Challenges and opportunities in foreign policy
The unequivocal second coming of Narendra Modi was mainly on account of the success of his foreign and security policies, which got highlighted at a critical time in the election campaign. His relentless pursuit of the fight against terrorism won global support after Pulwama, including the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist and his strong action against Pakistan to the extent of risking a nuclear war won national acclaim, leading to a Modi wave, which overcame the woes of demonetization, GST and Rafale. Unlike some other leaders, who won wars and got defeated immediately after, Modi is basking in the glory of his success and he will focus on foreign and security policies with even greater vigour in his second term.
Modi’s initial forays into foreign policy had the flavor of “Aswametha Yagas” launched by ancient kings to conquer the world. He overcame the hesitations of history and explored unconventional ways to win friends and influence people. But soon enough, he was faced with the realities of history and geography, which prompted him to proceed with caution. But his definition of national interests and pursuing them with vigour gave him the image of a man of action and the powerful leader of a potential great power. Good relations with the United States was at the centre of his global vision and brought in a new symphony in India- US relations. But the advent of President Donald Trump altered the global situation and prompted him to reset relations with the major powers and to seek alternate ways to attain his goals. The second term, which implicitly approved his global view, has provided him and India with an opportunity to consolidate the gains of the past, apply the necessary correctives and move forward.
Today, China is the key to unlock the various foreign policy issues confronting India, whether it is the neighbourhood, our relations with the United States and Russia, trade and economic development or our global image and role. The problem is China sees itself as an adversary and a rival to India in Asia and the wider world. Any resetting of relations with China involves unilateral concessions, as we saw after the Wuhan summit. The BRI, China’s initiative to dominate the world by controlling the entire network of bridges and roads of all kinds, raises sovereignty issues and a grave challenge to our national priorities and regional cooperation. Unless India concedes China’s supremacy and agrees to play the second fiddle, the problems with China will permeate the entire spectrum of our foreign policy. Modi, with the strong mandate he has received for the next five years, will have to devise a firm and flexible way to deal with China. This will be a challenge during the next five years and beyond.
India-US relations are closely linked to China because both countries have a stake in containing China’s expansionism and military strength. Unlike his predecessors, Trump does not count on India to stem the Chinese tide and he resorts to his own devices like trade war and protectionism. But the US military and strategists have their own ideas about China and they do not see eye to eye with the President. Trump has not, therefore, reversed the US China policy entirely and encourages India, Japan and Australia to continue to struggle with China. But long- term US policy beyond Trump may well be to lead the regional countries to contain China. Partnership with the US to deal with China is necessary in the long run for our security. To accomplish this without causing suspicion in China is the challenge Modi will face in his second term.
Russia also has concerns about close India-US ties, which led to Russia opening up with Pakistan. At the same time, Russia-US ties have been complicated by the suspected Chinese interference in the elections in the US in 2016 and Russia is likely to maintain its traditional relations with India. As long as our defence purchases do not exclude Russia, India-Russia relations will remain beneficial. The purchase of the S-400 missiles from Russia and the US waiver to facilitate the deal have already brightened up India-Russia relations.
The real challenge is for us to find our own niche in the evolving multipolar world. The three poles have established themselves and Japan is in the process of establishing its identity in the evolving dispensation. Economic and military strength are essential to carve out a pole for ourselves, but that should be our objective. We also need a constituency, which will remain loyal to us. The glue of non-alignment, which had given India the leadership role in the early years have disappeared. With the regional cooperation in South Asia being in disarray, we need to cast our net wider to larger concentric circles to South East Asia and beyond to build a constituency, which has faith in India’s policies. Our ability to help and hurt should be highlighted by a string of projects in which each of them has a stake. Economic cooperation and investments must grow and the Make In India initiative has to be vigorously pursued. For this, we need to project our requirements as part of the global agenda and not as transactional deals. Middle powers, particularly in West Asia and groups of smaller countries should be cultivated.
The recent successes in our neighbourhood are still tenuous and Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are still in a flux. As these countries get disillusioned by China, they should have a forum to depend on. A “SAARC” without Pakistan may well be a good idea to pursue, but this may not be realistic, considering the history of the sub-continent. The quest should continue for a breakthrough with Pakistan.
The institutional framework to frame and implement foreign and security policies has to be strengthened. The talent available in the Ministry of External Affairs should be utilized, even if the final decision- making rests with the Prime Minister. The Policy Planning Division and the Historical Division should be activated so that decisions should be backed by a realistic appraisal of their feasibility. Less importance should be attached to the quest for permanent membership of the Security Council and membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and concentrate more on bodies like APEC.
The strong second mandate has given Modi a stature similar to those of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in terms of stability and that too through the ballot box. The western prejudices articulated close to the elections against Modi must evaporate with the massive mandate. Trump has already indicated his willingness to work closely with Modi. These advantages, together with Modi’s penchant for international affairs, a congenial economic climate and a broad consensus inside the country in his favour, should give his foreign policy a new thrust and vigour.