Monday, May 25, 2015

Putting India Emphatically on Global Map

Amb Kanwal Sibal, 
Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, VIF

Prime Minister Modi has surprised his own people and, no doubt, external observers, by his foreign policy activism since he took office. In his year in power he has travelled abroad 16 times- and 19 if the forthcoming visits to China, Mongolia and South Korea are included- inviting some criticism that these peregrinations have meant less attention devoted to domestic affairs. This is misplaced criticism because today, with the change in the nature of diplomacy, the heads of governments play a critical role in external affairs. Frequent personal contacts at the highest political level have now become the norm, leaders often are on first name terms and difficult knots are untied by exertions at their level, sometimes in an unorthodox manner. Modi, even if seemingly inexperienced in the foreign policy domain, has had to, therefore, wade into the deep waters of diplomacy as soon as he took over because his position has demanded this. But no one was prepared for a Modi with a natural flair for diplomacy, to which he has brought a surprising degree of imagination and self-assurance. From the start, he seemed to have a clear idea of where the interests of his country lay and the initiatives needed to advance them.

All Indian Prime Ministers on taking over give priority to ties with neighbouring countries. The belief is that either India has neglected its neighbours or has been insensitive and overbearing, leading to their alienation and consequent opportunities for external powers to intervene at the cost of India’s interests. Modi too began by reaching out to the neighbours, but in a manner not anticipated. He invited all the SAARC leaders to his swearing-in, with the intention no doubt to signal that his elevation to power would usher in a new era of South Asian relations, that the clear victory in elections of a supposedly nationalist party did not denote a more muscular policy towards neighbours and that, on the contrary, India intended to work together with them to move the whole region forward towards peace and prosperity. This gesture had most meaning for India-Pakistan relations, and Nawaz Sharif’s decision to attend the swearing-in was “rewarded” with the announcement of FS level talks between the two countries.

Continuing the emphasis on the neighbourhood, he chose Bhutan as the first country to visit in June 2014. This made sense as Bhutan is the only neighbour that has not played an external card against us or politically resisted building ties of mutual benefit. His August 2014 visit to Nepal made a notable impact in local political and popular thinking about India as a well-wisher. His extempore address to the Nepalese parliament was a tour de force. He handled sensitive issues during his visit with finesse and played the cultural and religious card dextrously. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Bangladesh in June 2014. A very notable development is the approval of the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh approved by the Indian parliament in May 2015. Modi visited Myanmar in November 2014 to take part in the East Asia summit and for bilateral discussions with this strategically placed neighbour whose honeymoon with China is waning.

SAARC figures prominently in Modi's foreign policy vision. He invited all SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, which was unprecedented. It is true that SAARC is one of the least integrated regions economically speaking, which means that the potential of the region remains unexploited. This also means that external actors find it easier to intrude into the loose equations in the subcontinent. While in terms of aspirations for the region, Modi is right in imagining a more tightly textured SAARC, India’s capacity to do this is limited in the face of Pakistani recalcitrance. A strengthened SAARC means a stronger Indian role in it, which is anathema to a Pakistan that is obsessed with countering Indian “hegemony” in South Asia. Pakistan will be reduced to its true importance if it ceases to confront India, which is why it will continue its confrontational policies. it also means that Afghanistan will not be adequately integrated into SAARC structures as that is contingent on Pakistan’s willingness to facilitate access to this landlocked country. At the Kathmandu SAARC summit in November 2014, Modi encouraged neighbours to benefit from opportunities provided by India’s growth, promised a special funding vehicle overseen by India to finance infrastructure projects in the region and announced India’s readiness to develop a satellite specifically for the region by 2016. He warned at the Kathmandu summit that regional integration will proceed with all or without some, which suggested that if Pakistan did not cooperate, others could go ahead without it, though under the SAARC charter this is not possible and other countries may not support a strategy of isolating Pakistan.

