Raja Mandala: Modi diplomacy, part two

Three years into his term, PM must deal with changes in great power dynamics, border troubles and backlash in the West against immigration

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:May 23, 2017 12:31 am
narendra Mosi, Modi, PM Modi, Three years of Modi government, foreign policy, modi foreign policy, Nuclear Suppliers Group, NSG, Pakistan, india-pakistan, China, GDP, india news But Modi’s world has changed considerably over the last three years. (File photo)

Few would disagree with the proposition that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had a great run with foreign policy over the last three years. His personal energy and pragmatism, coupled with an emphasis on problem-solving, had allowed Modi to rejuvenate India’s post-Cold War foreign policy. But the harder part for the PM may have already begun. India’s problems with Pakistan and China and the difficulties, for example, with the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group over the last year are symptomatic of the larger challenge that confronts Modi.

In India, the foreign policy discourse has become increasingly partisan. Both admirers and critics of Modi are quick to see every diplomatic development as a triumph or a failure. The shared presumption is that the Indian PM is a free actor on the international stage and that foreign policy is all about “us” and not “them”. Any Indian PM deals with multiple other sovereigns, big and small. Delhi can’t bend the political will or shape the domestic dynamics of other sovereigns.

Nor can India regulate the frequent flips in the relationships amongst other independent actors. Nor can it predict, let alone control, sweeping political and technological revolutions that produce systemic change. Even a carefully constructed foreign policy strategy could go awry if the external circumstances change radically. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have arrived at that juncture three years into his tenure.

In the first half of his five-year term, Modi could win quick gains on the diplomatic front by the mere application of his strong political will and the stronger domestic position that he enjoyed over his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. The policy path was, in fact, largely laid down way back at the turn of the 1990s when the Cold War ended and Delhi had to embark on economic reforms.

The unstated diplomatic guidelines included a greater emphasis on economic goals and improved relations with all major powers. There was a special focus on normalising ties with China and ending the estrangement with America. Delhi also sought to limit the conflict with Pakistan, promote regional cooperation in the Subcontinent, reconnect with Asia and the Indian Ocean, and bring Delhi’s multilateral diplomacy in tune with India’s changing national needs in the reform era.

All governments since 1991 have followed these policies with varying degrees of success. A number of external factors facilitated India’s advances in this period. One was the relative harmony among the major powers, thanks to the uncontested American unipolar moment. The second was the widespread acceptance of economic globalisation or the Washington consensus. The third was the digital revolution that allowed India to create a niche for itself in the IT sector.

Modi accepted the imperatives of the external world and pushed vigorously for improving ties with the US, reaching out to China and Pakistan, welcoming foreign investment, strengthening India’s regionalism and raising its international profile. But Modi’s world has changed considerably over the last three years. He had considerable successes with America, but must now cope with a great power that is distracted by internecine battles in Washington. The PM’s effort to strengthen ties with Russia have entered a complex phase, as President Vladimir Putin tightens the China embrace and seeks a deal with US President Donald Trump.

President Xi Jinping has decided that China’s moment in the sun has arrived, thanks to the huge and growing power differential between Beijing and its neighbours. As Modi found out, being nice to Beijing does not mean China will reciprocate on NSG membership. Xi’s enhanced bet on Pakistan has also made Islamabad less vulnerable to Western pressures, such as they are, on terrorism. Pakistan will neither be seduced by an Indian outreach, nor give into Delhi’s threats. Finding ways to deal with a rising China and manage Pakistan’s intransigence will remain big problems for India.

The shifting dynamic amidst great powers and the continuing trouble on the borders is matched by the political backlash in the West against free trade and immigration. The new external constraints come amidst the deepening of India’s interdependence with the world. Nearly 40 per cent of India’s GDP is linked to the world and for half a century, its skilled personnel enjoyed open doors in many markets. Some of those are beginning to close.

On top of it all, the dramatic acceleration of technological change has put pressure on the one sector that has come to
generate nearly a tenth of India’s GDP and symbolised India’s rise.

