By Ananya Pandey
Edited by Shambhavi Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
Since being sworn in as the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi has been quite overt in his foreign policy ambitions. The clear focus on South Asia was noticed and applauded by many. However, his first four foreign visits speak not only about his ‘neighbourhood first’ approach, but also signaled his outlook towards the present superpower of Asia: China.
The first two neighbour states that PM Modi visited are Bhutan and Nepal, respectively. Both Bhutan and Nepal are relatively small countries. However, they share another common feature that affects India, i.e. they share their borders with China. This makes them strategically very crucial for India. PM Narendra Modi had been quite vocal about his stand on China’s intrusions during his rallies. Modi, at a rally in Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh had asked China to shed its ‘expansionist mindset’. The resonance of this could be heard in his latest speech during his visit to Japan. “The world is divided in two camps. One camp believes in expansionist policies while the other believes in development,” Modi told a gathering of business leaders in Tokyo. “We have to decide whether the world should get caught in the grip of expansionist policies or should we lead it on the path of development and create opportunities that take it to greater heights.”
The recent Japan visit is Modi’s first foreign visit to a country, beyond his immediate neighbours. Apart from the obvious economic and technological interests in Japan, choosing it as one of the first visits cannot be a sheer coincidence. In his speech, he stated that if Asia is to lead the world, Japan and India must pursue the path of development. China’s long standing conflict with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and India’s tussle with China over Aksai Chin region provides a common ground for friendship between India and Japan.
Modi became the first Indian PM to visit Nepal for a bilateral meet, since IK Gujral in 1997. In recent years, China has gained influence in Nepal and does exercise some influence which is of threat to India. China has incessantly been trying to overpower India’s influence in Nepal, and has consistently been spreading Chinese language and culture, and has been trying to increase its dominance in Nepalese markets. During his visit, Modi offered Nepal US $1 billion in concessional loans to build power plants and roads. This has been seen as both an effort to make up for past neglect and a response to Kathmandu’s growing ties with China.
When we take the example of Bhutan, no previous Indian PM has ever chosen Bhutan as his or her first foreign trip. The China factor is a non negligible part of PM’s visit. Modi has shown keen interest in enhancing diplomatic relations with Bhutan, and open its embassy in Thimpu. Of course factors like India’s need of Bhutan hydro electricity are a more immediate and important reason to choose Bhutan as the first foreign visit; however so, we cannot completely rule out the strategic significance of Bhutan when it comes to China.
An apparent contrast to these three visits was Modi’s Brazil visit for the BRICS Summit. This summit marked the hope of cooperation between states that compete against each other otherwise. Modi’s meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the Summit also symbolizes India’s willingness to resolve the boundary question. Moreover, India wanted to host the much awaited BRICS bank, but it gave into China’s insistence on the location being Shanghai. However, in return for this support, India negotiated its heading of the bank for next 6 years.
So, we can see that Modi is definitely attempting to strike a balance between economic pragmatism and political symbolism. China has also been very shrewd and careful in its remarks on Modi. The state-run Global Times in an article mentioned that “Modi has been an old friend of China for many years. There has been an anti-China atmosphere among India’s public opinion since 1962. However, such a sentiment has been mitigated since Modi assumed office.”
At present, PM Modi’s actions seem to be quite appropriate as despising China is not an option for India, nor is maintaining the kind and dormant attitude which Manmohan Singh-led government was criticized for. It is too soon to give any lucid judgement regarding Modi’s future plans; however, these first 100 days do form a rough blueprint of India’s foreign policy for the coming years.
Ananya is a graduate of history from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. Her passion lies in history and politics. She will soon be pursuing her Masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is a true feminist at heart and loves reading about Marxism, though she never found herself inclined to any of the extremes ideologies. She is discovering herself each day and likes to extract the most out of every opportunity that comes her way.