Continuity – but with zeal


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Narendra Modi has been in power for ten months. Arguably his greatest energies so far have gone into foreign policy. Is there anything distinctive about his approach, and has he any achievements to his credit column? Where has he failed in foreign policy, and what seem to be his blind spots?

Foreign policy, in India as elsewhere, is the area of public policy in which governments and leaders have the greatest freedom from political partisanship, domestic pressures, and the vagaries of public opinion. Not surprisingly, the prime minister has been the most active in this realm. Over ten months, he has met all of his most important counterparts, several of them more than once.

Thus, in 2014, Modi visited eight countries, which is roughly one a month since taking office (Bhutan, Brazil, Nepal, Japan, US, Myanmar, Australia, Fiji, Nepal) and attended four multi-laterals (BRICS, G-20, East Asia Summit, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). At his swearing-in, he hosted all the SAARC heads except for Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh. He has met Barack Obama twice one-on-one (in the US and India) and twice at multilaterals (G-20 and the East Asia Summit), Xi Jinping five times (BRICS, G-20, East Asia Summit, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and in India one-on-one) and Abe thrice (once one-on-one and twice in multilaterals).

Modi has also played host to a number of leaders. Last year, these included Vladimir Putin of Russia, Tony Abbott of Australia, Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam, and Tony Tan of Singapore. In February 2015, within days of his shock victory in the Presidential elections, Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka arrived in New Delhi. What this means is that in his first ten months in office there is no leader of any significance for India that Modi has not met.

Is this pace of foreign policy activity extraordinary? To cite just one figure, Manmohan Singh made 67 visits from 2004 to 2013, for an average of roughly seven per year. Modi in his first eight months did 11 visits abroad. His annual rate therefore works out to about 16 visits per year, which is twice Manmohan’s pace. While Modi will certainly slow down after this initial foreign policy sprint, he has been far more active than Manmohan.


The first distinctive thing about Modi’s approach to foreign policy therefore is that he has raised India’s visibility and presence in the major capitals of the world, beginning with the region but also amongst the leading powers, and he has done this very quickly. His is not a foreign policy of patience and doggedness.

Second, Modi, unlike Manmohan, has sought to inject his personality forcefully into foreign policy. Where Manmohan was reserved, technocratic, and recessive, Modi has been the opposite – verbose, charming, and extrovert. He has affected a more informal style during state visits in India and abroad, has looked far more at ease in the company of other leaders, and on the whole has made sure that he looks the part (even if his brown suit makes him look like a Karol Bagh businessman).

Third, Modi seems to have made clear to his bureaucracy and to foreign interlocutors alike that he is going to hone in on those countries he thinks matter most. Unlike his predecessors, he is focused on South Asia, the extended region (the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia) and the major powers; everything else so far is secondary.

Thus, Modi is the first Indian prime minister to have invited the South Asian heads to a swearing-in ceremony. He is also the first Indian prime minister to go to Nepal in 17 years (in fact he has been twice since he took office) and the first to visit Australia in 28 years! In March 2015, he visited the Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka (the last Indian prime minister to come here was in 1987), and later in the year will arrive in Singapore. Bilaterally and multilaterally, he will undoubtedly continue to underscore the importance of relations with the US, China, Japan, Australia, the EU, Brazil, Russia, South Korea, and Southeast Asia.

What is driving the prime minister? At the heart of Modi’s strategic worry is China, which must be engaged but also contained. This explains his priorities: five meetings with Xi Jinping already plus a visit to Beijing in May 2015 in order to engage China; and a focus on strengthening ties in South Asia, the Indian Ocean area (including Australia), Japan, and the US in order to contain China.


Fourth, Modi has made some tough calls. He terminated talks with Pakistan because the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi met the leaders of the Hurriyat – even though successive Indian governments have overlooked Islamabad’s diplomatic solecism. Overruling traditional China-worriers at home, he agreed that the new BRICS Bank must be headquartered in Shanghai and that Beijing’s financial contributions must be the largest (in return for an Indian becoming the first head of the bank). When he invited President Obama to be chief guest at Republic Day, this was an act of unprecedented symbolic importance for an Indian prime minister. He followed up with an accord on nuclear liability. A few months earlier, he had found a way to support the Doha trade facilitation compact after intensive bilateral discussions with the US.


Fifth, Modi seems to be far more comfortable with para and public diplomacy than any other Indian leader. He is easy, in other words, with Indian state governments reaching out beyond India’s borders to bring in investment and to enlarge trade and with cultivating non-state actors abroad.

Thus, he has shown no discomfort with Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal visiting Bangladesh and holding a mini-summit with Sheikh Hasina. Where the UPA under Manmohan failed to bring Mamata on board the Teesta river accord and the agreement on territorial enclaves, Modi hopes to work much more closely with her. Not surprisingly, he has looked equably on as Mamata does foreign policy. When Xi visited India, Modi hosted him in Gujarat, to make the point that the states can and should play a role in foreign affairs. During his own visits abroad, he has gone far more public than any predecessor except Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi. His enthusiastic outreach to Indians abroad during his visits is unparalleled, surpassing Nehru’s and Atal Behari Vajpayee’s.

