In May, Narendra Modi was re-elected as the prime minister of India in a landslide victory. India’s foreign policy became a salient issue during these elections due to the regional tensions with Pakistan. Beyond its immediate regional priorities, the Modi government has explicitly articulated a new vision for India and its role in shaping the world order. Whether India, under Modi’s leadership, will rewrite its engagement with the international community is yet to be seen. So far, when it comes to foreign policy, Modi is believed to be assertive and purposefully focused on mobilizing global opinion in India’s favor.
Modi has shown a penchant for personal engagement with the leaders of major world powers. While critics have warned against the dangers of personalizing diplomatic encounters, many view Modi’s proactive interactions as beneficial for India. Even as the country has substantively moved away from being a mere balancer, there are glaring regional and global realities that will require its attention. Its immediate neighborhood will continue to be a priority for India even as it strives to increase its global footprint.
In this guest edition of The Interview, Nilanjana Sen and Joy Mitra talk to Harsh V. Pant, the head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and professor of international relations at King’s College London, about the foreign policy priorities of the Modi government, the changing international and regional challenges, and the future of India’s global engagements.
The transcript has been edited for clarity. The interview took place before recent developments in Jammu and Kashmir.
Nilanjana Sen: Your book, “Indian Foreign Policy: The Modi Era,” in which you call Narendra Modi the “foreign policy prime minister,” was released earlier this year. What do you find most remarkable about Modi’s performance in his first term, especially on the foreign and security policy front?
Harsh V. Pant: As someone who was a former chief minister of a state, a lot of people were concerned about the impact Modi’s arrival as the prime minister may have on the trajectory of Indian foreign policy — and it was, in fact, dramatic. State chief ministers in India usually focus on foreign policy with a view to secure foreign direct investment for their own states, so the focus is largely on economic diplomacy rather than viewing foreign policy as something that would serve a broader strategic purpose. So the concerns were valid, but Modi began his term with an invitation to regional heads for his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, signaling that foreign policy will be a priority area for him.
Second, he has publicly linked India’s domestic transformation to Indian foreign policy priorities, taking foreign policy discourse beyond the confines of a small elite.
Third, Modi has made foreign policy a whole of government enterprise, rather than it being solely the domain of the Ministry of External Affairs [MEA]. He has been instrumental in moving toward integrating military force more clearly and substantively into diplomacy, whereas in the past the two operated in silos. This is ironic because, in the realm of foreign policy, the shadow of military force always looms in the backdrop, and how one calculates moves and countermoves depends on the military balance of power.
Modi has recalibrated this a bit. His government has probed how far India could climb the escalation ladder — whether it was during the surgical strikes in 2016 [against suspected militant bases in Pakistan-administered Kashmir], or the Balakot airstrikes in 2019, or even in the case of Doklam in 2017. So, there has been a calculated move to do this and, more importantly, defense forces today are becoming more integral in India’s outreach and defense diplomacy.
In the past, with respect to our outreach to the US, there were ideological constraints that prevented signing of agreements like the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement [LEMOA], the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement [COMCASA], etc., but today those constraints are gone, and we are comfortable with a military engagement. And this brings me to the last point here, which is recognizing that issue-based alignments are a necessity for India in this day and age.
Joy Mitra: In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack in February 2019 and the retaliatory airstrikes conducted in Balakot, do you think India has developed a sustained policy toward Pakistan to deal with the security threats that emanate from across the border?
Pant: When Modi started his first term, everyone asked what is different about his engagement with Pakistan. But by the end of the first term, everyone seemed to suggest that it was dramatically different, perhaps even problematic. However, any rational assessment of his approach toward Pakistan has to be balanced. Given the mandate he received, he began his term first with outreach efforts toward Pakistan. But after the Pathankot and Uri attacks, Modi realized that this approach was not paying dividends.
