When Narendra Modi assumed the Prime Minister’s office on 26 May, 2014, he had a peculiar vision of India’s future foreign policy and he elaborated on it during the election campaign time and again. He aimed to place India on the world map as a great power by shifting New Delhi away from the Nehru period’s strategy of strict non-alignment and adopting a highly effective posture. He also had a blueprint to use India’s foreign policy as a vehicle to attain economic strength which the country lacked by then. Nonetheless, it was presumed that since Modi’s exposure and experience regarding diplomacy was limited, ‘the management of foreign relations would be the weakest suit in his governance’. However, after his almost 9-years consecutive rule, he seems to have proven his critics wrong by materializing his pre-announced objectives to a fair extent. Politically: India has become a key strategic player in international affairs; now being considered for permanent membership of the UNO’s Security Council. Economically: India’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) stands at $3.12 trillion with the sixth position in the world, and apparently it is on the threshold of entering the G7 club.
Modi was convinced by the principle of diplomacy that ‘any nation must strengthen its neighbouring relationship to increase its diplomatic capacity’ so he decided to bring a qualitative change in its surroundings through his ‘Neighborhood First’ policy. He underscored the need to reduce the trust deficit between India and its neighbours who complained of India’s ‘Big Brother’ attitude. To signal his positive intentions, he invited the heads of state/government of SAARC countries and the Prime Minister of Mauritius to his swearing-in ceremony and selected Bhutan for his first out-of-India visit. Later, he concentrated on them and gradually lured them to join various agreements on the free flow of resources, energy, goods, labour and information exchange. The glaring example, in this connection, is ‘Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) grouping for energy development apart from active participation in ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation’ generally abbreviated as ‘BIMSTEC’.
He also expanded military cooperation by organizing joint military exercises with all the local states in disregard of their size and strength. However, the desired level of closeness could not be achieved due to China’s aggressive campaign to extend its influence across the Indo-Pacific region and India’s hegemonistic attitude plus the age-old tendency of interfering in the domestic affairs of neighbouring states. If India would have worked with open heart and bonafide intentions the results could have been better.
Like any other country, India’s relationship with the U.S. was crucially important, however, Modi had not had to work hard for that. China’s proliferating influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean compelled Washington and New Delhi to increase the level of strategic convergence to counter Beijing’s expansion. The watersheds in this growth include the U.S. recognition of India as a ‘Major Defense Partner’ on 7 June 2016, the signing of the ‘Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) dated 8 September 2018 and the finalizing of three defence co-operation agreements between 2016 and 2019.
Though the termination of India’s ‘Special Trade Status’ by Trump on 5 June 2019 for not providing equitable access to its own markets created bitterness later the U.S. president’s 24 February high-profile visit to India balanced it out. This visit symbolized the enhanced bilateral relationship and the significance of defence co-operation within it. In practical terms, the U.S. agreed to provide long-requested 24 MH-60R ‘Seahawk’ anti-submarine warfare helicopters for $2.6 billion as well as 06 AH-64E ‘Apache’ Guardian attack helicopters for $930 million.
The India-U.S. Cyber Framework which provided for cooperation in the cyber domain was also an important development. Till the end of Trump’s tenure in 2020, the India-U.S. defence trade had magnified from $200 million in 2000 to $20 billion, making the U.S. India’s fourth largest supplier of arms after Russia, Israel and France. During Joe Biden’s period, the launching of ‘India- U.S. Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies ‘(ICET),’The U.S.-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030-Partnership’, the strengthening of ‘Quad’ and ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity’ (IPEF) has been the milestones.
However, the ‘Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement’ (BECA) signed on 27 October, 2020 in result of the ‘two-plus-two dialogue’ was a major breakthrough which alarmed both China and Pakistan alike. These successive developments highlight that the China factor will remain the central factor in the U.S.-India convergence for quite a reasonable time to come. Meanwhile, the Modi government has also accelerated the process of military modernization, buoyed by enhanced foreign direct investment in the defence sector. The U.S. spots economic opportunities as well in increasing the defence ties with India.
Numerous political analysts observe that Modi’s ‘open embrace’ with the U.S. has proven to be far-sighted and prudent and due to it he has been able to counter-balance the ‘rise of China’. There is criticism too: it is argued that the basic strategy and the overall ‘trajectory’ of the Indian foreign policy have been mostly ‘unchanged’ and the Modi government’s tall claims in this regard are ‘unconvincing’. The detractors emphasize that since Modi’s assumption of office, ‘the U.S.-India partnership has not progressed as far and as fast as it might and when the disruptive effects of this relationship are taken into account, the Modi government bears a significant amount of responsibilities for those failings’. This school of opinion does not accept Modi’s assertion of being a ‘transformational’ leader.
The U.S.-India honeymoon was proceeding reasonably well, nonetheless, an unexpected event jolted it seriously. Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February and India’s ‘relentless ambiguity’ on the occurrence seriously disturbed Washington. At the U.N. India abstained from all resolutions condemning this attack and similarly, in each session of ‘Quad’ it even refused to mention to Moscow what to talk of criticizing it. Above all, New Delhi declined to abide by the economic and financial sanctions on Russia. The Indian attitude compelled the U.S. policy-makers to genuinely think that ‘if India refuses to uphold the liberal international order—–including the U.N. Charter protecting sovereign borders——-with Russia, then how could it possibly be expected to do so with China’. According to Derek Grossman of RAND Corporation, the Modi government is ‘pursuing an ultra-realist foreign policy that deprioritizes the legal and moral aspects of international affairs to secure Indian national interests’. It is noteworthy that by not condemning Russia, India has received ‘tangible economic and security benefits’ like heavily discounted oil and Russian-made armaments.
(To be continued).