Having said all this about Modi’s distinctiveness and achievements, what are the continuities in foreign policy? And where has he done less well? What has he ignored that could come to hurt India’s foreign relations? Broadly, his approach to the US and China displays more continuities than discontinuities. President Obama was in India for a summit from January 25 to 27. The general view is that his visit was a success and that India-US relations have been reset if not rebooted. That both countries are brought together by their fear of China is clear enough, even though containing China is not the only common interest. Yet India’s delicate balancing act between the United States and China, which has been a feature of Indian policy since 2008, will in fact continue.


In 2005-8, the Manmohan Singh government tilted towards the US in pursuit of the India-US nuclear deal. Having concluded the deal, it changed course. Narendra Modi’s government will probably do so as well, for a number of very good reasons. Manmohan Singh’s government calculated correctly that India needed a nuclear deal with the US and that, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, New Delhi had a unique opportunity. When the subprime crisis caused a near collapse of the US economy in 2008, and as China continued to grow, India concluded that China would soon be the number one power in the world. As a result, New Delhi decided to alter its tilt to the US and opted for a more non-aligned posture.

The India-US relationship froze after 2008 for a number of other reasons as well. Obama was not anti-Indian, but foreign policy was not a great priority for him. Manmohan Singh had his hands tied by his own party which was suspicious of the US. The nuclear deal stalled, thanks to the nuclear liability bill – a highly restrictive piece of legislation which contrary to international standards extended the liability for an accident to nuclear suppliers rather than just nuclear operators.

In the meantime, the US didn’t deliver on high-end weapons transfers. The fundamental problem here was US concerns about the security of high-technology transfers to India and whether or not this would get into the hands of third powers. It therefore insisted that India sign the usual binding agreements that are the staple of American policy. These include the US’s right to inspect facilities and bases where its equipment may reside. There were also differences between the two countries over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, trade, investment, intellectual property, climate change, and the treatment of each other’s diplomats, among others.

Modi, like Manmohan Singh in 2005-8, sees an opportunity with the US and has worked energetically to reduce differences. The nuclear deal with Obama is the biggest success here. Fundamentally, the two sides have agreed that while India cannot change its legislation on liability, it will create an insurance pool in India with the Indian government’s backing so as to reassure private and public investors. Also, some parts of the liability legislation won’t be operationalized by the Indian government. In addition, in deference to New Delhi, the US has agreed that the IAEA would track US nuclear fuel supplies to India rather than have US inspectors do so.


New Delhi has made other changes in various policies that affect India-US relations. It had stalled the Doha round global trade negotiations; that has been resolved with Washington. Under the new prime minister, it is also working to bring investors back to India, including from the US, by improving bureaucratic procedures. It is engaging the US on energy technologies and climate change.

Differences with the US do persist though, on strategic, economic, and even political issues. The two countries differ on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, and Iran in varying degrees of difference. India will not open its economy as fast as the Americans would like, and the US may not deliver on visas for professionals and the totalization agreement on social security payments that affect Indians working in the US. Politically, Obama created controversy by referring to India’s need for social pluralism, a not-so-oblique comment on the Hindu right’s extremist statements vis-a-vis Muslims and other minorities. Modi seems to be hoping that his personality, the Doha and nuclear deals, and opening the Indian economy will help smoothen the way in these other areas; but relations with the US are never a straight line.

Modi, like his predecessor, understands that a balance must be struck between the US and China. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was therefore dispatched to smooth things over after the Obama summit. Her itinerary included attending the Russia-India-China foreign ministers’ meeting and holding talks with the Chinese foreign minister and other officials and, in a departure from protocol, with Xi Jinping.


Swaraj briefed Chinese leaders on relations with the US and finalized a Modi visit to China (most likely in May 2015). In particular, she would have had to explain the import of the ‘US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’ which was signed during the Obama visit. The vision document included a very direct reference to maritime conflicts in Asia: ‘Regional prosperity depends on security. We [India and the US] affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea... We call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.’

Swaraj no doubt repeated, as India has said in the past, that New Delhi will never join an alliance against China. She would have emphasized too that the vision document is aimed at all parties including the US, Japan, and the Southeast Asian states.


China, as much as the US, is an opportunity and a danger for India. Beijing can be helpful to India strategically by reining in Islamabad, by helping Afghanistan develop and stabilize, and by reminding the Americans that India has other options. Economically, China is sitting on a mountain of currency reserves, the largest in the world. India would like to get its hands on more than the $20 billion pledged by Xi Jinping at the bilateral summit last year. China is in addition India’s biggest trading partner, and in infrastructure development could be a source of relatively cheap and reliable technology.

