Foreign Policy

Modi’s world

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Narender Modi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on his arrival at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran on May 23. Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI

Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli greeted by Modi at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on February 20, Photo: Sandeep Saxena

India’s foreign policy in the past two years has been remote-controlled from the Prime Minister’s Office, and under Modi the country has become a willing partner in the U.S.’ efforts to convert it into a “front-line” state in the looming confrontation with China.

THE contours of India's foreign policy have changed significantly since Narendra Modi assumed charge as Prime Minister in May 2014. Without keeping Parliament in the loop, his National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has virtually changed the country’s traditional non-aligned status. The pro-Western tilt, which began during the NDA’s previous stint and continued during the United Progressive Alliance’s two successive terms, has now become more pronounced than ever before despite India being a member of international groupings such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa).

So much so that the Barack Obama administration wants India to be given the exalted status of a non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally. For all practical purposes, India has become one. The Modi government is all set to sign the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) under a new acronym, LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), with the United States. The agreement will allow American troops basing facilities on Indian soil in emergency situations. India has endorsed the U.S.’ position on the South China Sea and has tacitly supported the Obama administration’s military “pivot to the East”.

India has become a willing partner in the U.S.’ efforts to convert it into a “front-line” state in the looming military confrontation against China. The stated aim of the military planners of the U.S. is to have the ability to blockade China by cutting off Indian Ocean choke points such as the Malacca Straits. The U.S. and Indian navies have stepped up their collaboration in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and will now be cooperating in anti-submarine warfare in the next trilateral “Malabar” exercises, which also involves Japan. The exercises are due to be held in the Northern Philippine Sea adjacent to the South China Sea. India has also increased its military-strategic cooperation with Australia and Singapore, the other allies of the U.S. in the region. In the last week of May, Indian warships started exercises in the South China Sea.

The Defence Ministry stated that the Indian naval deployment was for “showing the flag” in a region that was of vital importance for the country. India has no maritime disputes with China and there has been no threat to the freedom of navigation from the Chinese side. The former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jon Greenert, told the Foreign Policy journal that India’s moves in the Asia-Pacific region were “clearly” driven by the so-called threat posed by China. The U.S. Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, has gone on record stating that the Indian government believes that there is “convergence” between India’s “Act East” policy and the Obama administration’s military rebalancing to the East. The Modi government does not appear to have done a cost-benefit analysis on joining the alliance against China. The two countries that the U.S. is targeting militarily and strategically are China and Russia, both pillars of BRICS, which stand for a multipolar world.

Relations with Pakistan

India’s relations with most of its other immediate neighbours are on a downward spiral. Official-level talks with Pakistan remain suspended with little hope of serious bilateral talks starting any time soon. The Modi government’s foolhardy decision to call off Foreign Secretary-level talks a few months into its tenure has proved costly in terms of wasted opportunities. Pakistan is now ready to resume talks after the Modi government gave up on the condition that there should be no open interaction between the Hurriyat Conference and Pakistani diplomats based in Delhi. Modi made an unscheduled visit to Lahore earlier in the year in an effort to mend diplomatic bridges with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. But immediately after his visit, the terror attack on the Pathankot airbase happened, once again derailing the proposed talks. Both sides are now blaming each other for fostering terrorism.

The arrest of an alleged Indian spy, the retired Indian Navy officer Kulbushan Jadhav, in the restive Balochistan province of Pakistan in March has further complicated relations between New Delhi and Islamabad. Pakistan has accused India of involvement in low-level insurgency that has been plaguing the province for many years now. The Kashmir dispute continues to remain on top of the agenda as far as Islamabad is concerned despite New Delhi’s efforts to confine it to the back burner. Escalating incidents of terror and violence in the Kashmir Valley have brought the issue once again into the spotlight. On the positive side, incidents of cross-border shelling along the Line of Control (LoC) have shown a marked decline in the second year of the Modi government.

Pakistan has been wary of the growing influence of India in Afghanistan. India has invested heavily in infrastructure building in the war-ravaged country. The Modi government was initially unhappy with the foreign policy priorities of the new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. Unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani had preferred to invest heavily in building a special relationship with the Pakistani military and political leaderships. He had hoped that their influence would help bring the resurgent Taliban to the negotiating table. That has turned out to be a pipe dream, but the main players in the Afghan peace process continue to be the U.S., China and Pakistan. Afghanistan has made it clear that it deeply values its relationship with China and has been supportive of the China-Pakistan economic corridor and China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.

India’s relations with Nepal took a serious hit after the Himalayan country promulgated a new Constitution. Modi, who got a hero’s welcome when he visited Nepal soon after he became Prime Minister, is now viewed with suspicion by the coalition government led by Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli.

India was upset that its advice to Nepal on key clauses of the Constitution, especially those relating to the Madhesi population, was not accepted. New Delhi’s consequent decision to enforce a de facto blockade on the land-locked country, which is recovering from a devastating earthquake, made it unpopular among Nepalis. The Nepali government was forced to ask for aid and sustenance from its other immediate neighbour, China. The blockade has since been lifted and relations with Kathmandu appear to be on the mend.

