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Modi’s foreign policy: Good beginning in protecting core national interests

04modi_official_photoNarendra Modi’s visit to Nepal, the first by an Indian prime minister in 17 years, has received kudos from all stakeholders and commentators on both sides of the border and, most importantly for India, from the public in Nepal.

What is far more important than the agreements signed or aid promised is the broad vision that was unfolded by the prime minister, of the commitment of his government to take India-Nepal relations to a higher plane, with respect for Nepal’s sovereignty, and it’s equality in partnership regardless of the asymmetry in size, to never interfere in Nepal’s internal affairs, and to promote meaningful cooperation guided by trust and friendship.

While two-and-a-half months into governance is admittedly too short a time-frame to make informed judgments, enough has taken place in the realm of India’s international relations to try and assess what core principles guide the prime minister. At the very outset, then Prime Minister-designate Modi invited the SAARC heads of government to his swearing in ceremony. A masterstroke this; in one fell swoop he highlighted the overriding importance India gave to its neighbours, underlined his commitment to SAARC as a vehicle for regional cooperation (deliberately overlooking its woefully inadequate record so far) and brought the Pakistan prime minister here, not as a visiting superstar as was the policy of Manmohan Singh’s UPA, but firmly in a regional template.

Almost unnoticed but very significant were the invitations issued to the prime minister in-exile of Tibet and to Mauritius. Certainly China would have noted the first, as it was obviously meant to, and the second was a sound decision to extend a fraternal hand to a small country that is of great strategic importance to us in more ways than one.

The prime minister’s first foreign trip to Bhutan is equally useful in understanding his priorities. He quite correctly ignored the vociferous chants of the self-appointed foreign policy wonks who wanted him to fall in with strong Japanese signals to make that country his first port of call. The message was clear: we see Japan as a key partner, especially in being a part of an India-Japan-US grouping to serve our security interests in the face of the aggressive policies of China to seek a virtually veto-owning dominance in Asia. But Bhutan remains an all-weather friend that has demonstrated its readiness to go the extra mile to protect India’s security at considerable risk to itself, and the visit was India’s tribute.

Continuing with the aim of watching “what they do, not what they say” the signals to China are revealing and encouraging. China is and will remain for the foreseeable future India’s most important and difficult foreign policy challenge. Even the threat posed by a terrorist nation-state like Pakistan would be reduced by multiples were it not for the oxygen it gets from China, diplomatically, politically and militarily, down to creating and nurturing it’s nuclear weapons programme.

China’s purposeful moves to increase its own and reduce India’s space in neighbouring countries of crucial importance to India’s interests is a clear indicator, along with its unswerving and lethal backing of Pakistan, that China is determined to keep India’s options squeezed and limited. It’s a difficult tight-rope walk for India and while we engage diplomatically and commercially, (China is now our largest trading partner in goods), we must find and keep ready whatever leverages we can identify to deter a powerful neighbour from active hostility and military adventurism.

The firmness displayed in insisting and getting the US to agree to a meaningful bilateral visit rather than the photo-op of a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meet has had it’s impact on its president – witness preparatory visits of its secretary of state, commerce secretary and the defence secretary with the signalling of bipartisan support thrown in earlier by the visit of Senator John McCain.

Modi has shown that he is not interested in sulking over the silly American decision on denying his visa or letting irritants like the Khobragade episode and the spying brouhaha stand in the way of bringing relations back to strategic partnership levels, to which the Americans seem to have responded in good measure.

In the WTO, India was right in insisting that subsidies are important for the Indian farmer and the poor, just as it is for the American or European farmer who are by far the most heavily subsidised in the world. On criticism about India’s stand on the Gaza crisis, the statement by Sushma Swaraj that New Delhi does not wish to join the blame-game in this huge political and humanitarian crisis as we have friendly relations with both sides was the simple truth,and the vote in the UN Human Rights Commission offered the needed balance,and was not the u-turn alleged by tunnel-visioned critics.

Modi has done well in pursuing our national interests through our foreign policy, which is the only criterion for basing judgment.

He must now ensure that implementation of policies and promises made take top priority, and make clear that laziness and procrastination in government and public sector circles will not be tolerated, so that we can undo the image we have created among our friends in Africa and Asia that “India promises, but China delivers”.

(17.08.2014 – Shiv Shankar Mukherjee is a former Indian ambassador. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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