The "Modi diplomacy" in the History of Indian diplomacy
--- Departure from or maintenance of the traditional diplomacy? ---
Toru Ito, The National Defense Academy of Japan
The Modi administration, which was inaugurated in May 2014, will soon finish its five-year term, and Indian politics is now busy with preparation for the coming General Elections. A movement of coalition by the opposition parties contributes to the unpredictability of the election results. The five-year long coalition government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, head of the Indian People's Party (BJP), is credited with features different from the past administrations in terms of process, method and direction of policy formulation. Focusing on the Modi administration's foreign policies and security policies, this paper will examine differences and commonalities between the Modi administration's diplomacy and the traditional Indian diplomacy.
Diplomacy of the "strong federal government" led by Prime Minister Modi
The last General Elections in 2014 were an epoch-making event in Indian political history. For the first time in 30 years, a single party won the majority in the Lower House of the Indian Federal parliament. The BJP won the largest number of seats in its history. This historic victory was achieved by Modi who served for a long time as Chief Minister of Gujarat; and his power basis became predominant inside and outside the party. Notwithstanding being dependent on coalition with other parties, a "strong federal government led by the Prime Minister"1 has revived, after the elapse of many years from the era of Nehru or Indira Gandhi.
As a result, the process of policy formulation has changed drastically from recent past years. Especially policies prioritized by the Modi administration are often decided top-down. This is particularly pronounced for foreign and security policies that are beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal parliament and state legislatures. Namely, Prime Minister Modi and his trusted aides, Foreign Secretary Jaishankar2 and National Security Advisor Doval have come to play a decisive role, while the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, and traditional think tanks were pushed to the periphery.
It was quite natural that policies formulated in this way would strongly reflect Prime Minister Modi's personality and his outlook on the world. Modi has a dimension of being a resolute believer in Hindu nationalism.3 He maintained a tough posture regarding security problems such as terrorism perpetrated by Pakistani Islamic extremists and provocations by the People's Liberation Army of China in the vicinity of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This is because security problems always stir people's emotions. In 2017, the Modi administration decisively rejected China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative", particularly in the Pakistan-ruled part of Kashmir over which India claims sovereignty. Immediately afterward, India resorted to a two-and-a-half-month long military standoff with China, because the latter unilaterally started building infrastructures in Doklam, over which Bhutan and China claim sovereignty. All of these may be still fresh in everybody's memory.
Assuming a hawkish attitude regarding security issues, Modi is proactive in propagating notable Indian values and in mobilizing them. This is observable in the following instances: his frequent use of the Hindi language at summit talks with foreign leaders; his habitual emphasis on commonalities between the Hindu civilization and the Japanese or Chinese civilizations; his contribution to the establishment of the International Yoga Day, and large-scale diaspora (overseas Indians) meetings organized on the occasion of Modi's visit to overseas Indian communities. These are new phenomena peculiar to the "Modi diplomacy."
On the other hand, we should not overlook another aspect of the "Modi diplomacy." Modi is also known as an able businessperson who proactively invited foreign investment and raised the Gujarat state to an advanced state. The Prime Minister himself has stood at the vanguard and invited foreign leaders, industry and diaspora to help develop India's infrastructure to realize "Make in India initiatives." For example, as the first achievement of India's high-speed railway project, Modi realized the introduction of Japan's Shinkansen bullet train system to the Mumbai–Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Corridor with exceptionally low-interest loans from Japan. As background to the Japanese engagement is the fact that the Modi administration has shown flexibility in "lifting a ban" on Chinese investment in, among other areas, infrastructure, which India had traditionally de facto restricted for security reasons. Investment from China has expanded fourfold in the four years since the inauguration of the Modi administration. Modi decided to join the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a founding member, and in return was provided with a largest-scale of investment and loans.4
To recapitulate, the most remarkable feature of the "Modi diplomacy" is the combination of strong politics and security policies based on Indian nationalism, and pragmatic, flexible economic and foreign policies. Approaches to Japan, the United States, Australia, and other Indo-Pacific countries; and hedge and engage policies toward the non-negligible neighbors, China and Pakistan ---- all of these policies have been pursued under the leadership of the Prime Minister's Office. Let us see below how much these specific policies of the Modi administration differ from Indian traditional diplomacy.
