Prof P M Kamath

Prof P M Kamath was a professor of Politics, at the University of Mumbai. Currently, he is the chairman and director of VPM’s Centre for International Studies (Regd), affiliated to Mumbai University.

Decisive Leadership and Geopolitics at its Best: Two years of Modi’s Foreign Policy

Prof P M Kamath

The NDA government led by Narendra Modi has completed two years in office. We have invited some prominent thought leaders of the country to assess its performance in three areas – defence, diplomacy and economy. For the assessment of the foreign policy of the Modi government, we present two different perspectives by Prof P M Kamath and Amb Amit Dasgupta in this issue.

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When you look at Modi’s achievements under the NDA II government during the last two years, what is strikingly evident is that Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has provided the nation decisive leadership and has demonstrated his astute abilities in the use of geopolitics and geoeconomics at their best, to sub-serve the Indian national interest. Nowhere else have these two admirable qualities — leadership and use of geopolitics and geoeconomics – have manifested so well than in India managing relations with China under him. These qualities shine extremely well when contrasted with handling of a similar situation by the former PM, Manmohan Singh during his lackluster handling of India’s relations with China.

Decisive Leadership

Discerning observers had a clue even before Narendra Modi became the nation’s PM. During campaigning in Arunachal Pradesh in February 2013, candidate Modi had clearly asked China to give up its “mind-set of expansion” and work with India to avail fruits of “development and prosperity” for both nations. As far as its claim on Arunachal Pradesh goes, Modi warned China that “No power on earth can snatch away Arunachal Pradesh from India.”
This was clearly demonstrated in Modi’s planned approach to China. In September 2014, soon after taking over as the prime minister of India, he had invited the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Jinping was given a rousing reception in Ahmedabad before he proceeded with Modi to an official engagement in New Delhi. While the two were having unofficial confabulations in Ahmedabad, PLA as in the past, intruded in Ladakh. But demonstrating clear leadership, Modi informed Jinping that economic relations cannot go on as usual if such incidents on the border continue to occur. Since the Ahmedabad warning was not fruitful, it was repeated in New Delhi once again. These signals were effective as China pulled back after eight days in Ladakh. Jinping, while departing, publicly expressed that he was sad about the tension between armies, which “cast a shadow” on his visit. But such incursions have not occurred again.
Earlier, Modi had shown similar decisive qualities of leadership against Pakistani tantrums. After initial bonhomie with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the occasion of his swearing in as the PM in May 2014, his government cancelled a scheduled meeting of foreign secretaries of the two countries on August 25, 2014 on the grounds that government of India cannot accept the fact that while bilateral talks are to be held, Pakistan holds meeting with the separatists who are challenging Indian integrity.

Geopolitics & Geoeconomics

In Modi’s conduct of foreign policy, he has achieved an inseparable admixture of geopolitics and geoeconomics — one aiding the other. This became clearly evident in changing approaches. The Manmohan Singh led UPA government was undoubtedly aware of the geopolitical significance of bilateral relations with Vietnam. However, in awe of China on many issues, the Manmohan Singh government was unable to publicly express our concerns on Chinese policies Vietnam. We only claimed to have privately conveyed our concerns to the Chinese. It was a policy of extraordinary deference to China. In all fairness to the former PM, he only continued the policy of Congress governments since Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao’s time.
Thus, in November 2011, during the East Asia Summit, China publicly warned India to keep off South China Sea on the grounds that it was a disputed territory, where Vietnam had awarded a block on contract to ONGC (Videsh) to drill for oil. This was despite the fact that the day before this public warning, India had claimed to have privately explained to China that Indian interests in the South China Sea were purely commercial and China should settle all issues of sovereignty according to the principles of international law and practice. But then the UPA government never demonstrated firm leadership or had the nerve to ask Chinese leadership: How could it build roads or invest in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), which too is a disputed territory?
Look at the manner in which India under Modi has deftly handled the issues in relation to Vietnam and Iran. When PM Modi was holding his high level meetings with Jinping in New Delhi in September 2014, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee was in Vietnam as a part of regular exchange of visits. Later, on October 28 2014, Modi held high level talks with the Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dang, on strengthening strategic partnership and as a part of growing understanding of importance of bilateral relationship, India agreed to sell military hardware including BRAHMOS missiles, naval vessels. And Vietnam offered two more blocks to India for energy exploration within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea!
China is a dictatorship that understands only the language of power; when it uses its power, India too needs to demonstrate its willpower to counter it powerfully. That is the only way to get substantial results from Chinese leaders. We need not and cannot think of matching China in every respect, as Indian economy is only one third of China’s. But Indian power deficit can be balanced by cultivating likeminded friends on the basis of shared interests without compromising national interest. Nations make friendship not only on the basis of their perceived congruence in their national interests but also based on their geographical location, perceived specific economic interests in conjunction with geopolitical interests.

