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Modi’s likely Foreign Policy Priorities

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance scored a resounding victory in the 16th General Elections in India when results were declared on 16 May 2014 following pooling spread over nine phases that began on 7 April and ended on 12 May. In his campaign trail, the Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi electrified by successfully able to connect with the people by his proposal of good and honest governance and inclusive growth. The people of India saw Modi as a messiah who is capable of rooting out the deep-rooted corruption that had weakened the very fabric of the society and reposed faith in him that he would deliver economic growth and ensure equitable distribution. They rewarded by giving his party, the BJP, alone a majority so that Modi can govern the country resolutely. With the NDA’s victory, the era of coalition thus ended.

What does this victory mean to the future of the country’s economic and foreign policies? Can one see any similarities between Modi of India with Abe Shinzo of Japan? The trend of the past decade would suggest that India is positioned now in a similar way that Japan was in the 1960s, when the Income Doubling Plan architected by then Okita Saburo enabled Japan to leapfrog from a war-ravaged economy to the path of a modern and developed country. After Japanese economy slumped into depression for the past over two decades, known as “lost decades”, Abe is now steering the country’s economic revival by his three arrows, dubbed as “Abenomics”. In the past year and a half that Abe has been in power, he has been able to implement the first of the two arrows and strategising now to adopt the third arrow by introducing major structural reforms. The vast masses of India now eagerly wait what would be Modi’s inclusive economic growth strategy during the next five years. Analysts have already coined the word Modinomics to understand this and started comparing with Abenomics.


It would be interesting to examine how and in what way Abenomics and Modinomics coalesce given similar drives by both to resuscitate the economies of both the nations. Both the leaders’ immediate goals would be to bring the economies back on track and remove the malaise. Modi’s immediate task would be to eradicate the corruption that has crippled the system during the past few years to make governance effective. And, with his commitment, he would not be found wanting in doing his job honestly. Even in the wake of the huge mandate and even before assuming office, Modi showed extreme humility in dedicating the victory to the people and that he would only be a ‘mazdoor’ in the service of the nation. While carrying the burden of the 125 crore people on his shoulder to make their life happy, wealthy and safe, Modi carries with him his mother’s sane counsel of doing for the nation what he had already done for the state of Gujarat. Modi has demonstrated hope and the people of the country feel reassured that good time has come.

Given this background, Modi and Abe have a lot to share with each other in their efforts to make their countries’ prosper. Both have the quality of implementing their task with decisiveness. As Brahma Chellaney observes in a recent writing that while Abe’s return to power after six years of political instability reflects Japan’s determination to reinvent itself as a more competitive and confident country, Modi’s victory reflects Indians’ desire for a dynamic, assertive leader to help revitalise the country’s economy and security.

During his long tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi has dramatically changed the state’s economic fortune by engaging the corporate and facilitating them to establish projects in the state. The Gujarat model has emerged the talking point around the globe and now Modi could soon be seen as the darling of the corporate world. That would mean foreign investors flocking at India’s doors to establish shops and bring in the much needed funds to improve the country’s infrastructure, a requisite to foster economic growth. That would mean the end of red tape, corruption, scams, and promise of good governance, all of which cumulatively contribute to restore rapid economic growth for the country. The corporate world’s faith in Modi was demonstrated even before the final count of vote when the Sensex zoomed past 25,000-mark, first time in the country’s history. The rupee too appreciated vis-a-vis dollar bringing down to below 60-mark. These are propitious signs.

While Modi government is expected to pursue market-oriented economics, the Abe government is expected to closely engage with India economically, deeper than before. Modi is no stranger to Japan. Even while the predecessor Manmohan Singh government was pursuing the Look East policy first enunciated by then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, Modi was embroiled in a controversial role as the chief minister of Gujarat when more than 1,000 people, majority of who were Muslims, were killed in riots in 2002. The US closed its doors to Modi in 2005 and revoked his visa on the ground of his suspected complicity in the riots. Even after the highest court of the country found no evidence to link Modi to the violence, the US continued to ostracise him. It was only when pre-poll trends indicated Modi to be catapulted to power, US ambassador to India Nancy Powell sought an audience with Modi in mid-February, giving rise to speculation that the ban on visa to Modi will be lifted. Though Powell soon resigned and no link was ascribed to her meeting with Modi, the visa ban still remains at the time of this writing, though President Barack Obama was gracious enough to send a congratulatory message to Modi after the results were out and invited him to visit Washington at a mutually convenient time. It transpires therefore that the visa ban will be lifted anytime from now.