Modi seems to admire China’s economic achievements, which would not be surprising given China’s spectacular rise. His several visits to China as Gujarat Chief Minister no doubt gave him familiarity with the country and take its pulse. His view that economic cooperation is the key driver in relations between countries and that all countries give more importance to economic growth and prosperity for their peoples than creating conditions of conflict evidently guides his thinking towards China. He was quick to court China after assuming power, with reinforcement of economic ties as the primary objective. The huge financial resources at China’s disposal, its expertise in infrastructure building, its need for external markets for off-loading the excess capacity it has built in certain sectors has made cooperation with China a theoretically win-win situation. The Chinese Foreign Minister was the first foreign dignitary to be received by Modi. He invited the Chinese President to make a state visit to India in September 2014, during which unprecedented personal gestures were made to him in an informal setting in Ahmedabad on Modi’s birthday. This imaginative courting was marred by the serious border incident in Ladakh coinciding with Xi’s visit- one more case of China reaching out to India and simultaneously staging a provocation so that India remains unsure about China’s intentions and finds it difficult to make a clear choice about what policy to pursue, and in the process has to accept faits accomplis that are to China’s advantage.

Unlike the timidity of the previous government to treat such incidents as acne on the beautiful face of India-China relations, Modi raised the border issue frontally with XI at their joint press conference, expressing “our serious concern over repeated incidents along the border”. His call for resuming the stalled process of clarifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and mention of “India's concerns relating to China's visa policy and Trans Border Rivers” while standing alongside Xi Jinping at the joint press conference indicated a refreshing change from the past in terms of a more open expression of India’s concerns. With regard to Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor that China has been pushing hard, Modi was cautious. Why we accepted to discuss such a proposal in a working group in the first place is a puzzle. Engagement with China ought not to mean that we let it set the agenda when the downsides to us of what it seeks are clear. Equally importantly, he did not back another pet proposal of Xi: the Maritime Silk Road, which is a repackaged version of the notorious “string of pearls” strategy, as the joint statement omitted any mention of it. Since then China is pushing its One Belt One Road (OBOR) proposal which seeks to tie Asian and Eurasian economies to China, create opportunities for Chinese companies to bag major projects in this region financed by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that China has floated. This ambitious concept is intended to establish China’s hegemony in Asia and outflank India strategically.

On a more positive side, during Xi’s visit, the two sides agreed to further consolidate their Strategic and Cooperative Partnership, recognised that their developments goals are interlinked and agreed to make this developmental partnership a core component of this partnership. It defies logic that a country that is considered as our most serious adversary and whose policies in our region has done us incalculable strategic harm should have been accepted as India’s strategic partner during Manmohan Singh’s time. Such a concession that clouds realities serves China’s purpose and once given cannot be reversed. Pursuant to discussions already held during the tenure of the previous government, the Chinese announced during Xi’s visit the establishment of two industrial parks in India, one in Gujarat and the other in Maharashtra, and the “endeavour to realise” an investment of US $ 20 billion in the next five years in various industrial and infrastructure development projects in India, including in the railways sector. The Chinese Prime Minister’s statement just before Modi goes to China on May 14 that China is looking for preferential policies and investment facilitation for its businesses to make this investment suggests that the promised investment may not materialise in a hurry. While the decision during Xi’s visit to continue defence contacts is useful in order to obtain an insight into PLA’s thinking and capacities at first hand, the agreement, carried forward from Manmohan Singh’s time, to explore possibilities of civilian nuclear cooperation puzzles because this helps to legitimise China’s nuclear cooperation with Pakistan.

Even as Modi has been making his overall interest in forging stronger ties with China clear, he has not shied away from allusions to Chinese expansionism, not only on Indian soil but also during his visit to Japan. During his own visit to US in September 2014 and President Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, the joint statements issued have language on South China Sea and Asia-Pacific which is China-directed. A stand alone US-India Joint Vision for Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region issued during Obama’s Delhi visit was a departure from previous Indian reticence to show convergence with the US on China-related issues. India has now indirectly accepted a link between its Act East policy and US rebalance towards Asia. The Chinese have officially chosen to overlook these statements as they would want to wean away India from too strong a US embrace. During Sushma Swaraj’s call on Xi during her visit to China in February 2015 she seems to have pushed for an early resolution of the border issue, with out-of-the-box thinking between the two strong leaders that lead their respective countries today. Turning the Chinese formulation on its head, she called for leaving a resolved border issue for future generations.

