Liu Zongyi: Foreign policy key for Modi in 2019 elections


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Liu Zongyi: Foreign policy key for Modi in 2019 elections


By Liu Zongyi    Source: Global Times    Published: 2018-8-12

Various political parties are gearing up for India's general elections slated for the first half of 2019. Apart from the fierce competition with opposition parties, there are internal conflicts within the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Opposition parties, notably the Congress party, are anxious to defeat Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP, while Modi's own party members are trying to replace him. It seems that the focus of the struggle is on Modi. So, have his domestic and foreign policies brought actual benefits for India?

Back in 2014, Modi came to power with pledges to reform and develop. His government launched a spectrum of socioeconomic and development policies like land legislation reform, the "Make in India" program, demonetization, and the Goods and Services Tax reform. These measures, especially the last two, left a profound impact on Indian society and drew mixed responses.

However, the series of domestic economic reforms initiated by the prime minister have been dwarfed by his foreign policy.

In the number of overseas visits ever undertaken by an Indian prime minister, Modi is second to none. His administration has made breakthroughs in diplomacy with major countries and those in the region. The prime minister aims at strengthening control over South Asian and Indian Ocean countries to consolidate India's dominant role in the region.

Moreover, the Modi administration intends to play a balanced role in the international order to improve India's international status. Modi's maneuvers among China, Russia, the US and Japan have showcased his intention to project India as a "China balancer." India views China as the biggest variable in the global and regional order.

During the Barack Obama era, Washington and New Delhi clinched the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, successfully dovetailing the US' "rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific" strategy and India's "Look East" policy. Since then, New Delhi has proactively interfered in the South China Sea dispute.

Modi has also frequently interacted with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, launching all-weather cooperation targeting a rising China. They also proposed the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor initiative to offset the influence of Beijing's Belt and Road initiative.

India is also establishing an exclusive military alliance with the US, Japan and Australia in the name of "a free and open Indo-Pacific." In recent years, New Delhi has departed from its central identity of non-alignment in global politics, putting more emphasis on short-term, pragmatic interests. Its shunning non-alignment is also conspicuous in its approach to Israel.

The reason why India is valued by Western countries is its geopolitical position in South Asia and the Indian Ocean as well as its economic potential, which however could not materialize to put it at a competitive position with major powers like China, the US and Russia. Therefore, Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh tried to define India's position to strike a balance with big countries to secure its interests.

But the Doklam standoff and the political turmoil in the Maldives in 2017 revealed that Modi's foreign policy has gone somewhat "awry."

However, whether his diplomatic policy is tactical or strategic is worth mulling over. After Modi sought to improve relations with China and Russia and US President Donald Trump launched a trade war on Beijing, Washington laid out a series of policies beneficial to India, one of which is a $113 million investment package for promoting Indo-Pacific regional integration.

Moreover, the US has granted India the Strategic Trade Authorization tier-1 status, which is enjoyed by its close Asian allies like Japan and South Korea. And the US National Defense Authorization Act may permit India to purchase the S-400 air-defense system.

After improving ties with Beijing and Moscow, New Delhi has effected a U-turn from its previous role of striking a balance between China and the US.

How long the Modi administration's China policy will last is in question. Some forces within the BJP dissatisfied with the prime minister's foreign policy expect him to implement more pro-West and pro-US measures while taking a tougher stance against neighboring countries. To gain victory in the general elections, Modi may have to make use of Hindu nationalism and provoke disputes with Pakistan. Keeping a balance between the East and the West remains his biggest diplomatic challenge for India.

The author is a visiting fellow of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.