Adoption of the concept of "the Indo-Pacific" and the strengthening of alliance with its advocating countries
A chronological review of Prime Minister Modi's visits to foreign countries after his inauguration would show clearly that priority has consistently been placed on Japan, the United States and Australia --- the core of the "Act East" initiative advocated by the Modi administration ---, besides neighboring countries in South Asia. In August 2014, Modi who chose Japan as the first country of his visit outside South Asia agreed to raise the Japan-India relationship to a "special strategic global partnership" as was declared by Japan and Australia just before his visit to Tokyo. The Indian government may have been aware that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who propounded his "security diamond" vision prior to his second inauguration as Prime Minister, had the intention to place India as an "ally next to the United States" along with Australia. The significance of Modi's agreement with the Japanese proposal is not small. Since then, Modi has deepened his personal relationship of trust with Abe, realizing not only the earlier noted introduction of the Shinkansen system but also the conclusion and the coming into force of the agreement for cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, to which many Japanese were reluctant.
In his times as chief minister Modi was refused an entry visa by the US government due to human rights problems in Gujarat state. In September 2014, he visited the United States to attend the UN General Assembly. In January of the following year, Modi invited President Obama to India, who became the first US President to be honored as chief guest at India's annual Republic Day. Both leaders announced the "US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region," which called for the promotion of maritime security cooperation in, among others, the South China Sea. While welcoming the Trump administration's strict attitude toward Pakistan, Modi was vigilant over US sanctions against Russia and Iran and US protectionist economic policies. Regardless of India's disapproval of those discordant polices of the United States, however, both leaders' will to deepen bilateral cooperation, particularly over security issues, remained unchanged. The first ministerial level "2 plus 2" meeting was held in September 2018, and the "Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA)" was concluded between the two countries. Both the India army and the US army can now connect to each others' networks and their interoperability will be raised as high as that between allies.
More than that with Japan or the United States, India's relationship with Australia, a country from which India was relatively distant in post-Cold War days, has made remarkable progress. In September 2014, Prime Minister Modi, who had just returned from Japan, welcomed Prime Minister Abbott in Delhi and concluded a civil nuclear agreement. Then, in November of the same year, even though using the opportunity of attending G20, Modi visited Australia as the first Indian prime minister in 28 years, and agreed to the "Framework of Security Cooperation." In the following year, the first bilateral naval drill was also conducted. Modi has manifested his stance of deepening and expanding cooperation with Australia, not only as a friendly nation sharing values and interests, but also as a "natural partner" from the maritime strategy viewpoint.
Since the 2007 Japan-US-Australia-India quadrilateral security framework invited a strong opposition from China, the Indian government has hesitated to commit to a similar framework. But the Modi administration began actively addressing the multilateral frameworks. The first Japan-US-India trilateral foreign ministers' meeting was held in New York in September 2015. The ministers confirmed that the interests of the three countries in the Indo-Pacific region coincide with each other's, and agreed on the importance of: international laws; peaceful settlements of disputes; freedom of navigation and overflight, and unhindered legitimate trade --- taking into account the situation in the South China Sea. It is noteworthy that India accepted the concept of "Indo-Pacific" on that occasion. Since then, the Modi administration has begun using this term frequently. In October of the same year, India invited the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force for the first time in eight years to the Indo-US Malabar exercise in the Indian Ocean, and accepted JMSDF's constant participation in the said exercise from that time. On the occasion G 20 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November 2018, the first summit talks were held between Prime Minister Modi, Prime Minister Abe and President Trump. Modi mentioned the word "JAI" made up of each initial letter of Japan, America and India which happens to mean "victory" in Hindi, thus stressing the significance of the tripartite alliance sharing democratic values and visions.
