Between Bulls Eye And Blanks


Narendra Modi continues to set a scorching pace in foreign policy but the returns on that are yet to measure up. Gaps in the reach out to the neighbourhood remain, China is a continuing problem while the US blows hot and cold BY HUMA SIDDIQUI

The two years of the Narendra Modi-led NDA government leave nothing tangible to write about its foreign policy except maybe the Bangladesh accord, a civilian nuclear deal with Australia, and a similar agreement with Japan -- the ground work all of which was done by the Manmohan Singh-led UPA II government.

Modi set a scorching pace in 2015 by visiting 28 countries and welcoming leaders from 12 countries, including the US, Germany, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Bhutan. Besides nurturing ties with other major powers-Japan, China, Australia and others-he has managed to significantly improve relations with some South Asian neighbours, such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka through ‘smart’ diplomacy. The Modi government has been able to convince both these countries to temper their relations with China and to some extent has rebalanced India-China relations.

At inter-governmental venues, such as ASEAN, BRICS or the G20, Modi has highlighted the importance of securing “cyber networks” from state and non-state actors. At the East Asia Summit — markedly in the presence of China — he called for “norms of behaviour” in cyberspace.

The inking of the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement as well as the decision to construct the high-speed rail line with an outlay of $15 billion during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India, also helped catapult relations with Japan from what was a purely economic one to a vital strategic partnership. The civil nuclear agreement with Australia is another notable accomplishment since Modi came to power.

Modi set a scorching pace in 2015 by visiting 28 countries and welcoming leaders from 12 countries, including the US, Germany, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Bhutan

The prime minister’s productive visits to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore also helped expand relations with ASEAN and East Asia under the “Act East Policy”.

But Modi’s most significant initiative is “Neighbourhood First”, under which relations with Bangladesh witnessed a decisive upswing with India ratifying the Land Boundary Agreement that had been pending for 40 years.

India’s ties with Sri Lanka also received a strong push, in large measure due to a change in domestic leadership in that country after the presidential elections with Maithripala Sirisena replacing Mahinda Rajapaksa. Modi took this forward by touring Lanka in March 2015, the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 30 years.

However, the Modi government is yet to conceive anything comparable to a massive infrastructure plan, called the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (or BCIM) economic corridor in ambition in its two years. Even in our immediate neighbourhood, relations with Nepal and Maldives have only deteriorated, as India allowed itself be sucked into their domestic politics.

Despite Modi’s several visits to the US, one can still not say that India features prominently on President Barack Obama’s radar, which has not given any special favours to India. In fact, despite India’s protest against Pakistan getting new F-16s, US added AH1Z Viper helicopters to its list of Pakistan-bound supplies.

China, too, continues to be a challenge for India. Its growing political, military and economic prowess makes it increasingly assertive in areas where India’s interests are involved. Beijing’s support for Pakistan, notably with the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that crosses territory claimed by India, has led to a further strain in mutual ties.

Trade partnerships are a major theme in Modi’s discussions with foreign dignitaries. He has repeatedly called for “early conclusion” of RCEP, while acknowledging the existence of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. This is not a break from India’s traditional position on the World Trade Organisation’s centrality to international trade. At the G20 summit in Antalya, he asserted this clearly, warning that regional agreements “should not lead to a fragmentation of the global trading system”.

While there has been much hand-wringing at home over the government’s “shift” in IPR policy vis-à-vis its TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) obligations, the prime minister has been pushing that innovation initiatives “should be driven by public purpose, not market incentives, including on intellectual property.” He has consistently highlighted the need for India’s entry into export control regimes — the Missile Control Technology Regime, Wassenaar Arrangement and Nuclear Suppliers Group — indicating that India’s special bilateral relationships cannot substitute inclusive multilateral arrangements.

But, Modi’s Pakistan diplomacy has been the strangest link in the foreign policy chain. Invite the head of government, arrange negotiations, back out at the last minute, let relations slide, change course by stopping for tea on the way back from Afghanistan only to be confronted by a cross-border terrorist attack on an airbase, but continue talks anyway, contradicting his previous stance on never negotiating in the shadow of terror.

