The following speech was delivered earlier this month at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, inaugurating the Rajni Kothari Memorial Lecture Series. It has been edited for publication on this website.
Indian foreign policy is undergoing a paradigm shift. It has had several such shifts over the last seven decades, but over the course of time, these have amounted to continuity. Foreign policy analyst C. Raja Mohan best described this phenomenon as “transformation through incremental adaptation”.
While Indian foreign policy under successive prime ministers has adjusted to changing global geopolitical dynamics, Modi has brought to it a new energy and clarity of articulation. His bold moves, while taking the country closer to the United States, and repeated outreach towards Pakistan and China, despite some setbacks, combined with rapid changes in the global matrix, are taking India into uncharted waters.
To assess the shifts in India’s foreign policy undertaken by previous Indian governments, it is necessary to first identify ‘inflection points’ in the global context. An inflection point refers to a development that fundamentally resets the matrix of the global order. After identifying the most significant geopolitically dislocating inflection points since the end of the Second World War, an attempt will be made to examine the foreign policy shifts under successive Indian prime ministers by constructing a timeline.
The Trump trigger
To illustrate the concept of foreign policy stances adjusting to paradigmatic changes, the outcome of the American election in November 2016, which resulted, contrary to all polling and analytical predictions, in the victory of Donald J Trump, makes an excellent case study.
Trump’s pronouncements in the lead up to the vote seemed to suggest that once in office he would deviate from policies pursued by his Republican and Democratic predecessors. His questioning of the value of military alliances, highlighted by his comment on the obsolescence of NATO, given its inability to combat terrorism effectively, and his call for proportional parity in financial and military contributions to fund NATO, raised alarm bells in a Europe already grappling with economic, political and security crises.
Additionally, he seemed to abandon the long held American position on the proliferation of nuclear weapons by expressing indifference to the possibility of Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia developing their own nuclear weapons programmes. He also praised Russian president Putin and expressed hope to vanquish ISIS by collaborating with Russia in Syria.
Trump rejected globalisation and promised to bring back manufacturing jobs to the U.S. by repudiating extant international trade agreements. Apart from threatening to impose tariffs of up to 45% on imports from China and 35% on those from Mexico, he also promised to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and possibly withdraw from the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
As part of his anti-immigration tirade, Trump proposed the termination of the H-1B visa programme of which the Indian IT industry has been the greatest beneficiary.
The immediate response of various leaders has been to accommodate and adjust to his pronouncements even before Trump assumes office. Prime Minister Modi was among the first to congratulate him the day after he became the president-elect despite the possible hit to Indian IT exports in services to the U.S.
China’s official statement claims that the U.S. has no option but to cooperate with it while surrogate Chinese analysts have argued that a trade war would hurt American consumers the most. Russia has been officially correct, but analysts have hoped that U.S.-Russia relations can improve, especially by cooperating against terrorism in Syria.
Mexico has expressed concern, threatened as it is with the building of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, the levying of high tariffs on its exports to the U.S., and deportation of illegal Hispanic immigrants from the U.S. But the Canadian prime minister immediately offered to renegotiate NAFTA.
The Japanese prime minister, who became the first foreign leader to be received by Trump, expressed satisfaction about their exchange, despite the cavalier manner in which Trump had discounted nuclear and defence treaty obligations to Japan, apart from the criticism on unfair trade practices.
Meanwhile, shaken by Trump’s criticism of NATO, European leaders like Angela Merkel have sought to remind him of their common values of “democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views”.
The Czech Republic recalled that Trump’s first wife and his influential three adult children were of Czech ancestry. The Slovenes were delighted at the phone conversation that their president had with Trump whose current wife is one of their own. These last few responses give a glimpse of how seemingly trivial issues can matter in bilateral relations.