In fact, Modi’s predecessors have also grappled with the question of how to deal with Pakistan under a nuclear overhang. Pakistan is a geographical constraint, so everyone has tried to deal with it. During his term as prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh felt escalation wasn’t a good choice for India, and there was a time that strategy was useful since it gave India the strategic space to convince the world that India is not the loony one.
Modi realized that this traditional framework was not working, so when terror struck again, the idea that he had to try another option, which was the military option, settled in. He probed how far India could climb the escalation ladder, and I think the first attempt was the surgical strike in 2016. India saw the impact it had and assessed what was right and what went wrong with the approach, and by the time it reached Pulwama-Balakot crisis, there was an assessment that India can climb the escalation ladder. Unlike cross-border land operations where there is the choice of plausible deniability, the use of airpower is certainly riskier because one really doesn’t know how it will end. Modi decided to use airpower not in the Kashmir theater but in mainland Pakistan, so in that sense, he changed the dynamic, especially in terms of how the international community reacted to the use of force.
Perhaps, India now feels that the use of force will not be met with a negative reaction by the international community, which does empathize with India’s efforts at grappling with terror. For almost four years, every international platform was used by India to make a case for isolating Pakistan, and it yielded dividends when Balakot airstrikes happened, and I think there was method in what was being done by India. Even after the Balakot episode when Masood Azhar’s case for his designation as a global terrorist came up, all major powers rallied toward India. There was a sense within the international community that if this is not done then India will be forced to escalate. So the onus of de-escalation is now on Pakistan and not on India. It seems then that Modi has managed to change the calculus.
Whether or not this is a permanent situation remains to be seen, but my sense is that the message has been delivered. Modi is unwilling to yield. He could have invited [Pakistani Prime Minister] Imran Khan for his swearing-in ceremony, but he chose not to. He is also consciously engaging with BIMSTEC and other platforms to not be held hostage to Pakistan’s ways. However, with a skewed civil-military balance, the nature of problems within Pakistan is structural. Whether the current policy of airstrikes will remain the way it is also depends on Pakistan’s choices.
Sen: India’s immediate periphery in South Asia is characterized by a variety of security, economic and developmental challenges. How has India responded to these challenges under Modi’s leadership, and what foreign policy trajectory should India follow?
Pant: South Asia’s regional politics can be located in two geographies. One is toward the west, where India can link itself to the West Asian landscape, and the other is toward the east, wherein it draws on the economic viability and economic systems of East and Southeast Asia.
Largely, it is the problem of state capacity in South Asia that hinders economic development, social harmony, even regional integration. The periphery remains problematic partly because of the inherent weaknesses in the state capacities of these countries. This will continue to be a problem, and it will have externalities for India which we will have to deal with. The best that India can do is provide indirect capacity building support to the countries. The challenge for India is that the moment it tries to do too much, it is blamed for interfering in the internal affairs of neighboring countries.
The other issue is that regional states now see China as an alternative and a great benefactor. China is looked at as a country that can deliver. As far as India is concerned, it is still very poor in terms of delivery on projects. There are time delays that lead to an escalation of costs, and sometimes projects never get completed. One of the good things Modi did when he came to office was his decision to not sign new MoUs [memoranda of understanding] with the neighbors. His focus was the completion of existing projects that were in the pipeline. If India can’t deliver in its neighborhood, then there will be doubts about it establishing a global footprint. The recognition that unless India delivers, it is all pointless is now there.
Hopefully, this will also continue at the level of foreign policy during Modi’s second term. The aspirations in regional states are rising, and they often look to China because of the belief that it will deliver. I feel constantly using the China card and the more overt positioning vis-à-vis China might be counterproductive for India. What India can do is to alert the neighbors about certain developments such as what happened in Hambantota, under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI] in Sri Lanka. India, with its limited resources, can actually focus on the building capacity of these countries in terms of, say, improved project assessments. Say if China puts forth a project proposal to a particular state, India could help with feasibility and cost assessments. It is better at such work because of a more participatory approach. Our approach to aid is more bottom-up.
