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CWA # 121, 29 May 2019

India External
Modi's Foreign Policy 2.0: A Response to C Raja Mohan

  Sourina Bej

C Raja Mohan in his recent commentary ("In his second term, Modi must deal with turbulence unleashed by Trump’s challenge to global trading order," The Indian Express, 25 May 2019 )  has emphasised on the need for India to understand the geo-economic shifts unleashed by US President Donald Trump on the global trading order. Identifying the foreign policy challenges for Modi in his second term, Raja Mohan also points out that even though Modi has not altered the essential foreign policy tenets built by his predecessors, he had infused ‘bold’ energy in the establishment.

Research Associate, ISSSP, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science campus

The current challenges to India’s foreign policy are not the same confounding the leadership in 2014. Voted back to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to face several global instabilities that have become prominent over the past two years. US’s not-so-steady policy in West Asia, pulling the plug on the JCPOA and renewed tension with Iran has put many oil importing countries, especially India and China in a fix. The escalating US-China trade war has forced nations dependent on US and Chinese market to look for larger options to evade the consequences of the tech and tariff.  The conclusion of the two-sessions meeting and the Belt and Road Initiative Forum in Beijing has led to a further institutionalisation of the BRI idea. The Brexit and the simultaneous exit of the UK PM Theresa May have kept the European politics fractured and lastly, the transitions in the coalition building had earlier reached new ground with the idea of the Indo-Pacific but with great power politics, this alliance-building could see a major shift.  

Reiterating the same, C Raja Mohan in his recent commentary ("In his second term, Modi must deal with turbulence unleashed by Trump’s challenge to global trading order," The Indian Express, 25 May 2019 )  has emphasised on the need for India to understand the geo-economic shifts unleashed by US President Donald Trump on the global trading order. Identifying the foreign policy challenges for Modi in his second term, Raja Mohan also points out that even though Modi has not altered the essential foreign policy tenets built by his predecessors, he had infused ‘bold’ energy in the establishment. Modi has readily taken decisions in responding to India’s relation with the US, Pakistan and China. The author points out Modi’s policies in ending India’s “historic hesitations” towards the US, confronting the sources of terrorism in Pakistan and readily staring down at China in the military stand-off in Doklam has been few achievements. But the international environment is more dynamic now than before and the most important change is the change in the global economic order which is accompanied by the structural changes in the global power relations.

India has invested in coalition building by working in institutions like Quad, International Solar Alliance but all are not adept to deal with the challenges emerging in the geo-economic front. Since 1990 the course of the Washington consensus has been heavily reversed by Trump, thus protecting India's trade equities against US trade targets is a priority. Raja Mohan sees India's foreign policy taking a hard and closer strategising of its stake in the global foreign trade.  

Quite rightly so, the stakes in the geo-economic front has been up the ante for India.

But taking a closer look at Modi’s tenure one could find that the incapacity of the UPA government to take quick decisions without a shroud of apprehension quite rightly made Modi’s approach to the foreign policy bold. Was Modi’s approach really bold? It is without a question that Modi has strengthened the U.S.-India relationship starting with inviting Obama as the chief guest for the Republic Day. He has without hesitation worked with great powers simultaneously. With the Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale's speech in 2019 Raisina Dialogue, it was clear that India is looking to move on from its non-aligned past and that was possible with Modi’s personal charm with the leaders. But the alignment has come in terms of issue and the non-alignment has remained with the individual countries. Thus when India worked with the US, Japan, Australia on the Quad, it also chose to break the anti-China rhetoric through the Wuhan summit. Modi has continued in its practice of balancing between the US and China whether bilaterally or through multilateral engagements. That is here to stay.

Secondly, in terms of its policy with China, it met with little success in spite of the Wuhan summit, as the spirit is yet to be back channelled into something concrete in the trade relations. In addition, most of his policies in the Southeast and East Asian countries have had its roots in the tenures of Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. It is with the Pulwama attack that he is seen to have taken a bold and hard-handed approach to foreign policy. Simultaneously he has also been criticised that Pulwama was more an act to show the home audience of his capacities as a leader before the election than a message to Pakistan. What Modi followed was given by policy and some were a set of reactions to the existing situations. With the current geopolitics shifting at a faster rate sticking to this responsive path might be a challenge for Modi.

Thirdly, despite the great energy, the payoff has been limited in the neighbourhood. In Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, minus exports, India’s clout has always been dependent on which government is in power rather than on its own economic deep pockets and capacities. That will not change until Modi brings in major reforms to rejig the fast pace work of the bureaucracy.  

Lastly, Trump’s policies have not just upturned the geo-economic but have an overlapping impact in the geo polity. The area of Modi’s foreign relations that are seen the most success is with West Asia. In the Middle East, India has asserted itself like never before, even garnering an invite to the inaugural address the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for the first time in its 50 years of existence. No other country could successfully maintain a relationship with Israel, Palestine and the Arab world in one balance than India. It has successfully gone ahead with the construction of a port in Chabahar, Iran connecting to Afghanistan by land and sea. By with tensions tearing between Washington and Tehran, New Delhi is now walking the tight rope to take a decision on importing Iranian oil. India’s close association with the US has now made it impossible to make an independent decision on oil imports. India has also previously stopped importing oil from Venezuela upon US pressure.

Geoeconomic has become the heart of geopolitical shifts in the contemporary world. The challenge for India would be to find a way to firm up its negotiating structures that would reset the economic path along with the geopolitical path instead of dealing with the challenges separately.

 

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