Modi’s Foreign Policy: Towards the Fifth Act

May 28, 2018
By T.P Sreenivasan
In a Shakespearean play, the first act is the exposition, introducing the characters and the setting and ending with the play’s significant piece of action. The second act takes that action and complicates it: that is the complication. In the third act, there is a climax, where the fortunes of the character or characters are reversed – either good to bad or bad to worse: that’s the climax. In the fourth act, the results of the reversal are played out, putting the final outcome in doubt. This is the resolution. The fifth act winds it all up by presenting the consequences of the resolution and tying up loose ends. That is the denouement.
At the end of the fourth year, the foreign policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have generally followed the Shakespearean structure. In the first year, he dazzled the world with his bold initiatives, assertiveness and determination. Instead of building on the achievements of the past, he abandoned the hesitations of history and proceeded to seek solutions for long standing problems in his own way. Among the South Asian leaders he invited on the first day, the inclusion of a Tibetan representative sent alarm bells to Beijing. Virtually every South Asian leader had a tale of woe to tell and his effort to begin a dialogue with Pakistan failed on account of the known positions of Pakistan. The first months of the new Government were dominated by genuine efforts to set the neighbourhood in order, mixing personal diplomacy with official overtures, but ended with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in disarray and the relations with Pakistan and China in a worse state. With other preoccupations engaging his attention, the problems of the neighbourhood receded into the background. It is only at the end of the fourth year that he refocussed on the neighbourhood, with the informal summit with China, visit to Nepal and change in the Rohingya policy. The paralysis of SAARC and the war like situation on the Pakistan border remain urgent matters to be resolved.
Realising that most of his priorities, development, security and the diaspora hinged on good relations with the United States, PM Modi put the past of his relationship with the US behind and built an equation with Barack Obama, going to the extent of tackling the intractable issue of the Nuclear Liability Act and claiming to have solved it. Though the envisaged nuclear trade with the US never materialised, the understanding reached between India and the US on the Asia-Pacific and close cooperation in defence matters, together with liberalisation of foreign investments, India-US relations reached a new high, characterised by PM Modi as “a new symphony” in June 2016. But, with the election of President Donald Trump, uncertainty and unpredictability set in, even though some amount of continuity has been assured. India does not seem to be on Trump’s radar for the present, except when he addresses migration issues. He does not think that India can help him to resolve the big issues on his plate like Korea or Iran. The present flux in international relations does not seem to favour a significant improvement in relations. Much will depend on the evolution of the US-China-Russia relations and the new configurations in West Asia.
The dramatic improvement in relations with the US cast a shadow on relations with Russia, which moved closer to Pakistan with arms supplies and joint military exercises. The revival of the Quadrilateral (the US, India, Japan and Australia) deepened Chinese suspicions and led to hardening of positions on NSG membership, the UN terrorist list and the Dalai Lama. Dokalam took us close to a conflict with China and dragged Bhutan into the border dispute between India and China.
In sum, PM Modi has to contend with a number of issues as he enters the fifth year. He is not to be blamed for it, but in a sense, much of the work done in the first three years lie wasted because of the changes in the global situation. A new Cold War has already begun between the US and China, but the allies in the new Cold War are far from clear. President Trump has alienated NATO and many old allies of the US have now close relations with Beijing. The trade war between the US and China has been halted, but it is likely to be revived anytime. Russia, after raising hopes for a new detente, has become an adversary to the US. Though India is closer to the US than the other two, we need to find new equations with all the three. The recent informal ‘agendaless” summits with China and Russia were part of an effort to remove the perception that India’s relations with both these countries have deteriorated. Perhaps, the forthcoming summits of SCO and BRICS may offer another opportunity to mend fences with China and Russia. With France and Germany, India has developed mutually beneficial relations.
The new transactional foreign policy that PM Modi has developed has distanced India from the developing countries’ fraternity like the Non-aligned Movement and the Group of 77. These constituencies were useful to deal with issues on which we can make common cause with the developing countries. China has maintained its solidarity with the developing world and used that profile to get their support and even to exploit them economically. Non-alignment does not inhibit linkages with other countries and we get a convenient platform. In the fifth year, India may do well to reconnect with the developing world without sacrificing the pursuit of any other relationship.
One region in which India has made headway in the fourth year of PM Modi’s tenure is West Asia, particularly Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The traditional relationship with Iran is intact, though not flourishing because of the US pressure. With our deep interests in the region, the new partnerships have strengthened our energy security and employment possibilities.
Like in the Fourth Act of a Shakespearean play, India’s climax of the previous year has been reversed because of external circumstances. As a result, the final year has become uncertain. As PM Modi approaches the denouement of his term, he is likely to redouble his efforts to leave a successful legacy in foreign policy. His reelection will not be determined by his foreign policy, but it will help if he is able to shine on the international firmament.
(The article first appeared in PenNews. 

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