23.06.2019 Author: Vladimir Terehov

First Foreign Policy Steps Taken by Narendra Modi After Election


The scheduled general election to decide who sits in India’s lower house of parliament (the Lok Sabha) ended on 23 May of this year. The Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP) and its leader Narendra Modi, who will retain his post as Prime Minister, emerged victorious once again. This time around the BJP’s win (and its scale) even surpassed their previous record, i.e. the outcomes of the 2014 election.

We can, therefore, state with confidence that the victory boosted the already high standing, enjoyed by Narendra Modi in the international arena, and his status as a leader of a “Premier League” member-state and a participant of the global political chess match. In the author’s opinion, India’s Prime Minister is aware of this. As a result, his demeanor has become more confident at meetings with his foreign counterparts. These gatherings have taken place during his first (after the election) trips abroad, and his choice of destination has been quite noteworthy.

It is quite a normal practice for a democratically elected leader of any given“independent” nation to quickly make an appearance in a “reception area” of an actual global-level decision maker with the following message “Here I am, from now onwards, you will have to deal with me as you play against your unpleasant opponents”.

Modern India and its current leader (who, according to journalists, is already unofficially viewed as the nation’s President have little to do with such nations and their “fiefdoms”. Still, Narendra Modi’s first foreign trip after he became the Prime Minister in 2014 was to the United States.

The visit occurred under the guise of attending an opening plenary meeting of a scheduled U.N. General Assembly session, and at a time when Washington created the best conditions for it.

Six months prior to the 2014 election (in which the BJP’s victory was already assured), the USA lifted a visa ban on Narendra Modi, which had been instituted on account of the infamous 2002 events that had transpired in the state of Gujarat, then headed by India’s current Prime Minister. In addition, various branches of the U.S. government sent clear signals to Narendra Modi indicating how highly anticipated his visit with the aim of strengthening bilateral ties was.

After the 2019 election, the Indian Prime Minister’s first foreign trips were prompted by the country’s key (long-term) foreign policy issue stemming from its search for an optimal course to take in relation to its great neighbor China, which has de facto already become the second world power. Their relationship has a clearly discernible and substantial element of competition to it. The two nations are fighting for influence in the Indo-Pacific region, and Washington is trying to use this in its interests.

In the opinion of U.S. analysts (and according to their terminology), Beijing is arranging a stifling String of Pearls in the territories neighboring India.

However, it is impossible to say that such statements are absolutely groundless. And even if the rivalry between the PRC and India for influence in “small” neighboring countries (which is normal for fairly powerful world players) exceeded the bounds of healthy competition at times, when national security (of either India or China) was threatened, at present, the possibility of the bilateral ties devolving into such a state is non-existent, from the author’s perspective.

The main reason for the significant shift in China’s foreign policy course was Xi Jinping’s rise to power to become PRC’s leader at the beginning of 2013. This change is rooted in an ancient Chinese philosophy, in accordance with which, the Middle Empire had to establish its position and consolidate its standing in the surrounding territories (to use modern terminology) with the aid of “soft power” versus “brute force”.

Hence, historians see a fundamental difference between the aims and methods used by Chinese Emperors during grand-scale sea voyages undertaken in the Middle Ages and those employed by various European “conquistadors”.

Political and economic concepts behind the “One Belt One Road” and the “Community of common destiny” initiatives are perfectly aligned with the centuries old Chinese philosophy. On the other hand, Beijing’s assertive policy, reported on by Western analysts in 2000s, towards practically all of its neighbors did not reflect the previously mentioned ancient traditions, especially with regards to territorial disputes.

Since 2013 the PRC has become less “assertive” but it has maintained all of its territorial claims. China’s current message to the world is “Let’s live in peace and act in the interest of the common good. And we’ll resolve all the territorial disputes later.”

At any rates, in recent years there have been fewer discussions about building Chinese military bases in the nations, usually viewed as a part of the infamous String of Pearls territories. Among these, the Maldives and Sri Lanka (two island states in the Indian Ocean) are considered to be key members.

It is strategically important to be able to exert influence over these two nations as they are both located along one of the key trade routes in the world, which is used to transport hydrocarbons (the ‘life blood’ of modern economy) to all the leading Asian countries. Smooth running of this particular shipping lane in the Indian Ocean is literally a matter of life and death for practically each of these nations.

For some time now, there has been speculation in the media (propagandistic in nature) among China’s “well-wishers” about the possibility of stationing PRC’s ships and planes in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Such discussions have always put New Delhi on edge. The situation is further destabilized by political tensions that arise in both of the island nations from time to time, and one has a strong urge to blame some “external forces” for this.

The most recent political flare-ups occurred in the Maldives and Sri Lanka during the election campaign in India. In Sri Lanka, one minority group carried out Easter Sunday terrorist attacks against another, an absurd development from the author’s point of view. The incident is reminiscent of the mosque shooting in New Zealand.

Hence, it is only natural that straight after the election campaign frenzy, the Indian Prime Minister’s first trips abroad were to the two previously mentioned (and, again, very important for it) small nations. It was an “inspection” of sorts with the aim of assessing the situation on the ground in person.

It seems that nothing particularly threatening (in connection with the String of Pearls) to India’s security was uncovered either in the Maldives or Sri Lanka. In both nations, statements about state-sponsored terrorism were made.

Narendra Modi is already fully aware of China’s increasing economic presence in Sri Lanka (without the need to confirm this via “on-site inspections”). This is also a challenge to India’s interests in the region but in another sphere of the inter-governmental rivalry. And the only way to deal with it is to enhance its own economic standing in Sri Lanka.

However, the most effective means of lowering levels of mutual distrust between New Delhi and Beijing would be to switch from competition to cooperation in implementing joint projects in third countries. And this is what China and Japan appeared to be planning on doing.

The scheduled SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) Summit, which was held in Bishkek from 13 to 14 June, presented an opportunity for China and India to discuss a whole range of issues, which have piled up, at the highest level. The very much needed and crucially important meeting between the two leaders of India and the PRC took place on the sidelines of the Summit.

Journalists commented on the friendly atmosphere prevailing during this event and the statements, made by both sides, about their intentions to continue establishing closer ties, a process that had begun at the leaders’ meeting a year ago in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

However, the China-India relationship (and the situation in South Asia as a whole) is far from idyllic (as envisioned in Wuhan), which was evidenced by Xi Jinping’s failure to become a moderator in the conflict between India and Pakistan.

In essence, Narendra Modi confirmed India’s original stance that India-Pakistan issues would remain “a bilateral matter”. As always India demanded that Pakistan “take concrete action” to “create an atmosphere free of terrorism” before the relationship between the two nations could improve.

Still, commentators saw a light at the end of the tunnel (with regards to the India-Pakistan relations) in the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Imran Khan exchanged pleasantries during the Summit in Bishkek. However, only two days prior, India’s Prime Minister had rejected an offer made by Imran Khan to establish a special air route over Pakistan for the plane that was to transport Narendra Modi to Bishkek.

It is also noteworthy that the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, invited India’s Prime Minister, as a guest of honor, to the annual Eastern Economic Forum, which will take place in Vladivostok at the beginning of September this year, during their meeting in Bishkek.

But even before that, at the end of June, all the leaders of powerful nations will have an opportunity to meet and communicate in the Japanese city of Osaka on the sidelines of the scheduled Group of Twenty Summit. We will soon see who will take advantage of this event and in what manner.

Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”