It is not clear what the External Affairs Minister had in mind when she advocated “out-of-the-box” thinking, as such an approach can recoil on us. That China has no intention to look at any out-of-the-box solution has been made clear by the unusual vehemence of its reaction to Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in February 2015 to inaugurate two development projects on the anniversary of the state’s formation in 1987. The pressure will be on us to do out-of-the-box thinking as it is we who suggested this approach. China is making clear that it considers Arunachal Pradesh not “disputed territory” but China’s sovereign territory. This intemperate Chinese reaction came despite Modi’s visit to China in May. The 18th round of talks between the Special Representatives (SRs) on the boundary question has taken place without any significant result, which is not surprising in view of China’s position on the border. The Chinese PM has recited the mantra a few days ago of settling the boundary issue “as early as possible” and has referred to “the historical responsibility that falls on both governments” to resolve the issue, which means nothing in practical terms. As against this, India has chosen to remain silent on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which will traverse territory that is legally Indian, and which even the 1963 China-Pakistan border agreement recognises as territory whose legal status has not been finally settled. The CPEC cannot be built if China were to respect its own position with regard to “disputed” territories which it applies aggressively to Arunachal Pradesh. Why we are hesitant to put China under pressure on this subject is another puzzle.

Modi’s visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in March 2015 signified heightened attention to our critical interests in the Indian Ocean area. The bulk of our trade- 77% by value and 90% by volume- is seaborne. Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Seychelles in 34 years, which demonstrates our neglect of the Indian Ocean area at high political level and Modi’s strategic sense in making political amends. During his visit Modi focused on maritime security with agreement on a Coastal Surveillance Radar Project and the supply of another Dornier aircraft. In Mauritius, Modi signed an agreement on the development of Agalega Island and also attended the commissioning of the Barracuda, a 1300 tonne Indian-built patrol vessel ship for the country’s National Coast Guard, with more such vessels to follow. According to Sushma Swaraj, Modi’s visit to Seychelles and Mauritius was intended to integrate these two countries in our trilateral maritime cooperation with Sri Lanka and Maldives.

In Pakistan’s case, Modi too seems unsure of the policy he should follow- whether he should wait for Pakistan to change its conduct before engaging it or engage it nevertheless in the hope that its conduct will change for the better in the future. Modi announced FS level talks with Pakistan when Nawaz Sharif visited Delhi for the swearing-in ceremony, even though Pakistan had made no moves to control the activities of Hafiz Saeed and the jihadi groups in Pakistan. The Pakistani argument that Nawaz Sharif was bold in visiting India for the occasion and that he has not been politically rewarded for it is a bogus one. He had a choice to attend or not attend, and it was no favour to India that he did. Indeed he did a favour to himself as Pakistan would have voluntarily isolated itself. The FS level talks were cancelled when just before they were to be held when the Pakistan High Commissioner met the Hurriyet leaders in Delhi. Pakistan’s argument that we over-reacted is again dishonest because it wanted to retrieve the ground it thought it had lost when Nawaz Sharif did not meet the Hurriyet leaders in March 2014.

Modi ordered a robust response to Pakistani cease-fire violations across the LOC and the international border during the year, which suggested less tolerance of Pakistan’s provocative conduct. We have also been stating that talks and terrorism cannot go together. Yet, in a repetition of a wavering approach, the government sent the FS to Islamabad in March 2015 on a so-called “SAARC Yatra”. Pakistan responded by releasing the mastermind of the Mumbai attack, Lakhvi, on bail and followed it up by several provocative statements on recent demonstrations by pro-Pakistani separatists in Srinagar, without any real response from our side. Surprisingly, in an internal political document involving the BJP and the PDP in J&K, we agreed to include a reference to engaging Pakistan in a dialogue as part of a common minimum programme, undermining our diplomacy with Pakistan in the process.

