Written by Ian Hall.

It is hard to remember now, but before Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, many reputable pundits thought it would take time before he would find his feet in foreign policy. They were wrong. Contrary to expectations, Modi plunged straight into international relations, issuing invitations to regional leaders, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, to attend his inauguration, and then jetting off to all points of the compass to meet and greet foreign leaders, CEOs, and representatives of the diaspora.

For India, as for American allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific, the posture of “America First” has raised the concern that the Trump administration might sell out India’s interests to further those of the US, especially to China.

The energy that Modi injected into Indian foreign policy in those first few months was as remarkable as it was unexpected. It was also infectious, as was his enthusiasm, helping to generate a rash of books and articles outlining the “Modi Doctrine” with which the new Prime Minister was supposedly transforming India’s international relations.

Three-and-a-bit years on, things look a bit different. Domestically, Modi’s government has been moderately successful. Modi is still riding high in the polls and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies have won a series of key state elections, consolidating power and building the capacity to implement a major reform agenda. Economic growth has been steady, though not spectacular, inflation has remained under control, but job-creation has lagged, and reform – apart from the Goods and Services Tax (GST) – has been patchy.

Internationally, Modi’s government has not done so well, partly because of circumstances far beyond its control, but partly because it lacks a clear strategy for achieving its objectives beyond showmanship and bravado.

It is true that the times have not been kind. The behaviour of both neighbours and – latterly – strategic partners has worsened since mid-2014. Pakistan is possibly more stable now than it was – a civilian regime is still in place, the economy is picking up speed, and domestic terrorist attacks are back to the level they were a decade ago. But there is no sign of Islamabad (or Rawalpindi) slowing progress on its nuclear weapons program, nor clamping down on groups involved in infiltrations and terrorist attacks in India. Moreover, unrest has once again flared in Kashmir, placing New Delhi in a weaker position that it might be, should India and Pakistan decide to sit down and negotiate over its future.

China, for its part, poses challenges on a quite different scale. Under Xi Jinping, it has emerged as a revanchist power, showing no indication of compromising with New Delhi on a range of issues, including the border. Talks on that issue continue but are no closer to an agreement. Meanwhile, competition between China and India for influence in South Asia has intensified. In response, India has deepened its strategic partnerships with the US and Japan, annoying Beijing. And new points of contention have emerged. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which runs in part through territory claimed by India, has displeased New Delhi and India’s boycott of the May 2017 Belt and Road Forum has irked Beijing. Worse still, the standoff in Bhutan, at Doklam, between Chinese and Indian troops has brought dire threats of military punishment and a sustained campaign of abuse from China’s state-run media aimed at all things Indian.

And then there is Trump. For two decades, the US-India relationship has fared much better under Republicans than Democrats. The George W. Bush’s administration brought India in from the cold after the 1998 nuclear tests and delivered a wide-ranging Defence Framework Agreement, in 2005. Under Barack Obama, however, momentum was lost, and regained late in his second term, thanks to Modi’s personal effort to reach out to the President, inviting him to become the first US leader to attend a Republic Day parade, in 2015, and to the adept diplomacy of S. Jaishankar, the former Ambassador to Washington Modi appointed as Foreign Secretary a couple of days after that event.

What happens with Donald J. Trump in the White House (if he lasts a full term) is still unclear. Modi’s people were evidently pleased that the June Summit in Washington passed without incident, that commitments to deepen defence cooperation were made, and that the US appeared to endorse New Delhi’s stance on the BRI. But they must now be concerned about the lack of positive input from the Trump administration on the Doklam dispute, which contrasts with the rhetorical support given by both Australia and, more forcefully, Japan. For India, as for American allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific, the posture of “America First” has raised the concern that the Trump administration might sell out India’s interests to further those of the US, especially to China.

So far, Modi has met these various challenges with showmanship and bravado. He has invested heavily in personal diplomacy, both dramatic, like his unannounced drop-in to a Sharif family wedding in late 2015, and carefully staged, like the reciprocal visits with Xi Jinping. But while these acts have not paid obvious diplomatic dividends, they have not produced a breakthrough in relations with Pakistan, nor relieved the pressure exerted by China.

Modi’s government has also shown a more robust approach to challenges to India’s security, with a well-publicised cross-border raid against Pakistan-based militants, for example, and loud protests about incursions into the disputed territory by the People’s Liberation Army. But the results have been mixed. India’s credibility may have been boosted, but Beijing, in particular, has pushed back with condescension and coercion, not concessions.

Getting out of the predicament in which Modi’s India now finds itself is going to take a more strategic approach, as well as flair and truculence. India badly needs another round of economic reform to boost growth; it also needs much greater investment in infrastructure. It needs to accelerate its military modernisation and needs sensible measures to improve its local defence industry. All that, and more requires a full-time Defence Minister. India needs to deepen its strategic partnerships and to articulate a clear agenda in regional institutions. And, frankly, it also needs a slice of good fortune if it is going to succeed in navigating the most difficult set of circumstances New Delhi has faced since 1991.

Ian Hall is a Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University, Australia, and an Academic Fellow of the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne. He tweets @DrIanHall. Photo credit: CC by Narendra Modi/Flickr.

2 comments

  1. “America First” was just a slogan to appeal to domestic constituents and leaders in Asian countries know this. Mattis and Tillerson have been busy engaging with their counterparts in Asia and affirming U.S. commitments. From a strategic perspective, the U.S. has nothing to gain by “selling out to China” and compromising India’s security. Moreover, the U.S. military, which wields considerable influence, is keen to deepen ties with countries like India.

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  2. There is a feeling among Modi supporters (and there are millions of them both in and outside India) that the ‘establishment’, political, press, academics and bureaucrats, have not been able to stomach the success of Modi because he doesn’t fit their narrative. Ian must be having great neighbors next to his home; otherwise he would have known the difficulties of dealing with stubborn neighbors like Pakistan and China. It reflects on them not on Modi. Both these countries know their limits in dealing with Modi and will not dare engage in any misadventure. Isn’t that success? There hasn’t been single political scandal or corruption case in 3.5 years of Modi’s government in complete contrast to previous regimes. Isn’t that success?

    On the political front, Modi’s domestic popularity and India’s international image have never been better. On the economic front, Ian brushes aside the GST reform with passing reference without understanding or pretending not to understand its structural significance. He conveniently forgets about demonetisation which, while it failed to halt black money, accelerated digitisation, thus, bringing transparency and dramatically widening tax coverage along with GST. Foreign Direct Investment has been flowing in, away from China. Apple is producing iPhones, Lockheed Martin is about to produce F16s in India with Trump’s open support and the list goes on.

    By the way, India now has a full time defence minister and that too a woman (to show Modi’s gender equality agenda). The credentials of the ministers recently appointed clearly show Modi places merit ahead of popularity. For decades, intellegentia (both Indian and foreign) has quite literally feasted on India’s poverty and declaring (almost wishing) with glee how it can never get out of its problems but now that Modi is showing the way, suddenly they are too shocked to even acknowledge what is happening let alone being able to analyse it.

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