Ever since taking over the reins of the country Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to put his stamp or brand on foreign policy. Shankar Kumar tries to count his hits and misses through the period in the diplomatic arena
For past two years Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been navigating quite hard through the tricky waters of foreign policy in a bid to find his feet on the slippery turf called diplomacy. Though without any prior experience in handling international level politics, he lost no moment in giving India a significant push on different bilateral or multilateral forums. But it was his approach towards Nepal and Pakistan which proved to be a virtual ‘Waterloo’ for his initiatives in the South Asian region.
Even as he played all his cards to normalise relations with Pakistan and did try to infuse confidence in the Indo-Nepal relations, both countries remained stubbornly cold to India’s outreach. For this, instead of Modi’s neighbourhood policy approach, former ambassador Rajiv Sikri blamed “internal dynamics” of both Pakistan and Nepal. According to him, whatever “setback” India’s relationship with either Nepal or Pakistan received, it was due to problem at their ends. “It has nothing to do with this or that approach of India under Narendra Modi,” Sikri observed. However, seasoned foreign experts like SD Muni and Bhadra Kumar have no qualm in putting blame at the Prime Minister’s door for Nepal and Pakistan fiasco.
In spite of Prime Minister Modi undertaking an unscheduled visit to Pakistan to greet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and to participate in his granddaughter’s marriage in Lahore, Islamabad did not stop from its habit of fomenting terrorism in India. Moreover, attack on the Pathankot airbase by terrorists belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad and Islamabad’s denial in providing visas to the officials of India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) for visiting Pakistan to probe men and material involved with the attack further widened the trust deficit between the two nations. With this the flip-flop in the Modi Government’s policy towards Islamabad was exposed. But it turned rather more grotesque with Nepal where, despite providing millions of dollar in assistance annually and helping it come out of its untold miseries when a massive earthquake struck it last year, India has become a “punching bag” for Nepali politicians who hit their southern neighbour whenever they like. In the 24-month in office, except for Maldives, Modi visited almost all SAARC nations. However, he visited Nepal twice, a rare gesture to the Himalayan nation which shares identical cultural, ethnic and religious linkages with India. In two years, he also hosted two Nepali Prime Ministers-Sushil Koirala and K P Sharma Oli. Indians were shocked when Nepal recently recalled its New Delhi based ambassador Deep Kumar Upadhyay and cancelled President Bidya Bhandari’s six-day India visit. There has been a friction in India and Nepal relations in the past also, but there has never been any occasion when Nepal could prove to be bugbear for India’s prestige and interest. But keeping all diplomatic nicety at the bay, it accused India of playing a role in toppling the incumbent Oli government, thereby, indicating enough to what extent or how far the two close neighbours’ have gone from each other.
Improved ties with Dhaka and Kabul
In contrast to flabbiness that marked Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government’s approach towards Bangladesh on resolving the contentious land boundary agreement, the Modi Government not only fixed the problem by exchanging instruments of ratification of the land boundary agreement signed in 1974, but also implemented it by allowing more than 50,000 stateless people, living in enclaves on India-Bangladesh border, get national identity. On the other hand, India finally steamrolled strains that pervaded its relations with Maldives. In March 2015, Prime Minister Modi had to drop his plan to visit the island nation following the arrest and manhandling of former Maldivian President and India’s close friend Mohammad Nasheed in the capital of the island nation. The recent visit of incumbent Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayom to New Delhi, however, showed that both countries are ready to bury their past and are ready to traverse a new path for their mutual progress and development. Similarly, India-Afghanistan ties have improved significantly with New Delhi providing the land locked nation arms and ammunition to deal with the Taliban and other terrorist groups. India’s Chabahar port development plan will not only reduce the distance between India and the Middle-East region but also bring Central Asia and Afghanistan closer to New Delhi. In Sri Lanka, the arrival of Maithripala Sirisena on the Presidential chair has eased the wariness of Indian leadership. Unlike the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa government, the incumbent Sri Lankan government avoids being a flagrant in its approach to woo China or play to its tune. Yet, the recent visit of Island Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to China and his acceptance of Chinese offer to restart multi-million dollar Colombo City project, has raised India’s suspicion towards Colombo’s game plan. Nevertheless, New Delhi is not ready to lower its guards. By inviting the Sri Lankan President to participate in ‘Simhasta Kumbha Mela’ in Ujjain recently, India tried to send a subtle message to China that it could not win Colombo over as historically, culturally and geographically the island nation is closer to India than China.