Furthermore, a Japan-Australia-India tripartite framework was newly established. In June 2015, the first senior officials talks were held in New Delhi, and such meetings have continued. It goes without saying that the three countries held these talks to discuss China's maritime advancement mainly in the South China Sea. In November 2017, coincidentally in Manila like ten years ago, a Japan-US-Australia-India quadrilateral framework was "regenerated" in the form of director-general level talks.
Enhancement of hedge and engage policies against rivals and hostile neighbors
However, the Modi government does not strengthen its alliance solely with Japan, the United States and Australia. Regarding the 2017 director-general level talks of the Japan-US-Australia-India quadrilateral grouping, Foreign Secretary Jaishankar downplayed the meeting, arguing that the alliance in question was one of many such groupings that India had recently participated in, and that India would avoid "rigid alliances."5 As for the vision of "the Indo-Pacific," Prime Minister Modi himself said in his keynote address at Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018, "India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members", arguing that it is not "directed against any country." He emphasized afresh India's "strategic autonomy."6 Immediately after the Japan-US-India summit talks in November of the same year, Prime Minister Modi attended summit talks with China and Russia. This may be construed as India's practice of "strategic autonomy."
India has so far cooperated with China on global economic issues in the capacity of "emerging states." However, the Modi government went further aiming at the promotion of the bilateral economic relationship, thereby projecting India's economic growth. In June 2014 following the inauguration of the Modi administration, the two countries concluded a memorandum on the construction of the first Chinese industrial complex in India. At the time of Xi Jinping's visit to India in September of the same year, the two countries agreed on Chinese investment worth the targeted amount of $20 billion over the next five years, and on China's cooperation in high-speed rail projects in India. On the occasion of his visit to China in May 2015, Prime Minister Modi agreed to expand trade with China in India's specialty fields such as pharmaceuticals and IT, and invited Chinese business people to invest in India.
But India's expectations for cooperation with China began to decline around the middle of 2016. India's overwhelming excess of imports with China did not change and Chinese products sweeping the Indian market gave rise to public dissatisfaction. In addition to this, China maintained its negative attitude over such diplomatic issues prioritized by the Modi administration as India's membership bid to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and the UN sanctions committee's designation of Pakistani extremist leaders as terrorists. As a result, India's vigilance against China heightened. In addition, the "One Belt, One Road Initiative" promoted by Xi Jinping was, for India, nothing other than a challenge in the areas of politics and security. The Chinese initiative and flagship project "China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)" included "part of Kashmir ruled by Pakistan" over which India claims sovereignty. A series of large Chinese projects underway in India's "backyard" including Sri Lanka came to be regarded as Chinese "debt-traps." In this political context, the Modi administration severely criticized the Chinse initiative in May 20177 and declared a boycott of the "One Belt, One Road Forum" on the eve of the conference.
Shortly afterwards, when China began unilaterally road construction in the Doklam plateau, an area over which there are contesting claims between China and Bhutan who also boycotted the aforementioned Forum. The Modi administration immediately dispatched troops to the area and did not agree to withdrawal until it finally secured a "temporary suspension" of road construction. Thus, India-China relations turned chilly. While the Trump administration manifested its readiness to resort to a "trade war" with China, in April 2018, Xi Jinping invited Modi to Wuhan in an attempt to improve the bilateral relations. The reason why Modi responded to Xi's call for "informal summit talks" may be explained by Modi's firm recognition that cooperative economic relations with China, both on bilateral and multilateral bases, are indispensable for India's development, although he would not make any concession in the domains of politics and security.
Contrary to India's relationship with China, the necessity for India to engage Pakistan is fading almost to nil. The Modi administration had been exploring the way to improve its relationship with Pakistan at least for one and a half years until the end of 2015. Modi invited Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif to his own prime ministerial inauguration ceremony in May 2014, calling for the resumption of dialogue. Meanwhile, the Modi administration refused Pakistan's contact with the Kashmiri separatists, and insisted that the Kashmir question is a "bilateral issue." Conditions for bilateral talks were not created. Nevertheless, in April 2015, Modi sent Foreign Secretary Jaishankar to Pakistan to seek for the possibility of a dialogue. Modi himself took the opportunity of COP 21 in Paris in November of the same year to send a message to Sharif, "It is time to resume dialogue." In the following month, an India-Pakistan national security advisors meeting was held in Bangkok and foreign ministerial talks were held in Islamabad, leading to an agreement to start a "comprehensive bilateral dialogue." Furthermore, Modi attracted attention by making a surprise visit to Sharif's residence in Lahore on the latter's birthday.
It is an ordinary course of development in the India-Pakistan relationship that whenever some promising move is made toward improvement of the bilateral relationship, plots are always engineered to hamper such efforts, causing profound disappointment. The January 2016 Pathankot air force base attack, the September 2016 Uri army base attack, along with the Pakistan-instigated disturbances in the Jammu and Kashmir state in summer of the same year,8 were all acts of Pakistan-meddling unbearable to Hindu nationalists. The Modi administration's Pakistan policy has changed drastically from that time. Announcing its "surgical strikes" into the "Pakistan Occupied Kashmir", the administration clarified its policy of addressing provocations from Pakistan with military force. The Modi administration called for the neighboring countries to put Pakistan under boycott from the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), thereby activating diplomatic operations to isolate Pakistan.
Later, Sharif fell from power and Imran Khan took the helm of government in the wake of the Pakistani General Elections in July 2018. The new administration continued to send to India messages seeking for an improvement in bilateral relations. However, the Modi administration could not afford to respond positively. With the perspective of General Elections slated for the following year, it was quite difficult for the administration to adopt a new engagement policy toward Pakistan, although Pakistani provocations such as cross-border terrorism were not taking place at that moment. India estimated an engagement strategy for Pakistan to entail a great risk of failure --- inversely with small economic gains, unlike in the case of China. It may be considered a return to the policy of "ignoring" and "forgetting" Pakistan9 which had been adopted by the past administrations with fragile power bases. The Modi administration's present attitude will remain unchanged until the end of the General Elections scheduled for May 2019.
Novelty of the "Modi diplomacy" and its limit
The Modi administration seems to be free from nostalgia for the ideology of "nonalignment" that Indian diplomacy in the past valued greatly. Actually, Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister who did not attend the Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries (2016). He does not mention the value of "nonalignment." In light of the fact that the ideology of "nonalignment" has often impeded India from building close relationships particularly with superpowers,10 the Modi administration took advantage of its distance from the ideology to develop strategic relationships with, among other countries, the United States and its allies.
However, it may be premature to judge that the Modi administration has entered or is entering into an alliance with Japan, the United States and Australia. The BJP's election manifest (2014) expounded the necessity of forming a "web of allies."11 Its intention was not to work out an alliance with specific countries, targeting specific enemies, but to strengthen an omnidirectional strategic partnership. Even though the ideology of "nonalignment" disappeared, India's diplomatic DNA has not changed. India values its autonomous diplomacy more than anything else. It is traditionally the art of Indian diplomacy to cultivate, from the viewpoint of national interests, pragmatic relationships with Japan, the United States, and Australia, or with China and Russia --- depending on the circumstances. A novelty, if any, added by Modi may be that he tried to incorporate a quest for economic benefits into his pragmatic diplomacy, as far as China policy is concerned.
No large change is noticeable in the Modi administration's policy toward Pakistan, which is in a "fateful confrontation" with India. Supported by a strong power basis, the Modi administration initially tried to find the path for dialogue with Pakistan, but eventually had to adopt hardline measures due to serious terrorist attacks originating from Pakistan. The novelty created by the "Modi diplomacy" is quite limited, and it should be noted it has not widely deviated from the traditional Indian diplomacy.12
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