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The Modi style of diplomacy: Many hits and some misses

Narendra Modi has successfully managed several events affecting our foreign policy and given a boost to Indian diplomacy, writes Kanwal Sibal.

columns Updated: Dec 31, 2015 07:36 IST
Narendra Modi,Foreign policy,Diplomacy
Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have travelled to 25 countries this year. Criticism that this excessive travelling has been at the cost of attention to domestic affairs is misplaced.(PTI Photo)

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has energetically expanded the political, security and economic reach of Indian diplomacy. He has travelled extensively, visited countries hitherto neglected at his level, conveyed a message of confidence in India’s future, taken more open positions on issues of strategic import, offered economic opportunities and ease of doing business to would-be participants in his several development campaigns, and wooed Indian communities abroad in an unprecedented manner.

The consolidation of our challenging relationship with the United States was pursued in 2015 with these multiple objectives. US President Barack Obama was honoured at our Republic Day celebrations in January, the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions was signed, defence ties were boosted, the contentious nuclear liability and tracking issues were resolved politically, better counter-terrorism co-operation was obtained, the US corporate sector was intensively engaged for investments and the Silicon Valley Internet giants dramatically connected with, not to mention the Indian-origin community at a mega event in New York. On climate change issues, Modi warded off isolation or co-option by the US, protecting India’s interests reasonably at the Paris conference, with plaudits from Obama. A similar strategy has been pursued in the WTO parleys.

With similar objectives, the India-Japan relationship has been further fortified with a visit this month by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The nuclear agreement removes a major hurdle in building a strategic relationship of equality between the two countries. The legal framework for building India-Japan defence ties has been laid. Japan’s participation in the India-US Malabar naval exercise has been institutionalised. The choice of Shinkansen for the hi-speed Ahmedabad-Mumbai rail link should give a spurt to greater Japanese investment in India.

Emulating China’s dual policy of engaging India and undermining it strategically, Modi has continued to engage the Chinese leadership, sought Chinese investments, maintained high-level military contacts and used the trilateral Russia-India-China dialogue as well as the BRICS format to express shared positions on specific global issues, while strengthening strategic ties with the US and Japan, affirming freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, linking the security of the Indian Ocean area where the Chinese presence is set to grow with the Asia-Pacific where China is mounting a direct challenge to the US and Japan, remonstrating with China over its support to Pakistan in the UN Security Council on terrorism and voicing concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Contrary to perceptions, the vital relationship with Russia has not been neglected. Modi has interacted with Putin during the BRICS, G20 and SCO summits. His successful visit to Russia this month for the 16th annual summit consolidated nuclear and defence ties, saw more energy tie-ups and a push to expand economic ties for which opportunities have further grown with Russia’s collapsing relations with Turkey. Modi is shielding our relations with Russia from any negative impact of Russia-West tensions.

Modi would have travelled to 25 countries this year. Criticism that this excessive travelling has been at the cost of attention to domestic affairs is misplaced. The frequencies of summit meetings on global issues where vital Indian interests have to be protected compel attendance. Engaging Indian Ocean countries and neighbours, major European powers not on Modi’s travel agenda in 2014, visiting all Central Asian countries, Canada and some of China’s neighbours made strategic sense. The absence of West Asian Islamic countries in Modi’s travels was made up by his highly successful visit to the United Arab Emirates in August, which saw a remarkable alignment of views on terrorism, with indirect allusions to Pakistan.

Modi made an unprecedented international impact by having the UN declare June 21 as International Yoga Day. He continued to push for a permanent membership of the UNSC, necessary if India is to be a leading power, and for a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, in a bid to constrain Pakistan. The Africa Forum Summit in October boosted India-Africa ties. The Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh was another foreign policy highlight in 2015, as was India’s SCO membership.

However, like his predecessors, Modi has not found an answer to our Pakistan problem, despite attempts. Pakistan scuttled Modi’s Ufa initiative. We re-engaged it at Bangkok at NSA/FS level and Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad this month cleared the resumption of a ‘comprehensive dialogue’ in exchange for Pakistan’s agreement to give priority to terrorism in discussions and expedite the trial of those involved in the 26/11 Mumbai carnage. Modi dramatically underwrote further our outreach to Pakistan by halting at Lahore to greet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his way back from Afghanistan, with which India’s strategic engagement has found fresh breath. Hopes of changing the course of history with Pakistan if it passes the test on terrorism remain fragile.

In an undoubted setback, after India’s unstinting aid for the massive April earthquake, anti-India sentiment, surprisingly fuelled by the Nepali Prime Minister himself, has spread in Nepal over the Madhesi protest against the new Nepali constitution and the consequent disruption of fuel supplies from India. We have also not been able to deal effectively with the political disarray in the Maldives. China has provoked India by announcing the CPEC through PoK. Russia’s decision to sell offensive arms to Pakistan is a wrinkle. Continuing US arms supplies to Pakistan and support for the reconciliation process in Afghanistan under the auspices of Pakistan and China hurt our security interests. We have established geopolitical convergences with the US to our east but we have not succeeded in doing so to our west. Although Modi had a good meeting with Iran President Hassan Rouhani at Ufa, Iran was absent from the array of the government’s thoughtful strategic initiatives in 2015.

Those who criticise Modi for event management in foreign policy should actually note his successful management of many events affecting our external interests.

Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 30, 2015 22:51 IST