Deepening ties with the US
That the US President would come to India to attend any celebration in the country was never expected by anyone. But giving this perception a break, Barack Obama became the first US President to accept an invitation to become the chief guest at the country’s Republic Day celebrations in 2015. Since September 2014, Prime Minister Modi has himself visited the US thrice and will go there again in June to address the US Congress. The plateau that marked the India-US relations during former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s term has disappeared. Today, India and the US are on the same page on several issues, but also differ sharply on the issue of terrorism, environment and others. Nonetheless, mutual understanding between the two countries have grown so strong that numerous American blue-chip companies are now preferring to invest in India than China. Aircraft manufacturing companies like Boeing and IT behemoth Apple are planning to undertake manufacturing of their wares under ‘Make in India’ initiative. On defence and strategic front, both the nations share the same vision. The Indo-US nuclear deal which was flagged as a “game changer” in the bilateral engagement of the two sides has also been given a new push with concerns related to liability issue being resolved. However, commercialisation of the nuclear deal is yet to take off. Also, promises for the UN Security Council reform are yet to be realised. In view of this, SD Muni has doubt whether India’s too much closeness with America has served India’s interest well or not. “India-US relations are moving in right direction or not is an issue of debate,” Professor Muni observed.
Raising diplomatic bar with Japan
India-Japan relations took a paradigmatic shift in the past two years of Narendra Modi Government. Personal chemistry between Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, which dates back to 2007, has pushed the two nations’ economic, military and strategic ties to such a higher pedestal that today Japan is everywhere in India. It is first and lone country in the world which has promised to invest $35 billion in India’s infrastructure. During his visit to India in December last year, Abe announced $15 billion assistance to help build India’s first high-speed rail link between Mumbai and Ahmadabad. Also, a breakthrough in nuclear deal was reached between the two countries with Tokyo clearing ways for Westinghouse and General Electric to sell nuclear reactors to India. Initially reluctant to sell state-of-the-art defence technology to New Delhi, Tokyo finally agreed to sell US-2 amphibious aircraft to India. Japan is now regular partner of India and the US-led Malabar series of naval exercise which usually takes place in the Indian Ocean. Then it is one of the members of trilateral dialogue which includes India and the US also. From official level earlier, the annual trilateral dialogue now involves minister-level talks between India, Japan and the US.
Seeing through Chinese game
India and China continue to be at loggerheads with each other on the border issue. Yet, both the neighbours have not allowed this to cloud their bilateral ties. China has agreed to invest $20 billion in India’s infrastructure, including development of high-speed trains. However, what helps both neighbours in staving off tension between them is their attempt to continue with exchange of high-level visits between them at a regular interval. Following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in 2014, Prime Minister Modi undertook three-day visit to China in May last year. President Pranab Mukherjee has just concluded four-day visit to China where he travelled to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, China’s richest and most populous province. In September, the Prime Minister will himself go to China to attend G-20 summit and then in October Chinese President Jinping is landing in Goa to participate in the eighth BRICS summit. But these moves have not helped India in securing China’s support on several crucial issues. For the second time in row, Beijing blocked India-led move at the United Nations to designate Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as terrorist. Moreover Beijing has already made it clear that it would veto India’s entry into the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). China’s stand on not allowing India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council is also known.
Going beyond ordinariness of ties with Russia
India has, though, leaned heavily towards the US which has also emerged as the largest exporter of arms and ammunition to New Delhi, but Russia’s position in India’s diplomatic engagement is still irreplaceable. It continues to be India’s all-weather friend and source of the country’s combat technology. However, there is also a harsh reality that since 1994, New Delhi has not acquired any aircraft. Despite this, Russia is a lone country in the world which provides cutting-edge nuclear and defence technology without any rider attached to them. It has agreed to provide six new nuclear reactors in over 20 years and jointly produce the Kamov 226 military helicopters under ‘Make in India’ initiative. It played a key role in admitting India as the member of the Shanghai Cooperation Orgianisation (SCO), a political, economic and military organisation which was founded in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. All this in the midst of the fact that Russia continues to cosy up with China and flirt with Pakistan. But then, in the multi-polar world, India has also closeted with the US and Europe to the disappointment of Moscow.
Regaining lost ground in Europe
Traditionally, India has a good relationship with France, Germany and the United Kingdom. But unlike the previous administration which almost neglected Europe, the present Indian leadership understood the significance of the West for India’s requirements of scientific knowledge and advanced technologies. In this regard, answers to hurdles coming from Italy in smoothening of India-European Union relations have also been found out. India has agreed to abide by the judgement of the international tribunal that will decide the case of two Italian marines for the killing of two fishermen off the country’s Kerala coast in 2012. This way India has managed to push the issue out of the bilateral ambit, thereby, removing obstacles away from India’s political engagement with Europe, New Delhi’s largest trading partner and biggest foreign investor.
Central Asia roadmap
India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ roadmap received a boost when Prime Minister undertook maiden visits to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan last year. Known for their rich natural resources like oil, gas and uranium, the Central Asian countries were brought under the ambit of International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), conceived by India, Iran and Russia in September 2000. The connectivity project which will involve multi-model transportation system will connect India to Central Asia via Iran. While the ambitious transport corridor project will take time to get fully implemented, India and the Central Asian countries have meanwhile set up a joint study group to assess the feasibility of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between two sides.
