By Rajan Kumar
The primary goal of India’s foreign policy is to create an environment which enables economic growth, ensures national security and enhances its global status. India has been growing steadily in the last two decades, but the security environment in its neighbourhood continues to be a serious concern owing primarily to the cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, unsettled land borders, and deep penetration of China in the subcontinent. The first term of the Modi government witnessed the Doklam standoff with China and war-like tension with Pakistan following the Balakot strike. One of the key priorities of the Modi government, therefore, would be to avert the recurrence of such incidents and deal with these two neighbours, formally or informally.
New Delhi’s strategy towards Islamabad underlines a combination of “muscular resolve” and “diplomatic isolation.” It will not hesitate from retaliation or pre-emptive strike in the event of a terrorist strike targeting its strategic assets. This muscular policy, or at least the demonstration of it, helps the party in power as it receives a favourable endorsement from the Indian public subjected to a hyper-nationalistic media environment. At the diplomatic front, it will pursue a policy of isolating Pakistan at the international institutions and in the subcontinent.
In South Asia, India favours a new framework of regional cooperation where it is not dragged down by Pakistan. It has shifted its focus from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). During the second swearing-in ceremony of prime minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi did not invite the prime minister of Pakistan while other South Asian heads of states were welcomed. India will avoid engaging openly with Pakistan, at least for some time, but the back-channel diplomacy cannot be ruled out.
If Pakistan poses a day-to-day concern, China is viewed as a “strategic rival” and a real threat to India. The growing Chinese influence in the subcontinent is compelling India to re-orient its policy towards neighbours. China has extended its presence through its grand connectivity projects, financial investment, and alluring a section of South Asian elites loyal to its ventures. It has succeeded in projecting itself as a viable alternative to the Indian dominance by weaning a segment of the political elite in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Maldives away from Indian influence. The former presidents such as Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka and Abdulla Yameen of Maldives, and Nepal’s prime minister KP Sharma Oli developed close ties with China.
New Delhi seems to have woken up to the realisation that the smaller states cannot be taken for granted. To its advantage, the political regimes that returned to power in Sri Lanka and the Maldives are favourable, but the situation remains tenuous even now. Modi’s first two foreign destinations are Male and Colombo- an attempt to cement close strategic cooperation with them. The last term of the Modi government witnessed a renewal of ties with Dhaka following the resolution of long-pending land and maritime boundaries, including the issue of conclaves. Bhutan remains firmly in India’s ambit.
The emerging political uncertainty in Afghanistan has the potential to threaten India’s strategic interests. The US and Russia have intensified their negotiations with the Taliban, which is likely to return to power in some form following the withdrawal of the US. The Modi government may have to revisit its policy of no-talks with the Taliban, especially when its return to power is imminent.
One of the key features of Modi’s foreign policy in the last term was to develop close ties with the US. India signed the “foundational accords” such as the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), and made progress on the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). The LEMOA allows India to use American facilities while the COMCASA permits the transfer of communication weapons to India. The US, Japan and Australia participate in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to promote rule-based order and balance China’s outreach in the Indian Ocean region. India, Japan and the US also take part in the joint naval Malabar exercises. A strategic relationship with the US and Japan is considered crucial to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region. The surprise appointment of S Jaishankar as the External Affairs Minister attests the significance it attaches to its relationship with the US.
While India gives a high priority, it also recognises the fact that its interests are not necessarily compatible with that of the US in every region. Its cooperation with Iran has come stress due to the unilateral US sanctions. It had to stop importing oil from there and search for alternative sources which are expensive. Similarly, the S-400 missile defence system contracts with Russia will come under the purview of the US sanctions. India needs to devise mechanisms to deal with such sanctions. It would be imprudent to alienate a reliable partner like Russia for an unpredictable Trump administration.
The “America first” policy of the Trump administration, which encourages protectionism and unilateralism are antithetical to the interests of the developing countries. It has led to the beginning of a trade war with China. The US hiked tariff for over $200 worth products imported from China. In retaliation, China pledged to hike custom duties on nearly $50 billion products coming from the US. It has also warned the US of stopping the supply of rare earth minerals. India was confident of finding a solution with the US, but became the new target with the termination of General System of Preference (GSP) benefits, which will impact worth $5.6 billion of its exports. This trade war is likely to intensify in the future with wider geopolitical implications.
To sum up, Modi’s national security strategy, in the first term, involved engaging with all the major powers such as the US, Russia, Japan, and even China. If India took part in naval exercises with the US and Japan, it also participated actively in the BRICS and the SCO forums. This act of balancing is likely to continue. New Delhi’s policy of multi-engagement is a part of its hedging strategy in a highly uncertain world marked by an assertive China and an unpredictable US administration.
(The author is Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal.)