Modi may have to wait

Modi may have to wait

At the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of his world view, of the purposes he has imparted to India’s foreign policy, of its core principles and the extensive spread of the country’s external engagements in these uncertain and changing times.

However, as he goes deeper into the second half of his term, it is probable that domestic issues will occupy greater salience in his work schedule. Consequently, the spread of his foreign interaction may diminish and its pace may get slower while its focus becomes sharper, more concentrated on priority countries and issues.

In the coming months, Modi’s foreign policy pre-occupations would centre on India’s relations with the US, China and Pakistan in the context of bilateral ties. He would nurture relations with South Asian neighbours, West Asia and his Act East initiative but their pursuit is likely to be at ministerial and diplomatic levels.

He would also have to travel abroad for multilateral summits including the G-20, Brics (a forum of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and the East Asia Summit with Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations). Last year, he had given the United Nations a miss, so perhaps, he may make an appearance at the annual gathering of world leaders in New York in autumn.

There are, however, no outstanding global issues requiring his constant attention in which India has an inescapable role or where Modi may wish to take a leading role. It is unlikely if he will profile either India’s desire for the reform of institutions of international governance or the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT).

Modi seeks to build personal ties with his international peers as he believes that personal chemistry among leaders plays an important role in the conduct of foreign policy. Thus, he will seek to build a personal relationship with American President Donald Trump who values the US-India relationship; Modi was the fifth world leader he called after his inauguration.

The US president wants to re-orient the American foreign policy in many areas. It is not certain how far he will go. While on immigration and trade he has sought to go against conventional US positions, on others, after giving indications to the contrary, he has fallen back on standard US policies. This is significantly illustrated by Trump accepting the one-China position though he had, as president-elect, indicated on using it as a negotiating card.

Modi may, therefore, have to wait for the Trump administration to spell out its full policies on areas of core interest to India such as the country’s western neighbourhood, China and the struggle against global terrorism. A more forceful approach to Pakistan on terror, especially in the Afghanistan context, may be Trump’s intention but the US room for manoeuvre has constraints.

In his inauguration speech, Trump said, “We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American”. This position especially impacts Indian IT companies in the context of H1B visas.

India is in contact with Trump’s people on this issue. It is unlikely that Trump will give in on a fundamental tenet of his election campaign.

However, in the medium term, the Trump administration may be compelled to take pragmatic positions if the absence of skills at appropriate costs begins to hurt the US industry. In this process, the Indian industry will be hurt.

The basic policy dilemmas of India’s Pakistan strategy confront Modi as they have his predecessors. Pakistan wants to restore a comprehensive dialogue process which would include talks on Kashmir.

For the past few months, the LoC has been quiet and Pakistan has taken some action against Hafiz Saeed, a wanted terrorist who was involved in the Mumbai terror attacks and is co-founder of the banned Lashker-e-Taiba, but his organisation mutates and other anti-Indian tanzeems (organisations) continue to operate freely.

Thus, there is no evidence that Pakistan wishes to abandon the use of terror instead of calibrating it as it traditionally does. The question is if Modi will show the stamina to pursue the present approach of no talks or participation in the Saarc summit till Pakistan gives full satisfaction on terror.

Isolating Pakistan
Or, would he like to make another effort to “try to turn the course of history” with Pakistan? Modi’s desire to isolate Pakistan internationally is unlikely to fully succeed, for most countries want to engage it on terrorism, if nothing else.

China’s stand on either India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership or on the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist under the United Nations’ 1267 process is unlikely to change. The China-Pakistan nexus, if anything, will become stronger because of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

China’s actions in Nepal will require careful watching. Modi seems to be now adopting the approach that successive governments have pursued since Rajiv Gandhi — “cooperate where advantageous and confront where required”. In his Raisina address, he emphasised the need for China to respect the sovereignty of countries and international norms. At the same time, he stressed the desire for bilateral economic cooperation.

The real question would be how far to go with the US if Trump, despite his adherence to the one-China principle, decides to take on China in the South China Sea and other issues. Caution would have to be exercised even while developing ties with the US and important Asian countries, especially Japan and Vietnam.

While Modi pursues his international agenda, will his international standing continue to remain high in 2017 and beyond? This will impact on his ability to sway his global peers who were all impressed with his election victory in 2014. If Modi, as the undisputed BJP leader, succeeds in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, his international reputation will only grow; if he fails, it will be somewhat dented.

(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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