Pakistan believes that it is US intervention that spurred India to take the initiative to send the FS to Pakistan, which is why it feels it can remain intransigent. Pakistan chose to make the bilateral agenda even more contentious after the visit by the FS by raising not only the Kashmir cause, but also Indian involvement in Balochistan and FATA. On our side, we raised the issue of cross border terrorism, the Mumbai terror trial and LOC violations, with only negative statements on these issues by Pakistan. Since then the Pakistani army chief has accused India of abetting terrorism in Pakistan. The huge gulf in our respective positions will not enable us to “find common ground and narrow differences” in further rounds of dialogue, about which the Pakistani High Commissioner in Delhi is now publicly sceptical.
Even though one is used to Pakistan’s pathological hostility towards India, the tantrums that Nawaz Sharif’s Foreign Policy Adviser, Sartaj Aziz, threw after President Obama’s successful visit to India were unconscionable. He objected to US support for India’s permanent seat in the UNSC and to its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). He castigated the Indo-US nuclear deal, projecting it as directed against Pakistan and threatened to take all necessary steps to safeguard Pakistan’s security- in other words, to continue to expand its nuclear arsenal.

Chinese President Xi’s April 2015 visit to Pakistan risks to entrench Pakistan in all its negative attitudes towards India. The huge investments China intends making through POK constitutes a major security threat to India. China is boosting a militarily dominated, terrorist infested, jihadi riven country marked by sectarian conflict and one that is fast expanding its nuclear arsenal, including the development of tactical nuclear weapons, without much reaction from the West. President Ashraf Ghani’s assumption of power in Afghanistan and his tilt towards Pakistan and China, as well as the West’s support for accommodating the Taliban in Afghanistan with Pakistan’s help will further bolster Pakistan’s negative strategic policies directed at India. Ghani’s delayed visit to India in April 2015 has not helped to clarify the scenario in Afghanistan for us, as no change of course in Ghani’s policies can be expected unless Pakistan compels him to do by overplaying its hand in his country. Modi is right in biding his time in Afghanistan and not expressing any undue anxiety about developments there while continuing our policies of assistance so that the goodwill we have earned there is nurtured.

Prime Minister Modi, belying expectations, moved rapidly and decisively towards the US on assuming office. He blindsided political analysts by putting aside his personal feelings at having been denied a visa to visit the US for nine years for violating the US law on religious freedoms. Many thought that he would wait for the US to make proper amends before he went across. As it happened, the first foreign visit by Modi to be announced was that to the US. Clearly, he came to power with the belief that strong relations with the US gives India greater strategic space in foreign affairs and its support is crucial for realising his developmental agenda for India.

As in the case of his policies towards other countries, his policy towards the US is a continuation of policies by previous governments, right from Narasimha Rao’s time. Rao initiated economic reforms and wooed US investments in critical sectors. Vajpayee described India and the US “natural allies”, a language Modi has used in his interview with Time magazine in May 2015. Manmohan Singh was seen as too pro-US, but while he was criticised for it Modi is not, which shows that the public is confident that Modi will be his own master and that his India First slogan resonates with popular opinion. The difference in Modi’s case also is that his foreign policy carries a strong imprint of his personality, his capacity to strike a personal rapport and deal with foreign leaders with visible self-assurance and a sense of equality. A special feature of his US visit in September 2014 was his dramatic outreach to the Indian community, which organised an event for him where he was literally treated like a rock-star. This become since then a pattern in his visits abroad, whether in Australia or Canada, and even in Beijing, as planned.

Modi has set the future agenda of the relationship with the US, some of which is achievable and some probably not, with some inevitable hiccups on the way given the lack of convergence in thinking and policies on many issues still. This includes increasing trade five fold in the next five years, involving US companies in infrastructure development in India and boosting US investment in general, offering US companies lead partnership in three smart cities, addressing IPR related issues, inviting US companies to participate in developing India’s defence industry, renewing for 10 years more the 2005 Framework for US-India Defence Relations, with defence teams of the two countries directed to “develop plans” for more ambitious programmes, including enhanced technology partnerships for India’s Navy. While the joint manufacturing plans under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) are modest in scope, the US is now offering aircraft carrier technology. Here too it should be noted that the big jump in defence trade with the US occurred during the Manmohan Singh’s regime. The difference is in Modi wanting to push the “Make in India” project in defence manufacturing.

