Home / Opinion / Looking ahead: the next 365 days

By most accounts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has notched up a good year in the foreign policy realm, with Modi himself being the principal planner and implementer of the most significant initiatives. Even his most ardent political critics have acknowledged the energy and vigour he has displayed while globetrotting around capitals—mostly in Asia—and participating in various bilateral, regional and multilateral summits. Using a mix of hard and soft power, Modi has not shied away from openly airing differences (with China and the US) while also promoting Indian values of democracy and pluralism (evident in his frequent references to Buddhism, notably in Asian countries).

Modi’s foreign policy in the first year reflected two characteristics: first, deliberately engaging with leaders and countries (such as Bhutan, Nepal and Japan) that would lead to quick and positive results while avoiding entangling with countries and complicated issues (such as Pakistan or West Asia) where the outcome might be uncertain or detrimental. Perhaps the only exception was China, which involved a tightrope walk between investment opportunities and security threats. Sooner or later, India will have to deal with these challenges.

Second, under Modi, India has also indulged in what Bruce Jones, acting vice-president and director of foreign policy at Brookings Institution, aptly calls “great power speed-dating"; courting competing countries (such as Russia and the US) simultaneously. This diplomatic promiscuity, he says, may work for now but will be untenable as tensions grow between great powers. Perhaps sooner than later, India might be forced to take sides. Against this backdrop, the Modi government’s foreign policy over the next year will do well to focus on the following issues: first, prepare and present a “Modi Doctrine" through a consultative and collaborative process involving different government ministries, agencies and think tanks. The doctrine/white paper should provide an overall framework and link the various initiatives—“neighbourhood first", “act east", “link west", “sagar mala"—together and with the national priorities. Presently, the parts do not add up to the sum. As part of this overall framework, there is a need to sustain and deepen the initiatives already taken, particularly with the US. This would involve providing greater clarity and operationalizing the “Act East" policy and, perhaps, linking it with the US rebalance to Asia-Pacific. Here, the onus for deepening US-India relationship lies as much with the US as it does with India. The perception of the US as a reliable partner, despite differences, will be crucial.

Third, there is a need for bold initiatives and sustained engagement in three areas that have been neglected so far: West Asia, Africa and, inevitably, Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the announcement of the prime ministerial visit to Israel is significant, it will have to be balanced with a similar engagement with the Arab states (given its crucial energy resources and the large Indian diaspora there) as well as Iran. Similarly, Africa, which is crucial for resources and a potential market for Indian goods and services, requires attention at the highest level. Indeed, in many ways, Africa holds the key to India’s future economic growth and its role in global institutions, particularly the United Nations Security Council. While the postponed India-Africa summit (now scheduled for October) will be a good start, the initiative will have to be sustained in the coming years.

Fourth, India also needs to leverage the existing and emerging plurilateral and multilateral fora better by taking on more of a leadership role, as it has done in the BRICS New Development Bank. Similarly, hosting the long overdue India-Brazil-South Africa summit and bidding to host the G-20 summit soon will also lend credibility to its global role.

Finally, there is a need to expand the size of the foreign policy establishment, publish regular strategic vision statements, enhance centre-state cooperation, create an international diplomatic training forum, and re-energize the foreign policy planning process. While initial steps in some of these areas have been taken, they will have to be accelerated and strengthened in the coming year.

While this is a full agenda for a single year, it is also in line with the ambitions of India under the Modi government; anything less will not be enough.

W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. This article is drawn from a Brookings India essay series on the first anniversary of the Narendra Modi government.

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