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Modi’s Foreign Policy – How’s It Going?

Fall / Winter 2016 Features

Modi’s Foreign Policy – How’s It Going?

Modi’s Foreign Policy – How’s It Going? From Nehruvianism to a Neoliberal and Hyper-Realist Hybrid?

Where is India’s foreign policy two years into Narendra Modi’s term as prime minister? The answer is that Modi has built on Manmohan Singh’s and Atal Behari Vajpayee’s policies, but has pushed ahead to make some key changes. While these changes were signalled quite early in his premiership – indeed within the first six months of taking office – the extent of the changes has now become far more clearly visible. Bref, Modi is moving India from a Nehruvian to a more neoliberal and even hyper-realist posture.

Modi obviously brings a huge amount of energy to foreign policy, travelling roughly once a month. During his visits, he is indefatigable, addressing legislatures, meeting with the diaspora, visiting sites of local cultural and social importance, and attending the usual round of official meetings. He projects his personality as integral to the future of India and its foreign policy in a way that no Indian prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru has done – dressing carefully, choosing symbolic gestures with great attention (including the kinds of gifts he brings), and turning on the charm in his personal and public interactions.

A particular feature of Modi’s trips abroad is his use of Hindi rather than English for speeches and even for smaller official meetings. Modi is manifestly trying to convey – and not too subtly – that he represents the ‘authentic’ India, in identity and cultural terms, and that he is proud of his native heritage.

Beyond the more personal and idiosyncratic elements of his foreign policy approach, where does Modi stand in terms of Indian strategic thought? In the Winter 2013 issue of GB, I identified three major schools of grand strategic thought in India: Nehruvianism, neoliberalism and hyper-realism. Nehruvians are wedded to the ideas of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in seeing non-alignment as the key to India’s security. In practice, non-aligned India tilted away from the US and the West toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and remained suspicious of an imperialist America after 1990. Nehruvians remain opposed to any formal alliances. They see China and Japan – in partnership with India – as being the core of any Asian security system, and put their faith in diplomacy before force in dealing with rivals.

Neoliberals are associated more closely with Prime Minister Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) and his pragmatism in building closer relations with the US and putting economics at the centre of Indian strategy. Rao enunciated India’s Look East policy and deepened India’s economic and diplomatic engagement with China. His successors, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, hewed closely to neoliberalism, though Vajpayee made India a nuclear weapon power in 1998 and placed more emphasis than Manmohan on the use of force. For instance, in 2001-2002, he mobilized India’s military along the border with Pakistan after Islamic militants attacked India’s parliament. In 2008, after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Manmohan turned instead to diplomacy to deal with Islamabad, seeking to isolate it internationally.

Hyper-realists, by contrast, believe that India, like any other country, must invest in alliances if necessary, but in the end must build its own military strength. They regard China as the biggest threat to India, and would build a coalition in Asia and beyond, if not a formal set of alliances, to strengthen India’s position vis-à-vis its northern neighbour. Bref, hyper-realists urge India to be more attentive to a balance-of-power approach in international affairs.

Two years into his term, it is quite clear how he and his national security adviser Ajit Doval see some key challenges to India’s security – particularly in the immediate and extended neighbourhood.

I had suggested in my past GB article that India was transitioning from Nehruvianism to neoliberalism. Where does Modi stand? Is he a Nehruvian, a neoliberal, or a hyper-realist? Two years into his term, it is quite clear how he and his national security adviser Ajit Doval see some key challenges to India’s security – particularly in the immediate and extended neighbourhood. They identify three key challenges: China, asymmetric and unconventional conflict, and border management. The prime minister himself has been careful not to mention China as a threat, for that would be too provocative. Doval, on the other hand, has not been shy about naming China explicitly as a threat. China is a challenge not just because the border quarrel remains unresolved, but also because it is a formidable power and its influence is nearly everywhere – and especially in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood.

Modi has also made it plain that he regards terrorism, insurgency and other forms of unconventional war – including cyber-war – as being the future of conflict. Beyond China and unconventional conflict, India must deal with the problem of vulnerable borders with Pakistan (and Kashmir), Myanmar (insurgents to and from India’s eastern neighbour), and Bangladesh (illegal migration).

I focus here on India’s China problem, since this is undoubtedly the greatest concern for New Delhi. China impacts India’s relations with Pakistan and the smaller states of South Asia (from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka and the Maldives), its influence in the rest of Asia, its border security, its internal security, and its maritime security. It also impacts its nuclear programme – for instance, China’s refusal to let India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) prevents India from engaging more deeply in the global nuclear trade.