At this time when the US closed its door to Modi, he was upfront in economically engaging with Japan. He visited Japan in 2007. It was an icebreaker and opened new investment channels between business-friendly Gujarat and Japan. Modi visited Japan again in 2012 and forged a special relationship with Japan and built personal rapport with Abe. He made a telephone call to congratulate Abe when he returned to power in December 2012. Modi is likely to use these old ties to build and expand economic ties with Japan. Israel is another country, which had welcomed Modi when the US snubbed him and Modi is unlikely to forget this kind gesture.

By his forward-looking policies, Modi helped built a committed and culture of honesty in the bureaucracy and created an investor-friendly climate in Gujarat that helped attract significant Japanese investment into mega infrastructure projects. Suzuki, the Japanese auto-giant, is already setting up new plants and ancillary units in Gujarat. Modi facilitated private Japanese investment in Gujarat, expected to total $2 billion by 2015-16. In 2009, the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), a trade and investment agency under the Japanese government, partnered with Gujarat to organise the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit, a mini-Davos showcase event to attract foreign investment. Japan was designated “partner country” to the summit and represented by a senior delegation led by the Japanese ambassador. When Modi made an official visit to Japan in 2012, Japan broke protocol by according him a status befitting a cabinet minister of the union (a more highly ranked position than chief minister of a state). The former ambassador of Japan to India, Akitaka Saiki, and a well known face in India’s business circles for his soft spot towards the country, and presently Japan’s top diplomat in the rank of Vice Foreign Minister, coordinated the visit. Modi did not forget to call on Abe, though he was in the opposition. Therefore, the time is just opportune now for both Modi and Abe to consolidate and expand the bonhomie that both have already built between the two countries. Modi is no longer the chief minister of a state; he is the prime minister of the country now. Therefore, his commitment now is to uplift the well being of the entire population. He carried their expectations on his shoulders. The enormity of this dimension of his commitment is expected to inject a new drive to Modi’s dynamism to usher a new era in India-Japan friendship that is solid, robust, muscular and mutually complimentary. Having already lifted ban on weapons exports and revisiting Japan’s energy policy, thereby keeping nuclear energy as an option, Abe has already opened up new areas for potential cooperation between India and Japan. Abe is currently engaged in debating ways and means to reinterpret Article 9 of Japan’s pacifist constitution, thereby revising Japan’s policy of collective self-defence. This will also help expand India-Japan defence cooperation and also in the maritime security area. The long delayed pact on civil nuclear cooperation is also expected to be signed soon.


The question how Modi is likely to accommodate the US interests in the wake of deepening ties with Japan and other Asian countries friendly with India would remain unanswered for some time. Barring few sparks in Modi’s speeches during electioneering when he briefly touched upon foreign policy issues, the NDA is yet to come out clearly what would be the future foreign policy direction of the government. Yet, one can hazard few guesses. The likely approach of the Modi government towards Japan in the economic area, as discussed above, is easy to decipher. Given the nationalist stances of both Modi and Abe, and given the tensions arising in the region, one can expect a cooperative approach that would be muscular than before to address to the new situation in Asia. Asian values and Asian pride would be the prime drivers and both Modi and Abe are expected to foil the design of those who are trying to trample upon such richness and noble precepts. One is tempted to compare the likely emerging scenario with the one that existed in the first decade of the 20th century when Rabindranath Tagore of India and Okakura Tenshin of Japan deliberated on Asian identity and made the profound statement “Asia is One”. Taking China on board would help realise this objective. The question is, will China be willing?

