If US President Donald Trump believes he owes his success to always thinking big, Prime Minister Narendra Modi does it by thinking even bigger. When Trump, who represents the world’s most powerful democracy, and Modi, who heads its most populous one, hugged each other at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad at a public event telecast live, the roar of the 130,000 people assembled there was heard not just in India, but also in the US and across the world. The meticulously choreographed welcome organised for Trump on his first state visit to India sent out a message that reams of official joint statements would never have been able to convey as effectively that India and the US had firmly cemented what they now termed as a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.
The positive outcome of Trump’s two-day official visit was, in many ways, a triumph of Modi’s unique, highly personalised style of diplomacy and the pragmatic and decisive foreign policy he has advocated to secure India’s position as the standard-bearer of the South, as foreign minister S. Jaishankar put it. Modi has honed that quest into an art form since he became prime minister in 2014 and continues to do so in his second term. Trump not only acknowledged Modi as an exceptional and terrific leader and a true friend, but also said that India is going to be a tremendous player it already is now. You can play an important leadership role in shaping a better future as you take on greater responsibility for solving problems and promoting peace throughout this incredible region.
Dealing with Trump remains India’s toughest ask and, as the trip showed, Modi navigated the India-US relationship well. In office since January 2017, Trump has proven to be the world’s Disruptor-in-Chief, shaking the foundations of America’s transatlantic and transpacific partnerships, showing scant respect for global institutions and agreements, downsizing the US’s role as the world’s policeman to the discomfort of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and waging a trade war against China. World leaders, including those from India, have struggled to deal with the mercurial American president, whose behaviour is unpredictable, whose style of leadership is blunt, bullying and boastful, whose single-minded focus is to correct what he thinks are historical trade imbalances and who has a fetish for always coming out the winner.
Prime Minister Modi has set a blistering pace in his foreign policy initiatives
With India, Trump has blown hot and cold. At their first bilateral meet in the White House in June 2017, he greeted Modi with warmth and respect. Soon after, however, he took India to task for its trade imbalances with the US, calling it the tariff king of the world. This, despite India’s trade imbalance with the US being only $30 billion then as compared to the mammoth $400 billion deficit with China that America was fighting to bring down. This led to a peculiar duality in Indo-US relations. While the two countries grew strategically closer on issues of defence and security, the barriers on the trade front began to strengthen. To Modi’s credit, he refused to be intimidated by Trump’s fulminations against India’s trade policy and stood his ground, something the US president acknowledged in his speech in Ahmedabad. Everybody loves him, he said, but I will tell you this: he is very tough. When Trump raised tariffs on steel and aluminium goods imported from India and withdrew India’s preferential trade status under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) that permitted duty-free imports of 3,000 goods of Indian manufacturers in June 2019, Modi retaliated by raising tariffs on 28 categories of goods that the US was exporting.
Meanwhile, Trump’s radical worldview unleashed a profound transformation in the structure of the existing international order. India, along with others, was confronted with what Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran call in the title of their new book, The New World Disorder’. Globalisation went into retreat as did the liberal world order, and a muscular and insular form of nationalism began to see a dramatic resurgence. Trump not only undermined the institutional frameworks of the existing world order, including the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, he also preferred to act unilaterally on major issues, much to the angst of Europe, Japan and other US allies. Trump’s actions saw tensions rise in Iran and North Korea. Europe was busy grappling with the fallout of Brexit. The muscular rise of China under Xi Jinping, the return of the Russian empire under Vladimir Putin, the revival of Japan under Shinzo Abe, the belligerence of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, not to mention alpha leaders in other countries, set up other opportunities and challenges for India. Closer home, there was clear assertion of the military establishment over the civilian government in Pakistan, characterised by the complete rout of Nawaz Sharif.
It was in this turbulent world that Modi, aided by Jaishankar, who was then his foreign secretary, made a hard-headed assessment of the geopolitical situation which had gradually been moving from a unipolar world dominated by the US to a multipolar one. Modi leveraged the enormous heft India’s rapid economic growth and the vast markets it provided along with the political stability his victory promised to build meaningful relations with a range of countries. Instead of abstaining on key international issues, India, he decided, would use its seat at the high table to shape events and, at times, even cast the deciding vote. If the new order was indeed to be multipolar, it needed to have India as one of the power centres. To do so, Modi was willing to bat on the front foot, and help India expand its space, options and stature on the international stage. Insead of being only non-aligned, India chose to be multi-aligned in the altered international landscape. The policy may have been a departure from the Nehruvian era but the zest with which India began engaging was reminiscent of that time.
