If India is to preserve its strategic autonomy and be a leading power, it must maintain a degree of balance in its relations with big powers such as the US, Russia and China. It need not, and cannot, have the same level of relationship with all three because the nature and content of ties with each of them is different. Modi is calibrating India’s policies accordingly.
Our closest relationship today is with the US, though it is not trouble-free. America’s reflexes as the dominant global power are often not congenial. Its policies towards Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Russia are problematic for us. We have differences over trade issues, though it is our biggest trade (in goods and services), investment and technology partner. Defence ties are growing rapidly, with the China dimension prominent in the Indo-Pacific project. The people-to-people, cultural and educational ties are the most dense. Modi has to make the best of this relationship, leveraging the positives (the Houston event) and shielding India against the negatives (Trump’s mediation talk on Kashmir and trade deficit with India).
With Russia, we have a longstanding, essentially trouble-free, relationship. It remains our biggest defence partner. Generally, it gives us political support at critical moments, but even if it is not as forthcoming on some issues of concern to us (Afghanistan and lately Pakistan), it does not act in a hostile manner. Our trade relations are meagre. But Modi is conscious that maintaining high-level engagement with Russia is a diplomatic cushion of vital importance in an increasingly unstable international scenario.
China is our biggest strategic adversary. It has neutralised India strategically by its nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. It protects Pakistan politically on terrorism. In league with Pakistan over constitutional changes in J&K, it put Kashmir on the UN Security Council agenda after 50 years. As against this, China is our biggest trade partner in goods, even if our deficit of almost $60 billion with it is unsustainable. Chinese investment is growing, with a strong presence in several important sectors. We have some shared interests at the international level on energy and WTO-related issues, reform of the international financial and political institutions, anti-protectionism, etc., but our dilemma is that joining it to dilute traditional Western dominance of the global system will only facilitate the realisation of China’s hegemonic ambitions. Modi has to manage Chinese hostility, reach out to it but also limit the mutual embrace.
To place Modi’s policies towards these three powers in context, the political continuity behind them must be recognised. Under the Vajpayee and the Manmohan Singh governments, the relationship with all three was boosted. Modi has no doubt infused new dynamism into these ties, helped by India’s rising economic stature, which has given these countries greater stakes, present and future, in India’s economic prospects. Modi’s personality has played a major role in solidifying India’s international image and standing by his effective political salesmanship on many fronts. He has ably carved out leadership positions for India internationally as, for instance, on climate change issues. His penchant for detail enables him to outline India’s multifarious efforts to uplift the country. He has galvanised the Indian diaspora unlike any other Indian prime minister. He exudes self-confidence and self-assurance at the personal level, and conveys to the world the strengths of India, which makes for more equal equations with his interlocutors. With over 600 million Indians voting, the mandate he has received this time has given him unequalled legitimacy as a democratically elected global leader. This, too, helps in diplomatic equations with foreign leaders. His efforts to project India’s civilisational achievements globally assist in deepening India’s international diplomatic imprint.
Modi’s foreign policy, as with his predecessors, is fundamentally driven by India’s national interests, but the personalities of prime ministers matter, with one with a stronger personality, as in Modi’s case, bringing a certain vigour into implementation. Modi does attach importance to building a personal chemistry with foreign leaders, which explains his penchant to hug them. In international diplomacy today, leaders now play a much more visible and active foreign policy role. Be it the US or Russia, China or India, it is Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping and Modi who are the foreign policy faces of their countries, not their foreign ministers. Summit meetings are now commonplace. India and Russia have been holding unbroken summits since the year 2000, with each summit reviewing the state of bilateral relations and giving them a new thrust. Summits with Bush, Obama and Trump have shaped India-US relations profoundly. Summits with China have given the ties some stability, despite serious bilateral problems.
Modi has broken new ground in personality-driven foreign policy, be it his equation with Obama or a tour of the Houston stadium hand in hand with Trump, the warmth with which an otherwise cold Putin meets him, or Xi Jinping and Modi holding informal summits in out-of-the-capital settings. While it is true that national interest will always take precedence over personal equations because governments, especially in democratic countries, can change with elections, such equations broaden understandings at the leadership level, contribute to trust building, help create mechanisms to defuse tensions, allow consultations to mitigate a crisis build-up, etc. In Trump’s case, a better personal equation helps to deal with his mercurial and unpredictable behaviour. In Putin’s case, strengthening mutual confidence helps to remove misgivings about the motivation behind each other’s foreign policy decisions. In China’s case, one important consideration is to leverage Xi’s authority to give strategic guidance to China’s military. India has gained on all these fronts.
The pitfall of over-confidence in one’s own judgment and neglecting institutional wisdom is always there when a strong personality is in charge of a country. But in a democracy like India, the scope for an overly personality-driven foreign policy is limited, as there is public accountability, and electoral punishment if things go wrong.
(The writer is a former foreign secretary and ambassador to Russia)