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The Triumphs And Trip-Ups Of Modi's Foreign Policy In Asia

09/06/2016 8:37 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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JOHANNES EISELE via Getty Images
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauds as he attends the opening ceremony for the Centre for Gandhian and Indian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai on May 16, 2015. Modi is on a three-day visit to China. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the two years of BJP government, Modi's strongest footprint can be seen in the domain of foreign policy. However, his high-octane diplomacy has not always been a resounding success. There have been flip-flops and strategic miscalculations emanating from a dearth of clarity and professionalism, an absence of policy-based strategic planning and, of course, the systemic malaise of bureaucratic inefficiency.

The Pakistan problem

As far as Pakistan goes, the Modi government has been accused of hitting the wrong note in its handling of the foreign-secretary level dialogue process and the Pathankot terror attack. However, I would like to argue that in the case of Pakistan, India has a very narrow framework of policy alternatives in decision-making. This is because the Pakistani establishment has multiple players and a certain confusion prevails in terms of whom to engage -- it is more or less futile to engage with the democratic leadership as the domain of foreign policy is strictly guarded by the army.

It makes more sense to diplomatically isolate Pakistan and discredit it in the world community. To that end, the Modi government has been quite successful.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a prominent Pakistani military expert, opines in her book, Military Inc. that a huge share of budget, resources, privileges and perks are claimed by the Pak army, largely on the back of keeping the "India threat" alive. The anti-India terror infrastructure has been raised with much care and effort by Pak army over the last 60 years of its existence. Eminent journalist MJ Akbar has written in his seminal text of the history of Pakistan, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan, that extremism is in the DNA of Pakistan and that its support the jihadi-terror infrastructure against India is unlikely to waver. This is relevant because India cannot have any serious engagement with Pakistan unless it is proportionately reciprocated by substantial cooperation and progress in dismantling the terror infrastructure against India. In this context, I prefer to take a realistic stand and argue that diplomacy has a very limited use. To prevent further escalation of conflict with Pakistan, it makes more sense to diplomatically isolate it and discredit it in the world community. To that end, the Modi government has been quite successful.

India's success can also be seen in its strong strategic presence in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has been trying to expand its influence.

Today, Pakistan has been diplomatically isolated which can be seen in the de facto cancellation of the F-16 deal between the US and Pakistan. The US senate has passed the National Defense Authorization Act-2017 blocking economic aid worth $300 million to Pakistan for not taking any substantial action against the Haqqani Network. Further, India's success can also be seen in its strong strategic presence in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has been trying to expand its influence. India's increasing proximity with Iran and Saudi Arabia has further alarmed Pakistan. With Baloch activists like Neela Qadri Baloch touring India, Pakistan is further worried by the prospects of India's support to the Baluch freedom struggle.

The Asian giant

I would like to argue that Indo-China relations must now be seen in the larger geopolitical context of China's expansionism in the South China Sea and America's rebalancing to Asia. The entire visa episode of Uyghur leader Dolkun Isa is more a reflection of an attitudinal change in the Indian strategic thinking rather than a policy blunder. It is a message in clear terms that India has the ability to respond effectively. Bruce Jones of the Brookings Institution argues that India's ties with China will continue to be defined by the "duality" of economic cooperation and increasing strategic competition. So far India has successfully speed-dated with China and the USA simultaneously, keeping its neutrality intact but increasing proximity to the US. China's expansionism in the South China Sea might put India in a situation where it will not have the privilege of staying non-aligned.

India has successfully speed-dated with China and the USA simultaneously, keeping its neutrality intact but increasing proximity to the US.

To expect any radical solutions to border disputes is unrealistic because rivalries are no longer limited to stretches of arid land. Instead, they are now rooted in the great power ambitions of India and China in the changing the power balance of the world. Hence, India's policy choices will be of containment -- engagement in the strategic domain and cooperation in the economic domain.

The Nepal fiasco

The Modi government's biggest blunder in foreign policy has been with Nepal. Modi's visits to Nepal to reboot strong cultural ties, and the aid offered during the earthquake had generated an immense amount of goodwill, which India has now lost due to its arrogance and undue interference in the recent issue of Nepal's Constitution and Madhesi agitation. India has been accused of supporting the Madhesi agitation and colluding in blocking essential supplies to Nepal. The result was seen on the streets on Nepal where common people burned the tri-colour and effigies of PM Modi. The matter becomes even more alarming when we factor in the increasing Chinese presence in infrastructure development and policy-making in Nepal. China's relations with Pakistan are getting stronger day by day and it is not in our strategic interest to have a rival triangle of China, Pakistan and Nepal.

By constructively engaging and cooperating with the world community, Modi has engineered a sea-change in India's image of a passive rule-blocker to a rule-shaper...

The larger picture

Overall, the scorecard goes in favour of Modi. With his historic land boundary agreement with Bangladesh and pro-active stand on the issues of terrorism, solar energy, climate change, cyberspace, nuclear arms and the UN reform process. By constructively engaging and cooperating with the world community, Modi has engineered a sea-change in India's image of a passive rule-blocker (in the name of "strategic autonomy") to a rule-shaper with strong leadership ambitions.

Further, Modi's efforts in reaching out to Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand to leverage strong cultural ties, and creating an effective check to China's aggression, are no doubt laudable. In future, the possibility of an India-US-Israel-Japan alliance can't be ruled out and if this happens India will be called upon to play a strong leadership role.

To conclude, in order to assume its place as a major power, India needs a plethora of reforms -- such as expanding the size of its foreign service cadre which in the words of WPS Sindhu of Brookings is the "smallest not only in G-20, but also in BRICS," and improving its efficiency by better training and promoting expertise through lateral entry. Lastly, India also needs to focus on strategic thinking in the foreign policy planning process and increasing its intelligence footprint in the world.

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