In terms of articulation, what Modi has done is sensible. The traditional idea of what constitutes South Asia is increasingly redundant. India’s periphery is not simply the countries that are part of SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation]. South Asia as a geographical region is evolving. Until a few decades back, Afghanistan was not considered part of South Asia, but now it is; similarly Myanmar and Thailand, which are now part of BIMSTEC [Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation]. It doesn’t make sense for India to not consider these countries as part of India’s immediate neighborhood.
Such a consideration shifts the focus away from the West, which is complicated because of the relationship with Pakistan, and it also links India to the Southeast Asian growth story. It situates the Bay of Bengal in the larger Indo-Pacific paradigm. So, you have that sense that if the world is looking at Indo-Pacific as one geography, then the Bay of Bengal is important. India can now reimagine its geography and its strategic periphery by breaking away from the constraints of the past. This is something India has been trying to do, and it is helpful domestically because it allows the northeast of India to develop. If the northeast is connected to Myanmar, Thailand, Southeast Asia, then it is helpful.
But the larger issue of transitions within the countries on the periphery will continue. In the last few years, very explicit pro-China and pro-India constituencies have developed in the neighboring countries, and this will continue. Going forward, it is important for India to acknowledge that it has not done enough as a provider of economic security, in terms of economic integration, infrastructure development and connectivity.
Sen: In the Indo-Pacific region, India is trying to leverage its relationship with other powers to counter China’s strategic assertiveness. To that effect, India is part of the so-called Quad that includes the United States, Japan and Australia. India, however, is often viewed as the “weakest link” in the group. How would you explain India’s approach toward the Quad: hesitant or pragmatic?
Pant: India’s approach was hesitant when the Quad first came into existence in 2007. A lot has changed since then, and India’s approach is more pragmatic now. My sense is that if there was any other administration in Washington, India would have been comfortable taking a more overt position. After all, Modi did go ahead and sign LEMOA, COMCASA, etc. He made America such a big part of his global outreach.
But [US President Donald] Trump, as a leader, is very complicated. Trump’s approach to global economic order is very problematic for India and this means that India will have to find ways of working with other countries, including China. When you see India and China together, you see them talking about the economic order. This is because these two countries have a lot at stake in what Trump is doing. While strategically India still pivots toward America, there are issues on which the Trump administration has made it very difficult for India to not engage with Chinese.
This does impact India’s ability to participate in the Quad. Yes, New Delhi wants certain things to go forward, but it also doesn’t want to raise red flags in Beijing — although I feel that Beijing works on the assumption that India is in the other camp. They recognize that they can work with India on certain issues, but if you look at their narrative, you will see that for them India has become part of this larger containment game that the US is playing.
India officially still wants to hedge. If you see Quad 2.0, it is about connectivity, infrastructure and whether the Quad members can have an alternative plan to China’s BRI. If you look at the military exercises, for example, there are no Quad military exercises happening. The Quad evokes a slight unease for India, and I feel even Australia shares that concern about making it a strategic pillar for everything that is happening in the region.
There is also this question of differing definitions of the Indo-Pacific, whether the term is geographic or political. Australia and the US have a definition of Indo-Pacific that ends at the Indian subcontinent, while India’s definition extends all the way to the coast of Africa. Unless there is some agreement on the geographical and political parameters of the engagement, it is very difficult to concur on the remit of this security engagement. The Australians, for example, want to be part of the Malabar exercises, but India continues to be ambivalent. Perhaps India does not want to give China the message that all is over.
If we consider the Wuhan summit, which happened post-Doklam crisis, it was an effort at this recalibration. This recalibration was driven partly because India wanted to bring down tensions after the Doklam crisis, but also in part because of economic tensions with the US. It also happened because China is concerned about what the US is doing, the trade war and so forth. No nation seems willing to make hard choices.