The unusually strong personal element in Modi’s diplomacy towards the US came apparent when during his Washington visit, when, in a bold and imaginative move, he invited Obama to be the chief guest at our Republic Day on January 26, 2015. Modi and Obama evidently struck a good personal equation, with the earlier alienation supplanted by empathy, as was shown by Obama’s unprecedented gesture of accompanying Modi to the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington during the September 2014 visit. This personal gesture was reciprocated by Modi during Obama’s January visit to Delhi by the “chai pe charcha” and “mun ki baat” choreography.

More substantively, on the occasion of Obama’s January visit, Modi moved decisively on the nuclear front in order to underline his commitment to a strategic partnership with the US, especially as the BJP had opposed the nuclear deal and had announced that it would seek to revise it if it came to power. During the visit, the “breakthrough understandings” on the nuclear liability issue and that of administrative arrangements to track US supplied nuclear material or third party material passing through US supplied reactors, became the highlight of its success, with Modi himself calling nuclear cooperation issues as central to India-US ties. However, the larger question of the commercial viability of US supplied reactors remains, a point that Modi alluded to in joint press conference. On the whole, whatever the ambiguities that remain, removing this contentious issue from the bilateral agenda was wise on Modi’s part.

Defence cooperation has been another touchstone for the US to measure India’s willingness to deepen the strategic partnership. Less than expected progress was made in this area during Obama’s visit, with the announcement of four “pathfinder” projects under the DTTI involving minor technologies during the visit, with cooperation in the area of aircraft engines and aircraft carrier technologies to be explored later. Subsequently, a Joint Working Group has been set up to explore cooperation in aircraft carrier technology, which the US will use to make a case for selling the naval version of its F 35 aircraft to India.

The US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region signed during the visit and issued as a standalone document highlights the growing strategic convergences between the two countries, with full awareness of how this might be interpreted by other countries, in particular China. It affirms the “importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region , especially in the South China Sea”. This is a direct message addressed to China, reflecting less inhibition on India’s part both to pronounce on the subject and do it jointly with the US. Under the Modi government, India has become more affirmative in its statements about the situation in the western Pacific and the commonalities of interests between India and the US and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The government has decided to “Act East”, to strengthen strategic ties with Japan and Australia, as well as Vietnam, conduct more military exercises bilaterally with the US armed forces as well as naval exercises trilaterally with Japan.

Obama’s visit also demonstrated the consolidation of the good personal rapport established between him and Modi. That Obama agreed to pen a portrait of Modi for the Time magazine in April 2015 was a political boost for the latter. This personal rapport should assist in greater White House oversight over the Administration’s policies towards India, which experience shows greatly benefits the bilateral relationship.

Counter-terrorism is always highlighted as an expanding area of India-US cooperation because of shared threats. The joint statement in Delhi spoke dramatically of making the US-India partnership in this area a “defining” relationship for the 21st century. However, unless the US takes a clear cut and robust position on Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism against India, such cooperation will remain limited, though in technical and forensic areas it can proceed to our advantage. The reluctance of the US to sanction Pakistan and declare the Taliban as a terrorist organisation- which its conduct in Afghanistan would justify- our cooperation in dealing with threats to our security will remain deficient.

That the US has a way to upset its partners was demonstrated by Obama’s objectionable lecture at Siri Fort on religious freedom in India and his pointed reference to Article 25 of our Constitution. This was obviously prompted by Christian evangelist lobbies and showed a remarkable ignorance of India’s religious traditions. The government chose to ignore this as it would have detracted from the overall success of the visit. On return to Washington Obama pursued his line of exaggerating incidents of religious intolerance in India. Obama’s claim that the US can be India’s “best partner” remains to be tested as many contradictions in US policy towards India persist. The statements coming the US and its ambassador here on the decision by the government to tighten the application of its laws with regard to foreign funding of Indian NGOs could become another irritant. The Modi government will face the test of managing closer strategic relations with the US- which are in part directed against China- and forging closer ties with China at the same time. The challenge in this difficult diplomatic exercise is that China has stronger ties with the US than what the latter can have with India in the foreseeable future, though the threat that China presents to US interests is far bigger than what India could pose, if at all. 

