Even as India is on a rising trajectory in terms of global politics and economic engagements, Prime Minister Modi will continue to face newer challenges in his second term.
There seems to be a growing debate among the members of the strategic and academic community as to whether the fairly new narratives on India’s foreign policy orientations set by Prime Minister Modi during his first tenure will find a continuity or will change in Modi-2.0.
India’s formulation of a robust foreign policy and building stronger network with a wide spectrum of world leaders and capitals during Modi’s first term seems to have contributed immensely in elevating India’s status in global affairs.
Interestingly, belying conventional wisdom on electoral politics, the way Modi handled foreign policy during his first term gained salience during the recently concluded elections in 2019. India’s acceptance in the international community is clearly visible. India has addressed its immediate task to ensure an external environment that is conducive to India’s transformation and development. But to consolidate this gain, India has to accomplish a peaceful and prosperous periphery in its immediate neighbourhood to begin with and then in the region.
How India would evolve its relationship with major powers and get acknowledged as a responsible player in the international system will be the hallmark of Modi 2.0. The other important issue that Modi has to seriously address would be matters relating to the future—energy security, environment and climate change. There is no dispute in saying that our foreign policy confronts challenges of achieving certain national goals with the limited means available. Unlike domestic policy, the attempts made in foreign policy to attain one’s goals are mainly operating in an environment which is largely outside of one’s own control. Modi 2.0 will be all about how maximisation of interest and power combining both hard and soft will feature prominently in India’s foreign policy in the coming years. The tools of promoting India’s maximising of interest and power are expected to completely reflect a strategic autonomy in our decision-making process.
India will also strengthen its strategic partnerships with major powers and intensify all its efforts in creating a win-win situation for all stakeholders.
With India emerging as an important investment destination, huge consumer market and excellent manufacturing centre, it is inevitable that foreign policy and economic engagements have to run parallelly as is the case with many economies in the world. In his first term, Modi and his team have effectively laid the ground rules for regional and global engagements which are expected to be pursued with renewed vigour and confidence in the coming years.
The resounding victory of the BJP and political stability in New Delhi would certainly provide the much needed booster shot to Modi’s global outreach to gain strategic foothold and effectively tackle economic and geopolitical challenges.
Among the foreign dignitaries invited to the swearing-in ceremony were leaders of BIMSTEC member countries, as well as Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, and President of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbay Jeenbekov. This sends a very clear signal as to what Modi proposes to do in the initial days in office in his second term, and is in keeping with his Neighbourhood First policy, with a greater focus on creating an amicable environment for serious constructive engagement.
Many of India’s immediate and distant neighbours may secretly feel uncomfortable with an aggressive and ambitious China, but when it comes to economic diplomacy and project execution, India comes nowhere near Beijing. Even SCO members would like New Delhi to match Beijing’s proactive approach, but Modi will have to tread cautiously, lest he ends up opening another hostile issue to tackle.
The energy-hungry India needs to secure its energy supplies from as many sources as possible, especially through Central Asia. Besides oil and gas, New Delhi is eager to import uranium from Uzbekistan while such supplies have been arriving from Kazakhstan. While Beijing’s economic prowess and geographical contiguity has enabled it to make huge inroads into Eurasia, India views itself as a stabiliser and security provider in the region. New Delhi’s growing financial clout also makes it an attractive economic power for many SCO member states and observers.
With US sanctions on Iran, India’s road to Central Asia and Eurasia faces roadblocks creating hurdles in the conclusion of the Indian-Eurasian Economic Union FTA talks involving parts of Central Asia, a high priority agenda in India’s strategic outreach.
From New Delhi’s viewpoint, Trump’s policy vacillations prompted the Modi government in the last five years to undertake constant review of foreign policy assessments. With impending presidential elections, Trump’s priorities would be anything but Pakistan. So his declared intent to punish Pakistan is a far cry; it has not only ended in hyphenating India and Pakistan, but also revealed his poor understanding of New Delhi’s security concerns.
The US decisions regarding visa policies and constant changes in trade terms are some of the other challenges that Modi is facing in his second innings. China is the largest exporter of manufactured goods to the US, and the China-US trade could have crossed the eight hundred billion dollar mark. China is also the largest trading partner of the EU and Japan. The US-China trade war has constrained many emerging economies in the region and is likely to change the geopolitical dynamics further. Another challenge for Modi would be to recalibrate India’s China policy without stepping on the toes of either the US or China. Needless to say, New Delhi cannot view China from the US prism, but at the same time it needs to prepare the ground for serious fallout in the event of US-China trade conflict escalating into a full-blown trade war.
