‘Modified’ Foreign Policy

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invested much political capital in his foreign policy initiatives. Behind the spectacle of the pomp and show, the real test of foreign policy and strategy lies in coherence of design, finesse in execution, and efficacy of outcomes. The first of our new column on Strategic Affairs takes a preliminary stab at assessing whether New Delhi has been able to translate its desires into tangible outcomes.

Srinath Raghavan (srinath.raghavan@gmail.com) is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
During his eight months in power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expended considerable energy and time on foreign affairs. The prime ministerial stamp on the foreign policy of this government is unmistakable. And, this is not just because the foreign minister’s role has been circumscribed. Rather, every foreign trip and summit meeting has been an occasion to project the towering presence and sole leadership of the prime minister. Modi has been the object of adulation by overseas Indians: the curious epithet of “rock star” is routinely used to describe his impact abroad. His meetings with world leaders have been equally impressive events. To be sure, much of this owes to Modi’s ability to present a compelling narrative of his approach to this or that country – and do so in an effortless manner.
Yet, storylines and stage props can only get us so far in international politics. The real test of foreign policy and strategy lies in coherence of design, finesse in execution, and efficacy of outcomes. It is to these standards that any serious audit of foreign policy under the new government must be benchmarked. As the glitter around the United States’ president’s visit settles down and fades, it may be useful to take a preliminary stab at understanding the current trajectory of Indian foreign and strategic policy.
Policy on South Asia
Modi began on a strong and positive note. The decision to invite regional leaders for his swearing-in signalled his intent to accord high importance to south Asia in his foreign policy. His subsequent visits to Bhutan and Nepal underscored this point. Several months on, however, the government seems unable to translate this desire into tangible outcomes.
Perhaps the most substantive move so far has been on the land border agreement with Bangladesh. The bill on the agreement had been prepared under the previous government, but not introduced in Parliament owing to opposition from the Bharatiya Janata Party. The prime minister’s course correction on this is a welcome step – one that could impart some momentum to the relationship. Yet, the government is not very well-poised to deliver on other, more important issues such as an accord on the Teesta River waters: think only of the state of the relationship between the West Bengal government and the centre. Nor is it clear that the government has thought through its own stance in the event of an escalation of the political stalemate in Bangladesh. Indeed, the government seems prepared only to pluck the lowest hanging fruit on Bangladesh.
The relationship with Sri Lanka too has nosedived in the months since Modi’s swearing-in. The prime minister initially struck a rapport with Mahinda Rajapakse, another leader who liked to present himself as tough and decisive. Yet, the furore over the visit of a Chinese submarine to Colombo sent the relationship southward. India’s concerns were understandable, but the manner in which the episode was handled was ham-handed. The government’s grandstanding will have longer-term consequences – not least with public perception in Sri Lanka about India. The departure of Rajapakse provides yet another chance to remove needless apprehensions and set the relationship on an even keel. Then again, such a “reset” can only be the beginning. The key challenge lies in nudging the Sri Lankan government towards a genuinely accommodative stance on the minorities, especially Tamils. It remains to be seen if Modi has the inclination and ability to do so.
The gap between promise and performance has yawned wider with Pakistan. After a promising start with Nawaz Sharif’s visit to India, New Delhi has lapsed into its old assumption that talks should be seen as a reward for good behaviour by Pakistan. The decision to call off the foreign secretaries’ meeting last year was unnecessary. By so doing, the government conformed to the now familiar pattern of oscillation between high-level engagement and complete disengagement with Pakistan. Even a cursory glance at our record of dealing with Pakistan over the past decade and a half would suggest the bankruptcy of this approach. Yet, we persist with it by invoking the usual alibis of multiple power centres in Pakistan, and so on.
