In the wake of US President Barack Obama’s visit to India, there has been no dearth of pronouncements about Narendra Modi, with the prime minister variously described as a problem-solver, a strategic thinker, a public relations master. Behind these appellations, however, lies a deeper question: what is Modi’s worldview? The series of high-profile summits with the Japanese, Chinese and American leaders in fairly rapid succession, and now Modi’s proposed visit to China in May, give us a better idea of his foreign policy worldview — one country at a time. Even the optics of these meetings is giving us markers of Modi’s thinking.
Modi’s own worldview has not been easy to read — his postures and policies have not gone according to the hard nationalist script that many expected, given his base. For hard nationalists, their main foreign policy goal would be to make India a global military power. Economic strength is important, but secondary; power is paramount, and diplomacy is just a weak appendage to power.
Modi, however, started off with a bold diplomatic gesture of issuing an unprecedented invitation to neighbouring leaders for his inauguration. Since then, whether it is pouring tea under a shamiyana for the American president, sitting and chatting on a traditional Indian swing in Ahmedabad with the Chinese president, or strolling the grounds of the famous Toji Buddhist Temple in Kyoto with the Japanese prime minister, it is hard to miss the diplomatic disarming.
Besides the appealing optics, leading with diplomacy is smart foreign policy. This is especially true now because of two big structural shifts in the international system that requires subtle diplomacy over crude power-mongering. The first change is a diffusion of global power economically and institutionally, especially to Asia’s rising powers, China and India. The system has basically become more decentralised. What this does is give a country like India greater options and leverage to pursue its strategic interests. The second shift is the growing hybrid nature of the global system, that is, simultaneous economic interdependence and geopolitical rivalry. This is best illustrated by US-China relations but also India-China relations. The point is that India is operating in a complex and dynamic international environment, calling on state leaders to engage in some very delicate balancing acts and hedging behaviour.
For all the talk of India as a traditional great power, a close reading of Modi’s policy towards China, Japan and the US so far suggests that economic growth and development remain at the top of the agenda. During Xi Jinping’s visit to India last September, the Indian prime minister secured a $20 billion promise of investments over five years, even against the startling backdrop of Chinese incursion into the Ladakh region. From Shinzo Abe, Modi had already procured a commitment of $36 billion over five years. President Obama’s pledge of $4 billion over two years cannot be measured in just this amount, since more American private capital and technology may be forthcoming. But this snapshot indicates why India has to follow a careful multi-aligned foreign policy.
Although Obama’s visit produced the landmark document, the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, whether it was transformational in India’s orientations is very much an open question. India has its own concerns about freedom of navigation in light of China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, but the document is no plan of action. Instead, it gives greater heft to a strategy of hedging by India against China or a stronger insurance policy. It also signals explicitly that, for Modi, the US is clearly first among equals.
Geopolitical signalling aside, it is economic compulsions that weigh most heavily on India. Modi reportedly spent time explaining to Obama that India will continue to strongly engage with China on economic and global issues. Indeed, the president had hardly left New Delhi before it was announced that the Indian foreign minister would visit China within the week. Meanwhile, the border stand-off in September only seems to have underlined the need to come to an early diplomatic resolution of the India-China border dispute. While in India, Xi became the first Chinese leader to say that he wanted to resolve the border question “at an early date”, something Modi and every Indian prime minister before had been pushing for.
For Modi’s part, just days after the stand-off, he addressed the annual Combined Commanders Conference and said that an atmosphere of peace and security was essential to enable India to achieve its goals of economic development.
Achieving developed country status can, of course, be a nationalist goal. But only what might be termed a more globalist mindset privileging regional and global economic integration, with a diplomatic approach for settling security conflicts, will get India there. This could explain why Modi’s worldview does not — and even more importantly, cannot — fit a hard nationalist outlook.
The writer is research professor of International Affairs, George Washington University.