.
The first principle of foreign policy that Modi enunciated as PM, carrying forward the thinking of his predecessors, was that his government would give primacy to India’s economic development and interests in pursuing its external relations. The second principle, which is, in fact, derived from the first, is that India would maintain good relations with its immediate neighbours because its own security and prosperity are intrinsically linked to those of its neighbours.
Having defined these two principles, Modi went on to demonstrate his commitment to good relations with India’s neighbours and major powers through a series of interesting initiatives. His outreach to India’s South Asian neighbours was reinforced by meaningful engagement with Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. He reached out to Pakistan through a series of moves aimed at calming nerves all around.
He established his credentials with the US by accepting an invitation to visit from President Barack Obama, despite the earlier shabby treatment meted out to him by the US. He gave his imprimatur for signing the additional protocol required to further operationalise the India-US civil nuclear agreement. By opening up defence production to foreign direct investment and taking other steps to ease FDI inflows, he has shown his willingness to utilise economic interdependence as a way of building political and strategic relations.
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However, having made these gestures, Modi has not hesitated to draw his Lakshman rekha with respect to both principles of his foreign policy. On the first principle, of placing India’s economic interests at the centre of its foreign policy, he encouraged his minister for commerce and industry, Nirmala Sitharaman, to take a tough stand at the World Trade Organisation on what was viewed by India as a dubious move by the US and the European Union to get an agreement on trade facilitation before dumping the Doha Development Round.
On the second principle, good relations with neighbours, a red line was drawn by calling off the secretary-level talks with Pakistan after the latter ignored India’s suggestion that the Pakistan high commissioner in Delhi not meet representatives of the Hurriyat, the Kashmiri separatists, before these talks.
Both these acts of drawing a red line have set the cat among the pigeons, so to speak. The WTO decision shocked all those who were hailing Modi’s liberal economic policies, while the Pakistan talks decision has shocked the region’s peaceniks. Modi will be tested on his ability to stick to these red lines. But it is always helpful for India’s interlocutors to know what India’s red lines are and how serious and capable India is in sticking to them.
Even with Japan, a country that can, in fact, be described as India’s “all-weather friend” (much like the way China views Pakistan), Modi has clearly stated his expectations. He wants a nuclear deal that would facilitate normal commerce in nuclear fuel and technology and wants massive Japanese investment in India. The success of his visit to Japan next week will be tested against these expectations.
In dealing with China, Modi has boldly come to terms with the reality of the disparity in India-China relations. For far too long, too many Indians have imagined that the two so-called “civilisational neighbours” are strategic equals merely because both have populations of over a billion. Modi has been pragmatic enough to recognise the extant power differential between the two and not fall into what some regard as a Western trap of pitting one against the other by encouraging Indians to stand up to a bigger China, which is more than four times India’s economic size. By yielding to China on the location and funding of the BRICS New Development Bank, Modi demonstrated pragmatism, coming to terms with its impressive economic clout.
India has to develop its own modus vivendi with a rising China, buy time to catch up economically and militarily. Both Japan and the US can help India, but both will do so without hurting their own economic interests in China. While George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice saw India as a partner in dealing with the assertiveness of a rising China, Obama has let it be known that the US’s China policy would be independent of its relationship with India. India has made its own adjustments.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel put it in simple words when he told a New Delhi audience last week, “Just as America need not choose between its Asian alliances and a constructive relationship with China, India need not choose between [a] closer partnership with America and improved ties with China. In our relations with Beijing, both Delhi and Washington seek to manage competition, but avoid the traps of rivalry. We will continue to seek a stable and peaceful order in which China is a fellow trustee, working cooperatively with both our nations.”
All of this will make September an interesting month when Modi engages Japan, China and the US — in that order.The message each of his interlocutors — Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping and Obama — would have taken away from Modi’s first hundred days in office is that this prime minister is willing to engage pragmatically but will not shy away from disengaging if certain red lines are crossed. Modi has indicated that in an increasingly complex and diverse world, he sees more options for India. How successfully he takes advantage of this new global environment remains to be seen.
The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy, International Institute of Strategic Studies and honorary senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi