As Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the East Asia summit, his official Twitter handle, @PMOIndia, stated: ‘We changed Look East policy into Act East policy in the last six months.’ Such glib statements suggest that the PM is not getting briefed accurately or that he is unaware of India’s recent history or he is just happy to mislead the people of India.
We witnessed something similar recently when Modi visited Japan. Anyone who lived through that media coverage would be astonished to learn that India and Japan had any kind of relationship before the change of government. In the frenzy, we lost sight of the fact that Modi’s visit to Tokyo was the culmination of years of solid foundational work on the part of the UPA governments, and that the warm ties between our countries go back over time.
It was the Japanese government that restored some balance. It bestowed one of its highest honours, the ‘Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers’, on former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He became the first Indian to receive this award. Singh was honoured for his significant contribution to the enhancement of relations and promotion of friendship between India and Japan.
So what exactly did his government do? It signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that will eliminate 94% of tariffs between us by 2021. It added Japan to Russia as one of only two countries with whom we have a bilateral annual strategic dialogue. It got Japan to join India and the US in trilateral naval exercises. It facilitated Japan becoming the main investor in our mega-infrastructure projects: The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, whose dedicated freight lines will transform the Indian economic landscape and the Chennai-Bengaluru Industrial Corridor project that will boost commerce with East Asia. Singh visited Japan and appointed Ashwani Kumar as special envoy to ensure prompt follow up action. In turn, we hosted the Japanese emperor and Abe was the chief guest at the 2014 Republic Day Parade.
The razzmatazz associated with Modi’s foreign visits tends to obscure the fact that India’s foreign policy enjoys broad support across party lines and builds on years of effort by diplomats. Breakthroughs come when the strategic landscape changes and countries feel the need to come closer.
Australia had historically focused across the Pacific and was aligned closely with the US, while we pursued non-alignment. In recent years, it changed focus to its geographic location, started engaging its Asian neighbours. But India went off Australia’s radar when the NDA government conducted Pokhran 2. Australia was opposed to India’s nuclear test and all the cricket we played did not bring our countries together.
It has taken the rise of China, increasing student inflows from India, and enhanced bilateral trade to get Australia to reach out to India. The UPA government took advantage of these openings. The fact that India even attended the East Asia Summit and that the definition of the Asia-Pacific region has been expanded to include India is testimony to the UPA’s efforts, which will surely see India gaining admission to the Asia Pacific Economic Council soon. Most importantly, the UPA got the previous Labour government of Australia to lift the ban on selling uranium to India.
During Modi’s trips we get to see the Indian diaspora demonstrate a new self-confidence because of its numbers, success and integration into host countries. Together with cricket, historic ties, etc., they contribute to the soft power aspects of diplomacy. But we need to go beyond drama. Modi’s bonhomie with Japan did not see our countries signing a civil nuclear deal. Beyond the rockstar events, we need results.
Indian diplomacy achieves results when it builds on the farsighted efforts of those who laid and strengthened its foundations earlier. Recognising their initiatives is more appropriate than tastelessly trying to appropriate all the credit for stronger ties with East Asia and the Pacific.
Rajeev Gowda is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha
The views expressed by the author are personal