So even while Modi supped with old friend Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in September 2019, within weeks, he was rubbing shoulders with Trump as they addressed a packed Howdy Modi’ rally of Indian-Americans at Houston in Texas. He followed it by hosting Chinese president Xi Jinping at the beachside resort of Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu despite serious differences between the two countries. Simultaneously, India became an active participant in an alphabet soup of international trade groupings, including the Association of South East Asian Nations or ASEAN ( Modi persuaded all its 10 leaders to come for the Republic Day parade in 2018); Russia-India-China or RIC; Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS); the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO); Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, who form the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC; and the newly formed Quadrilateral Initiative (QUAD) comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US. All of them required India to play the circus juggler, adroitly managing many balls in the air.
Even so, India was acutely aware that with the rise of China, maintaining good relations with the US was imperative. When differences over trade threatened to scupper relations with Trump, Modi and his foreign affairs team began to work on two fronts to woo him back. In a major move, Modi appointed Jaishankar, whom he admired for his expertise and whom he trusted implicitly, as his foreign minister after he was re-elected prime minister in May 2019. Together, they worked on reiterating to Trump and his administration that despite their differences on the trade front, convergences on key world issues were extraordinarily important. The relationship was also key to dealing with China. The multi-billion dollar manifestation of Xi’s vaulting ambition, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a vast network of infrastructure projects, would ensure China’s sphere of influence extended deep into the Indian Ocean Rim countries, to Central Asia and Europe as well as the Pacific nations.
To act as a countervailing force against an expansive China, the US, Japan, Australia and India formed the Quad. It was significant that the joint statement released after the Trump-Modi bilateral meet in June 2017 noted that India was seen as central to peace and stability in the region’. Without mentioning China by name, it also reiterated that the two countries remained committed to the freedom of navigation and international law (read South China Sea and its islands) and transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices (a clear reference to the debt trap many needy countries have fallen into by taking loans from the Chinese government to build infrastructure projects). The US then persuaded India to upgrade the Quad talks to foreign minister-level in September 2019.
Meanwhile, in a strategic restructuring of its armed forces command structure, the US renamed its US Pacific Command the US Indo-Pacific Command and enlarged its territorial jurisdiction not just from Hollywood to Bollywood but also to Indian Ocean Rim countries on the eastern shores of Africa. India had by then emerged as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region, deploying its naval vessels to check piracy and contributing to keeping the vital sea trade links free and peaceful, apart from being involved in rescue operations.
To deepen ties, the US included India in its Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) category that permitted selling it hi-tech military and civilian equipment. India also signed the foundation agreements involving logistics and communications and is close to signing the final foundational military pact, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), involving sharing of accurate satellite maps. On Trump’s current visit, the US agreed to sell India 24 advanced naval helicopters for $2.6 billion which will enhance maritime security capabilities, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, defence sales between India and the US, unimaginable two decades ago, have ballooned to $21 billion in the past 10 years, making America one of India’s largest suppliers of defence equipment.
On the vexatious issue of trade, the two sides had been deadlocked for years. While US negotiators felt that India was unwilling to make any meaningful concessions, the Indians complained that the Americans kept shifting the goal posts every time they came close to an agreement, asking for more. Just prior to the Trump visit, negotiations were raised to a ministerial level, with commerce minister Piyush Goyal directly dealing with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. With differences broadly over market access and tariffs, the two reached a mini-deal, but Trump put off the negotiations and pushed for a bigger deal, possibly a Free Trade Agreement, between the two countries. In a positive development, just before he boarded Air Force One to return to the US, Trump agreed that the two sides could announce a Phase 1 trade deal in a couple of weeks while working on a larger deal later.
Overall, Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and an expert on Indo-US relations, thinks that Modi has handled Trump well. You are dealing with a president who has no compunctions about training his guns on friends and allies and so everyone is looking for strategies to disarm him. Making him feel good is the first line of defence. Prime Minister Modi has played this immaculately from the beginning. Even when there was quite a bit of resistance to Trump from the elite in India, Modi went out of his way to befriend and engage him. You have to give the prime minister credit for that, as it has really paid off. On the outcome of Trump’s visit, Jaishankar told INDIA TODAY, We are seeing the India-American relationship develop and mature and getting deeper. (See accompanying interview.)