Though the Manmohan Singh government sculpted a strategic partnership with the US and obtained the NSG waiver during the first term of the UPA government, his biggest achievement, nothing substantial was achieved during his second term, when he truly proved, what his media advisor Sanjay Baru observed in his book, of Manmohan Singh having admitted that he became an “accidental” prime minister. But during the closing days of the second term of the UPA, relations with the US soured over the diplomatic immunity issue when the US government arrested an Indian lady diplomat. India retaliated by withdrawing security cover to the US embassy and sought information on the salary of its employees if those are tax compliant as per Indian tax laws. The US continued to maintain the visa ban on Modi, now for almost a decade. The appeasement drive of Powell meeting Modi in Gandhinagar has not changed the situation. Though Obama sent a congratulatory message after Modi’s massive landslide victory and invited Modi to visit the US, a formal lifting of the ban is yet to be effected.

Under this circumstance, what could be the possible policy choices for Modi towards India’s ties with the US? Being committed to inclusive growth, creating jobs, improving investment climate, etc, Modi is likely to put Indo-US ties back on track and unlikely to hold the visa ban on him against the US. At the same time, Modi would not be expected to go out of his way to befriend the US by seeking a visit to the US or accepting one if offered so eagerly and quickly. The US can no longer ignore the leader of the largest democracy in the world who has received a massive mandate of the people to rule the country for the next five years.

Though Modi has not articulated his foreign policy goals clearly, like Abe, he is expected to reinvigorate India’s economic engagement with the rest of Asia, while at the same time strengthening defence and strategic partnerships with likeminded nations such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, among others. Such an approach could help promote regional stability and block China’s suspected expansionist design in Asia. Such an approach will also complement with Abe’s motto of reinventing a new Asia and an Asianess that is in congruence with democratic values and thus help create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships.

Some observers both inside and outside India see India’s foreign policy as weak and passive while China has surged in its foreign policy goals and risen in terms of international stature. A Foreign Policy article in 2013 lampooned India’s political leaders how they have resisted the country’s own rise by pursuing a feeble foreign policy, thereby turned the country into its own worst enemy. Now the people of India look at the charismatic Modi to give the country a new direction to foreign relations. Besides reaching out to Asia, the immediate task is to build bridge with its immediate neighbours such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. India ought to look at Bhutan with special care as its strategic location makes it attractive to Beijing to spread its influence. Both India and Japan have much to do together to wean Bhutan back from the Chinese influence by developing its energy sector and economy. In that sense, the task of the new mandarin-speaking ambassador-designate to Thimpu is clearly cut out. Since the Japanese ambassador to India holds concurrent charge for Bhutan, coordinating joint strategy towards Bhutan should be smooth.

Given the strengthening nexus between two nuclear-armed regional adversaries – China and Pakistan – Modi is expected to adopt an approach that is bold and aggressive compared to the meek and passive stance adopted by his predecessors. Modi is aware that China respects the strong and tries to subjugate the weak and this philosophy will motivate Modi to add muscle to India’s strength and talk tough with those who try to bully. While with China, Modi is likely to deepen economic ties, Beijing is unlikely to needle much in the foreign policy domain knowing well that Modi is different. A Modi-Abe friendship itself will be a deterrent to Beijing’s expansionist design.

A limping democracy in Pakistan still yields a good amount of space to the Army and intelligence services and therefore not truly democratic. This fact warrants a cautious approach towards Pakistan. With terror groups alive with potential nuisance in the making, the Modi government is expected to launch massive retaliation should Pakistan or terrorists originating from Pakistan dare launch another Mumbai-type attack. Modi can be sure of securing the support of all democratic nations of Asia should such a situation ever arise.

Though it is early time to firmly comment the likely foreign policy goal of the Modi government, it is abundantly clear that Indian politics and foreign policy are bound to see interesting churnings in the pursuit of its national aspirations. Being pro-growth and pro-development in principle, the Gujarat model of development is likely to be applied to the rest of country. As regards policy towards China, in one of his addresses during election campaign in Arunachal Pradesh, Modi sent a stern message to China “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and will always remain so”. He further asserted “no power can snatch it from us” and that “the people of Arunachal Pradesh did not come under pressure or fear of China”. He had added, “China should shed its expansionist policy and forge bilateral ties with India for peace, progress and prosperity of both the nations.”

