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Tuesday, Sep 17, 2019

HTLS column by Ian Bremmer: Foreign policy rides on Modi’s charisma

PM Narendra Modi’s charisma, his determined push for economic development and his anti-corruption drive have made him broadly popular.

htls Updated: Nov 29, 2017 14:31 IST
PM Narendra Damodardas Modi shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after signing the guestbook at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on July 4 2017. In July, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel.
PM Narendra Damodardas Modi shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after signing the guestbook at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on July 4 2017. In July, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel.(AP File Photo)

For the first time in history, India is building a genuinely ambitious foreign policy. This project is bolstered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s domestic political strength, fueled by anxiety over the expansion of China’s military might and economic clout, and aided by willing allies in the United States, Japan, and Australia. We can’t yet project how India’s rise will shift Asia’s balance of power, but it’s clear this new vision of India’s international role will continue for the foreseeable future.

No nation can build a strong foreign policy without a domestic political consensus that supports it or a popular ruling party to drive it forward. In India, Narendra Modi’s charisma, his determined push for economic development, his anti-corruption drive, and the dismantling of unpopular programs created by the previous Congress Party-led governments have made him broadly popular. A recent poll found that 63 percent of respondents rate Modi’s performance as “good” or “outstanding,” while the Congress suffers from weak leadership and other opposition movements continue to fragment.

Modi’s strong domestic position allows him to build a new kind of Indian foreign policy, one based not on a moral imperative to remain aloof from the fights of others but on a non-ideological pursuit of the country’s national interests. This shift was illustrated most dramatically in September 2016 when Modi skipped the Non-Aligned Movement summit meeting in Venezuela, abandoning an international forum that India once led. We’ve seen it in Modi’s highly publicised overseas trips and his enthusiastic embrace of US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. We see it in the sheer number of countries from whom India now buys weapons. We saw it in July 2017 as Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, a significant supplier of defense equipment and a source of valuable intelligence—and in his decision not to include a meeting with Palestinian leaders.

Modi’s assertion of Indian power, and Indian public support for it, is driven mainly by the fear that China will come to dominate not only East Asia but the Indian Ocean, as well. China’s President Xi Jinping has consolidated domestic political control on a scale comparable only to Mao Tse-tung—and China’s founder led a nation with far less economic power and geopolitical influence than Xi dominates today. China has now embarked on a series of infrastructure development projects, most as part of its Belt-Road Initiative, which many Indians fear will leave the region deeply in China’s debt and India encircled by Chinese allies. India also fears closer ties between China and Pakistan will compromise India’s national security.

Modi has responded. He has refused to support the Belt-Road investment plan or to allow any of its projects to be built in India. He has answered attacks in Kashmir by ordering cross-border retaliation on Pakistani targets. To signal his defiance of any effort by China to make mischief at India’s borders, he faced down a bid by China to build a road in disputed territory in neighboring Bhutan. He pressured Sri Lanka to scrap a plan for joint development with China of a port that India feared might become a Chinese-controlled Indian Ocean naval base.

Other Asian countries, likewise anxious over China’s expansion and impressed with Modi’s willingness to stand up to Beijing, are deepening relations with New Delhi. The most important of these is Japan. India and Japan have a long history of cooperation, mainly in the form of trade, Japanese economic assistance, and investment. Modi recognises that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, another strong leader who hopes for a more expansive role for his country in countering China’s growing regional dominance, also has much to offer as an ally. To further this goal, and to continue to develop India’s infrastructure, India has agreed to build its first bullet train line from Mumbai to Ahmedabad with Japan’s Shinkansen, rather than less expensive Chinese trains, a move that demonstrates Modi’s intention to direct that economic and investment decisions serve India’s long-term strategic goals.

Of course, Japan is not the only country interested in closer ties with India. US President Donald Trump’s repeated use of the phrase “Indo-Pacific region” is a reminder that Trump too wants to counter-balance China’s rise. An alliance of India, the US, Japan, and Australia suits the ambitions of all four governments to assert their rights in ways clearly aimed at Beijing, and it’s a sign that far from an alliance of democracies intended to promote democratic values, this group’s primary interest in blocking China’s bid to dominate Asia.

It will be years before Asia’s balance of power becomes clear, but there is little doubt that India will play a crucial role in defining and maintaining it.

(Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World)

First Published: Nov 28, 2017 09:35 IST