However, even as it upped its friendship with the US, India made it a point to maintain a modicum of stability in its relations with China. India, Jaishankar points out, has an extraordinarily complex relationship with China, given the boundary dispute, the trade imbalances in Beijing’s favour and its relationship with Pakistan. Firstly, he says, let’s recognise that these are not issues that are amenable to easy and ready solutions. And the second issue is whether or not you want to deal more intensely and open-mindedly with China. Modi and his team surmised early that it would be best to engage in high level communication with China so that troublesome issues could be discussed with candour and directness. That saw frequent informal summits with Modi and Xi. T.C.A. Raghavan, currently the director-general of the Indian Council of World Affairs, a former high commissioner to Pakistan and a foreign policy expert, acknowledges that the process Modi has built to deal with the top-level is rare in India-China relations. China usually preferred to deal with India at the prime minister-to-prime minister level, but to have direct diplomacy between the two principals is seen by experts as a healthy development.
But China’s BRI poses a serious threat to India’s influence in the neighbourhood. As part of the BRI, China is investing $26 billion to develop a China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that cuts through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) and threatens to alter the status quo in sensitive border areas. Emboldened by China’s support and US dependence on it to enable a settlement in Afghanistan for Trump to pull out his troops, Pakistan stepped up its cross-border terrorist support for Kashmir that saw a spate of terrorist attacks, including in Uri and Pulwama.
Modi, who had initially made efforts to build a relationship with Nawaz Sharif, decided to act decisively. After the Uri attack in September 2016, Modi ordered the Indian Army to strike at terror camps across the LoC. After the Pulwama attack in February 2019, he authorised the Indian Air Force to strike at a terrorist camp in Balakot, inside Pakistan territory. In doing so, he signalled that India would not be constrained by threats of a nuclear escalation. As Raghavan says, In strategic terms, the strikes added an element of unpredictability to India’s actions when it came to responding to terrorist attacks from across the border. [It sent the message] that we are not going to be totally restrained. Yes, there is a risk of escalation, but there is also the fact that you can be unpredictable and unexpected in your response. That is a good thing where Pakistan is concerned.
To curb Pakistan’s influence in the Islamic street, Modi adopted what he termed a Think West’ approach. It was essentially entering into strategic relationships with key countries in the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Modi visited these countries and worked hard to develop a personal rapport with their leaders. That paid off when his government decided to end the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir and withdraw its special status under Article 370 in August 2019. While Pakistan cried foul, it found it hard to get the Gulf countries to condemn India’s actions and failed in its attempts to get the UN Security Council to intervene as the US and France blocked any effort by China to raise it formally at the forum.
However, China’s rising investments in projects in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh remain a worry. Unable to match China’s deep pockets, India has focused on projects that will help build connectivity in these countries. Since 2014, 142 projects have been commissioned and 52 completed. These range from upgrading the Colombo-Matara highway in Sri Lanka to restoring four of the six pre-1965 cross-border rail links with Bangladesh and providing six cross border rail links in Nepal. Elsewhere, in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, India has commissioned a total of 112 projects, including the Mahatma Gandhi International Convention Centre in Niger in 2019, which Jaishankar inaugurated recently.
But even as India does well in its recent foreign policy initiatives, the prolonged slowdown of its economy and its inability to enter export-boosting trade agreements are pulling it down. And while we may have had very good reason to not sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in East Asia, India needs to figure out how to enhance trade relations and not fall back on protectionism, raising tariff barriers and becoming economically insular. Besides, the Modi government has to battle the negative publicity over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The riots in some parts of the national capital, while the US president was visiting the country, did India’s image no good. As Tellis puts it, “There were two foundations that made India attractive. One was that India was an over performer economically and therefore had material capabilities which were valuable to the Asian balance of power. The second foundation was that India is a liberal democracy and thus like us-making us natural allies. Unfortunately, both foundations have gotten eroded in the last few years. The Indian economic slowdown is raising questions about whether India will actually have the material capability to play the role that Americans imagine for it apart from a perceived slow erosion of liberalism in India.” These, then, would be the major foreign policy challenges before Team Modi for 2020 and beyond.