The Modi Foreign Policy: New Alliances and Strength Projection?

What is the foreign policy line that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is following?

4 min read
File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaching out to embrace US president Barack Obama  following a bilateral meeting at United Nations headquarters. (Photo: AP)

India has, in the past, seen domestic accusations of not having a distinct foreign policy. Many analysts have argued against this as well. They say there is a planned policy, which has remained non-confrontational in line with India’s desire to maintain peace and stability as a strong power in the region. But both those arguments seem moot in the face of the foreign policy line that Prime Minister Modi seems to be pursuing now.

On Pakistan and Terrorism

Terrorism has become the cornerstone of Narendra Modi’s foreign policy and it only helps that, in the Indian subcontinent, the word is often used synonymously with Pakistan. While his tenure at 7 Race Course Road began with overt gestures to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in 2014, by September 2016, the Indo-Pak relationship has deteriorated significantly. Many believed the Prime Minister seemed clueless about how to handle India’s neighbour, but it now seems like Modi’s not pulling any punches.

The India-Pakistan relationship has seen plenty of highs and lows, so the variations in closeness over the last two years are nowhere close to being unprecedented. But the ongoing low in the relationship is definitely one of the deeper troughs the two countries have experienced.

Modi went all out and raised the issue of Balochistan in the wake of an ongoing Indo-Pak war of words about unrest in Kashmir, after the death of militant commander Burhan Wani at the hands of Indian security forces. While Pakistan has been using language that suggests humanitarian violations by India, Prime Minister Modi brought up a topic that India has traditionally avoided because its neighbour already accuses it of covert involvement in the region’s separatist struggle. This was a massive shift in India’s traditional policy.

Pakistan claimed Modi brought up Balochistan only because the international media was paying attention to the violence in Kashmir. While this may be true, it did have the desired effect – the statement put Pakistan on the back foot and brought the country’s treatment of Baloch separatists into sharp relief. However, it didn’t automatically move the domestic or international focus off Kashmir and the treatment of Kashmiris by Indian security forces. In fact, it may have begun a discussion about how both countries treat their ongoing separatist struggles.

PM Modi tells Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif on Pakistan’s National Day saying a terror-free atmosphere paramount to resolve issues. (Photo: Reuters)
PM Modi tells Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif on Pakistan’s National Day saying a terror-free atmosphere paramount to resolve issues. (Photo: Reuters)

The Hyphenated Indo-Pak Status Quo

While John Kerry was visiting India this month, the obvious issues with neighbouring Pakistan and cross-border terrorism were brought up, but the USA isn’t the only country that India’s trying to get support from on Pakistan anymore. At the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister called out Pakistan (without actually naming it) and said, “one single nation in South Asia is spreading these agents of terror in countries of our region.” He also issued a call to isolate and sanction the countries that support and sponsor terrorism. He said all this in G20’s host country, which also happens to be Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’ – China.

“For us, a terrorist is a terrorist,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s often-cited distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists, ie: their own proxy fighters versus the militants who attack them.

At the same G20 summit, he directly raised the issues that India has with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. He also condemned the recent suicide bombing on the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, once again focussing on his key issue of terror and using it to point out that China is as much a victim as India.

Even at ASEAN, the Prime Minister raised the issue of the increasing “export of terror”, which is, once again, seemingly a reference to Pakistan. A large part of the basis of India’s relationship with ASEAN is economic engagement and greater connectivity, though India has defence ties with members of the grouping. But the Prime Minister chose to focus on India’s willingness for greater cooperation on de-radicalisation and counterterrorism.

While bringing up Pakistan and its policies on terror at international forums like G20 and ASEAN can go a long way towards increasing pressure on India’s neighbour to reduce its proxy war, Modi also runs the risk of continuing to present India as part of the hyphenated India-Pakistan conundrum. For a country trying to look beyond its immediate region and expand globally, an attempt that the Prime Minister himself has been working towards with his extensive travel, a hyphenated identity is counterproductive.

File photo of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: Reuters)
File photo of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: Reuters)

A Stronger Foreign Policy?

But a key point of the Modi foreign policy has been to project strength. Keeping in mind India’s concerns about China’s actions in the South China Sea, PM Modi travelled to Vietnam before landing in China for G20, which sent a strong message about India’s priorities.

India also recently signed the LEMOA with the US and Modi is meeting outgoing President Barack Obama for the eighth time in just two years on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Laos.

Reports suggest that Modi will skip the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Venezuela this September and the Indian delegation will be led by Vice President Hamid Ansari. But the government has insisted that there has been no shift on NAM, which has been, arguably, India’s most consistent foreign policy since Independence.

Despite that stance, it seems India’s longstanding policy of avoiding clear alliances has been watered down, if not entirely sidelined.

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