July 17, 2016

Modi's Foreign Policy: Westward Ho!

Yohannan Chemarapally

Two years after Prime Minster Narendra Modi took over, India's foreign policy has significantly changed its contours. Without taking parliament and Indian public opinion into confidence, the Modi government has gone ahead and virtually changed the country's traditional non-aligned status. The pro-western tilt that had started during the earlier NDA and UPA regimes has become even more pronounced in the last two years, despite India being a member of groupings like BRICS and IBSA. So much so that the Obama administration now wants India to be given the exalted status of a non-NATO ally. For all practical purposes India has become one. The Modi government is all set to sign the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) under a new acronym, LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) with Washington. The agreement will allow American troops basing facilities on Indian soil during emergency situations. New Delhi has endorsed the American position on the South China Sea and tacitly supported the Obama administration's military “pivot to the East”. India has become a willing partner in Washington's efforts to convert it into a “frontline” State in the looming military confrontation against China. The stated aim of the American military planners is to have the ability to blockade China by cutting off Indian Ocean choke points like the Malacca Straits. The US and the Indian navies have stepped up their collaboration in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and will now be cooperating in anti-submarine warfare in the next trilateral “Malabar” exercises which also involves Japan. The exercises are due to be held in the Northern Philippine Sea that lies adjacent to the South China Sea. India has also increased its military-strategic cooperation with the other allies of the United States in the region, like Australia and Singapore. In the last week of May, Indian warships have started exercises in the South China Sea. The Indian defense ministry has stated that the Indian naval deployment was for “showing the flag” in a region that is of vital importance for the country. India has no maritime disputes with China and there never has been any threat to the freedom of navigation from the Chinese side. The former US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jon Greenert, told the Foreign Policy Journal that India's moves in the Asia Pacific region were “clearly” driven by the so-called threat posed by China. The US defense secretary, Ashton Carter, has gone on record stating that the Indian government believes that there is “convergence” between India's “Act East” policy and the Obama administration's military re-balancing to the East. The Modi government does not seem to have done a cost benefit analysis on joining the alliance against China. The two countries that the US is targeting militarily and strategically are China and Russia, both pillars of BRICS, which stands for a multi-polar world. RELATIONS WITH NEIGHBOURS ON A DOWNWARD SPIRAL India's relations with most of its other immediate neighbours is on a downward spiral since Modi took over. Official level talks with Pakistan remain suspended with little hope of the serious bilateral talks starting any time soon. The foolhardy decision by the Modi government to call off foreign secretary level talks a few months into its tenure has proved to be costly in terms of wasted opportunities. Islamabad is now ready to resume talks after the Modi government gave up on the condition that there should not be any open interaction between the Hurriyat Conference and Pakistani diplomats based in Delhi. Prime Minister Modi had to make an unscheduled visit to Lahore earlier in the year in the effort to mend diplomatic bridges with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. But immediately after his visit, the terror attack on the Pathankot airbase happened, once again derailing the proposed talks. Both sides are now blaming each other for fostering terrorism. The arrest of an alleged Indian spy, the retired Indian Navy officer, Kulbushan Jadhav, in the restive Balochistan province of Pakistan in March this year, has further complicated relations between Delhi and Islamabad. Pakistan has been accusing India of being involved in the low level insurgency that has been plaguing the province for many years now. The Kashmir dispute continues to remain on top of the agenda as far as Islamabad is concerned despite New Delhi's efforts to confine it to the back burner. Escalating incidents of terror and violence in the Kashmir valley has brought the issue once again into the spotlight. On the positive side, incidents of cross border shelling along the LoC have shown a marked decline in the second year of the Modi government. Pakistan has been wary about the growing influence of India in Afghanistan. New Delhi has invested a lot in infrastructure building in the war ravaged country. The Modi government was initially unhappy with the foreign policy priorities of the new Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. Unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani had preferred to invest heavily in building a special relationship with the Pakistani military and political leadership. He had hoped that their influence would help bring the resurgent Taliban to the negotiating table. That has turned out to be a pipe dream but the main players in the Afghan peace process continue to be the United States, China and Pakistan. Afghanistan has made it clear that it deeply values its relationship with China and has been very supportive of the China-Pakistan economic corridor and the OBOR initiative. India's relations with Nepal took a serious hit after the promulgation of the new constitution. Modi who was received as a hero when he visited Nepal soon after he became prime minister, is now viewed with suspicion by the coalition government led by Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli. New Delhi was upset that its advice on key clauses in the constitution, especially those related to the Madhesi population, was not accepted. New Delhi's consequent decision to enforce a de facto blockade on the landlocked country, recovering from a devastating earthquake, proved to be a very unpopular move among most Nepalis. The government there was forced to ask for aid and sustenance from its other immediate neighbour, China. The blockade has since been lifted and relations with