Trump’s win apart, there have been other major inflection points after the Second World War that have caused geopolitical dislocations. These include:
— The creation of a new political and economic world order, dominated by the West in the form of the United Nations Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions respectively. While these institutions were created for global governance, there continues to be an over-representation and influence of the West and an equivalent neglect of the developing world in their functioning.
— The end of the Cold War in 1991 diminished the ideological polarisation and rivalry that had dominated international politics for nearly five decades. This led to the commencement of an era of U.S. unipolar hegemony that lasted until about 2010 when China replaced Japan as the second largest economy in absolute terms and overtook the U.S. as the largest in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms in 2013.
— The relative economic decline of the U.S. was paralleled by the historically unprecedented scale and speed of the rise of China, which achieved double digit rates of growth from 2003 to 2010 (with the exception of 2008). Therefore, in 2013, a confident president Xi Jinping proposed to President Obama ‘a new type of great power relations’: in effect, the sort of superpower condominium that existed between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War.
By this time too, the myth of the peaceful rise of China had begun to be discredited by the economic and military pressure that it began to exert on island neighbours, such as Japan (by withholding exports of rare earth materials) and the Philippines (by choking the flow of Chinese tourists).
That both these countries are security treaty allies of the U.S. signaled a challenge to the U.S. itself. The contemptuous Chinese dismissal of the judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), rejecting its exaggerated claims to islands in the South China Sea, has strained relations with the West and brought ASEAN unity to breaking point. Small member countries of ASEAN, such as Cambodia and Laos, had begun to attach more importance to the economic largesse from China over the need to support other members, such as, Vietnam and Philippines, in their island disputes with China.
— In 2016 Brexit delivered another blow to Europe, which was already struggling to simultaneously confront the Euro crisis in Greece, isolate Russia over the annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine, confront the refugee influx from Syria mainly into Germany, and the resurgence of right wing parties in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The influence of Europe in global affairs is eroding as it becomes more inward looking.
Evolution of India’s foreign policy
India itself has changed since the economic reform programme was initiated in 1991. GDP growth rates have risen as a result of economic liberalisation and globalisation. While socialist planning policies are being abandoned, redistributive policies continue simply because in democracies, the more numerous poor matter. However, India remains at the lower end of the middle income countries and continues to suffer low human development indices. Therefore, the primary objective of foreign policy remains a peaceful global and regional environment in which the economy can grow rapidly.
Other objectives include, energy, food and water security, safety of the Indian diaspora, and global issues, such as nuclear disarmament, fair trade, and the environment.
Apart from the failure to provide good health and education services, what has constrained India from achieving its foreign policy objectives has been the unremitting hostility of Pakistan and its military and nuclear nexus with China. The decades of economic sanctions imposed by the West, combined with the denial of access to high-technology in the aftermath of the Pokhran-I nuclear tests in 1974, slowed down modernisation of the Indian economy.
Since India is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it has limited bargaining power in international politics. Therefore, although it has been well established that Pakistan engages in terrorist activities in India, the continued diplomatic support and arms supplies it receives from the US and China have worked to the detriment of India’s prime objective of ensuring a peaceful South Asian neighbourhood.
In examining the evolution of our foreign policy timeline, it is essential to recall that newly independent India faced an enormous humanitarian crisis, caused by the simultaneous partition of the country, which resulted in unprecedented inter-religious violence and the displacement of millions of people. However, despite the partition and the invasion by Pakistani irregulars of Kashmir in 1947, independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a convinced internationalist, worked with the United Nations organisation for a fundamental transformation of the global political and economic order to end colonialism, eliminate war, promote universal nuclear disarmament, and reduce economic inequality among countries through fairer trade practices. This faith led Nehru to take the Kashmir dispute to the UN, which, with the benefit of hindsight, is being seen as a major error of judgement.