It was important that in the process of establishing stronger strategic ties with the US and its allies, India’s relationship with Russia should not be ignored, as Russia remains vital for the balance of our external ties. This was doubly important at a time when the West has unleashed its diplomatic and financial fury against Russia because of the Ukraine crisis. President Putin’s visit in December 2014 to India served an important purpose, that of underlining politically that Russia remains a key strategic partner for India. With perceived stagnation in India-Russia ties, improving India-US ties and a sharp deterioration in US-Russia relations in view, for Modi it was opportune to signal this internationally. Modi was effusive about our Russia relationship during Putin’s visit, underlining that Russia has been a “pillar of strength for India’s development, security and international relations”, that we have a “friendship of unmatched mutual confidence, trust and goodwill” and a “Strategic Partnership that is incomparable in content”. He has affirmed pointedly that changes in international relations will not affect “the importance of this relationship and its unique place in India's foreign policy”.

Russia has been unhappy about losing out in competitive bidding for defence contracts in some recent cases. Modi was therefore careful to convey the important message that even as India’s options for defence cooperation had widened today, “Russia will remain our most important defence partner”. While discussing new defence projects with Putin, Modi asked for alignment of India-Russia defence relations with “India’s own priorities, including Make in India”. Russia’s offer “to fully manufacture in India one of its most advanced helicopters” would suggest that the project for light utility helicopters that India badly needs to replace the French-licensed Cheetah and Chetak helicopters would, after two failed tenders, now go Russia’s way. That Putin responded “very positively” to Modi’s proposal that Russia locate manufacturing facilities in India for spares and components for defence equipment it has supplied is noteworthy in the context of persistent complaints by India of Russia’s product support deficiencies, though the time lines for resolving this nagging issue remain unclear.

Russia is already ahead of other contenders with regard to civilian nuclear cooperation with India, which it wants to conserve. After arduous negotiations, it was agreed that Russia will build “at least” 10 more reactors in India beyond the existing two at Kudankulam: 6 in total at Kudankulam and 6 at another site to be identified expeditiously, with the important proviso of manufacture of equipment and components in India, joint extraction of natural uranium and production of nuclear fuel. This implies that India-Russia cooperation in a sensitive strategic area is assured in the years ahead.

Modi was right to flag our disappointment at the limited India-Russia collaboration in the hydrocarbon sector, despite Russia being a top producer of hydrocarbons and India a top importer. A big handicap, of course, is the lack of geographical continuity between the two countries, unlike in the case of Russia and China. The outlook has improved with an agreement that envisages joint exploration and production of hydrocarbons in the Russian Arctic shelf, long term LNG supplies (to begin in 2017 or latest by 2021), as well as a hydrocarbon pipeline system connecting the two countries, even though Putin himself doubts its commercial feasibility. To Modi’s credit, Putin declared that he was highly satisfied with his visit and its results, while Modi stated that the summit had reinforced his conviction in the extraordinary value and strength of the India-Russia partnership. The US made some inopportune statements before and after Putin’s visit cautioning against “business as usual” with Russia, but Modi rightly ignored them. The decision to send President Mukherjee to attend the May 9 celebrations in Moscow and have an Indian military contingent participate in the parade in the Red Square at a time when the West wants to isolate Putin was a politically wise one.

Modi has followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in bolstering relations with Japan. Narasimha Rao’s Look East policy had Japan in view and Manmohan Singh gave high importance to economic ties with that country. Modi has, in addition, established a good personal relationship with Shinzo Abe. During Modi’s visit to Japan in September 2014 Abe announced $35 billion of public and private investment in India. Japan is in good position to advance Modi’s Make in India agenda and help set up manufacturing facilities in India as it has the money, technology and political interest. However, Japan is awaiting steps by the government to move forward on the ground with the promised economic reforms. Japan is looking at India with renewed interest as a partner, as India is the only country in a position to balance China in Asia. Here too, Modi will face the delicate diplomatic challenge to forge closer ties with Japan and not let that complicate his desire to increase economic engagement with China.

While Japan is keen to sell its US 2 amphibian rescue aircraft as a start in defence related cooperation, India wants Japan to be more open about defence cooperation, especially in terms of specific defence technologies that Japan has developed. During Modi’s visit it was agreed to upgrade defence relations and a Memorandum of Defence Cooperation and Exchanges was signed. It was also decided to have regular bilateral maritime exercises and India-US-Japan Malabar naval exercises. Defence Minister Parrikar’s visit to Japan in March 2015 where he got himself photographed on a Japanese warship was good political messaging for the region.