Modi’s aphorism for dealing with China is that India will not “lower its eyes” before China, but will not stare China down either. It will look China straight in the eye. During his visit to Singapore in 2015, Modi did not mention China when he repeated this aphorism, but it was reasonably clear that he was referring to how he intends to deal with the Middle Kingdom. This way of dealing with China is evident, too, in Doval’s various remarks on security. Doval has noted that while the two Asian giants are in contention over territory and influence, they have much in common, can cooperate on common challenges, have a 5,000-year history of peace, and will settle their differences through negotiations.

In terms of actual policy, Modi has given expression to his approach in a number of ways. On the one hand, he has said that he wants to deepen the economic relationship, including encouraging Chinese investments and manufacturing in India. When Xi Jinping visited India in September 2014, the Chinese promised up to US$20 billion in investment funds over five years. Modi, in return, promised to make available land in Gujarat and Maharashtra for two industrial parks for Chinese companies. He has gone along with China on the BRICS Development Bank in accepting that the headquarters would be in Shanghai. In return, Beijing agreed that the first chairman of the Bank would be an Indian. Modi also quickly brought India into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Moreover, he has made it a point to schedule a bilateral meeting with Xi on the sidelines of almost every ‘minilateral’ conclave that the two have attended together.

Having said this, Modi has taken a number of steps to signal a tougher stand. During his trip to Japan in late 2014, just days before Xi came to India on his first official visit as president, Modi went out of his way to deride China, saying that some of today’s powers, in their expansionism and aggressiveness, were behaving like 17th or 18th century European powers. When Xi came calling, Modi told the Chinese leader that progress on the border was essential if relations were to deepen. He repeated the need for quicker resolution of this dispute when he visited Beijing in May 2015, arguing that progress in the border talks was vital if economic and other aspects of their relations were to flourish. This suggests a reversal of the position held by India since 1998 – to wit, that normalization of diplomatic, economic and social relations between the two countries would lay the foundation for a border settlement. In the military confrontation in Ladakh, during Xi’s visit, Modi sent nearly 1,000 additional troops to bolster India’s position there. India has also thus far refused to join China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, arguing that Beijing had not included New Delhi in the shaping of the idea.

Looking beyond these initial moves, Modi has taken a number of steps – some symbolic and some more tangible – to signal that India will be more assertive vis-à-vis China. First, Modi’s outreach internationally is in large part about projecting India in relation to China. New Delhi does not want to allow the international diplomatic space to go uncontested in China’s favour. The message is simple: a democratic, economically surging, demographically attractive, and non-aggressive India, at peace with those around it, is an alternative to China. This is clearly an exercise in Indian soft power.

Second, Modi has made a clear shift in alignment toward the US. Inviting President Barack Obama to be India’s guest at the Republic Day Parade in January 2015 was unprecedented – no US president had ever been accorded this honour. Before this, Modi had made a quite successful first visit to Washington in September 2014, just days after Xi’s trip to India. While the visit was low on substance, it was high on symbolism. Modi, long denied a visa to the US after the 2002 Gujarat riots, dined at the White House. He also held a huge rally with local Indians and attended a music concert in Central Park, where he appeared on stage. Among his first foreign policy deliverables was a deal with the US on the Doha round of trade negotiations, which only weeks earlier New Delhi had effectively stalled. More important was the deal on nuclear liability, with the common pool insurance solution providing a way out of the corner into which India had painted itself with its 2010 nuclear liability bill.

While there continue to be differences with the US, over Pakistan, Afghanistan, conventional weapons sales, Ukraine, Russia, intervention, and climate change, Modi has reached out to Washington as perhaps no Indian prime minister has done before.

While there continue to be differences with the US, over Pakistan, Afghanistan, conventional weapons sales, Ukraine, Russia, intervention, and climate change, Modi has reached out to Washington as perhaps no Indian prime minister has done before. Dealing with China is a common concern. The US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, made public during Obama’s visit, was, in its insistence on freedom of navigation and the rule of law, clearly aimed at China. This was not the first time that India and the US had jointly made such remarks, but embedding those words in a vision document was intended to send a message to Beijing and East Asian states about the evolving partnership with Washington. Thus, the joint statement issued at the end of the visit stressed that the two sides were in agreement on India going beyond Look East, to Act East, and that New Delhi and Washington would increase their cooperation in the region. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea this past July, New Delhi repeated its stand that “India supports freedom of navigation and over-flight and unimpeded commerce, based on principles of international law as reflected notably in the UNCLOS.”