But he was also a realist. Despite his lifelong fight against colonialism he kept India in the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly British Commonwealth). Determined to keep out of big power rivalries, Nehru crafted the policy of non-alignment and spearheaded the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) to maintain economic and strategic autonomy. He believed strongly in nuclear disarmament for moral reasons, given the devastation caused by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also for pragmatic reasons as India was a weak military power, compared to the battle-hardened Chinese communist cadres that formed the People’s Liberation Army.
Although he made another fatal error by believing that China, another newly liberated Asian country, would not launch a war against India, yet, when the war broke out in 1962, Nehru had no compunction about seeking American diplomatic and military assistance.
If Nehru created the framework of non-alignment for India’s foreign policy, his daughter Indira Gandhi, when she became the Prime Minister, changed the dynamic of the way India engaged with both its neighbours and the big powers.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came to power in 1966 at a time when the Indian economy was stagnating and the country depended on the U.S. for food grains to avert famine. Even the U.S.S.R., which had mediated an end to the India-Pakistan War of 1965, was known to have offered Pakistan help to achieve military parity with India. Moreover, the U.S., feeling trapped in the war in Vietnam, was using Pakistan as an intermediary to China to help bring an end to that prolonged conflict.
China was receptive because its own ideological affinity with the U.S.S.R. had already frayed. And Pakistan, with American aid and weapons, had begun an assault on the Bengali population of East Pakistan, restive because of continued discrimination by a Punjabi-dominated Pakistani army. This caused an unprecedented 10 million refugees to cross the border into India.
Notwithstanding the hostility of the Nixon-Kissinger duo in the U.S., PM Gandhi supported the liberation of Bangladesh after securing a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Soviet Union. Thus, she took advantage of Cold War rivalries to promote the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 despite vociferous U.S. and Chinese support for Pakistan, including the deployment of the fifth fleet of the U.S. Navy in the Bay of Bengal. Seemingly inexplicably, but perhaps under western pressure, she signed away the leverage of 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, held by India, without getting President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s public agreement that the Line of Control (LoC) between Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir would be the international border between India and Pakistan, de jure, in the Shimla Agreement of 1972.
A confident Gandhi then went ahead with India’s first nuclear test, Pokhran-I, in 1974, but that was four years after the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force. What followed were debilitating western sanctions and the gradual build-up of a comprehensive technology denial ecosystem, which India continues to struggle against, and which has cost the Indian economy dear.
If Indira Gandhi was a bold changemaker her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, had perforce to play the role of an ice breaker. He came into power at a global inflection point, with the Reagan administration in the U.S. and Gorbachev in the U.S.S.R. pulling Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. This was a period of enormous prestige for Pakistan over its years of working with the CIA to support the Mujahedeen in fighting the Soviet forces. In this fraught setting, Rajiv Gandhi, having put aside his mother’s hardline position with both the US and China, reached out to the US for technology.
He visited China to begin post 1962 normalisation of relations with the reformist Deng Xiao Ping. He also broke the ice in relations with ASEAN and became India’s first PM to reach out to the military junta by visiting Myanmar to build a working relationship to contain the Chinese-trained and armed separatists in India’s North East.
But he blundered too by deploying the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka where he was outmanoeuvred by Sri Lankan President Jayewardene, with India ending up losing the trust of both the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Rajiv Gandhi, whose erroneous decision cost him his life, blown up as he was by an LTTE suicide bomber, was succeeded by the low-profile P.V. Narasimha Rao, who steered India through the end of the Cold War which saw the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and reunification of Germany. This also marked the beginning of the US’s unipolar moment.
Rao availed of the fortuitous coincidence of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. with the commencement of India’s economic reforms in 1991 to purvey the attractions of India’s one-billion-person market to reach out to American business. By upgrading India’s diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassador level in 1992, he helped India gain the support of powerful Jewish lobbies in the US that have an outsize influence in the US Congress.
