Modi’s foreign policy challenges mount - GulfToday

Modi’s foreign policy challenges mount

BRP Bhaskar


Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.


Narendra Modi

At Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inaugural five years ago, heads of governments of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) were the chief guests. At his second inaugural last month, the chief guests were heads of governments of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).

The BIMSTEC gambit’s significance lay in that it helped to cover up failure of the SAARC-centred efforts. It also helped to exclude Pakistan, as it is not a BIMSTEC member. The move displayed dexterity, a valuable quality in a quick-changing world.

To reiterate continued interest in the neighbourhood, Modi began his second term with visits to the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Both countries had recently seen changes of government through elections in which, according to media reports, India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, took some interest.

Modi entered the global arena with a big handicap. Several countries, including the United States, had treated him as persona non grata and denied him visa to mark their disapproval of the communal riots in Gujarat under his watch.

But no nation can refuse to deal with the head of government of a country of India’s size. Launching a campaign of personal diplomacy, Modi undertook more than 40 trips during which he visited 59 countries in six continents. He made many friends but it is unclear how many he influenced.

He journeyed to the US and China five times, to Russia, Germany, Nepal and Singapore four times and to France, Japan and Sri Lanka thrice. Now new challenges are awaiting him. In his first term, he made the most investment in the US and travelled quite some distance with it on its Indo-Pacific pivot, aimed at restricting China’s influence. But Washington has created some problems for him.

Last year the US imposed a tariff of 25 per cent on steel and of 10 per cent on aluminium products. India’s exports of steel and aluminium products, worth about $1.5 billion a year, did not attract any levy earlier.

As attempts to resolve the issue through talks failed, India retaliated last week by hiking import duty on 28 US products, including almond, walnut and pulses. It also plans to raise the issue in the World Trade Organisation. Far more serious are the implications of the US sanctions regime which forced India to cut down oil imports from Iran, one of its major suppliers, and threatens to disrupt acquisition of military hardware from Russia, an important source of defence supplies since long.

The deterioration in US-Iran relations endangers Indian plans to access Afghanistan and the Central Asian states through the newly built Chabahar port, bypassing Pakistan. The focus of the conflict in the Middle East appears to be moving closer to home, and this adds to India’s worries.

After US Presidents, Modi had the most direct contacts with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Early in his first term, he named his National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to lead the negotiations with China on the border dispute which had led to a war in the 1960’s. There has been little progress in the talks as China is in no hurry.

In 2017 the Indian army intervened and stopped Chinese construction activity in a disputed area on its border with Bhutan. It could not, however, prevent the Chinese troops from digging in. China is annoyed with India’s refusal to join its Belt and Road Initiative. India is unhappy that some of its neighbours are becoming dependent on China, which has resources it cannot match.

Mutual suspicions inhibit the two countries from exploring the possibility of establishing a synergetic partnership with due regard for each other’s genuine concerns. The growing detente between China and Russia is another factor that must now go into foreign policy formulation, although experts are divided on how real is the threat it poses.

Modi has inducted S. Jayasankar, a career diplomat, who has served as ambassador in both China and the US, as the External Affairs Minister in place of Sushma Swaraj who opted out on health grounds.  Earlier, as Foreign Secretary, Jayasankar had played a part in advancing Modi’s foreign policy ideas.

The chances are that, like Jawaharlal Nehru, Modi will remain his own foreign minister. His big disability in that role is an obsessive preoccupation with Pakistan, a hangover of his domestic politics which foreign exposure has not cured.

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