As Indians vote through the rest of April and the first half of May, former-Financial Times journalist and author of Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality John Elliott, assesses India’s foreign policy over the last five years. Looking at role of the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (who is currently seeking re-election) Elliott argues why Modi’s achievements have failed to match up to the image he has continuously portrayed.
Narendra Modi has run an egocentric approach to foreign policy since he became prime minister nearly five years ago. He has successfully expanded India’s image abroad, but aggressive Hindu nationalism has become a negative driver of policy on Pakistan. He has made himself the government’s only significant player on international affairs, and has revelled in the personal exposure he has gained by visiting over 60 countries and attending high-profile and frequently choreographed meetings with world leaders. For him, that has had the useful side-effect of subsuming the memories of Gujarat’s 2002 Godhra riots, when he was the state’s chief minister, which led to a personal boycott the US, UK and other European countries.
India’s international profile has been raised, and relations have been strengthened, with nations ranging from the US and Australia to Japan and Vietnam. Modi has also established good personal rapport (to varying degrees) with top leaders such as Xi Jinping in China, Japan’s Shinzō Abe, and President Barack Obama in the US, though the association with Donald Trump is inevitably more bumpy.
Modi and international organisations
Real outcomes from most of the activity are however hard to pin down, though India has boosted its involvement in the Middle East and in international organisations such as the G-20, South East Asia’s ASEAN, and the BRICS five-country relationship. Modi also ensured that India played a key role in securing the Paris Climate Accord in December 2015, and initiated moves that a year later led to an international alliance on solar power.
An Indian prime minister’s key foreign policy priority is managing relations with China and the US, where Modi has weathered inevitable challenges. The main problems concern the immediate neighbourhood, where he has generally failed.
Modi and Pakistan
After initial attempts to build a constructive relationship with Pakistan, he has run an erratic and aggressive policy that has been directed increasingly at gaining political capital at home with his domestic nationalist audience, rather than constructive diplomacy. This has become more apparent as the current general election has approached, and has developed into Modi’s primary aim of developing patriotic fervour to boost the appeal of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism.
It was widely speculated in Delhi last year that Modi would create a crisis with Pakistan before the election. He did not need to do so because one was created on February 14 when a terror attack in Kashmir, organised by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militant group, killed 40 paramilitary troops. India’s jet fighters crossed into Pakistan territory on February 26 and engaged in aerial combat for the first time in nearly 50 years.
Pakistan and India have different versions of which country gained the most out of that historic event, but Modi has successfully used it to claim that only he, and not the leader of Congress or other opposition party, is able to keep India secure. Anyone who disagrees is accused of being pro-Pakistan and unpatriotic.
Modi needs Pakistan in order to present himself as a tough and successful leader because he has not been able to do so with India’s other neighbours – Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan – where he has had to tolerate increased influence by China.
India and China
The rise of Xi Jinping as China’s powerfully assertive president has presented Modi with far more challenges than any previous prime minister has had to face since India’s defeat in the two countries’ short border war in 1962. Xi was installed as China’s president a year before Modi became prime minister and has adopted an aggressive stance on both territorial ambitions and global reach, and has objected to India growing closer to the US over the past decade. Modi set out to develop a visible and close relationship with Xi and, while this may have been successful on a personal level, it is difficult to detect any diplomatic gains for India.
The biggest challenge came during the longest-ever confrontation between the two countries’ armies in the summer of 2017 at Doklam, a Himalayan plateau in Bhutan at a border tri-junction with China and India. Chinese troop movements and road construction on the plateau threatened the security of India’s adjacent narrow Siliguri corridor that connects its north-eastern states with the rest of the country. That prompted India to move its troops onto the plateau to block China’s advance, triggering a stand-off that lasted for just over ten weeks.
No shots were fired but Modi stood firm during those 72 days against this extreme provocation which would probably have led previous governments to withdraw troops, fearing a war. Eventually after more than two months there was an understanding that enabled both sides to claim an advantage, though nothing was settled.
India withdrew troops to its nearby state of Sikkim, but reports have indicated that China has continued to embed itself long-term on the plateau north of the confrontation line, instead of backing off as India tried to argue had been agreed.
Xi’s giant Belt Road Initiative (BRI) involving infrastructure and investment projects to link Asia with Europe includes a $50bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with a highway through parts of Pakistan that India claims. Because of that highway, India has arguably over-reacted and boycotted the entire BRI. What it should have done was to have joined other countries in recognising the BRI and, while objecting to the CPEC, pick which projects might be of benefit. Modi could have used his relationship with Xi to try to make that work.
China has for years opposed India’s desire to become a member of the United Nations Security Council and Modi, like his predecessors, has spent too much energy pursuing this distant goal. More recently, China has blocked India’s membership application at the Geneva-based Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, which Modi’s government has irrationally pursued with maximum publicity, virtually asking to be repeatedly rebuffed. In addition, China has been blocking India’s initiatives at the UN to clamp down on Pakistan-based Islamic terrorists.
