That Prime Minister Narendra Modi could sit down with the leaders of the US and Japan on the margins of the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires over the weekend and, soon after, parley with the presidents of China and Russia, has generated some surprise and much appreciation of India’s new international standing that the two trilateral summits underlined. This is the first time that the trilateral engagement between India, Japan and the United States has been elevated to the highest political level. Not surprisingly, PM Modi came up with a new acronym, “JAI”, for the trilateral partnership. His meeting with President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin has taken place after a gap of nearly 12 years. Cynical observers would say nothing much should be read into this kind of summitry —brief conversations on the margins of multilateral summits are not uncommon.
Yet, given the history of Indian foreign policy and its deep suspicion of the West, there is no question that the trilateral summit with President Donald Trump and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is an important marker in the evolution of India’s foreign policy. Although India’s bilateral relations with the US and Japan and other Western countries have grown significantly in the 21st century and its officials have engaged with those from Washington, Tokyo and Canberra in the trilateral and quadrilateral format, Delhi has been hesitant to participate in these meetings at the summit level. The domestic concern about abandoning “non-alignment” was one reason. The fear of annoying India’s friends in the East — in Beijing and Moscow — has been cited as the other. Although the trilateral and quadrilateral diplomacy with the US and its Asian allies — Japan and Australia — began under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his colleagues in the UPA government and the Congress party were deeply conflicted about intensifying the partnership with the US.
Modi, however, has shed, in his own words, the “hesitations of history” in dealing with the United States and allies in Europe and Asia. Many critics of his foreign policy had warned against the dangers of drawing too close to the US and distancing India from old friends like Russia and confronting China. But as Modi’s renewed trilateral summitry with Putin and Xi proves, India does not have to choose between one camp or the other. After all, Xi’s main focus at the G-20 summit was on cutting a deal with Trump on trade issues. All major powers are engaging each other and Delhi must do the same without any inhibitions. If India’s strategic opportunities with the major powers are real, Delhi’s main weakness has been the inability to fully translate this extraordinary political leverage into substantive economic and military gains.