Modi faces array of foreign policy challenges
Soon after he became prime minister in May 2014, Narendra Modi set off on a series of visits to neighboring countries, starting a process not just of getting to know his counterparts around the world, but also recalibrating India’s foreign policy in some cases or simply reinforcing it in others.
Over five years, Modi made foreign policy, especially repositioning India’s image globally, a key objective. This was clearly seen as a significant achievement by voters, even in remote, rural parts of India, when it came to deciding who they would back in the 2019 elections.
While Modi may have achieved his domestic and overseas objectives, the challenges of a continuously evolving global scenario mean that he cannot afford to take his eye off the foreign policy ball, especially since he has been focused on domestic politics since the beginning of the year.
The first challenge will, of course, be Pakistan. After the Pulwama terror attack that claimed the lives of 40 security personnel, India has rejected any talks with Islamabad, despite the efforts of the international community to get the two nuclear-armed neighbors to start talks in order to reduce tension, especially after India’s airstrike inside Pakistan.
Modi very effectively used the strike in the campaign, projecting himself as the only candidate who could protect the nation. But, now that he has been re-elected, it is imperative that he works to reduce the tension and start talks with Pakistan. It could be tricky, as any softening of his tone on this subject would not go down well with either his basic constituents or the more extreme elements of India’s right wing. Nonetheless, Modi will have to reboot the relationship and strike a delicate balance.
He may also need to review ties with other neighbors, notably the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal, which have been developing closer ties with China. Beijing has now replaced India as these countries’ biggest trading and political partner. India has been wary of the growing Chinese influence in its own backyard and Modi will need to move rapidly to reclaim the lost ground.
But the bigger challenges for Modi lie in reinvigorating ties with the two global heavyweights: The US and China. In the first half of his first term, Modi moved India extremely close to the US, becoming almost like an additional member of the NATO alliance, whose foreign policy objectives were dictated by American interests. This extreme proximity was seen by China as a hostile move, aimed at isolating or encircling it. Irked, Xi Jinping, the Chinese strongman president, raised the stakes with India, leading to a standoff between the two countries’ armies at the trilateral border they share with Bhutan.
Modi would be well advised not to follow the dictums of either Trump or Netanyahu.
After months of tension, Modi finally blinked and went on an urgent visit to China to meet Xi, with the two nations agreeing to move their armies back to their normal positions. China was also unhappy with the negative image the standoff created in India, especially with calls to boycott Chinese goods, so Modi went on another visit to calm things.
Since then, tension between the US and China has only increased, especially with regards to their trade dispute. The last few months have also seen US President Donald Trump threaten India with increased tariffs and the withdrawal of its special treatment under World Trade Organization rules. Trump has also accused Modi of taking retrograde and protective measures that are hurting US companies, notably the changed norms of e-commerce and India’s insistence on data hosting within the country. Trump has also been pushing India to change its intellectual property regime, mainly to help US pharmaceutical and technology companies.
As Modi takes charge again, he will have to find India’s way in this triangular relationship, ensuring that he maintains good relations with both Trump and Xi, while protecting Indian interests in ties with both the US and China.
Modi will definitely find it easier to navigate India’s ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with whose leaders he enjoys very good chemistry. He will use his second term to develop closer ties with these two and the other GCC nations, which are together the biggest employers of Indian expatriates, with nearly 10 million Indian workers across the six nations.
The relationship with Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also recently won an election, is rock solid and the two right-wingers can only be expected to cement their ties further, going beyond defense, water and agriculture.
Iran could be the pressure point in the region, as India tries to strike a balance between its oil needs, as well as the strategic and historic ties it shares with Tehran, and the mounting pressure from the US and Israel to dramatically tone down its dependence on Iranian oil.
In the EU, India’s relationship with key nations, notably Germany and France, is expected to become stronger, but the odd one out would be the UK in view of the uncertainty over Brexit and the challenges it poses for trade and investment relations in the medium and long terms. Brexit has not only affected the relationship between India and the UK, it has also effectively blocked the long-pending India-EU free trade agreement. Modi will need to find a way to break this deadlock rapidly. His strong mandate could help him take some risks in his dealings with overseas partners, at least in the first half of his new term. He would do well to start on it right away.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services