China is also potentially a danger. The border continues to be a flashpoint after the military confrontations of 2013 and 2014. If matters in Tibet come to a boil, particularly in a post Dalai era, Beijing will watch India’s reactions very carefully. China could intrude into South Asia even more than it already has done – it is increasingly active in South Asia with the smaller states in terms of economic interactions, development aid, infrastructure, and military transfers. China could deepen relations with Pakistan beyond the present state of relations as well. While Beijing has stayed away from supporting Indian separatists and Maoists, it could change its stand here too.

Modi’s initial stance towards China was genial, but he adopted a harder posture during his visit to Japan. This was days before Xi came to India and in the wake of the confrontation with Chinese troops in Ladakh in September 2014. While Modi took a harder view of China than many had expected, deep down he understands that India cannot alienate Beijing beyond a point.

The Modi government will therefore continue to deal with China as predecessor governments did. For roughly the last three decades, the relationship with China has been regulated by four pillars. The first is summit meetings, which are held bilaterally, regionally, and multilaterally. The second is border negotiations: India and China have held negotiations almost continuously since 1981 and in 2005 defined the broad principles by which a settlement would be reached. The third is confidence building measures, to ensure border stability. And the fourth is trade, which now amounts to about USD 70 billion annually.

New Delhi understands that a fundamental breakthrough in the relationship is not likely until the border problem is solved, layers of distrust peeled away (e.g. on China’s support to Pakistan and India’s putative role in Tibet), and Beijing comes to respect India more. In the meantime the relationship must be managed. Modi will therefore not disturb the four pillars, though he will continue to urge China to settle the border sooner rather than later.


On the whole India has tried to steer a middle course between the US and China, though there have been periods of tilt towards the US. India needs the goodwill and cooperation of both powers for its development, internal stability, and international standing. It will therefore continue to tilt towards the US (and its allies such as Japan and Australia), without alienating China beyond some limit.

There is another reason for India’s balanced approach: New Delhi’s view of the rivalry between the US and China is fundamentally one of ambivalence. On the one hand, polarization between the two great powers could push smaller countries to choose sides, which they don’t want to do. On the other hand, the US-China rivalry serves as a check and balance against the domination of either power. In addition, New Delhi can leverage the rivalry, threatening to tilt toward one power or other. Put another way, rivalry can help ensure that neither the US nor China takes India for granted.

Regardless of the way India tilts, New Delhi is unlikely ever to be an alliance partner. It sees itself as a potential great power and does not want to be treated as a junior partner by the US or China. Plus, domestically, any kind of alliance would be politically untenable.


India will therefore continue to hedge. It will deepen its economic engagement with China, and cooperate with Beijing where it can on regional and especially global issues (in particular climate change, international governance, and opposition to western interventionism). At the same time, it will broaden its military and diplomatic cooperation with the US – it will buy US weaponry and high-tech platforms, sign on for military exercises and strategic dialogues, share intelligence, collaborate against Islamic terrorism, and check Chinese influence in Asia and Africa.

If there is a fair degree of continuity in Modi’s US and China policies, what about Modi’s Pakistan policy? Modi reached out to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif only to find that Sharif’s room for manoeuvre was limited by the military and hardline public opinion and that Pakistan is a very difficult country to engage. Yet, like his predecessors, he has understood that a dialogue with Islamabad is inescapable. The comprehensive dialogue will soon enough be resumed, even if it is called something else. The question before Modi is: what does India hope to accomplish if anything? Or is dialogue itself the objective of engagement – a way of saying that India, like the rest of the world, wants to keep lines of communication open?

It is early days in Modi’s prime ministership so it would be unfair to jump to conclusions, but there is a danger that in putting the region, extended region, and major power relations at the centre of his foreign policy, he will ignore key relationships and regions. The UPA focused a fair amount on Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, and, to some extent, the Gulf and Middle East. So far Modi has shown no interest in these areas. Judging by the overseas trips he has scheduled so far, 2015 will not be the year of these more distant regions. Yet in terms of resources, markets, and political turbulence, they demand attention.

To conclude, Narendra Modi will continue to make a splash, at least in India, with foreign policy. He will chalk up successes, partly because the world wants a more activist India and a balance of power in Asia. In the longer term, he faces the same kinds of constraint that Manmohan and other Indian prime ministers have had to confront, the most serious of which is weakness and distraction at home.

The Indian state is a weak state in terms of decision making capacity and the ability to implement policy. It is slow and ponderous in a world that is marked by rapid and unpredictable change. Above all, India is a very poor and backward country, beset by internal fissions, and a noisy political system, located in an unstable neighbourhood, sitting next to what could be the greatest power on earth (China) and contiguous to what could be the greatest failed state on earth (Pakistan). Narendra Modi has got off to a decent start on foreign policy, as he has on the economy, but the structural challenges are enormous. It will take more than charm, energy, decisiveness, and luck to guide India through the rough waters of international relations in the years ahead.