Realigning Foreign Policy: A Critical Juncture

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Even the sternest critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have accepted the fact that foreign policy of India under Modi regime has been a resounding success. Mr. Prime Minister has brought vibrant dynamism, concrete breakthroughs and clearer communication in international affairs.

India has been able to continuously mobilize immense support for its own causes across international community and that is primarily because of the ability of PM Modi of successfully relating these issues to the global welfare and concerns be it terrorism, cyber crime etc. Targeted policy initiatives like Neighborhood First and Act East Policy (replacing look east policy) infused new vigor in relationships of India with several countries like Japan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In reaching out to the large Indian diaspora, spread across the globe, Modi created an influential global constituency of support for India.

Being able to forge a stronger strategic partnership with the US, the Indian government has clearly signaled its shift in geopolitical priorities to the world. By consistently emphasizing on good governance, economic and tax reforms, ease of doing business,  promotion to technology and crackdown on black money and corruption, Prime minister have succeeded in projecting India as a big economic opportunity attracting huge investments from foreign companies and investors.

However, at the end of three years, India finds itself in a far more complex and challenging external environment which requires a careful review to realign India’s foreign policy as per the significantly altered regional and international political, security and economic terrain and undertake course correction as necessary.

  • Neighborhood First – attaching the highest priority to relations with our neighbors in the sub-continent – is a self-evident proposition. It is by ensuring a politically stable and economically prosperous periphery that India can play a larger regional and global role.

  • A new momentum was imparted to regional connectivity projects, the promotion of regional trade and investment and in improving cross-border infrastructure and some success was achieved by formation of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional cooperation. But such progress does not match the expectations generated by the early moves of this government. The reason is the lack of structural changes which alone can put substance into the Neighborhood First strategy.

India’s engagement with its neighbors continues to be episodic, driven by events such as high-level visits or by political crises which erupt in one country or another. We have not created the capacity to engage with our neighbors on a sustained basis and at multiple levels. It demands capacity expansion of Ministry of External Affairs in terms of human resources and financial resources.

The failure to deliver, on time, the commitments made to neighboring countries erodes India’s credibility – and credibility is one of the most important components of a successful foreign policy. Therefore, it is required that these critical systematic weaknesses get addressed at the right time so that India does not create spaces in its neighborhood which other more agile powers can move in to fill.

  • India-China relationship has witnessed the escalation of tensions over the issues like rising trade deficit in favor of China to unsustainable levels, China blocking India’s entry to NSG and thwarting Indian effort to get Pakistani based terrorist, Masood Azhar, recognized as a terrorist by United Nations. Further, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project which proposes to invest billions of dollars and allows Chinese military presence in PoK region have faced a strong backlash from India. Expressing a strong protest against that India has jolted China by pulling out of its belt and road initiative(BRI).

  • Prime Minister has categorically stated that connectivity in itself can not undermine the sovereignty of nations. India-China is witnessing critical juncture with a fresh set of tension arising in their relationship over Dokhlam(India-China-Nepal tri-junction) issue on which no party was willing to budge from their positions. However, calling off the standoff over Dokhlam right before 9th BRICS summit in Xiamen (China) should be called a diplomatic masterstroke.

Overall the Modi government has rejected the notion that a Chinese dominated world order is inevitable. However, India needs to develop an alternative narrative on why a multi polar order is a more stable and in fact indispensable to meeting current and global challenges.

India should continue to strengthen a countervailing coalition of countries that share its concern over a Chinese dominated order. This is not to suggest that India must confront China across the board.

There are areas of convergence which should bring the countries together – economic and commercial cooperation being one such area. There may be opportunities to work together in institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS Development Bank.

There is no doubt that under Prime Minister Modi, India enjoys a higher profile in international relations than any time in the recent past. The overall strategy underlying Modi’s foreign policy is sound and there are strong continuities with the past.

But at this critical juncture the time has come to realign the strategy to acknowledge and accommodate major geopolitical changes like rise of protectionist forces led by US and relative retreat of US from its global role under Trump, Brexit, Russian alignment towards China and Pakistan, Growing economic and more importantly territorial assertiveness of China and its interventionist role in neighborhood of India.

This is, therefore, a good time for course correction!

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