However, when it comes to foreign capital, the Modi government has been successful in establishing a nexus between foreign policy and domestic transformation by attracting foreign capital and technology while opening foreign markets for Indian products.

Some of Modi’s key successes in the past 12 months include hosting the Africa Summit, the largest diplomatic gathering ever in India, with the participation of 41 African leaders; decision by the UN to celebrate June 21 every year as “International Yoga Day”; his short but path-breaking visit to Kabul; robust engagement at the Paris Climate Change Summit and Nairobi WTO Ministerial, notwithstanding strident opposition from developed countries; his tour of all five Central Asian states, increasingly important in strategic, economic and energy terms in recent years; his visits to Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles, the first by an Indian prime minister in 30 years as part of his ‘‘Sagar Yatra’’; his meeting with the leaders of Fiji and Pacific Island nations; and the visit by leaders of Pacific Island countries to India to further solidify relations.

However, amid all this, one significant partnership that has so far not received sufficient attention and has tended to stagnate is with Russia, a time-tested friend, which has the potential to once again become a key pillar of India’s foreign policy. Modi’s two-day visit and interaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin did give a strong fillip to the ‘‘special and privileged strategic partnership’’ in areas of defence procurement and indigenisation, nuclear energy, hydrocarbon prospecting, trade and economic ties. Renewable energy is another area of priority. His COP21 interventions skew the numbers, but the last six months have seen Modi consistently talk up India’s renewable energy capacities (175 GW by 2022). The NDA’s position on climate change is closely aligned to that of previous governments. In Paris, Modi called the principle of common but differentiated responsibility the “bedrock” of any climate treaty, even tipping his hat to the UPA’s “leadership” at the Copenhagen talks in 2009.

As far as the Gulf countries are concerned, only recently did the prime minister decide to visit these, starting with UAE and Saudi Arabia. His visit to the UAE last year and Saudi Arabia in April, and the visits of the Crown Princes of Abu Dhabi and Qatar, have added another chapter in the age-old trade relations between India and the Gulf region. India today imports 70 percent of its crude oil from the Gulf and 85 percent of its natural gas from Qatar alone.

However, two important regions that significantly do not feature in Modi’s foreign travel plans are the African continent and South America. He has had no time to visit these regions, even as he visited Russia twice and the US thrice. When it comes to South America, he went to Brazil once, with his other trips to French Guiana to oversee a satellite launch.

Experts, too, feel that a deeper commercial bond with South America will benefit both sides. “One can only imagine what India can achieve if it emulates China and gains access to Latin American resources,” said Marcus Svedberg, chief economist at emerging market investment manager, East Capital has been quoted in media reports, adding that “If Modi is serious about his ‘Make in India’ campaign, and his push to build East Asia-quality infrastructure, he needs to make this bilateral relationship work.”

Trade between India and Latin America has grown from less than $2 billion a year at the turn of the century, to $46 billion in 2014, according to India’s Commerce Ministry. Officials say that number could rise to $100 billion if both sides push through the preferential and free trade agreements. India excels in sectors such as IT and services and Latin America in food processing and agriculture. Both want to build export-geared manufacturing sectors: India in order to generate millions of new jobs and Latin America to ease its dependence on low-margin commodity exports.

India is a larger buyer of Venezuelan crude, it sources a fifth of its oil from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela. Recently, Beijing-based Sino-steel Corporation announced plans to build a $422 million steel plant at El Mutún in Bolivia, on the Brazilian border. The announcement came after India’s Jindal Group dropped plans to invest $2.1 billion in El Mutún, after years of disputes between Jindal and Bolivian legislators.

Modi’s key successes in the past 12 months include hosting the Africa Summit, the largest diplomatic gathering ever in India, with the participation of 41 African leaders

Indian envoys in both the regions feel a visit by the prime minister would help in attracting Indian companies to invest and expand footprints, and point out that this is the right time to invest as the regions is in the grip of an economic meltdown. There are deals waiting to be grabbed, they say.


  • Narendra Modi set a scorching foreign policy pace in 2015 visiting 28 countries
  • His Neighbourhood First policy has worked well with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, not so well with Nepal
  • China and Pakistan continue to present problems and Modi’s equation with President Obama is yet to blossom fully
  • Africa and South America remain two vital regions where the PM has yet to make an impact
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