These negative developments are not a call for pessimism about India’s prospects. As its economy grows at seven percent and more, India’s net weight in the international system can only improve. But to sustain India’s rise, Delhi must necessarily focus on three important elements: It must shed the current complacency about growth and bring its economic and technology policies in line with the rapidly evolving external environment. Second, India needs urgent and significant defence sector reform to lend purpose and effect to its growing military mass. Third, sharper commercial, security and technology policies will help India better navigate the unfolding power shifts amongst America, China and Russia and construct durable strategic partnerships with such middle powers as Japan, France and Germany.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi and contributing editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. V
    May 26, 2017 at 1:59 pm
    Have we isolated stan or actually helped push other countries towards stan??? Time to ask has Modi s foreign policy been a failure???
    1. V
      May 26, 2017 at 1:56 pm
      China giving soft loan to Bangladesh worth $24 billion to counter India s $ 2 billion loan to break India s closeness with Bangladesh...and fingering India on Nepal. Who's loss is it??? India 's all time friend Russia is now holding military exercise with stan. Who's loss is it??? Russia is now wil to supply arms to stan after not doing so for ages. Who's loss is it,??? Russia and China today hold talks with stan on future of Afghanistan and sideline India altogether. Who's loss is it? ?? To counter CPEC. . dia announced setting up of Chabahar port in Iran. Work has not even begun. Iran already wants to join CPEC. Who's loss is it???After going into US lap...US has placed restrictions on H1B visas affecting our tech companies - the only profitable and growing corporate sector in India. Who's loss is it???All the above has happened in last 3 years. Where and on which parameter has India's foreign policy under Modi bene ed India or helped India emerge stronger
      1. V
        May 26, 2017 at 1:54 pm
        India 's foreign policy was always independent and would balance out rivals like China and US....Russia and US or Iran and US... This foreign policy was consistent irrespective of the party in power - BJP, Cong or any other party. That balanced for example China out as it was scared and dint want India to shift into US lap. So there was always give and take in the relationship...and hence India managed a nuclear deal with USA and China supported it for a 1 time NSG waiver... Same with Russia. In 2014, Modi altered India s foreign policy by moving decisively to US and becoming major Defence Partner of US. Today by going too close to US ...we hv pushed Russia and China into stan 's lap...China is opposing Azhar Masood as Terrorist and not supporting India on NSG...who 's loss is it?? China intruding into Arunachal and hardening it's stand on border issue & flexing it's muscle...who's loss is it??? China giving soft loan to Bangladesh worth $24 billion to counter India s $ 2
        1. P
          May 25, 2017 at 2:08 am
          1. A
            May 24, 2017 at 12:26 am
            Raja Mohan has explained all the diplomatic constraints that the PM faces and his diplomatic options. Typical of all our journalists, Babudom and diplomats, there is no mention of the Geopolitical or military options India has. For these arm chair babus, writing about the stronger positions of other nations and India's limited options and weakness is fashionable. We are a large nation of 1 Billion people. An unending supply of manpower. Our over rationalizing and inability to take risks has reduced us to become a punching bag for stan and China. A swift, bold and violent military response to stan will impose caution on the world about India. We no only can do this easily it will also test our military capability on which we spend billions. India must not only speak politely but must also wield a stick. Without the stick our diplomatic overtures are idle talk. Nobody takes us seriously. We must understand that other nations will not help us, unless it suits their interest.
            1. A
              May 23, 2017 at 11:49 pm
              One may agree with the writer that shifting dynamic amid st great powers political back lash in the west against free trade and immigration is going to play a significant role in the developing countries like India. Secondly, OBOR Summit in Beijing and World's great response to this idea, India's decision to skip the event,has created another bottleneck for India's developing economy dia being prisoner of its own "policies", missed the opportunity of long term benefits. OBOR would see 60 of global population and around a third of global GDP linked through a network of Chinese bank,ports, railways,roads and industrial parks dia has almost lost shortest,cheapest land routes to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and finally to Europe.Certainly a great set back for Indian economy in the coming future.
              1. A
                May 24, 2017 at 1:58 pm
                India had practically lost access to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and Europe the day it was par ioned in 1947. The 2nd thing is that India cannot quite follow the Chinese route of manufacturing and export for prosperity anyway. That means it also won't have the kind of excess capacity which would need to be put abroad, like China has today. The only country that would benefit from BARF or OBOR is China itself. All other players would remain either neutral or negative. In other words, 21st century quasi colonialism! Many stanis in these spaces do not seem aware that China is not giving them aid like the US- but the $46 Billion is a loan!
              2. A
                May 23, 2017 at 11:09 pm
                India is on a wrong path ,it is conducting foreign policy with narrow considerations. It does not have the capabilities to flex iys muscles along different anti axis it is creating against itself . The power of a nation flows from neighbourhood but India does not have good rapport with any it's neighbouring countries except perhaps Afghanistan. Mere visiting countries meeting heads can drive FP. India has lost trusted friend in the shape of Russia to stan in its quest to have relationship with US only for defence and business purposes. India. Could not maintain rope walk. Like the BJP jobless growth polemics and social crisis so would be it's FP
                1. S
                  May 23, 2017 at 8:45 pm
                  Rise of Trump has given rise to all this development. He will be ousted soon.
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