Modi’s foreign policy challenge

STANLY JOHNY | Updated on June 01, 2014

The elephant's turn? Hard to say right now Inna Felker/shutterstock.com

If India is to play a meaningful role as the Asian century unfolds, it needs to rethink its unipolar strategy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to invite South Asian leaders to his swearing-in ceremony signals the new government’s desire to reboot its Asian engagement. Even before he took the oath of office, it was clear that Asia is going to be high on Modi’s foreign policy agenda. Japan is likely to be Modi’s first foreign visit as Prime Minister, followed by China.

India’s new Prime Minister enjoys close ties with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He visited Japan five times as chief minister of Gujarat. In July, he will go to Brazil to attend the BRICS summit where he will meet leaders of the emerging powers including China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

These meetings will, of course, give Modi an opportunity to lay out his foreign policy agenda and infuse energy into the Asian diplomatic bloodstream. But this is not an easy task given the pitfalls in Asian geopolitics and the structural limitations of India’s foreign policy orientation.

Unipolar mentality

For a meaningful engagement with Asian powers based on mutual prosperity, India should overcome its unipolar mentality, much the same way it got out of the Cold War mentality, and prepare itself for a more dynamic world order and the ‘Asian century’. The term ‘Asian century’ came up as a passing reference at the December 1988 meeting between the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and the then Indian prime minister the late Rajiv Gandhi.

At the meeting, considered one of the defining events of Indo-China relations, Deng told Gandhi that in recent years many people had been saying the next century would be the ‘Asian century’. The phrase eventually became a popular geo-strategic term to refer to the steady rise of China and the fast-changing equations in global power politics.

While the Chinese seem to have realised the real potential of the Asian century much earlier, India, the third largest Asian economy, failed to structurally reorient its engagement with the new Asia.

China gave foremost importance to economic development and restrained its strategic play within Asia, apparently in a bid to emerge as a dominant player in the region; the changes India made in its post-Cold War foreign policy were largely aimed at accommodating itself within a unipolar world.

The policymakers in New Delhi seem to have been convinced that the world had changed for good, and the global domination of the US was there to stay. While this policy shift actually improved India-US ties, it did little to strengthen India’s geopolitical standing in Asia, where China was steadily expanding its reach.

According to Nouriel Roubini, a noted economist who advised Bill Clinton, the biggest geopolitical risk of our times is the rise of China. With China emerging as a regional power in Asia, tensions between Beijing and its neighbours are also on the rise.

Besides, US President Barack Obama had earlier unveiled his plans to “pivot” to Asia to “contain” China.

Japan’s position

Japan, upset over China’s muscle-flexing in the region, has shown clear indications that it wants to end the “passive diplomacy” it followed in the post-war period and project itself as a counterpoint to Beijing.

The US plan is to stitch together a broader alliance in Asia that could check China. It encouraged the changes in Japan’s foreign and security policy thinking because it sees Japan as a major partner in the pivot. It wants India to join this alliance.

This coincides with another pivot, that of Russia. Putin recently clinched a $400 billion gas deal with China under which Russian energy giant Gazprom will supply natural gas to China National Petroleum Corp for 10 years. The deal not only intensifies energy cooperation between the two countries, it takes bilateral relations between the word’s fastest-growing major economy and an ambitious former superpower to new highs.

In other words, there are two rival blocs, one theatre and multiple players. It is a Cold War-like situation in Asia.

Asian stability

India cannot sidestep this larger scenario while crafting the contours of its new Asian engagement. One way or the other, it will have to respond to the boiling geopolitical competition in the continent.

It can, however, take a cue from the Gandhi-Deng summit of 1988. If the ongoing century is an Asian one, India should radically realign its foreign policy priorities and give foremost importance to stability in Asia. The rise of China has already turned Asia into a hotbed of geopolitics, with both the US and Russia already present in the region. Both blocs will want India to join them, and selecting one over the other is a move that would jeopardise not only India’s interests but also Asian security.

New Delhi’s decision to back Tokyo in its territorial disputes with China was a move in such a direction. Such acts would only antagonise China. Choosing the middle path while simultaneously strengthening partnerships with other Asian powers is a difficult job that needs imaginative diplomacy, but it will pay off in the long term. It’s possible only if India places Asian stability at the centre of its foreign policy agenda. That’s perhaps the greatest challenge before the new government.

Published on June 01, 2014

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