Amid the raging media war between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters and critics, recent developments are helping to disprove one charge — that India is getting isolated internationally. From frustrating China’s latest United Nations Security Council (UNSC) move on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to forcing Malaysia to start addressing its growing trade surplus with India, including by importing more Indian sugar, Indian diplomacy has rarely been more robust. It was China that was isolated in the UNSC discussion on J&K.
United States (US) President Donald Trump’s forthcoming visit promises to raise India’s international salience. Building closer cooperation with the US, while shielding India’s longstanding partnership with Russia, has been Modi’s signature foreign policy initiative. The US and India have never been closer than they are today, despite their differences over the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges.
The showmanship, zeal and penchant that Modi’s diplomacy displayed in his first years in office have gradually given way to a more down-to-earth approach and greater pragmatism, including seeking to more resourcefully advance the country’s interests. Under Modi, Indian diplomacy has been shedding its conventional methods and shibboleths to help build innovative dynamism. This remains a work in progress.
India is now more willing to be proactive. Consider the imperative to reverse eroding regional clout at a time when China is spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard. In Sri Lanka, no sooner had Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election, Modi sent his foreign minister to personally invite him to New Delhi. And then, to follow up on the discussions during Gotabaya’s visit, Modi’s national security adviser was in Colombo recently.
Another recent example is India’s pull-out from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to forestall an India-China free-trade agreement emerging via the backdoor. The decision not to join RCEP came barely three weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the Mamallapuram summit, pleaded with Modi for India’s entry and offered to discuss Indian concerns bilaterally. The trade deficit with China has more than doubled on Modi’s watch and now accounts for 2.2% of India’s GDP, which is higher than its total defence spending. At a time of the slowing of India’s economic growth, India’s RCEP entry would seriously exacerbate the country’s problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap goods from China, which keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses.
While Trump has got his phase-one deal to reduce the US trade deficit with China, India’s trade deficit with China continues to climb. In these circumstances, India’s RCEP entry would only aid Beijing’s India policy of containment with engagement, including aggressively advancing commercial interests. In essence, China’s policy seeks to ensure it wins doubly — reap soaring profits on Indian trade while simultaneously working to box India in.
Through greater realism, India has progressively evolved a non-doctrinaire foreign policy vision since it went overtly nuclear. It seeks to revitalise its economic and military security without having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner. Given its nuclear-armed status, its founding philosophy centred on non-violence has assumed a largely rhetorical meaning.
As one US official, Alice Wells, has acknowledged, India’s “broadening strategic horizons” have led to a “shift away from a passive foreign policy”. India, however, remains intrinsically diffident, with a tendency to confound tactics with strategy and unable at times to recognise the difference between being cautious and being meek. Caution helps avert problems, while meekness compounds challenges. Making matters worse, India today is weighed down not just by a troubled neighbourhood but also by its increasingly murky politics. A dynamic diplomacy needs strong bipartisan support, especially for ambitious or risky undertakings. But given India’s fractious politics, such bipartisanship has been hard to come by. Consider the political nitpicking over the Indian Air Force’s daring strike inside Pakistan at Balakot.
The bitter partisanship at home, by sharpening national divisions, makes it more challenging to meaningfully reinvigorate foreign policy. Indeed, the most pressing threat to India’s standing in the world comes not from China’s expansionism or the roguish activity of a scofflaw Pakistan but from polarised Indian politics. Given the threat from within, can India effectively deal with complex regional-security challenges, including the growing strategic axis between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of a powerful Leninist autocracy and an Islamist neighbour?
Modi may have become a lightning rod in India’s political churn. But make no mistake: Modi is a symptom of a longer-term trend of rancorous polarisation in Indian politics that predates his arrival on the national scene and is likely to persist after he leaves office. The world’s largest democracy has been in crisis for long. Its systemic problems have an important bearing on national security. Coping with mounting regional-security challenges while managing internal divisions will prove onerous unless India finds ways to control its growing divide.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist. The views expressed are personal.
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