“China is determined to reduce India’s sphere of influence, its footprint,” a former top security adviser has told me, adding that China would not give way to India on any issue, other than when it wanted to do so, and on its own terms. That happened when, eight months after the Doklam crisis, Modi and Xi recalibrated their countries’ relationship onto a more co- operative footing at a summit held in April 2018 in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
India had realised it was best not to antagonise China by siding too obviously with the US and its allies, while Xi realised that the Doklam provocation had almost gone too far. Contacts between the two countries improved after the meeting and there have been no major events on the disputed Himalayan border, known as the Line of Actual Control.
While it would have been diplomatically and politically difficult, if not impossible, for any prime minister to improve India’s standing in relation to China during these years, Modi has unnecessarily allowed the country’s role with its other neighbours to deteriorate. He started off with a widely-praised flourish when he invited South Asia leaders to his swearing in ceremony in May 2014. They all attended, including Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister, who (fruitlessly) welcomed a ‘new page’ in the two countries’ relationship.
India and South Asia
With other South Asian neighbours, Modi tried to counter China’s advances by showing how India can be friendly and useful. China has continued however to increase its role in these countries, where it is welcomed as a counter-balance to what is generally regarded as Indian officials’ domineering assumed superiority. It outclasses India in terms of diplomatic heft, the size and scope of investments, and delivery of projects. Modi has failed to energize the Indian government, and especially the external affairs ministry, to counter this and challenge the advances.
China’s inroads into Bangladesh since 2014 are perhaps the most remarkable because they have happened despite Modi strengthening relations with the country. In June 2015, he signed a long-delayed cross-border land-swap deal involving 162 small enclaves that were left behind in the two countries’ territories when boundaries were drawn in 1947.
But in February 2018, China’s Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges secured a 25% share in the Dhaka Stock Exchange, overriding strong objections from India that wanted the Mumbai-based National Stock Exchange to buy the stake. Gateway House, a Mumbai think tank, has estimated that China’s investment could rise ten-fold to $31bn – Xi Jinping promised $20bn during an October 2026 visit.
Bangladesh has declined some of China’s infrastructure suggestions, and Indian companies do have projects, but China is also becoming significant in Bangladesh’s defence forces, selling two submarines much to India’s horror as well as other army and air force equipment and training.
Relations improved with Sri Lanka after the island’s pro-China president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, lost power in a 2015 election (though he is still politically active). China has however continued its investment role, even though Sri Lanka has been caught in a debt trap experienced by other countries that fall for China’s apparently generous but unserviceable investment projects. In the nearby Maldives, China virtually ousted India from any influence, but parliamentary and presidential changes of government since late 2018 provide India with an opportunity to recover a positive role. With Nepal, Modi is proud of having provided immediate earthquake relief and other initiatives, but China is well-entrenched.
The final country in China’s sights is Bhutan, where Beijing has outstanding border issues and does not yet have formal diplomatic recognition – a situation worriedly guarded by India that has historically exercised dominant and not always subtle influence on the land-locked Buddhist kingdom. Bhutan’s relations with China are developing rapidly, and there is no reason to expect that India will be any more able to stop Beijing gaining diplomatic recognition and extensive influence than it has been in restraining its moves elsewhere on the subcontinent.
With the US, Modi has had to balance India’s growing relationship, which he regards as a priority, against the need not unnecessarily to upset China. India is seen in Washington as a potential buffer against China, but the US ties have not been easy, especially after Trump became president. By the time Modi came to power, the Washington administration was tiring of India’s non-performance on defence issues and of the previous Manmohan Singh government’s failure to develop agreed nuclear power projects. Officials also regard it as unreliable in a crisis. Trump expects India to become a confirmed ally against China, which is not likely to happen. He also expects the US to become India’s major supplier of defence equipment beyond what has been achieved in recent years. Tensions have recently escalated over trade and investment policies and the US is revoking India’s zero-tariff status within the Generalised System of Preferences on $5.6 billion of Indian exports.
Overall, Modi’s achievements do not match up to the image he has portrayed, especially in its neighbourhood. India has not become a significant player in world affairs, and it remains wooed (most of the time) by America, confronted by Pakistan, and constrained by China.
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John Elliott is a former Financial Times journalist, who was based in New Delhi for over 25 years till May 2018. In Asia from 1983, he has also been a correspondent for The Economist, FORTUNE magazine and the New Statesman. An updated edition of his prize-winning book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality, reviewing the Narendra Modi years, has just been published by Harper Collins India. He writes a blog on South Asia current affairs called Riding the Elephant that also appears on the website of the Asia Sentinel (Hong Kong) news website.