Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to put his stamp on foreign policy as he holds bilateral summits in quick succession with three powers central to Indian foreign policy — Japan, China and the United States. Modi has already bared a two-fold focus to build a pragmatic, dynamic policy that ends the era of belated, reactive diplomacy: Proactively regain India’s clout in its own strategic backyard and build closer but differentially calibrated collaboration with major powers.
After highly effective visits to Nepal and Bhutan, Modi now turns his gaze to the grand chessboard to underpin broader national interests.
Modi’s upcoming tour of Japan is certain to deepen bonds between the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy. But if this emerging democratic axis is to turn into a game-changer in Asia, the two countries must make their collaboration meatier through deeper strategic linkages. Some of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent steps, including easing Japan’s arms-export ban and reasserting the right of collective defence, open new avenues of collaboration with India.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping comes calling in mid-September, Modi will have a more difficult task at hand. At a time when the India-China trade relationship is already lopsided, with Beijing exporting three times as much as it imports and treating India as a raw-material appendage of its economy like Africa, Modi must find ways to address this insidious asymmetry as he seeks to make a cash-rich China an important partner in India’s development.
Another challenge for him is to balance deeper India-China economic engagement with India’s strategic imperatives, like bolstering defences against China and containing increasing Chinese border provocations. According to minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju, Chinese border transgressions this year have exceeded more than one per day, totalling 334 till August 4.
Given America’s critical importance to India, Modi sagaciously placed national interest above personal umbrage by shaking off the US visa-related humiliation heaped on him for over nine years. After his thumping electoral mandate, he could have, given Washington’s itch to woo him, waited for top US officials to come calling. Instead, he quickly accepted President Barack Obama’s invitation to visit the White House, thereby leaving no room for perceptions about bilateral strains to arise and hurt India’s foreign policy interests.
Yet the reality is that India-US relations, after their heyday under Obama’s predecessor, have gradually run out of momentum, even though America has quietly become India’s largest arms supplier. Modi seems ready to reinvigorate the ties. But he will be visiting Washington at a time when Obama is already beset with multiple crises at home and abroad and appears increasingly as a lame-duck president under political siege, including from the Democrats. The contrast between a newly-empowered Modi and a fading Obama could not be starker.
In this light, it is unclear as to what the visit can accomplish, other than to drive home the message that all is well on the India-US front under Modi. Still, as
if to highlight how transactional aspects overshadow strategic elements, Washington would be expecting Modi to come bearing gifts, in the form of new economic and arms contracts. Modi, with his India-first instincts, has already shown that he will unflinchingly stand up for national interests, even if it means going against a large US-led combine, as happened at the WTO talks in Geneva.
Clearly, Modi’s smoothest interactions will be with Japan, even though he has gone out of his way to befriend China. He received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. Modi’s first bilateral meeting with a major State head was with Xi in Brazil. He allowed Xi to advance his India visit to September while postponing his own Japan trip by eight weeks. He sent the country’s vice president to attend the 50th-anniversary ‘celebrations’ in Beijing of the Panchsheel Treaty, a pact that China used to outfox and outflank India, culminating in its 1962 invasion. Modi agreed to let Shanghai host the new BRICS bank, accepting just a consolation-prize job offer for an Indian to be its first president.
Despite all this, Abe is likely to ensure that Modi’s Japan visit is a resounding success. Modi is expected to return home with the much-sought civil nuclear accord with Tokyo. Although this deal will be played up in India as a diplomatic triumph, its practical value will be largely symbolic. As India is discovering through its negotiations with France’s Areva, the price of imported reactors is so high that it would burden Indian taxpayers with onerous subsidies. Indeed, France — the ‘poster child’ of atomic power — has announced it will cut nuclear-generating capacity by a third by 2025 and focus instead on renewables. India must use its scarce resources on advancing its expertise in fast-breeder reactors and the thorium fuel cycle and building more indigenous 700 MWe reactors.
The India-Japan partnership holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia. This win-win partnership can help to drive India’s infrastructure development and great-power aspirations, while catalysing Japan’s revival as a world power.
India’s foreign policy has never had a distinct strategic imprint, except for a period under Indira Gandhi. India has always wanted to be a state that is liked, not a state that is respected internationally. Modi recognises this failing and — as Geneva exemplified — appears intent on fixing it. His overtures to Beijing can barely conceal his resolve to build close strategic ties with Japan to put discreet checks on China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which risks sliding into arrogance. Modi’s vision for Asia is stable power equilibrium in which India can thrive unhindered.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author
The views expressed by the author are personal