In April of this year, India and the US made progress on the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The agreement, when signed, will allow both sides to obtain supplies, spare parts and services from each other. (It does not, however, include basing rights.) This is the first time that New Delhi has inked such a far-reaching military agreement with the US.

More recently, in June of this year, Modi made a fourth visit to the US in two years. During the visit, he addressed the US Congress for the first time. The visit was also notable for designating India as a Major Defence Partner of the US for the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, cybersecurity cooperation, and US support of India’s application to the NSG (in the face of Chinese opposition). At the heart of defence technology collaboration with the US is American help for India’s aircraft carrier project. Interestingly, New Delhi will be simultaneously cooperating with Moscow on its nuclear and other submarines, and with Washington on its carriers.

Third, Modi’s focus on visiting the immediate and extended neighbourhood with such regularity is intended to remind those closer to home that India can be a friend and partner, and that China is not the only economic or security game in town. In South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Indian Ocean states of Mauritius and Seychelles, in dealing with the economically more needy states, Modi has come with a package of development and technical aid, lines of credit, and infrastructure and connectivity initiatives. He has also attempted to promote bilateral trade and investment. Virtually everywhere in the region – even in more advanced Southeast Asia – Modi has tried to sell Indian capabilities in satellite, cyber and information technology. Of course, this is not the first time that India is putting together these kinds of economic and technological packages, but Modi’s visits and his speeches have advertised India’s initiatives as never before.

Arguably, too, Modi has been far more aggressive than his predecessors in presenting India as a security provider. While he did not emphasize this in his South Asian visits – in order not to reinforce fears of a hegemonic India – he has, in the extended neighbourhood, been fairly direct. Again, it is not that Modi has invented these initiatives de novo. India has had defence agreements with all of the major states of Southeast Asia going back to at least the early 1990s. Likewise, India has been the mainstay of security in Mauritius and Seychelles since the 1980s. Indian involvement in Central Asian security is also not new, and can be traced back to the days of Taliban rule in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Thereafter, the Manmohan Singh government had worked to build links between the armed forces and security bureaucracies in Central Asia to deal with the issue of terrorism and to balance against Chinese influence.

Still, Modi, with his far more public utterances on the subject, has underlined India’s desire to be involved in providing security. Everywhere he has been in the extended neighbourhood, including Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, he has flown India’s defence manufacturing flag, renewing or signing new defence cooperation agreements to institutionalize high-level political and bureaucratic interactions, military exercises, military exchanges, and training of personnel. India, Modi has suggested, is interested in building its own defence industry through collaboration in co-producing specific systems, as well as through the export of its own existing weapons systems. For instance, New Delhi has repeated its interest in buying and possibly co-producing Japan’s Soryu submarine and US-2 amphibious aircraft. India also seems to be edging closer to promising the BrahMoS cruise missile system to Vietnam, provided Moscow agrees to go along (as the missile is being developed with Russia).

There is also little doubt that Modi has made a number of changes in Indian foreign policy with a security focus aimed squarely at China. The first change consists in the expansion of India’s naval exercises. After some initial hesitation, in July 2015, Modi invited Japan to join the Malabar naval exercises as a permanent member. India usually holds these exercises with the US. Japan has participated from time to time. After Modi’s visit to China in May 2015, he ordered that Japan be invited as a permanent member of the exercises. The US urged him to also invite Australia. This he did not do, although he did start a bilateral India-Australia naval exercise for the first time, held in the same month as the Malabar exercise.

The second change that Modi has brought about has been to forge a formal, long-term defence agreement with Australia. New Delhi has traditionally held Canberra at arm’s length. Australian suspicion of India’s naval expansion in the 1980s and its non-proliferation stance on India’s nuclear programme irked New Delhi, which in turn saw Australia as an uncritical follower of the US. While the Manmohan Singh government had tentatively begun the process of defence cooperation, Modi has been far more enthusiastic about the strategic convergence with Australia, and is keen to bring India, Japan and Australia together. For the first time, a trilateral India-Japan-Australia security dialogue was held in June 2015.

