His strategy is to make India the economic focal point, while India maintains its geo-political relevance.


WASHINGTON DC: He is an enigma for global diplomacy watchers, but the Capitol Hill is getting used to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unusual “intrusive” diplomacy style.

At one time he is at so much ease with US President Donald Trump, with whom many global leaders aren’t. By 27 September, he will meet Trump four times in as many months. While he meets Trump with a distinct chemistry, the warmth in his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t be missed either. Even as he enjoys a personal bond with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, who doesn’t miss Gujarat and Varanasi each time he is in India, he also keeps Chinese President Xi Jinping in his “global friends’ list”. The two have met twice so far and will be soon meeting, in which Kashmir, surprisingly, will not be the focus of discussion, in a way “depriving” Pakistan of that lone powerful support in China. And who can miss in this friendship album in which his posters come up during Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign even as he gets the highest civilian award from the United Arab Emirates.

At the centre of this “pan-power blocs” diplomacy of PM Modi, is his clear-cut two-fold strategy—make India the economic focal point and market of developed economies to invest, while India maintains its geo-political relevance in the South Asian and Indo Pacific region by standing along the powers to be.

To Michael Kugelman of South Asia Center of Woodrow Wilson Center, PM Modi is “reaping dividends of his extensive travels and engaging with wider global platforms”. “The world is so much to its (India’s) side that if Pakistan opts for war with India at this time, it will receive global condemnation.”

Aparna Pande, an expert on India and South Asia at Hudson Institute, explains it more: “PM Modi has sought to use economic foreign policy to boost relations with India’s close partners, like US, EU, Japan and Israel. He has also sought to ensure that old partners—like Russia—remain close to India by ensuring defence deals and energy sales. He and his advisers know that economic reform is critical. India matters to the world because of its economic potential and its economic growth of over 7% since 1990s. India needs to go back to growing at 7%, if not 8-10%.”

No wonder, India can get the sanctions waiver on its oil import from Iran and still keep the US cool, for now. Even as it pumps $5 billion into Russia for development of the Central Asian region and can still get President Trump to stand along as a strong friend in Houston rally on Sunday.

Kugelamn says, “One of the hallmarks of Modi’s diplomatic style is to travel widely and engage prominent global platforms, both bilateral and multilateral, across the board. This also entails transcending great power rivalry and engaging with all sides—such as, for example, the US and Russia. This may be the legacy of nonalignment, but I think it’s also an expression of Modi’s desire to showcase India’s rising power credentials. We saw this in his first term, and so what we’re seeing now reflects policy continuity.”

The Wilson Center expert, however, quickly points out that while Modi’s extensive travel diplomacy is in sync with many top global leaders in the West and his style finds a chemistry, which is a departure from his Indian predecessors. Since the announcement that President Trump would be attending PM Modi’s Houston rally as a show of strength, many experts are unanimous on one thing—Modi isn’t breaking power blocs. If anything, he’s transcending them.

However Kugelman says, “But in doing so he’s demonstrating his willingness to help sketch out a different type of world order that isn’t dominated by traditional power rivalries, and one that accentuates the capacities of rising powers and new and emerging global institutions.”

Another top India expert in Washington, Richard M. Rossow of Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) elaborates into reading of Modi’s diplomacy. “Prime Minister Modi has already shown that he is willing to break from convention. He has done major rallies in cities around the world, though President Trump’s attendance in Houston will be significant. It highlights the fact that despite some choppy waters around our economic and security ties, the fundamentals of the relationship remain strong, and focused on a positive future,” says Rossow.

The experts are intrigued on the balance India has created between the US and Russia, but feel that in the long run India and the US will be key strategic partners for their joint role in South Asia and Indo-Pacific Command.

Says Russow: “Balancing relations with the United States and Russia will likely become more difficult over time, unless US-Russia ties improve. Unless Russia attempts to become a more positive global player, US tensions with Russia will persist. And India will have a difficult time keeping both parties happy. If US-Russia ties do not improve, the other potential way New Delhi can balance these ties is by continuing to work on new opportunities for US-India security cooperation across the Indo-Pacific.”

Added Kugelman: “India has balanced Russia and the US, but I do sense New Delhi starting to distance itself from Moscow a bit—the S-400 deal notwithstanding—as it deepens its security partnership with Washington. Indeed, one of Modi’s signature foreign policy achievements to this point is his willingness to regard the US as something closer to an ally and not just as a partner.”

The current US trip of PM Modi, says Pande, “will see the two countries agreeing on a mini trade deal that may provide breathing space to both—for India, restoration of GSP will help boost exports at a time when India’s economy is slowing down and for the US, a mini deal with India will provide a boost at a time when there is no trade deal on the horizon with China”.

With reference to China, not to miss that despite the tensions in the sub-continent and archrivals India and Pakistan being battle-ready, PM Modi maintains the robust trade partnership and manages the political/security relationship so that a lid is kept on the major tension points. Kugelman, however, points out: “US-China trade tensions do offer a strategic opening to New Delhi to better advantage its relationship with Washington, but it will need to ease its own trade tensions with the US before it can fully avail itself of this opportunity.

The CSIS India Center adviser, however, feels that India will be “wary of Dragon’s designs in the region and cannot ignore the occasional border skirmishes.” Rossow says: “I do not know India cares to keep China in its fold.” India’s imposition of tariffs is directed more at China than the United States. Border disputes, an increased PLA Navy presence in the Indian Ocean, the One Belt, One Road initiative—all feed Delhi’s fears that China desires to be the dominant player on the Asian landmass, and the dominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean.”

Time will tell more on India-China relations, but the latter has at least made it clear that Kashmir will not be up for discussion when both PM Modi and President Xi Jinping meet in India.

On something very critical at this juncture, Kugelman agrees that “PM Modi’s unique diplomacy has prevented the world from going to Pakistan’s side”.

He says: “One thing we can credit Modi’s diplomacy for is preventing the world from taking Pakistan’s side. Aside from heavily critical international media coverage, expressions of condemnation from several nations close to Pakistan, and some criticism from some prominent politicians in the West and of course the UN, there hasn’t been that much critical noise internationally on Kashmir. There is clearly an effort by the Modi government, post-5 August, to rally the world to its side. Of course, Pakistan is doing the same thing. But New Delhi has more trust and favourability on the world stage, relative to Pakistan, and this helps India’s cause.”

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