Beijing, it seems, was not offended. In turn, the Global times published an article by a scholar suggesting that China’s relations with India will improve and it is the west which should worry, not China. The paper further said that Modi’s policy towards China shall be pragmatic and flexible in the economic areas. With South Korea, the economic content is likely to deepen. The POSCO project is likely to be put on fast track. But it is with Japan, the world will see a new dimension in relationship. Though China may be willing to make peace with a muscular India under Modi, the Modi government is not expected to be naïve to believe China in its face value. This means India’s engagement with China is not likely to be in the same wave length as that with Japan and South Korea in northeast Asia. Indeed, it is interesting time to watch how India-Japan relations will evolve with two strong leaders in both countries perceived to be nationalists and not afraid to pursue forward-looking policies appropriate to their national interests. India-Japan relations have evolved over the past two decades and assumed regional and global dimensions. There are institutional mechanisms that have enabled bilateral ties to grow on a fast pace both at economic and strategic levels. The time is opportune to take the bilateral ties to a higher trajectory under Abe and Modi. India invited Japan to take part in the India-US Malabar Naval exercise, to be held later in 2014. This is a more overt manifestation of the evolving strategic partnership. India may also soon become the first country since World War II to buy military aircraft from Japan in a $1.65 billion deal.

Since he took office in December 2012, Abe’s globetrotting diplomatic strategy has taken him abroad almost every month. Since then, Abe has already visited 37 countries, including India in January 2014, and has plans to travel to Singapore in late May 2014, as well as Belgium and Italy in early June. Because of territorial disputes and history issues, Abe has not been able to visit the two neighbouring countries, China and South Korea.

In early July, Abe will visit Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and later the same month he will travel to Central and South American countries such as Mexico and Brazil. If his visits in July pan out, Abe will have travelled to all five continents since becoming prime minister for the second time in December 2012.

In April, Abe hosted the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and will meet him once again. After Japan lifted ban on weapons exports in early April, Japan has already entered into trade deals in high tech defence technology with Australia. During the upcoming summit, the two leaders are expected to stress bilateral cooperation toward the stability of the Asia-Pacific region and officially sign the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA). Meeting multiple times in short durations will only help deepen understanding.

During his first term as Prime Minister in 2006-07, Abe had floated the idea of a quadrilateral security dialogue initiative between Australia, the US, Japan and India to secure peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, which China saw it as against it and vehemently protested. The idea was aborted before taking its birth. In view of China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Sea and territorial disputes with India, the time is opportune to revive the idea again. Though it would not be a front to contain China or check China’s rise, at least a message can be sent to Beijing that other powers are coming together to discuss its belligerent behaviour. It is hoped that among other things, Abe also discusses this issue with Abbott.

As regards the US, President Obama’s visit to the four Asian capitals in late April reinforced the US commitment and its rebalancing strategy. Japan secured the US commitment that the Senkaku Islands over which Japan has disputes with China is covered under Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty. Obama also signed a 10-year security pact with the Philippines allowing the US naval presence in the Philippines bases on rotational basis. Apart from the security ties with the US, Japan has security cooperation agreement with only India and Australia.

With its assertiveness and aggressive behaviour, China seems determined to rewrite global norms on its own terms, even if it means violating the UN-mandated rules. A belligerent China, if allowed to have its way, will be a menace to the peace and security of the world. It is therefore necessary that countries that share universal values such as democracy, rules of law, human rights, and global norms that define a country’s behaviour should come together to craft a common strategy that would help secure peace. As a part of annual summit meeting, Modi is expected to visit Japan later this year or early next. In fact, Japan could be Modi’s first trip abroad as Prime Minister and if that happens, the message would be loud and clear to the world that Modi and Abe mean serious business. This understanding should give momentum and action plans could be drawn for future strategy. It could be the right time to revive the quadrilateral idea too.