The third change has been to increase India’s role in the Indian Ocean. Modi has built on earlier Indian policies, but there are signs of more ambitious engagement with the regional states. New Delhi is trying to put in place the Coastal Surveillance Radar System involving Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles – begun by the previous government – and is trying to cobble together a maritime security group comprising India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Seychelles. (In the 2015 Sri Lankan presidential elections, New Delhi made quite public its preference for the eventually victorious opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, encouraging opposition groups to coalesce. This came after Chinese submarines docked at Sri Lankan ports in September and November 2014.) Ajit Doval has referred approvingly to the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace (IOZP) – an idea that India more or less abandoned in the 1970s. IOZP envisioned regional and littoral states taking the lead in ensuring security and stability in the Indian Ocean. In addition, the increased cooperation with Australia, including in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), presages a new coalition to deal with Indian Ocean security even as the US navy relocates assets to the Asia-Pacific region. Modi has also undertaken a review of maritime capabilities and policies, and is attempting to launch a single-point maritime agency in India.

Where, then, is India’s Modi in terms of our original grand strategy triptych of Nehruvianism, neoliberalism, and hyper-realism? First of all, Modi seems to have clearly identified China as India’s biggest grand strategic challenge. This is consonant with the thinking of the hyper-realists, who see China as India’s greatest security threat.

Second, like so many other states in Asia and the rest of the world, Modi’s India is engaging China economically. Bilateral trade runs to approximately US$70 billion annually. India is beginning to attract Chinese investment. Between 2000 and 2015, Chinese investment was estimated to be just over $1 billion. Between 2015 and 2018, it will likely rise to between $5 billion and $10 billion. India is a member of the BRICS Development Bank and the AIIB. It may soon also be a member of the proposed Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Development Bank. Here Modi seems to be close to the thinking of the neoliberals, who see the road to security through trade and other economic interactions.

Third, in the defence and security sphere, more than any of his predecessors, Modi has moved India from non-alignment to alignment with the US and a range of Asian and Indian Ocean states in an effort to strengthen India’s bargaining position vis-à-vis China. New Delhi does not expect war with China. Nor does it expect anyone – not even the US – to come to India’s aid if there is war. What it is hoping is that, with India in a broad coalition, Beijing will be more sensitive to New Delhi’s concerns and will settle various matters – preeminently the border conflict – sooner rather than later, and on terms more favourable to India than Beijing appears to fancy at present. This is suggestive of a more neoliberal and hyper-realist sensibility than a Nehruvian sensibility in grand strategy.

Neoliberals in India have supported a strong relationship with the US, and hyper-realists argue for a coalition strategy against China – with or without the US.

Bref, Modi is transitioning India from a Nehruvian to a hybrid neoliberal-cum-hyper-realist grand strategy. Question: Is Modi’s China strategy working? In particular, is a more aggressive coalition-building strategy causing Beijing to rethink its stand on the border conflict, its support of India’s neighbours – particularly Pakistan – against India, and indeed India’s membership in the NSG and on the UN Security Council? Answer: It is too early to tell. But it is telling that China continues to underline that there is a huge dispute over territory in Arunachal Pradesh (or South Tibet, in Chinese terminology). Moreover, after promising India $20 billion in investments in September 2014, it offered $46 billion to Pakistan just a few months later. China is promising to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with those funds – through territory that India claims as part of Kashmir. Most recently, China balked at India’s bid for NSG membership, arguing that unless India signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and unless Pakistan becomes a member of the grouping on the same terms, New Delhi should not be allowed into the club.

Will Beijing’s responses deepen or soften Modi’s inclinations? That is the question for the years ahead. Modi has shown, over the course of his political career, that he is a deeply strategic politician. He plots a course carefully, and proceeds with determination. It seems clear enough that he has identified China as India’s main foreign policy and security challenge. It is also clear that while he will continue to engage China and stand by the various modes of engagement that the two sides have forged over the years – regular summit meetings, border negotiations, confidence-building along the border, and growing trade and investment ties – he will deepen his efforts at coalition-building and balance of power manoeuvring in order to improve his bargaining hand. And he will attempt to bring coalition pressures to bear on Beijing, as he did during India’s campaign for membership in the NSG in May and June of this year. He has already warned China that there must be progress toward a border settlement if Beijing wants a healthier, comprehensive relationship with New Delhi, and that growing trade and investment will not substitute for a settlement. He will continue to remind China of this, playing for the long term.


Kanti Bajpai is the Wilmar Chair of Asian Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.


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