New Delhi has been studying the changing dynamics in the Indo–Pacific region where there are clear trends of strategic balance incrementally shifting away from America. The emergence of China as an economic super power and a strategic fulcrum of the world is a reality.
One of the challenges before Modi in his second term would be to continue defence purchases with Russia, maintain a steady supply of gas from Iran and yet devise diplomatic avenues to not feel the heat of US sanctions.
It would an out-of-the-box idea to move a resolution in the UNSC seeking to regulate the imposing of sanctions by individual countries.
China under Xi Jinping has constructed floating armada and ports all along the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, fit for civilian as well as military operations from Africa to Malacca Straits, caring two hoots for world opinion and protests by countries along its periphery. It is another matter that many of them are economically unviable but serve the strategic interest of Beijing very well. His ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is focusing on investment, infrastructure, communication systems and cheap loans, thereby tying the local political establishment into a debt trap, thus forcing nearly 60 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe to integrate their respective economies with the Chinese economy. Xi Jinping’s China will not do anything without a long-term strategy. India will be cautiously watching these many developments to understand China’s larger fundamental goals.
At the top of the agenda for Xi Jinping is to close in on the US, dislodge the US from its position and become the global number one, numero uno.
Meanwhile, under Prime Minister Modi’s supervision from 2014 to 2019, New Delhi has rolled out a robust Asia-Africa-Growth Corridor project; launched special initiatives for regional growth such as Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR); planned and revived developmental programmes under BIMSTEC, linking it to Look East Act East policy. In a recent closed-door meeting of IBSA countries, an ambitious agenda was drawn up to revive and revitalise this unique institution of three democracies representing three continents.
The recent political victory in the Northeast for the BJP will hasten economic activities, thereby strengthening the region which is a gateway to South East Asia. Going by Indian Navy’s recent security doctrine, we are poised to become the strongest in the region through greater patrolling power and increased surveillance capability, acknowledged by all regional players, including China, as we rescued their ships hit by pirates.
In these circumstances, it becomes imperative for both India and China to reduce flash points, normalise relations and lay a strong roadmap for a long, sustainable and mutually beneficial growth plan through economic engagement.
Yet, notwithstanding all these positives, New Delhi needs to be cautious while hitting the reset button as far as its “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai-2” is concerned. Beijing is in a hurry to settle border disputes with all its neighbours, including India. India had no border with China until China forcibly occupied Tibet in 1959. We have not yet diluted our stand on Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his people need to go back to the land of their ancestors, shed the ignominy of living as refugees and live in peace and dignity. We have refused and rightly so, to be part of OBOR and objected to CPEC which passes through POK. China will have to reciprocate to our stand on “One China” policy and terminate the CPEC project. An independent and free Baluchistan should have the right to own and use Gwadar to the best advantage of its people and to countries in the IORA. Besides, Beijing will have to be told in clear and unequivocal terms that it cannot pursue double standards on terrorism. In between the lunches and dinners in the shadow of (the picturesque) Wuhan spirit, Modi should make it clear to his Chinese host that New Delhi wants peace and tranquillity in the border, improve relations with Beijing, grow together but will brook no compromise, territorial integrity and strategic and security architecture.
An economically and politically strong India no longer needs to toe the line drawn by stronger powers in the global power structure. But we are far from being an agenda-setting power. We still seem to suffer from serious dithering whether we would want to be one such power.
Even as India is on a rising trajectory in global politics and economic engagements, it will continue to face newer challenges and encounter more hostility from competitors and foes than support from allies, reliant and friends. Prime Minister Modi has been leading the foreign policy thrust so far and has put his best foot forward by choosing a service insider as his foreign minister. But it would be naïve to think that foreign policy, strategic plans and diplomatic outreach in an increasingly complicated world with multi-pronged challenges, numerous regional and global institutions and a wide spectrum of opportunities can be conducted by a relatively small team with a shoestring budget.
In his second term, Modi will do well to involve a number of Indian think tanks with India-centric worldview, academicians, relevant departments in universities and independent experts in his quest to catapult India to its rightful place in geopolitical arrangement. India’s foreign policy interests will also get augmented through its proactive role in both regional as well as global institutions. India’s increasing role in G-20, SCO, BRICS, BIMSTEC, IBSA and IORA will be some of the significant pointers for its recognition as a major global player in the international system.
Dr Arvind Kumar is Professor of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal.
Seshadri Chari is a political commentator and strategic analyst.