If tomorrow there is a deal between the US and China, both of them might come to a modus vivendi, and then the US could decide that it would not go with the Quad or the idea of Indo-Pacific. India needs to be aware of that probability. This is also something that one observes in Australia’s engagement with China or Japan’s engagement with China. This effort to recalibrate is in large part due to the inability to gauge what the Trump administration wants, and it is this uncertainty which is pushing countries like India toward a hedging position rather than a more categorical assertion on approach to China.
Mitra: As far as the Indo-US relationship is concerned, what can we expect in Modi’s second term? Is there a common strategic purpose between the two countries or is there an increasing incoherence in terms of their strategic priorities, and how much of this coherence or incoherence is driven at the level of individual leadership?
Pant: While there is nothing wrong with politicians taking decisions driven by domestic compulsions, it is not clear what exactly is driving the decisions taken by President Donald Trump. This lack of clarity is extremely difficult to manage. With every other president of the US, you could identify a few broad parameters around which their foreign policy revolved. I don’t imply that during the tenure of former presidents like Barack Obama that India did not have issues with the US, but with Trump it is particularly difficult to formulate a policy response to issues. Modi tried and he did succeed when he visited Trump in Washington, DC, in June 2017.
One of the key strands of India’s policy has been to convince the US to consider the rise of India in its long-term interest and, therefore, the strategic picture should not be lost sight of. The two countries may continue having differences over their respective stand on individual issues like Iran or Russia and they may have problems on trade issues, but India would not want to lose sight of the big picture and would have the same expectation from the US.
If we look at it rationally, Trump has not been bad for India. His Pakistan and China policies have been tough, and this suits India. However, the problem we have is two-fold. Consider the South Asia strategy the US came up with during Trump’s first term. It was very positive about India’s role in Afghanistan, but then suddenly the route to negotiation was taken to India’s exclusion. On trade, there is a constituency in America that believes that the trade imbalance is a consequence of what China and India are doing.
In such a situation, what should India do? The question is whether you can convince the US that there is a long-term future of India’s relationship with the US and that this has been India’s strategy throughout. But this is a difficult proposition with Trump because he is a transactionalist. He is not looking at the long-term strategic picture and is only interested in the immediate benefits at the cost of long-term deliverables.
Sen: Key powers like the US, China and Russia have become very assertive toward shaping the global order. In your assessment, how does Modi manage bilateral relationships between these three competing powers?
Pant: I think one of Modi’s successes in his last term was how India managed major powers. But I believe some of this balance is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. In particular, it is hard to tell how the US-China relationship would evolve. The trade and technology conflict that is happening will impinge on countries like India because India has assumed that these major powers, especially on the economic side of the equation, are more or less on the same page, but it does not look that way now. Even the issue of technology has become contentious. There was a time when trade and technology were seen as public goods — not discounting the fact that the US would be the dominant factor, but, by and large, the US was benign enough to let everyone use it and take its advantage.
But it does not look that way now. India today has to shape its own policy priorities because it has articulated that it wants to be a leading power. It is not simply about balancing, it is also about the desire to shape the global order. And if India wants to shape global order, it is inevitable that India eventually would have to make some difficult choices.
How India manages its relations with Russia is also becoming challenging because Russia’s traditional role is being questioned today. Many in India question whether it is the same Russia of the past, given the changing priorities of the country. Considering Russia’s close engagement with China, how far can India actually go with the Russians?
The challenges are manifold in terms of India’s engagement with major powers, but the question is whether India can be transactional enough to get some advantages from the bilateral engagements. One of the ways in which India solved the Russia challenge was by rewarding them with big defense orders. Such actions are not sustainable because it can happen maybe only once in three or four years. But that does seem to be becoming the norm, even if only for a declaratory purpose where every year we have these bilateral summits with the Russians and we at least announce a deal.
Part of the problem is also that there is so little else to show in this relationship — economically, there is nothing much happening, and politically and diplomatically we are increasingly thinking differently. Russians, for example, question the whole idea of the Indo-Pacific, whereas for India it is central to the way of looking at the world now. Russia’s engagement with Pakistan is deepening and Russia’s engagement in Afghanistan is very different from what it was in the past. Russia’s interest in the Middle East is also problematic because it is more or less in confrontation with the US. The diverging interests between India and Russia will be something to watch out for.
