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Test for diplomacy

Relations with Pakistan, China and Sri Lanka and the stand it will take on the looming new Cold War will constitute the biggest foreign policy and security challenges before the Modi government.


( June 1, 2014, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The world will keenly watch the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party-led government formulate its foreign policy priorities. During the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, the focus of prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was on domestic issues. His stated top priority, then and now, is providing good governance and reversing the country’s economic slide. However, his reference to illegal “Bangladeshi immigrants” and his attempts to differentiate between Hindu and Muslim immigrants during his campaign in West Bengal and Assam have perturbed the government in Dhaka. Bangladesh is one of India’s closest regional allies. Modi’s hawkish views on Pakistan are already well known. He has said on several occasions that Pakistan is not doing enough to curtail anti-Indian terror activities on its soil. He had also boasted that if elected Prime Minister, he would bring back to India Dawood Ibrahim, who is on the top of India’s list of most wanted terrorists. Dawood has residences in Dubai and Karachi.

The political class and the military establishment in Pakistan view Modi through the lens of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. Privately, some Pakistani officials say that it will be difficult for the Pakistani political leadership to engage constructively with the new right-wing government in New Delhi, given Modi’s record of Pakistan bashing. However, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif formally congratulated Modi and invited him to visit his country. Both Sharif and Modi are known to be business-friendly leaders. Expanding trade and commerce between the two countries could provide the right recipe for an extended thaw in bilateral relations. Invitations have been extended to leaders of all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, including Pakistan, to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. Sharif had invited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to attend his swearing-in ceremony last year, but no senior Indian leader attended the function.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is among the four SAARC leaders who are expected to witness Modi take the oath of office. The invitation to Rajapaksa has angered the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). In a statement issued on May 22, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa expressed her “dismay” over the invitation extended to Rajapaksa. She said: “It is with a deep sense of anguish that we point this out to the new government to be formed at the Centre. Particularly, with regard to the relationship of the new Central government with the Government of Tamil Nadu, it would have been better if this ill-advised move had been avoided.” The BJP’s coalition partners in Tamil Nadu have also expressed their strong misgivings at the invite extended to Rajapaksa. Its allies, including Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko, have been demanding that Rajapaksa be tried for war crimes committed during the last stage of the ethnic war in the island nation. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had voted once in the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) against the Sri Lankan government on human rights issues-related resolutions (see box on page 46).

Many people in Pakistan believe that it will be easier for their government to negotiate with a BJP-led government on key bilateral issues. They draw a comparison with the situation in West Asia where the Palestinian and Arab governments prefer to deal with the hard-line Likud Party in Israel. The reasoning is that right-wing parties will be better positioned to sway nationalist opinions. Relations with Pakistan and China could pose the biggest foreign policy and security challenges to the Modi government. The last Indian Prime Minister to visit Islamabad was Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP. Manmohan Singh, it is well known, had a great desire to visit Pakistan before he demitted office. He was afraid of the criticism and charges of appeasement he would face from opposition quarters, especially the BJP, if he visited Islamabad. A Chinese think tank has described Modi as the “Richard Nixon” of India. Nixon, a right-wing Republican President of the United States, effected a dramatic breakthrough in Washington’s relations with Beijing in the early 1970s. There are a few optimists among strategic thinkers and diplomats who believe that Modi could do the same for India-China and India-Pakistan relations.

With the U.S. forces winding up their presence in Afghanistan, significant changes are expected in the politics of the country and the surrounding region. Abdullah Abdullah, who is known to be close to New Delhi, is the front-runner in the Afghan presidential election. This is a development that is causing considerable unease in Islamabad. The security establishment there is already perturbed by the growing influence of India in the corridors of power in Kabul. The Pakistani security establishment continues to view Afghanistan as its strategic backyard. The Taliban, lying low for some time, is expected to make its military moves after the bulk of the Western troops depart. The leadership of the Afghan Taliban continues to have strong links with the Pakistani security establishment. If Afghanistan descends into another round of bloodletting, there could be repercussions for India. Many of the global “jehadis” fighting in Afghanistan could then turn their attention to Kashmir, as happened in the 1990s. As Muslim alienation in India increases following the rise of the Hindu Right and in the absence of Muslim representation in the new government, the country could become a recruiting ground for religious extremism.