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Geopolitics and geoeconomics at its best was demonstrated by India as a gift to people to celebrate completion of two years of its superb conduct of Indian foreign policy. Demonstrating a clear vision of future of Indian foreign policy compulsions, PM Modi signed two agreements in Teheran on May 23; it was a commercial contract with Iran for development the of Chabahar port and a trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan on trade and transit. This effectively links India through Iran to Afghanistan from where it is connected to major cities of Afghanistan like Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar e Sharif through Garland Road.
Chabahar port development agreement is a smart geopolitical and geoeconomic answer to Chinese controlled Gwadar port in Pakistan at a distance of one hundred km west of Chabahar. When fully developed, the Chabahar port will provide easy access to India to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. And through Afghanistan to energy rich Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and other Central Asian nations. Though Iran had offered the development of Chabahar to India in 2003, Modi government signed a MoU in May 2015 and agreement in May 2016. It should adhere to complete operationalisation of the port facilities by December 2016 to free Afghanistan from over-dependence on Pakistan for access to the Indian Ocean. This move on the part of India will also enable it to play a stabilising role in the Gulf region as well as in West Asia.

Conclusion

Indian pursuit of geopolitical strategic partnership with Iran and Vietnam is likely to be extended with moving times as there are clear signs of it. Japan, which shares India’s concerns about China’s growing assertiveness, has indicated to India its willingness to financially participate in the development of Chabahar port. The United States, another strategic partner, has also extended its support to the Indian project to develop modern port facilities at Chabahar. Similarly, the US’ lifting of economic sanctions against Iran, after the nuclear agreement, is also likely to share Indian concerns behind its efforts to develop the Port of Chabahar in Iran. India could play a role in bringing Iran and the US closer to promote a win-win situation amongst the partners.
Another recent development is President Obama’s visit to Vietnam and worth a mention as part of a larger geopolitical operation. Was it by design or coincidence that Modi was in Tehran and Obama in Vietnam on the same day — May 23? We may get clear answers after the Modi-Obama meeting which is scheduled to be held on June 7 in Washington, DC. But as much as India shares US’ concerns against the growing Chinese security threat in Southeast Asia, it also shares deep concerns with Vietnam and other members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the Chinese claim of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea which also washes the borders of ASEAN countries. It is this concern, which led the US to speak of ‘Asian Pivot’. It is this concern that led Obama to lift the arms sale embargo on Vietnam after his recent visit.
There is thus a message to the Congress Party in India: Do not criticise geopolitical cooperation between India and the US on the ground that “PM Modi and his government” are pushing “India into a closer, deeper military alliance and become the part of the larger operational designs and requirements of the US in Asia, in Pacific and South China Sea” in response to the government’s in principle, agreeing on military logistics support agreement. It is not intrusive and doesn’t affect India’s nonaligned status. Anyway, non-alignment in its Cold War sense is dead when Manmohan Singh asked the US to stay put in Afghanistan even after December 2014. What now prevails as PM Modi has said is: Congruence of national interest of US and India. I may add that Non-Alignment (NA) has become National Interest Alignment (NIA)!

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