Rao’s successor, I.K. Gujral, led a weak coalition government and yet laid out a roadmap that sought to build trust by India granting asymmetric trade concessions to its South Asian neighbours. That policy did help conclude the agreement for the sharing of the Ganga waters with Bangladesh in 1996. Unfortunately, his government lasted barely a year. The possible benefits of the Gujral doctrine with Pakistan, including the setting up of a composite dialogue process and near agreements to resolve the standoff at the Siachen glacier and the demarcation of the boundary in the Sir Creek, did not bear fruit.
At the peak of the U.S.’s global supremacy in 1998, India under PM Vajpayee conducted five underground nuclear tests, followed, in short order, by Pakistan conducting its own. Vajpayee’s defiance caused international outrage, but he succeeded decisively in raising India’s position in the global hierarchy of power. Although limited sanctions were imposed, rapprochement with the US developed rapidly, making it possible for President Bill Clinton to visit India in 2000. Six months later, Vajpayee visited the U.S. and proclaimed India and the U.S. “natural allies”.
Taking advantage of the improved relationship with the US, Vajpayee also reached out to Pakistan by visiting Lahore. But in keeping with the Pakistan army’s traditional hostility to any improvement in relations with India, then army chief, General Musharraf launched a disastrous military operation in Kargil in which the Pakistan army was thoroughly defeated and the world castigated Pakistan as the aggressor.
Taking advantage of Vajpayee’s opening up to the U.S., PM Manmohan Singh successfully led India out of the last vestiges of global isolation after the nuclear tests under Vajpayee and strengthened the country’s relationship with the West. It helped that under Singh the Indian economy achieved rates of growth nearing 10% and India joined the G20 at the heads of government level.
The first five years of Singh’s two terms in office were among the most productive for India in expanding and deepening relations with the U.S. and its most important Asian ally, Japan. Simultaneously, working with Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, he brought the two countries closer to peace on the LoC and to mitigating differences on Kashmir than ever before or since.
Taking advantage of President George W. Bush’s positive impression of India’s democratic credentials and in the teeth of opposition from within the ruling Congress party and its Communist coalition partner, he pushed through Parliament the ratification of the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2006. By signing this agreement the US had signaled to the world its recognition that although India did not accede to the Non Proliferation Treaty, it was a responsible nuclear weapons power.
Under Singh’s leadership, the government managed relations with China, arriving not at a solution, but a framework for maintaining peace on the northern border.
Singh also took relations with Japan to a higher level by hosting the visit of the Japanese Emperor and Empress in 2013: this was 50 years after their first visit to India. He reached out to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to begin an understanding which has led these formerly close allies of Pakistan to begin deporting convicted terrorists to India. This shift has been put to good use by his successor, Narendra Modi.
Prime Minister Modi could not have been more different in style and projection from the diffident Singh. In assessing Modi’s foreign policy it is important to appreciate that the pace of change in global affairs has picked up speed. Past ideological rivalries have been substituted by challenges to democracies like India and the US from one-party states, such as China; so-called “illiberal democracies”, such as Russia; and the rise of right wing parties in Europe.
The weight of economic growth has tilted further east as India has become the fastest growing large economy. The much larger Chinese economy continues to grow, though at a slower pace, while the West stagnates. And now, the election of Trump in the US has started to change the global paradigm in profound ways even before he has taken office.
Indicating the importance of foreign policy, especially Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), in his vision of domestic economic development, every foreign visit that the practical Modi has undertaken has been a search for FDI, energy security, and cooperation against terrorism.
Modi is different from his predecessors, who sought to advance India’s interests in the environment that confronted them: he projects India as a “leading power” and seeks to shape the global context itself. He has done this by working assiduously to transform India’s relationship with the U.S., which remains the largest economy in the world, has, by far, the strongest military capability, the most numerous allies, and an unmatched ecosystem for technological excellence in the world.
Modi’s turn to the US dovetails with Obama’s rebalance to Asia as both are concerned about China’s strategic expansion in Asia on the back of its continued economic advancement.