As is demonstrated from Abe’s forays to nearly 40 countries since assuming power, Abe is committed to add more eggs to Japan’s security basket by strengthening strategic cooperation with US allies and beyond the US-centric security framework. Abe has been pursuing with tacit US blessing to make Japan a ‘normal’ state as his attempts to rewrite the country’s constitution and revisiting the concept of collective self-defence indicate. Abe’s observation that his country’s ties with India hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world” resonates deep in the minds of Indian policy makers. Both Modi and Abe must take the bilateral relationships to a higher spectrum and reviving the quadrilateral idea may be one good start. This will also vault the strategic component of the bilateral relationships to a position of unprecedented height.

Abe has special affinity with India. During his visit to India in 2007, Abe addressed the Indian Parliament where he spoke of the Confluence of the two Seas. At that time Abe travelled to Kolkata and personally met and talked with the son of Radhabinod Pal, the Indian judge who stood up for the truth at the Tokyo show trials. Justice Pal is widely admired and respected even today by Japanese nationalists and has a monument dedicated to him at the Yasukuni shrine. He was the only judge at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East set up by the Allied Powers to try the war criminals during World War II who cast the only dissenting vote against punishing Japanese officials for war crimes, which included Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi. Perhaps this was one more reason for Abe’s pro-Indian stance because as early as 2007 he declared that “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India” which still resonates in the minds of Indian policymakers. In his 2007 book Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision For Japan, Abe had also written that it would “not be a surprise if in another decade, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-U.S. and Japan-China ties.”

Is China worried at Modi at the helm? According to a report published in The Hindu on 17 May 2014, Ananth Krishnan had an interesting discussion with Lan Jianxue, a strategic expert at the foreign ministry affiliated China Institute of International Studies and a former diplomat at the Chinese embassy in Delhi, which throws some interesting light on the Chinese perspective on India-China relations under the Modi dispensation. According to Lan, Beijing sees Modi as a business-friendly politician and that his government will now facilitate further Chinese investment in Indian projects and that the relationship will not suffer too many “curves”. Reacting on Modi’s remarks in Arunachal Pradesh describing China as “expansionist”, Lan observed that relations are now national interest-centric, not party-oriented, and that China is adept in dealing with “right-leaning” political entities. Exulting optimism, Lan expects Modi can “mark some achievement in history” like his predecessor Vajpayee did in the 1990s. Notwithstanding the Modi comment on “Chinese expansionism” in Arunachal Pradesh and his references to Chinese incursions in Ladakh (Depsang) in Hyderabad some time ago, he might try to reach out to China to engage with the country that has built an image of flexing its military muscle to terrorise others. But as a matured politician, will Modi still retain his anti-China bias stemmed from his personal memories of the 1962 war when he served tea and food to Indian soldiers in train who were part of the wartime mobilisation while crafting his China policy now as the Prime Minister? Modi is unlikely to carry such historical experiences to conduct current business with the second largest economy of the world. India needs Chinese investment to build its infrastructure and would like to benefit from Chinese participation in the manufacturing sector.

But it is also likely that both India and China would compete for influence in the ASEAN region, the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. The 1483-km long $90 billion Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the flagship infrastructure Indo-Japanese project, of which 38 per cent runs through Gujarat alone is likely to motivate Modi to prioritise it to give a new blueprint to India’s new economic profile. The DMIC project will also facilitate the involvement of China, Japan, South Korea and other Southeast Asian countries as stakeholders by getting involved as PPP partners. In the maritime domain, Modi is likely to strengthen ties with countries, besides Japan, such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Here the difference between Manmohan Singh and Modi would be that Modi will be his own man and not guided by another centre of power as was the case in UPA-II period. India-Japan ties are thus poised to see a new dawn in the coming years and with this will be a new resurgent Asia. The Modi narrative on India’s foreign and security/strategic domains are expected to be something different from that of his predecessors, including that of Jawaharlal Nehru. The much vaulted strategic autonomy quotient that imaged India’s foreign policy is likely to be re-defined under the Modi dispensation.

(The writer, Dr. Rajaram Panda is The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Chiba, JAPAN. E-mail:

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