But in the first week of May, there was an aborted attempt at regime change in Kathmandu. Oli and his close associates saw the hand of the Indian government in the move. Nepal’s President, Bidhya Devi Bhandari, called off her scheduled visit to India in early May and Kathmandu recalled its envoy from New Delhi. The NDA government was apparently not happy with the growing links between Nepal and China. However, there seems to be no change in China’s stance that it considers Nepal to be in India’s sphere of influence. The constraint of geography also prevents China from supplanting India as Nepal’s key economic partner. Nepal is almost totally dependent on Indian ports for trade. During his visit to China in March, Oli signed several agreements, which included the opening up of more transit routes through China and the use of Chinese ports for trade.

It has been widely surmised that India, along with the U.S., had a role in effecting regime change through the ballot box in Sri Lanka in 2015. The growing influence of China in the strategically located island has been causing alarm in many quarters. The new government in Sri Lanka had initially said that it would scale down the Chinese presence in the country’s infrastructure projects. The expectation was that other countries, such as India and Japan, would move in with requisite investments. Since that did not happen, Chinese companies have been recently awarded new contracts, including the operational control of the Hambanthota port. In Maldives, too, it is China’s economic clout that is at work. India’s continued support for the ousted President, Mohammed Nasheed, has not helped matters.

India’s relations with Bangladesh have been good since the return of Sheikh Hasina to power. The border and water disputes have all been solved. But again, most of the investment for infrastructure development in Bangladesh has come from China. In neighbouring Myanmar, the jockeying for influence after the massive electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi is between the U.S. and China. The previous UPA government’s ambitious plan to build an economic corridor connecting Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) seems to have been put on the back burner.

Forays in the Gulf region

A major focus of Modi’s diplomatic forays was in the Gulf region. The Prime Minister seems to have a particular fondness for the conservative Gulf monarchies and Israel. The Gulf region, of course, hosts millions of Indians and is a perennial source of much-needed remittances. Israel has emerged as one of India’s main defence partners. When the rest of the world is demanding that a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy be adopted against Israel, the NDA government has been a pillar of support for the Zionist state. For the first time, India even chose to abstain on a resolution in the United Nations criticising Israel for its continued occupation of Palestine and the implementation of laws that are akin to the laws that existed in apartheid South Africa. Modi had announced his intention to make a state visit to Israel at the beginning of his term. Better sense has prevailed so far and he has been postponing his trip. But the Indian government did dispatch President Pranab Mukherjeee to Israel last year at a time when Palestinian anger had spilled on to the streets. It was the first visit of an Indian President to Israel.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Bahrain twice. The kingdom has been witnessing political upheaval with the majority, the Shia community there, asking for a genuine share of power. The Modi government ignored Iran, the most populous state in the region, until recently. It was the last country the Prime Minister visited in the region. Relations between the Gulf monarchies and Iran are fraught at the moment. Tehran may have assumed that India was tilting towards the Gulf monarchies. One reason for New Delhi’s reluctance to engage with Tehran robustly was that the Islamic Republic was under U.S. sanctions until recently. New Delhi has been careful not to upset Washington. The U.S. is not happy that India inked the deal to develop the Chabahar port in south-eastern Iran. Some U.S. Congressmen have complained that India has violated some of the sanctions against Iran that are yet to be removed.

Once the international sanctions were lifted, Iran started having many suitors. India was told that it had to expeditiously deliver on its commitment to invest in the Chabahar port or risk losing it to other investors. India had delayed the Chabahar deal by almost a decade. The Indian government’s spin machine has made it sound that the Chabahar deal is a diplomatic coup against China and Pakistan and that the port will emerge as a rival to the nearby Gwadar port in Pakistan, which is being developed by China. Gwadar is important for the OBOR project. China has invested heavily in both Pakistan and Iran to make the project a success. Unlike the Gwadar project, where China is building a $46 billion economic corridor, India is only investing $200 million to develop two terminals and five berths in Chabahar. An additional $300 million has been earmarked for infrastructure development of the port area. Iran has made it clear that the Chabahar port is not being projected as an alternative to Gwadar. Both Tehran and Islamabad insist that Chabahar and Gwadar will remain “sister ports”. Both the ports will improve regional connectivity, resulting in a win-win situation for all the countries concerned. In fact, Iran has invited further bids from Pakistan and China for the development of Chabahar.

India’s foreign policy in the past two years has been remote-controlled from the Prime Minister’s Office. The External Affairs Ministry has been given short shrift. Sushma Swaraj’s presence in the Ministry has turned out to be ornamental so far. She has not given a single in-depth interview to the media so far on foreign policy. The Prime Minister occasionally deigns to give interviews to select foreign newspapers. Unlike his predecessors , Modi does not take a media contingent with him during his frequent foreign jaunts. He is answerable to none, neither Parliament nor the fourth estate, on key foreign policy issues.

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