Many commentators have (often pleasantly) been surprised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s considerable investment in foreign policy, borne out by his incessant trips to various countries. Yet this is what one should expect from nationalist leaders. Was it not the trademark of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who demonstrated it in an even more dramatic manner by testing India’s nuclear devices immediately after taking power in 1998?

But foreign policy is not composed only of assertions of power or the tamasha (spectacle) of occasions such as the G-20 meet. It must pursue coherent goals and result in achievements that may or may not appeal to the public, such as the Indo-US nuclear deal. Modi’s foreign policy seems to highlight two priorities: India’s economic interests (something Manmohan Singh also emphasised, occasionally confusing pragmatism with opportunism) and its immediate neighbourhood (for security reasons, among other things).

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
More >

The economic dimension of Modi’s diplomacy was evident in early September, when he went to Japan, his first trip out of South Asia. During his visit there, Modi declared, “Mere blood mein money hai (Money is in my blood)” — reportedly, he often makes it a point to speak in Hindi with foreigners. Modi’s meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resulted in Japanese assurances of cooperation on a Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train link and on upgrading the ship-breaking yard at Alang. Collaboration between India and Japan will probably be bolstered by the strong personal equation between Modi and Abe, which flows partly from their ideological affinities. But Japan’s economic dynamism today is not what it was after Abe administered shock therapy in the first year of his tenure. This month, the country even slipped into recession.

Modi’s rapprochement with China, the rising star of the world economy, is more of a change, more promising and more complicated. When he received Chinese President Xi Jinping in Gujarat, which seems to be the focal point of his economic diplomacy, Modi was in a position to announce that China was prepared to invest massively in India. Reports in the Indian media indicated that Beijing would commit $100 billion of FDI over the next five years — Japan had promised only $35 billion.

Such plans are key to the success of Modi’s industrialisation projects, publicised under the motto, “Make in India”. But are they feasible or reasonable? Feasibility depends partly on the attitude of the Indian states: after the PM meets his counterparts, cooperation depends largely on state governments. Modi was candid enough to revise the figures cited in the media: “$100 billion investments from Japan, China and America have applied for visa. Now it is turn of the states to capitalise on the opportunity”. It also depends on sections of the Sangh Parivar toning down the rhetoric of “swadeshi” — this may not be as easy as it was under Vajpayee, but it is far from impossible.

The main difficulty in attracting Chinese FDI, the largest potential amount on the table right now (American companies will probably wait for new labour laws and other reforms), may lie in the erratic relations between Delhi and Beijing. Immediately after assuming office, Modi had sent out strong signals of assertion to China. The Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, was invited to his swearing-in and he visited Bhutan, Japan, Nepal and Vietnam, four countries likely to be affected by China’s expansionism — like India has been.

Breaking with the slow, incremental modus operandi of his predecessors, Modi met Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit at Fortaleza in July and urged for an amicable solution to the India-China border dispute. It was a bold move, to which China has responded — by launching border incursions even as Xi visited India. One might find in this echoes of the Chinese attack on Vietnam in 1979, while Vajpayee, then the foreign minister, was on an official visit to Hanoi. In addition, shortly after Modi had agreed to operationalise a $100 billion line of credit to enable Vietnam to acquire naval vessels from India, a Chinese nuclear submarine docked at the Colombo port for the second time in two months. This, in spite of Delhi having expressed its displeasure when it had happened the first time.

Today, the India-China border dispute has become a warm, if not a hot, subject again. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has declared that “peace cannot come at the cost of honour” and India has plans to build a road along the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh, labelled South Tibet in Chinese maps. While speaking of the project, Singh had said: “Today, no one can give warnings to India. We are a very powerful country.” Nevertheless, India has decided to instal cameras along the border with China, for additional protection, and to open 54 new border posts along a section of the disputed border. Beijing has responded to the latter decision by advising India not to “do things that may complicate the situation”.

If the situation does not improve, the vast amounts of FDI from China may not be that welcome. The Chinese do have intense trade relations with their best enemies, including Japan and Taiwan, but with India, things may be different. Already, The Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece, has argued against delinking economic relations with China from border issues. Whether Modi persists with negotiations with China for the sake of FDI remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, all is not calm in the South Asian region either. In another unprecedented move, Modi had invited the heads of the SAARC countries to his swearing-in and started to engage Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the terrorism issue. But Pakistan followed this up by violating the ceasefire on the LoC, killing civilians. In August, Modi cancelled scheduled talks between the two foreign secretaries after Pakistani officials spoke to Kashmiri “separatists”. The following month, Nawaz Sharif brought up Kashmir at the UN General Assembly. By retaliating to Pakistani attacks, Indian jawans may have “shut their mouth”, as Modi pointed out, and this will bolster his popularity at home. But it also means that he will have to turn to other SAARC countries to shape a workable policy for a friendly neighbourhood.

For this, Afghanistan may not be a good candidate. In Fortaleza, Modi had declared, “India will continue to assist Afghanistan in building its capacity in governance, security and economic development”. But months later, Praveen Swami informed us in a report in this paper: “Frustrated with India’s failure to deliver long-promised military aid, new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has told New Delhi that he wishes to revisit his predecessor’s request for assistance.” It seems Ghani has now turned to Beijing for help.

While India cannot expect much from Sri Lanka, where the Chinese have also gained influence, Bangladesh may be its friend again, in spite of the anti-immigrant propaganda that peppered the BJP election campaign. But for that, Delhi and Dhaka will have to sign the Teesta water-sharing accord. The Indian government could follow the precepts of the “Gujral doctrine” here. Shaping a new doctrine in foreign policy has never been easy anyway.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.