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Modi & the major powers
Publication Date : 15-08-2014
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election campaign gave few clues as to his foreign policy inclinations, except perhaps a general sentiment that he would be muscular on India's rights and interests and the external projection would be one of a robust and self-confident image.
It is still too early to judge whether that initial assessment was correct, but certainly the West, meaning the OECD countries, would have held high hopes of a congenial partner in India after the election result, considering the effete nature of the previous government and its inability to articulate any measure of coherence in foreign as well as domestic policy.
These expectations were undoubtedly high because Modi was believed to be business-friendly. The BJP as a party was understood to represent a nation of shopkeepers and the belief was that Modi would have to rely heavily on the advanced industrialised countries for technology and investment to stimulate growth and keep inflation in check, which would blend neatly with the West's own imperative of looking at the emerging countries for penetration into their new big markets.
On the other hand, there was the overhang of the outrageous denial of visa by the Americans, scant knowledge of Modi personally by the US and European governments although he had been Chief Minister of Gujarat for over a decade, and Modi's apparent preference for the Chinese and Japanese models in economic management. Apart from the BRICS summit in Brazil, Modi's attentions have been directed to India's neighbours, where his touch has been deft with the invitations to SAARC leaders for his inauguration and also during his visits to Bhutan and Nepal.
So it was not surprising that not only the Chinese foreign minister but those of Britain, France and the USA paid quick visits to New Delhi to begin western interactions with Modi. As for the Japanese, Modi has promised to pay an early visit to Tokyo in September. He is wise in waiting for clear deliverables and outcomes to be identified before such a visit.
With the USA and the European Union, whose top leaders Modi has not met, India will know that a new election campaign in the US will start next year, and in Europe all the leaders are under considerable political stress except for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. The commonality of interests for economic stability, predictability and growth is obvious in the economic field, but less so in the political.
With the EU, which is now in economic distress that will be magnified with the sanctions against Russia and Ukraine's blocking of the gas flowing into Europe, pending trade issues will not be easily resolved. Apart from the tariff and non-tariff barriers that the EU seeks to lower multilaterally through the WTO, there are the perennial problems with agricultural subsidies, human rights, child labour, death penalty,Dalit rights, gender issues and other conditionalities that are usually linked by the EU with trade discussions.
These all play their part also in the bilateral Free Trade Agreement that has been under negotiation for seven long years without conclusion. Protectionist lobbies in India may be more robust during the BJP government than in the days of the Congress, with difficulties arising in Intellectual Property Rights, raising foreign investment thresholds, Foreign Direct Investment in retail, and lower tariff lines on autos, wines and spirits.
Apart from these trade issues, there will be difficulties arising from climate change mitigation measures and the principle of historical responsibilities devolving on the West, and restrictive regimes for the supplies of high technology military equipment resulting from the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Wassenaar Agreements.
The conclusion of agreements to purchase 126 Rafael fighter planes and the Airbus 330 multirole tankers for mid-air refueling will break the logjam, though new problems have arisen with the Italian helicopters and the detention of two Italian marines in India pending an unconscionably delayed court hearing.
With the USA many of the same matters will recur. India is on a watch-list under legislation 301 of the US Congress and unilateral sanctions will follow with penalties outside the purview of the WTO if India is found in breach of various trade issues like national treatment in government procurement, dumping and subsidies for exports like steel and compulsory licensing of patented drugs.
On climate change, the matter of phasing out the damaging refrigerant hydroflurorocarbons (HFCs) has become a bilateral matter with USA, which India would prefer to deal with under the UN's multilateral negotiations under the Montreal Protocol that give more weightage to the developing countries.
India refuses to phase out HFCs unless it gains access to safe and economically viable alternatives, which are at present almost exclusively available with the USA. In other words, India seeks adequate financial support from developed countries for switching over from HFCs to properly tested environment-friendly technology.
On the political front, there will be no congruity of opinion on Iran, Syria, and Ukraine. In Afghanistan, the US offers no clarity on its post pull-out options and its interventions to secure a smooth takeover by a new President after Karzai will probably fail. It is clear that the complaisant and tolerant American attitude on
Pakistan will not change while its troops are in Afghanistan and the transport routes through Pakistan are needed. For the past 15 years, whatever the situation, Pakistan has had the happy knack of proving indispensable to the USA.
The world is polycentric but not multipolar: in this flux, the EU, Russia, the USA, India and China will all play a part. A new Cold War is developing between the West and Russia but spheres of influence are transcontinental. If what was reported from the BRICS meeting was correct, Modi has assured Russia that we will not abide by US/EU sanctions against Russia.
This policy is entirely correct, but it will place India on the wrong side of the USA, the EU and Japan though they will presumably warmly approve of Modi's studied neutrality on the Israel/Hamas conflict in Gaza.
On the reform of the United Nations and the expansion of the Security Council, there will be no change. The USA will support India's case for UNSC permanent membership, but will not be willing to exert itself to produce an outcome on the issue, which will leave it stillborn. Modi will correctly sense that the USA is aggressive on trade liberalisation and access, but totally flexible and probably unreliable on its strategic choices and alliances.
Perhaps analysing that Modi's nationalistic bias will make it difficult for India to come to solid understandings with the West, China has so far been far more forthcoming to Modi than any other big power. It sees India under Modi as a friendly, and not hostile, neighbour, and President Xi Jinping is expected to visit India in September.
China feels that Modi will remain ambivalent on any US 'pivot' to Asia with its implications of encirclement and diminishing of China. Beijing assesses that India will not welcome any great power rivalry in east Asia and will remain an uncomfortable and reluctant partner in any US-Australia-Japan strategic grouping.
Apart from China's flexibility in the initiative to set up the BRICS development bank, it has invited India to the Apec summit in Beijing in November and to play a bigger role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and to join China in fashioning a new southern Silk Route of economic cooperation, one arm of which will include India.
In foreign as in domestic policy, Prime Minister Modi enjoys the deserved reputation of a person setting goals and timelines and closely supervising their implementation. In both respects, his ability to deliver will depend on the performance of his ministerial lieutenants and the bureaucracy. For both of these, there will be obvious limits as to how many people he can shift around and how often. Therefore, it will be of utmost importance that he fashions a team that will be responsive to his agenda and show the drive necessary to implement it.
(The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary)