It has been six months since Narendra Modi took office and perhaps for the first time since Jawaharlal Nehru, foreign affairs have been given prime importance by the Prime Minister’s Office. Already, the prime minister has played host to three foreign premiers and logged in nine foreign trips to important international partners and the neighbourhood, almost double his predecessor’s annual average.
There has been whining in some quarters that perhaps Modi is paying too much attention to foreign affairs at the cost of his domestic responsibilities. On the contrary, more attention is needed to make up for decades of neglect. So far, Modi’s foreign policy has remained true to his party’s manifesto – focus on improving economic, cultural, diplomatic, and military ties around Asia. This does not mean, obviously, ignoring important global partners but the midnight oil would be burned over the Indian Ocean Region.
Delhi has made all the right noises in its discussions across Asia. Australia looks forward to closer maritime cooperation, Japan hopes trade will flourish, and Vietnam sees a potential ally. Nepal and Bhutan have also seen renewed Indian interest in expanding hydroelectric capacity in their countries. The Indian prime minister’s energy has been noticed in Asian and international capitals and there is a renewed optimism about India not seen since the NDA’s first real stint in office.
Yet making the right noises is easy and has come easily to Indian leaders in the past. The Look East policy has been languishing since the days of PV Narasimha Rao and the broader goal of better ties with a resurgent Asia goes back even further to Nehru and the eve of Indian independence. Over the next four and a half years, what remains to be seen is how much India will act on its promises. Does Modi have it in him to transform Southeast Asia and spur a second economic boom or will he preserve India’s pristine record of being tall on talk and short on delivery?
There is clearly much excitement, albeit with some wariness, at India taking a greater role in regional trade and security. In the next four and half years, Modi Sarkar must capitalise on international optimism about India. Domestically, this primarily means economic reform to make it easier to do business in the country. Since Modi has put economics at the forefront of Indian foreign policy, this expectation should not come as a surprise for Delhi. The reception to the first budget in office was lukewarm but the government has an excuse that it cannot possibly be expected to put together an original budget so soon after taking office. However, all eyes will be on Modi this next year.
Regionally, India is severely outmatched by its rival China head-to-head. Delhi’s foreign exchange reserves, which stand at approximately $310 billion are dwarfed by Beijing’s mammoth $4.1 trillion. Consequently, India cannot woo Southeast Asia or Central Asia with financial incentives. For example, China recently committed $40 billion towards the construction of its Silk Route while India’s International North-South Trade Corridor exists only on paper. Similarly, India cannot match China for scale in its investments in Central Asia. Instead, it has to rely on the wariness of Chinese expansionism in the region and that the smaller powers of Asia might not want to put all their eggs in one basket.
One way of making India a viable actor is to deliver what has been promised on time and of high quality. If India can win several smaller contracts that will have a greater impact on the lives of ordinary people, soft power might just win for India what hard power cannot. Of greater importance to India are several projects that will deliver a quick return on investment. These will demonstrate a commitment to see things through and be an example of Indian workmanship.
Another topic on the regional to-do list for India is to take up a larger role in the regional security commons. India is already playing a role in the Arabian Sea but that needs to be amplified greatly to encompass – with the help of like-minded partners like Australia, Japan, and Indonesia – to cover the Indian Ocean as well as the waters of the Philippine and South China Seas. This will require a significant build-up of the Indian Navy. Much work has gone into this already but a lot remains to be done, especially considering the series of accidents that has plagued the service over the past couple of years.
A greater role in regional security is a tricky proposition because India must at once protect its interests and those of its partners and allies without causing fear among her neighbours over the military expansion. As the largest country in South Asia, India enjoys a natural advantage and hegemony but neighbours such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh must be reassured of India’s common goals lest they invite foreign powers into their waters.
India has shirked its economic and military responsibility to the region for long. If it continues to do so, it will dampen the optimism about a new and confident India and weaken the faith of its neighbours in Delhi’s ability to manage greater responsibility. This flies in the face of India’s stated objectives of earning a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council and is unhelpful in the reformation of international organisations and laws India has been advocating.
Modi has his plate full for the next four and half years, and more if he makes significant progress on these issues now. As Adam Smith argued, enlightened self interest is in mutual growth and consists of not just free trade but also assistance, favours, and gifts. This is the growth model India needs to propose to win over the neighbourhood – with the suspicion everyone has about China, it might just work.