From available indications, Modi’s foreign policy advisers are likely to be personalities who have a reputation for being hawkish on Pakistan and China. Any new terror incident that could be perpetrated by terrorists having links with groups across the border now carries the risk of spinning out of control and escalating beyond a war of words. On the campaign trail, Modi, thumping his “56-inch” chest, threatened a robust response to any provocation from across the border. In Arunachal Pradesh, which China considers a “disputed territory”, Modi said that under his watch not a single inch of Indian territory would be bartered away. There have been serious incidents along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the Line of Control (LoC) in recent years. Last year, some incidents along the LoC escalated, leading to prolonged shelling and killing of military personnel on both sides. Better sense prevailed and both sides subsequently de-escalated the conflict.

Nuclear doctrine

The BJP’s initial announcement in its manifesto that if elected it would “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine sent shock waves through the international community. It was widely interpreted that the party would renege on India’s “no first use” (nfu) of nuclear weapons. India’s main military rival is Pakistan. The BJP leadership was quick to backtrack on the issue and gave an assurance that there was no move to revise the country’s nuclear doctrine. Under the previous National Democratic Alliance and UPA governments, the nfu pledge had been diluted considerably. India does not have to stand by the nfu pledge if it comes under chemical or biological weapons attack. In 2010, National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon said that nfu would only apply to non-nuclear weapons states.

Pakistan, meanwhile, is busy buttressing its nuclear arsenal to counter what it claims is a massive conventional military build-up by India. Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a reputed American journal, claimed in an article published in 2011, that by the end of the decade Pakistan would have enough fissile capacity to build many more bombs than India. India’s superiority in conventional military forces vis-a-vis Pakistan has become meaningless given the reality of the nuclear parity that exists between the two countries now. It was the previous NDA government that initiated the Pokhran II nuclear tests, on May 11, 1998. Pakistan immediately conducted its own nuclear tests on May 28 and 30, 1998. The international community was forced to recognise the existence of two de facto nuclear powers in the region.

Despite the Hindu Right’s traditional animosity towards China and its support for the Tibetan cause, Modi wants India to emulate the Chinese capitalist model. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he earned frequent flier miles on his air trips to China. But many of his advisers and supporters want Modi to copy the style of another right-wing nationalist, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. In fact, Modi seems to be consciously aping Abe’s political antics. After becoming Prime Minister, Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine, where the remains of Japanese “war criminals” are interred. The Shinto shrine is revered by right-wing nationalists in Japan. Modi, before assuming charge as Prime Minister of the secular republic, was seen performing Hindu rituals on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Abe, like Modi, wants his country to become a leading global economic and military power. In pursuit of these goals, Abe is seeking to rewrite the Japanese “Peace” Constitution and lead an anti-China alliance of Asian countries. Then, there is the “Abenomics” he hopes will dramatically make the Japanese economy boom once again. And in India, we now have “Modinomics”.

Washington-Tokyo axis

There will be immense pressure on the new BJP-led NDA government from Japan and the U.S. to become part of the Washington-Tokyo military axis to help in the Barack Obama administration’s military “pivot to the East”. Trilateral military exercises were conducted under the auspices of the UPA government. But the UPA withstood pressure from Washington to provide forward-operating bases for the U.S. military on Indian soil. U.S. politicians and think tanks have been critical of the UPA government for sticking to “outmoded” concepts such as non-alignment and “strategic autonomy”.