His skill lies in the specific and coherent matching of India’s objectives and strategies with those of his interlocutors, taking into account the changing circumstances of the partner country. For instance, growing Japanese concerns, caused by China, have provided the backdrop to Japan’s outreach to India to the extent of overcoming its deep-seated reservations on nuclear issues and signing the India-Japan civil nuclear agreement. This agreement will enable U.S. multinationals, GE and Westinghouse, part- owned by Japanese MNCs, such as Mitsubishi, Hitachi and Toshiba, to engage in nuclear commerce with India eight years after signing the original agreement with the U.S.
Similarly, Modi has strengthened the maritime partnership with Australia in the Indo-Pacific. Even his seemingly random visits to Mongolia, which wants Indian investments, was to obtain uranium. He also used New Zealand and Ireland’s desire to promote tourism from India to seek their support for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
Modi has articulated a coherent Indian Ocean strategy by visiting all the Indian Ocean island nations at one go. He did the same framing of regional strategy by visiting all five Central Asian republics in one trip, lending coherence to our outreach to these oil-rich nations. Likewise, he has injected vigour into the ‘Look East’ strategy of his predecessors by renaming it ‘Act East’ and speeding up connectivity through Myanmar.
Modi has given the Indian diaspora much more prominence than his predecessors did through high-profile outreach, especially in developed countries. He has consistently invited FDI and high-technology and encouraged them to use their political access with their governments to expand relations with India. At the same time, this government has been persistent in trying to ensure the security of Indian labour in the Gulf countries, including well orchestrated rescues of stranded workers from Libya and Yemen.
But the greatest difference between Modi and those who have preceded him lies in his being a risk taker. He has undertaken the very public sharpening of the tilt towards the U.S. through the signing of a U.S.-India Joint Strategic Statement for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region in 2015 and increasing defence purchases to the point of commencing programmes for co-development and co-production of hi-tech weapon systems.
To take the edge off the opposition’s criticism of this tilt to the U.S., Modi has worked hard to ensure that the Indian public understands that diplomacy and negotiations are a matter of both give and take. Thus, he has not been reticent either in reciprocating American gestures by altering long held Indian positions in WTO trade talks and on climate issues while also risking the ire of China, which interprets Indo-US cooperation as intended to constrain its dominance, especially in Asia.
Similarly, 70 years after rejecting the creation of Israel at the UN, given India’s opposition to the emergence of new countries based on religion because of its own partition, Modi is not only proud to acknowledge that Israel is now India’s third largest supplier of hi-tech defence equipment, but also that shortly, he will become the first Indian prime minister to make a bilateral visit.
An equally sharp policy departure has been the way Modi has approached India’s most difficult neighbours, reaching out to both China and Pakistan. Relations with China are more complex than ever because it is now a peer competitor of the U.S. While China works with India for a plurilateral world, it is offended by any challenge that it views India as posing to its dominance in Asia. So, India and China cooperate on global issues, such as trade and climate change, and have collaborated in BRICS in the creation of the New Development Bank and the China-led Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank. But when it comes to India’s oil exploration in Vietnamese waters in the South China Sea, the India-U.S.-Japan joint naval exercises there, the Joint Vision statement with the U.S., and the nuclear agreement with Japan, China is vociferously critical.
India remains unconvinced about the massive Belt and Road initiative (OBOR) because the $47 billion-China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) traverses disputed territory in Kashmir and militarises the Gwadar port. Chinese probing on the disputed border has continued despite the exchange of visits by Modi and Xi, the recent BRICS summit and India joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Modi’s public imprecations on the border, support for entry into the NSG, and for proven Pakistani terrorists being placed on the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) terror list, has not elicited a positive response from the Chinese, and has therefore become a matter of criticism by his domestic political opponents.
Before assuming the prime minister’s office, Modi frequently reiterated the view that ‘talks and terror cannot go together’. His hawkish stance on Pakistan in the build-up to the 2014 elections gained much publicity, both in India and Pakistan. However, Modi’s decision to invite the leaders of SAARC countries, including Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, and the announcement that foreign secretary-level talks would resume, was widely welcomed.