Kathmandu seemed to be on the mend. But in the first week of May, there was an aborted attempt at regime change in Kathmandu. Oli and his close associates saw the hand of the Indian government in the move. Nepal's president, Bidhya Devi Bhandari, called off her scheduled visit to India in early May and Kathmandu recalled its envoy from Delhi. The NDA government was apparently also not happy with the growing links between Kathmandu and Beijing. However, there seems to be no change in Beijing's stance that it considers Nepal to be in India's sphere of influence. The constraints of geography also prevent China from supplanting India as Nepal's key economic partner. Nepal is almost totally dependent on Indian ports for trade. Prime Minister Oli had visited China in March. During his visit, he signed many agreements that included the opening up of more transit routes through China and the use of Chinese ports for trade. It has been widely surmised that India along with the United States had a role in effecting regime change through the ballot box in Sri Lanka last year. The growing influence of China in the strategically located island was causing alarm in many quarters. The new government had initially said that it would scale down the Chinese presence in the country's infrastructure projects. The expectation was that other countries like India and Japan would move in with the requisite investments. That did not happen and Chinese companies have been recently awarded new contracts, including the operational control of Hambanthota port. In the Maldives too, it is China with its economic clout, that is doing most of the running. India's continued support for the ousted president, Mohammed Nasheed, has not helped matters. Relations with Bangladesh have been good since the return of Sheikh Hasina to power. The border and water disputes have all been solved. But again, most of the investment for infrastructure development in the country has come from China. In neighbouring Myanmar, the jockeying for influence after the massive electoral victory of Aung San Suu Kyi, is between the United States and China. The UPA's ambitious plan to build an economic corridor connecting Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) seems to have been put on the back burner by the Modi government, at least for the time being. FOCUS ON GULF REGION A major focus of Modi's diplomatic forays was on the Gulf region. The prime minister seems to have a particular fondness for the conservative Gulf monarchies and Israel. The Gulf region of course hosts millions of Indians and are a perennial source of much needed remittances and Israel has emerged as one of India's main defense partners. When the rest of the world is demanding that a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy be adopted against Israel, the NDA government has been a pillar of support for the Zionist State. For the first time, India had even chosen to abstain on a resolution in the UN criticising Israel for its continued occupation of Palestine and the implementation of laws that are akin to the laws that existed in apartheid South Africa. Modi had announced his intention to make a State visit to Israel at the beginning of his term. Better sense has prevailed so far and he has been postponing his trip. But the Indian government did dispatch President Pranab Mukherjeee to Israel last year at a time when Palestinian anger had spilled on to the streets. It was the first visit of an Indian president to Israel. The Indian external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, visited the Kingdom of Bahrain twice. The kingdom has been witnessing political upheaval with the majority Shia community there asking for a genuine share of power. Iran, the most populous State in the region was ignored till recently by the Modi government. It was the last country the Indian prime minister visited in the region. Relations between the Gulf monarchies and Iran are fraught at the moment. Teheran may have assumed that India was tilting towards the Gulf monarchies. One reason for New Delhi's reluctance to more robustly engage with Teheran was that the Islamic Republic was under American sanctions till recently. New Delhi has been careful not to upset Washington. Washington is not happy even now after India inked the Chabahar port deal. Some American Congressmen have complained that India has gone against some of the American sanctions that still have to be removed. Once the international sanctions were lifted, Iran has been having many suitors. India was told that it had to expeditiously deliver on its commitment to invest in the Chabahar port or risk losing it to other investors. India had delayed the Chabahar deal by almost a decade. The Indian government's spin machine has made it sound that the Chabahar deal is a diplomatic coup against China and Pakistan and that the port would emerge as a rival to the nearby Gwadar part in Pakistan that is being developed by China. Gwadar is important for China's one belt, one road (OBOR) project. China has invested heavily in both Pakistan and Iran to make the project a success. Unlike the Gwadar project in Pakistan where China is building $46 billion economic corridor, India is only investing $200 million to develop two terminals and five berths in Chabahar. An additional $300 million has also been earmarked for infrastructural development of the port area. Iran has made it clear that the Chabahar port is being posed as an alternative to Gwadar. Both Teheran and Islamabad insist that Chabahar and Gwadar would remain “sister ports”. Both the ports will improve regional connectivity and is a win-win situation for all the countries concerned. In fact, Teheran has invited further bids from both Pakistan and China for the development of Chabahar. Foreign policy in the last two years has been remote controlled from the prime minister's office. the external affairs ministry has been given short shrift. Sushma Swaraj's presence in the ministry has turned out to be ornamental so far. She has not given a single in depth interview to the media so far on foreign policy. The prime minister occasionally deigns to give interviews to select foreign newspapers. Unlike previous PM's, Modi does not take a media contingent with him during his frequent foreign jaunts. Modi's predecessors had to face probing questions from the media while on official visits to foreign countries. Modi is answerable to none, neither to parliament nor the fourth estate on key foreign policy issues.