On the nuclear side, Japan is not ready to sign an agreement with India, which is necessary for India-US, or for that matter, Indo-French civilian nuclear cooperation as the nuclear wings of Westinghouse and GE are owned by Japanese companies and critical parts for Areva are provided by them too. This is a negative element in our relations that detracts from a veritable strategic partnership. On the other hand, Japan has lifted sanctions on many Indian entities imposed because of our nuclear programme. Japan's cooperation for enhanced connectivity and development in Northeast India and linking the region to other economic corridors in India and to Southeast Asia is important and needs to be pursued vigorously.

Modi’s visit to France and Germany in April 2015 was overdue to remove the impression that Europe is not high in his foreign policy priorities. This is a wrong impression as Modi’s other foreign policy initiatives were either focused on the immediate neighbourhood or were aimed at reinvigorating a flagging relationship of key importance or stabilising difficult ones. With key European countries India’s relations are stable. The European Union, allegedly under Italian pressure, missed an opportunity to receive Modi at Brussels during his visit to Europe to move the India-EU dialogue forward. Modi did well to give a boost to the strategic partnership with France by ensuring concrete progress in the key areas of defence and nuclear cooperation. As is his wont, Modi sprung a surprise during the visit by announcing that in view of the critical operational needs of the Air Force he had requested the French President for an expeditious supply of 36 Rafale jets in flyaway condition through an intergovernmental agreement on terms better than demanded by Dassault “as part of a separate process underway”. The Rafale deal, even if truncated, will help to attenuate feelings of frustration in French political and defence manufacturing circles about doing business with India owing to inordinate delays and lack of clarity in decision making, despite political level assurances. This deal strengthens Modi’s reputation as a decisive leader capable of cutting through dilatory decision making processes.

In the other strategic area of cooperation- the nuclear one- Modi’s visit saw progress with the signing of the MOU between AREVA and L&T, which was welcomed by Modi as widening the scope of industrial cooperation and creating indigenous capacities in India, besides the conclusion of pre-engineering studies agreement between Areva and NPCIL. The objective of the agreement with L&T is to manufacture high technology reactor equipment in India in order to bring down costs and make the project economically viable.

Paris is hosting the next Climate Change summit in December this year. The challenge before India would be to resist concerted pressure by others to accept emission reduction commitments at the cost of its national interest and yet not be seen as being non-cooperative on an increasingly obsessive issue for the West. The US is determined to exert pressure on India on this score and Modi’s agreement with Obama that the two sides will work together to make the Paris conference a success could constrain India’s manoeuvrability there.

Modi’s bilateral visit to Canada in April 2015 was the first by an Indian PM in 45 years. The two countries have decided to elevate their bilateral relations to a strategic partnership. The most important agreement signed was that between the Indian Department of Atomic Energy and Cameco of Canada for long-term supply of uranium to India to meet its energy needs. Canada will sell 3220 metric tonnes of uranium to India over 5 years in a $ 350 million deal.

Relations with the Islamic world have not received the required attention from Modi during the year. The Emir of Qatar has visited India in March 2015, opening prospects for Qatari investments in India. Sushma Swaraj has been to the UAE whose Emir is likely to visit India later in the year. The political investment made by the previous government in Saudi Arabia helped India to obtain its cooperation to extract our people from Yemen. Gadkari has been to Iran in May 2015 to sign the agreement on Chabahar. Modi has done well to avoid any entanglement in the Saudi-Iran and Shia-Sunni rivalry in West Asia. Given the close ties developed between BJP/RSS circles with Israel over the years, it is not surprising that the only foreign leader, other than leaders from neighbouring countries, that Modi met on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting in September last year was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Significantly, the Israeli Defence Minister visited India on the occasion of the Air Show in Bengaluru in February 2015. Modi made a confident debut at the BRICS summit in Brazil in July 2014. he also took a pragmatic decision to become a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Altogether, Modi has handled India’s foreign policy in his first year impressively. He has put India on the global map emphatically because of his self-confidence and faith in India’s future as a partner of promise for other countries.

Published Date: 23rd May 2015, Image Source:

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