I feel what Modi did effectively in his first term is that he understood that diplomacy with major powers sometimes has to be done at the leadership level because we have very strong personalities running these powers. I feel this trend will continue and it makes sense to do this. But whether it will yield dividends in terms of resolving the larger policy problems that India faces is hard to tell. Perhaps India will simply have to manage such trends till another equilibrium is reached.
Mitra: What do you make of Modi’s outreach to China at the Wuhan Summit? Do you think summits of this nature where dialogue is initiated at the highest level of the leadership could offer a template to manage or de-escalate Doklam-style crises going forward?
Pant: If it happens again, not only would there be a question mark over the informal summitry, but it would also mean that Modi will have to face some challenges at the personal level. If he has staked his reputation on stabilizing the relationship with China, then a repeated mishap would mean he would have to respond. The onus will be on him. If diplomacy is so personalized, that is the risk you face.
The border issue is a big-ticket issue in some ways for India, and in this term, China is going to be a priority for Modi. One of the ways in which he has tried to anchor this problem is by going back to something India harped on back in the 1990s. So, the narrative now is that China and India will have to work together on global issues. Since the global economic order is currently under stress, they will explore the possibility of working together to stabilize the order and become the guarantors of globalization. This effort at working together will have an impact on the relationship, but whether it will resolve long-standing bilateral problems is hard to tell.
Sen: What impedes India’s defense modernization? Are we only limited by financial resources, and will this be a high priority for Modi in his second term?
Pant: The problem is largely institutional. I feel defense modernization should be a priority for India. The country is bringing the military more sensibly into diplomacy as part of its strategy to attain foreign policy objectives. Whether it is for projecting power or humanitarian aid — consider the use of naval forces — or for deterrence and compellence purposes that we do with China and Pakistan.
The question is also whether India is effectively utilizing its military instrument. India’s institutional structures are not capable of meeting the kind of threats that it faces today. India found it difficult to add just 36 Rafale fighter air crafts to its inventory. Think about the scale of what we are talking about. India is short by at least seven or eight squadrons in terms of what it needs to manage its main challenges. There has to be some way of thinking in a manner that enables India to handle this situation smartly and swiftly. But, clearly, that has not happened given the financial, political and process-related constraints. The lack of transparency in India’s defense procurement system means that almost every procurement is marred in corruption allegations.
India needs to start thinking more strategically about national security and force posture. Every serious country does that. It needs to make better projections about the future and, unfortunately, that kind of work has not happened in India yet. India is always found firefighting and is mostly making ad-hoc decisions. As India looks to modernize its forces looking at the changing balance of power with China, it is also trying to focus on “Make in India.”
This compounds the problem because “Make in India” is not going to happen in five years. If you want to develop manufacturing capacity in India, it will take at least another decade in terms of getting the infrastructure in place and then operationalizing the policy. Immediate threat landscape does not allow that kind of time. The government is right that India needs domestic manufacturing capacity, but there are immediate threats that have to be dealt with. Unless India brings its ends, ways and means into balance, it will be found wanting in managing national security.
Mitra: Would you agree that Modi is rewiring India’s engagement with the world and this will continue as a consequence of his re-election in 2019?
Pant: It has been debated whether Modi’s foreign policy is more style than substance, whether the change is more superficial in terms of his own personal engagements, rather than any fundamental level shift in foreign policy.
My assessment is that there has been a shift in both the style of how we conduct our foreign policy under Modi as well as the substance of India’s engagement with the world. It’s more outgoing and proactive, it’s focused on outcomes and, more importantly, it is aimed at mobilizing global public opinion to achieve concrete outcomes for India. Five years, however, is a short time period to assess any substantive shift in terms of foreign policy. But my sense is that at the end of Modi’s 10 years in office, we will see a very different kind of Indian engagement with the international system.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.