More problematic are the indications that the government’s approach to Pakistan might be still more regressive. Several key members, including the defence minister, have claimed that India will respond strongly to any provocation by Pakistan. The national security advisor (NSA) is on the record as saying that the government’s stance towards Pakistan has shifted from a defensive posture to a defensive-offensive posture. The latter, he has explained, means that India will, if necessary, take the fight to Pakistan. As the NSA colourfully puts it, “You can do one Mumbai and you may lose Balochistan”.1
The braggadocio of such pronouncements aside, the strategic assumptions underpinning this stance need to be unpacked. The NSA claims that the nuclear context does not impinge on this defensive-offensive posture. Pakistan cannot use its nuclear shield to protect itself against India’s responses in this mode. Apparently, nuclear weapons only come into play if India adopts a purely offensive posture. At one level, this is simply wishful thinking based on a misapprehension of how escalation occurs during crises. At another level though, it is clear that the NSA is expressing the government’s willingness to use tit-for-tat “unconventional” responses vis-à-vis Pakistan.
He may not be the first intelligence official to moot such ideas, but he is certainly the first NSA to publicly hint at such a response. Not only is the efficacy of such methods deeply dubious, the international opprobrium and reputational costs that they risk are considerable. It is worth recalling that after the Mumbai attacks of 2008 such ideas were floated only to be wisely struck down by the government. Then again, A J P Taylor may have been right: the only thing we learn from history is how to make new mistakes.
Policy on China
This seeming inability to think through the chain of strategic action and response could hobble the government’s policy towards China as well. Here too, after a good start, New Delhi seems unable to make real headway. Part of the problem is that the government has not managed to reconcile the competing pulls of the various strands of its China policy. On the one hand, Modi is acutely aware of the potential importance of China as an investor in India. At a time when fall in public and private investment presents the single-largest obstacle to economic revival, the attraction of foreign direct investment is undeniable. To Modi’s credit, he swiftly understood that China is one of the main sources of such investment, especially in infrastructure.
On the other hand, the security establishment continues to regard China as an implacable adversary. Chinese “incursions” are routinely held up as evidence of its intent to keep India off-balance. The stand-off in the Ladakh area during Xi Jinping’s visit has cast a long shadow. From New Delhi’s standpoint, it is tempting to assume that this is of a piece with China’s assertive behaviour on its maritime claims in East and South China seas.
The divergent impulses that spring from these strands have slowed down India-China relations. The government clings to conventional wisdom on this relationship: economic ties should be pursued with China to mitigate the strategic rivalry. Modi may find it more useful to stand this on its head: tackling some of the more thorny strategic questions may unlock the huge economic potential of India-China relations. After all, Modi is better positioned than any other leader in the past 25 years to achieve a breakthrough on the disputed boundary with China. By 2016, the government will have control of the Rajya Sabha too. So, pushing through a constitutional amendment should not be impossible. The 2005 framework agreement provides an excellent point of departure for a settlement – provided India as well as China evince seriousness of purpose.
Instead, the government seems keen on reviving the old talks on clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Past experience, however, clearly suggests that at best we can only agree to disagree on the LAC. There is simply no way of papering over these differences. Moreover, the Chinese have little interest in any exercise at LAC clarification – if only because it will impinge upon the boundary negotiations. It is best, therefore, to aim at a speedy settlement of the boundary dispute.
The timing may well be good because of China’s concerns about attempts by the US to rally its old allies in Asia and to insinuate itself in the maritime disputes. However, the lure of a tight strategic embrace with the US appears to be strong in New Delhi. It is argued that the previous government kept the US at arm’s-length and that this has to be reversed. A tough-minded assessment would show, however, that the US itself is in more than one mind about China. While there is talk of a “pivot” to Asia, the Obama administration understands that it needs China’s cooperation in tackling a range of global issues. The recent joint undertaking by the US and China on climate change underscores the problems that are posed for India by such “G2” solutions.
The simple fact is that the US is a global power while we remain a regional player – even if our definition of our neighbourhood has expanded to the east and west. It is futile to assume that our interests can converge with that of the US in all important areas. The challenge for Modi is to leverage American power to our purposes without assuming that the US will be the panacea for all our challenges.
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