However, this early bonhomie between Modi and Sharif dissipated quickly as the Indian government temporarily suspended talks with Pakistan on account of its high commissioner’s meeting with the Hurriyat–despite New Delhi’s opposition–before the commencement of the foreign secretary parleys. This decisive action was unprecedented, signaling an early hardening in the government’s policy towards engaging with Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir.
When the two prime ministers met at the sidelines of the SCO summit in Ufa, the Modi government agreed to take the bilateral composite dialogue with Pakistan to the next level and establish a ‘comprehensive dialogue’ process to discuss all outstanding bilateral issues. But this initiative fell prey to repeated ceasefire violations. Later, when Modi made an impromptu visit to Lahore, tensions were heightened, not defused, as both meetings were followed up by Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks on military installations in Gurdaspur and Pathankot respectively.
In 2016, relations soured even further as India alleged Pakistani involvement in the worst wave of violence and unrest in South Kashmir and the Srinagar valley in decades.
Modi raised the stakes by highlighting the human rights violations committed by Pakistan in Balochistan. The opposition parties and some Indian analysts have throughout critiqued the Modi government for pursuing a dangerous and incoherent policy towards Pakistan.
Although publicly unconcerned about such criticism, Modi’s attitude towards Pakistan has become more negative. Decisive actions include the invitation to BIMSTEC countries—and not SAARC neighbours–to the BRICS summit in Goa in October 2016, followed by the collective boycott of the upcoming SAARC summit in Islamabad.
Any positive outcome of Modi’s two-pronged strategy of diplomatic isolation and appropriate military retaliation in the aftermath of the Uri attack is yet to be seen. Most recently, the Modi government has reopened the debate around the No First Use (NFU) commitment of India’s nuclear doctrine, perhaps in response to the rapidly growing Pakistani arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.
The outreach to Bangladesh, on the other hand, has been more productive. The India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement was unanimously ratified by the Indian parliament 40 years after it was signed and the exchange of enclaves and populations has taken place smoothly. Relations with Nepal are improving despite the self-destructive tendencies of that country’s own political leadership.
While some of these initiatives have indeed been new, in other areas, Modi has only expanded the parameters of relations built by his predecessors. This is true of the continued search for membership of the UNSC, of joining the SCO, and leadership at the G20 and the BRICS forum.
The deterioration in relations with Russia, which remains our largest supplier of arms, began earlier as it ran parallel to India moving closer to the U.S. The same is true of Iran, an old but distant friend, with which progress on the Chabahar port remains slow, just as it was during Singh’s regime.
What has been more rapid is the loss of interest in SAARC with efforts underway to build up organisations in which Pakistan is not a member, such as BIMSTEC to the East, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association to the West.
Even the loss of interest in the Non Aligned Movement, signaled by the prime minister’s absence at the July 2016 Caracas summit, is dramatic, but neither new nor surprising, since Modi has no ideological commitment to non-alignment which had been the lodestar of Indian foreign policy since Nehru.
To conclude, while there is much continuity in India’s foreign policy, Modi’s energetic and bold diplomacy and superior implementation skills have indeed changed its paradigm. Although Modi inherited an expanded relationship with the U.S., his enthusiastic willingness to add strategic content and involve it in indigenising India’s defense manufacturing base, have transformed the bilateral relationship.
While providing a hedge against an unpredictable China and a rogue Pakistan, the closer equation with the U.S. has also gained India dividends in the form of greater proximity to U.S. allies, such as Japan, Australia, and technologically developed NATO member states.
While Modi’s boldest moves have been in the important relationship with the U.S., his efforts with difficult neighbours, such as China and Pakistan, have yet to show any enduring gains.
Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.
This speech was delivered at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, inaugurating the Rajni Kothari Memorial Lecture Series.
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