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Stepping Up Neighborly Relations
Indian PM Modi's foreign policy gives equal importance to both major powers and neighboring countries
By Wang Shida | NO. 24 JUNE 16, 2016

Visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at Istana, official residence of president of Singapore, to attend a welcome ceremony on November 24, 2015 (XINHUA)

It has been two years since Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister of India and subsequently formed a government of a strength rarely seen in India over the past several decades. Great expectations settled on this new administration, and people around the world wondered which direction the populous, emerging nation would take under Modi's leadership.

Modi has been busily engaged in diplomatic efforts, the frequency of which peaked in 2015. Last year, he visited 28 countries and welcomed state leaders from 12 countries, including the United States, Germany, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bhutan.

Overall, Modi's foreign policy can be seen as concurrently acting east and linking west, attaching equal importance to both major powers and neighboring states.

A new strategy 

To shape ties with the Asia-Pacific region, the Indian Government adopted a policy of Look East in the 1990s, from when the policy has undergone two phases, each with a different focus.

Initially, the policy focused mainly on expanding India's economy with capital, markets, and technologies from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in an effort to offset loss of support from the former Soviet Union following its dissolution in 1991.

Subsequently, the policy was enriched and expanded. It evolved from purely economic cooperation to strategic cooperation involving military and geopolitical as well as economic affairs. The cooperation also grew to include not just ASEAN member states, but countries from the entire Asia-Pacific region, such as Mongolia and South Korea.

Since coming to power, Modi has invested particular effort in the Asia-Pacific region, officially upgrading the previous administration's Look East policy to a strategy of Act East. A series of proactive diplomatic efforts has been undertaken accordingly.

In May 2015, Modi paid a state visit to Mongolia, during which the two governments announced the establishment of a strategic partnership and Modi acknowledged Mongolia's pivotal role in India's Act East policy.

In the same month, Modi visited South Korea, where the leaders of the two nations agreed to elevate their relationship to a "special strategic partnership" and to strengthen bilateral cooperation in a broad range of fields including foreign affairs, national defense, trade and investment, science and technology, and cultural and personnel exchanges.

In November, 2015, during a visit to Malaysia and Singapore, Modi expressed his intention to remain close to Southeast Asia by means of the Act East policy.

Furthermore, in 2015, India hosted the Second Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation. During the summit, the prime minister pledged to intensify aid to South Pacific island nations, to build information technology laboratories in each Pacific island state, and to enhance maritime security cooperation. He also announced that an international conference on Ocean Economy and Pacific Island Countries would take place this year. These measures constitute a crucial step in Modi's Act East policy and his attempt to enhance cooperation with South Pacific island nations.

On December 11, 2015, Modi received his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe in New Delhi. During Abe's state visit, the two leaders agreed to elevate their "special strategic and global partnership" to a "deep, broad-based and action-oriented partnership."

While underscoring its Act East strategy, the Modi administration is also advancing a Link West policy, with an emphasis on Central Asia and nations around the Indian Ocean rim.

On March 10-14, 2015, Modi visited Mauritius and the Seychelles. During the trip, several agreements and memorandums were signed with the aims of promoting defense cooperation, creating security architecture for the Indian Ocean, and strengthening information sharing. India is apparently upgrading its efforts to enhance surveillance over the Indian Ocean with the ambition of becoming the region's "security provider" in the future.

Modi's tour to the five Central Asian states—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—on July 6-13 last year also marked an important stage in the Link West policy's implementation. With Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan respectively, Modi reached an energy agreement and a deal on the supply of natural uranium. He also pledged to strengthen cooperation with the five countries in military affairs and anti-terrorism efforts.

India has also declared the stepping up of its cooperation with African countries. At the Third India-Africa Forum Summit, which took place in New Delhi in October 2015, the Indian Government announced concessional credit worth $10 billion for Africa over the coming five years and promised assistance of $600 million in areas such as public transportation and agricultural science and technology. Capital and training will be provided to combat terrorism and extremism on the continent, and some 50,000 scholarships for African students will be made available.

Balancing art 

In the past two years, Modi has paid equal attention to India's relationships with both major powers and its neighbors.

Modi said in his election campaign that he would prioritize neighboring countries in India's foreign policy, and the then newly elected prime minister invited state leaders from every South Asian country to his inauguration ceremony in May 2014.

India's relationship with Sri Lanka has substantially improved since the island nation's President Maithripala Sirisena took office in January 2015, and the signing of the historic Land Boundary Agreement during Modi's visit to Bangladesh in June 2015 has helped resolve the long-standing enclave issues between the two countries.

Last December, Modi inaugurated Afghanistan's new parliament building in Kabul. And, in the same month, he met his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, during a surprise trip to the city of Lahore. The visit, the first by an Indian prime minister to Pakistan in 12 years, has raised high hopes on both sides for peace between the two estranged neighbors.

The Modi administration has been actively interacting with major powers.

In January last year, U.S. President Barack Obama embarked on a landmark visit to India. Obama and Modi agreed on the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, which states that "From Africa to East Asia, we will build on our partnership to support sustainable, inclusive development and increased regional connectivity by collaborating with other interested partners to address poverty and support broad-based prosperity."

Modi is also enhancing India's ties with Russia, highlighting bilateral cooperation in energy supplies and the military industrial sector.

India's ties with China have also entered the fast lane following Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to India in 2014 and Modi's trip to China last year.

The road ahead 

Modi's foreign policy serves multiple purposes: improving India's international status, attracting capital and investment, and driving the domestic economy through multilateral cooperation. Foreign investment and technology have helped India gain more markets, thus pushing forward domestic economic reforms and facilitating the realization of ambitious government programs, including Made in India, Digital India, Smart Cities, and Clean Ganga.

In spite of the favorable international environment the prime minister helped create, the Modi administration, however, has yet to overcome domestic barriers and implement reforms in areas such as land acquisition, labor, environmental protection, and taxation. Presently, reforms are typically thwarted by India's upper house of parliament, where Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party fails to dominate. Whether breakthroughs happen or not will depend on the reshuffling of parliamentary seats in future rounds of local elections. Whatever the consequences of India's invigorated foreign policy, then, the journey ahead is destined to be a long haul.

The author is a fellow researcher with the Institute of South and Southeast Asian Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations 

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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