Modi Diplomacy turns four

All through these four years he has maintained a high level of interaction with his international peers through two-way visits

Vivek Katju
Srinagar, Publish Date: May 26 2018 12:17AM | Updated Date: May 26 2018 12:17AM
Modi Diplomacy turns four

The fourth anniversary of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assumption of office provides an occasion to reflect on his stewardship of India’s foreign and security policies. In doing so it would be appropriate to recall that he assumed office with no experience of handling their complexities though as Chief Minister of Gujarat he had travelled abroad including to China and Israel to promote the state’s economic and commercial interests.  He could not go to the United States then for it denied him a visa. 

Modi signalled that he would take special interest in foreign policy when he invited the leaders of SAARC countries to his oath taking ceremony. He soon began to travel abroad beginning with a focus on the neighbourhood; his first foreign visit was to Bhutan. He quickly showed an aptitude for directing foreign and security policies. All through these four years he has maintained a high level of interaction with his international peers through two-way visits.

In some cases, Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit a country—Mongolia for instance—or the first Prime Minister to visit after decades as in the case of the UAE. This activism contributed to India’s external interests for there is no substitute for a Prime Ministerial visit to enhance bilateral ties. It is also noteworthy that Modi did not show any rancour towards the US for denying him a visa. He swiftly responded to former President Obama’s overtures to further develop ties with the world’s pre-eminent power.

Modi’s diplomacy relies heavily in building personal ties with his counterparts. That many of them were impressed with his political success in 2014, the first Indian leader to lead his party to a majority in the Lok Sabha, was visible from the beginning of his term. Major international leaders readily responded to Modi. Such relations between leaders smoothen the paths of relationships and upgrade them. They can also sometimes be crucial in resolving tricky situations. However, the danger is that they can mislead by giving an exaggerated notion of a bilateral relationship. Ultimately, interstate relations depend on coincidence of interests.  

Diplomatic activism cannot be an end in itself. It should result in tangible gains for increasing India’s hard economic, political and security interests. The promotion of soft-power, such as through the popularisation of Yoga or appreciation for India’s basic democratic and secular credentials, has also to contribute to the same purpose.  Modi has paid emphasis to soft power and done well. But how do his efforts measure up in respect of hard power promotion?

The government’s outreach to Africa, the South Pacific Island countries, South-East Asia, Central Asia, West Asia and Europe has been rewarding. It has met with a good response which indicates that large parts of the world are conscious of India’s rise and the consequent economic opportunities on offer for mutual economic and commercial benefit. The presence of leaders of all ASEAN countries at this years Republic Day celebrations and the India-Nordic summit in Stockholm last month establish the success of Modi’s initiatives.

The acid test of diplomacy though will lie in navigating through the contradictions that are emerging among the Great Powers and those present in India’s neighbourhood. At this stage India needs good ties with all the important countries of the world to optimise national interest. Thus, the US which is crucial to maintain strategic balance in Asia, advanced technologies, foreign direct investment and now defence equipment requirements has become important to India; but so is Russia though a little less so. The latter helped India at critical times in the past; but that is over, and nostalgia is never the cement that binds countries. Today, Russia continues to be significant for defence equipment and cooperation in space and civil nuclear energy. Till now India has managed the US-Russia contradictions adequately though the Russians have been restless. Now US sanctions on Russia are putting up new obstructions for India but it must adroitly find a way out. That will be a major test for Modi’s foreign policy.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the threat of imposing crippling sanctions on it will be another test. Iran has a strong role for India in providing connectivity to Afghanistan and beyond through the Chabahar port, in the field of hydrocarbons and to maintain the present balance of its West Asia policy. How will India manage this?

China presents a challenge for all Indian governments. Its rise and assertiveness demand vigilance and constructing a network of relations in the Indo-Pacific region while continuing with a strong but equal economic relationship with it. The Doklam stand-off last year was handled well. China’s BRI rejection was also correct. Informal summitry such as at Wuhan is fine but will not weaken Sino-Pakistan ties or China’s opposition on the NSG or its rigidity on terrorism issues.

Modi tried to push relations with Pakistan in a positive direction but there was no change in that country’s negativity. Maldives too continues to pose difficulties that have not been resolved. Relations with Bangladesh are a bright spot in the diplomatic record. Modi will need to give constant attention to the neighbourhood.

The handling of international issues such as climate change and global terrorism remained competent but one victory that was especially noteworthy was in securing a seat at the International Court of Justice against the UK. That also indicated India’s global standing for which Modi can take some credit.

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