Better ties with West Asia
In the first year in office as a Prime Minister, Modi did not visit any Middle East or West Asian countries even as his diplomatic activism took him to 25 nations across the world. This led to giving birth to a perception that the BJP-NDA Government’s policy framework has no space for the countries of Middle East or the West Asian region. However, this perception changed when Modi undertook a visit to the United Arab Emirates in August last year and soon after this, President Pranab Mukherjee made a six-day visit to Jordan, Palestine and Israel in October 2015. These high level visits, along with the April 2016 visit to Saudi Arabia and just concluded trip to Iran, demonstrated that India has various long-term plans for the region. And in the case of Iran, it was rather more prominent when New Delhi and Tehran signed agreement for the development of strategic Chabahar Port, lying in Iran’s southern coast. As part of transit corridor to Afghanistan, New Delhi and Tehran also signed an agreement for development of a 500-km long Chabahar-Zahedan rail line, besides slew of several other pacts.
Bringing Israel on foreign policy radar
Immediately after becoming Prime Minister, Modi hinted that his Government was in favour of robust commercial and defence ties with Israel. His meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2014 and again during the Paris Climate Change conference in November 2015 were sufficient to send a message across the world that the BJP-led NDA Government did not look at Israel as untouchable. Instead, India’s tilt towards Israel became more conspicuous when New Delhi abstained in July 2015 and again in March this year from supporting a Palestine-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to launch an investigation by the International Criminal Court against Israel for war crimes during the 2014 Gaza crisis. In contrast to the previous Manmohan Singh Government which kept India away from even Israeli officials’ shadow, forget about meeting them, Modi was bold. He paved the way for the first ever higher-level Indian authority’s visit to Tel Aviv when President Mukherjee undertook a three-day trip to the West Asian country last year. In coming months, India may expect Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s visit. If it happens, Rivlin would be the first Israeli head of state to make a trip to India.
Strategy towards Pacific nations
India’s foreign policy initiative for the Pacific countries included many firsts in the past two years. Narendra Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Fiji in 33 years in 2014. Under the banner of India-Pacific Island Cooperation (FIPIC), he held the first ever meeting with leaders from 12 Pacific nations. It laid the ground for strategy that India longed for countering the influence of China, which doles out economic assistance and other benefits to deepen its presence in the region. Practically, lacking a deep pocket like China, New Delhi which shares close affinity with Fiji and other Pacific nations on ethnic lines, adopted a measured step to bring Pacific close to it and for this New Delhi resorted to capacity-building and institution building process. In 2015, India held second meeting of FIPIC in less than a year after holding the first meeting of this chapter in Fiji. So Delhi increased its outreach towards the region which is important for both strategic purposes and sea-based resources.
Bonhomie with Africans
India held biggest ever diplomatic show on earth when it conducted the third Africa Summit in New Delhi last year. For the first time, leaders from all 54 African countries, including 41 heads of state and the government landed in India’s national capital to attend the summit. This was different from the previous two summits (in 2008 and 2011) where only about 15 countries had been invited. Robustness of India-Africa relations were on the show. India provided $10.6 billion worth of credit and grants for Africa over the next five years. This was in addition to India’s ongoing credit programme under which $7.4 billion was provided to the continent for the creation of about 137 projects in 41 African countries. In addition to capacity and institution building programme, India has pumped in huge money in countries like Sudan, South Sudan and Mozambique for exploration of oil. However, in spite of increase in bilateral engagement, Africa could not see high-level visits from India in Modi’s first year in office. Only from May onwards, New Delhi, awakened by its immediate strategic and resources need, and paved the way for Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to Morocco and Tunisia. Prime Minister Modi who last year visited Seychelles and Mauritius--both African nations and part of the Indian Ocean region, may undertake visit to South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya in July. President Pranab Mukherjee may also take a trip to Africa sometime in the later part of the year. Through a well-calibrated Indian Ocean policy, the Government has also been endeavouring to strengthen linkages with strategically vital island states like Mauritius and Seychelles, and empower the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Developing full potential of the Blue Economy is now becoming a new priority
East and Southeast Asia approach
The Modi government converted Narasimha Rao drafted ‘Look East’ policy into ‘Act East’ policy with a promise to widen the policy’s scope and focus. His visit to Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Mongolia and South Korea last year was phenomenal in several respects as it demonstrated that India was ready to build bridges with these nations of South-East Asia. Vice President Hamid Ansari visited Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Brunei last year. President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Vietnam in September 2015 during which India extended a $100 million credit line for the purchase of defence equipment was yet another manifestation of India’s “Act East” policy at work; it came against the backdrop of disputes between China and many South-East Asian countries, including Vietnam, over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea.
Though the Modi Government has done well in the domain of foreign policy and diplomacy, the incumbent Prime Minister’s activism on the foreign policy front has overshadowed the functioning of the Ministry of External Affairs. It used to happen when dominant Prime Ministers like Jawahar Lal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee ruled the roost. While objective of foreign policy of India under their leadership was political and diplomatic, Narendra Modi’s foreign policy objective is purely based on economy and investment.