Ashton Carter, a former U.S. Assistant Defence Secretary and the man tipped to be the next U.S. envoy to India, recently wrote in Foreign Policy Journal that the U.S. viewed India “as integral” to Obama’s “pivot to the East” strategy. “From the conception of our new strategy, the United States has seen India as integral to a rebalance not just to the Asia-Pacific region, but also within the region,” he wrote. He went on to emphasise that defence relations between the two countries had been strengthened significantly. Keeping in view the UPA government’s sensitivities, the defence relations were kept “below the radar” by the U.S. side. It was after Carter took over as Deputy Defence Secretary that the U.S. sold sophisticated weaponry to India. In 2013, India was the largest single purchaser of U.S. arms. The U.S. Army has conducted more joint exercises with the Indian defence forces than with any other country. The 2008 nuclear deal was supposed to seal the India-U.S. strategic partnership. But irritants such as the “nuclear liability bill” and the “Khobragade” incident have soured the relations a bit. (Indian diplomat Devayani Khobragade was arrested by the U.S. police last year on charges of visa fraud.) Now Washington wants to make up for lost time. Even before Modi was formally sworn in, the U.S. expressed the hope that naval cooperation with India could be expanded. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, said in the third week of May that he would like India’s participation in joint exercises in the Western Pacific region, where, according to the Pentagon, the Chinese navy has become more assertive in recent years. China is already involved in an increasingly acrimonious territorial dispute with Vietnam in the South China Sea. There was a confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese naval ships in April after China installed a drilling rig in an area that is also claimed by Vietnam. India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has a stake in a gas field near the disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Vietnam is now closely coordinating its diplomatic moves with countries ranged against China. It wants India to supply sophisticated missiles and other military hardware to its military. China will be watching India’s diplomatic and strategic moves towards countries such as Vietnam and Japan. Obama, during his recent visit to Japan, pledged to come to Tokyo’s aid in case hostilities broke out with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Many commentators warn that there is a serious danger of an all-out war breaking out in Asia once again. The new Indian government must weigh its options carefully before taking sides.

Ideological soulmates

The Obama administration was quick to congratulate Modi on his victory and invite him to visit Washington. The U.S. had revoked Modi’s visa in 2005 for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The European Union (E.U.), too, had followed suit and denied Modi a visa. But many E.U. member-states mellowed towards Modi much before his election. The United Kingdom was among the first to do so. In many major West European countries such as France and the U.K., right-wing and Islamophobic parties are on the ascendant. British Prime Minister David Cameron, catering to right-wing sentiments, recently described Britain as a “Christian” country. Modi will find many ideological soulmates among leaders in Europe.

The UPA government, given India’s membership of BRICS (an association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and its close relations with Russia, had generally adopted a cautious stance on Syria and the crisis in Ukraine. Western governments and their regional allies were unhappy with the positions New Delhi had adopted on some other issues as well. There will be renewed pressure on the NDA government to support calls for military intervention in Syria. The Israeli media are claiming that Modi is the “best friend” the country has in the whole of South Asia. Israel has invested billions of dollars in the “model state” of Gujarat. Israeli commentators say that under Modi, ties between the two countries will deepen. India and Israel are already cooperating closely on counterterror and homeland security issues.

Brajesh Mishra, National Security Adviser during the NDA government led by A.B. Vajpayee, said in a speech delivered before an American Jewish audience in 2003 that he would like a Washington-Tel Aviv-New Delhi axis to “jointly face the ugly face of terrorism”. The NDA government had given the notorious Ariel Sharon a red carpet welcome in Delhi. Israel last year sold defence weapons worth more than $10 billion to India, outpacing even Russian military sales.

Washington would want New Delhi to side with the West in the looming new Cold War with Moscow. The crisis in Ukraine has already resulted in dramatic realignments. The sanctions and the war of words unleashed against Moscow have forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to reorient his foreign policy. He visited China in May to further strengthen defence and commercial links between the two countries. A historic natural gas deal, worth over $400 billion, was signed during the visit. Russia is all set to sell a squadron of Su-35 jet fighters to China. India holds an observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) but has not sought full membership. Russia and China want to build the SCO as a counterweight to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Both Moscow and Beijing have been feeling the heat from the West and are, therefore, busy formulating policies that would give them more room to manoeuvre. India, too, has to formulate policies that will help insulate it from the machinations of outside powers.

India’s relations with Iran will also be watched keenly. The previous government had fallen in line with the unilateral sanctions imposed by Washington. Companies such as Reliance, which had a booming business in the petrochemical sector with Iranian companies, had pulled out. Iran, which was once the biggest oil exporter to India, now lags behind Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Venezuela. China, on the other hand, despite the Western sanctions on Tehran, is doing great business with Iran, unmindful of the U.S.’ reaction.