Modi’s ‘balancer’ role backfiring?

Bharat Karnad / No Comments Share:
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (7th L, Middle) poses for a group photo with other leaders attending the 13th summit of the Group of 20 (G20) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nov. 30, 2018. Xinhua/Li Tao

The 2018 G20 Summit in Buenos Aires offered Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi another international occasion to bolster his political standing at home. But while domestic audiences lapped up the Indian media coverage of his umpteenth such outing, in the world of global power politics the Indian Prime Minister lacks any real influence or standing.

So Mr Modi followed the same strategy that he has in similar circumstances in the past – trying to make India relevant by inserting the country into clashing coalitions.

Mr Modi met with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in a threesome to ballyhoo the prospects of the Russia–India–China group, only to turn around and join Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe in extolling the strategic virtues of Japan–America–India. By not clearly indicating which side of the authoritarian–democratic divide India sits on, Mr Modi hopes to firm up India’s standing as the ‘balancer’ in the global correlation of forces. This would be fine if the country was up to the great power game – but it is not.

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Unlike other big powers, India is not adept at realpolitik requiring agile foreign policy. Nor does the country have military clout with distant reach. Why has India, with its size, strategic location and resources, failed to have global impact?

India cannot become great only because of its natural attributes. It requires a leader with a powerful national vision, iron political will and the ruthlessness to disrupt the extant balance of power.

There was once hope, now belied, that Mr Modi would be such a leader. Mr Modi has neither articulated a new vision nor charted a new course. Instead, he has doubled down on the retrograde policy of bandwagoning with the United States to ‘balance’ China in the Indo-Pacific region, while distancing India from old friends such as Russia and Iran.

The Modi government gives away what could be sold dearly, finding in turn that it cannot wring concessions out of anybody. In signing both the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, for instance, New Delhi lost the leverage over Washington that it once accrued from permitting contingent access to Indian bases. India has also permitted unbalanced trade with China and finds that it cannot easily reverse this trend.

Mr Modi regularly pursues a common cause with Washington to the detriment of India’s own interests. New Delhi has applied pressure on Tehran by both reducing India’s off-take of Iranian oil by a third and expensively retrofitting Indian refineries to handle Saudi crude. Mr Modi has also alienated Russia by facilitating US attempts to replace the former as India’s principal arms supplier, even though the US technology on offer is dated. The US promise of collaboration on advanced military technology has also produced nothing.

Now India is facing the music for Mr Modi’s gullibility. Washington has allowed New Delhi only a 138-day reprieve on sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to zero out its oil purchases from Iran. Similarly, Washington has offered only a conditional waiver for India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system.

Finally, disregarding Mr Modi’s fevered pleadings, Mr Trump shut down the H1B visa channel for Indian tech employees to work in the United States – a move that seriously hurt India’s $200 billion IT industry.

Mr Modi seems unaware of the geostrategic costs of surrendering India’s foreign policy space, freedom and flexibility.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has declared without a trace of irony that ‘there’s no contradiction between strategic autonomy and strategic partnership’. Mr Modi appears little concerned that his overly friendly attitude to the United States could lose India its access to the Iranian port of Chabahar, for example. Also endangered are larger strategic plans to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative by consolidating India’s rail and road connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia, to pincer the Pakistan and Chinese navies operating out of Gwadar, and general concerns to hinder the enlargement of China’s military footprint in the Indian Ocean.

The truth is the Indian government has not walked Mr Modi’s big talk. India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy can’t get over the Pakistan hump. Its ‘Act East’ policy is limping along.

The build-up of military cooperation with Southeast Asian states, especially Vietnam, is slow-paced and lackadaisical. Security links with Japan are in the doldrums despite Mr Modi’s annual summits with Mr Abe. Notably, the Indian defence bureaucracy has sidelined a flagship project – which Japan is willing to subsidise – involving transfer of the ShinMaywa US-2 flying boat’s entire production line to India. Elsewhere, the development assistance that Mr Modi has promised Central Asian states is floundering for want of an efficient delivery system.

All these disappointments take place while China is racing ahead to cement its domination of Asia. The odd ‘success’, such as Indonesia handing over Sabang port in Sumatra for eventual Indian naval use, highlights a receptive milieu should India care to capitalise on its opportunities.

Bharat Karnad is Research Professor for National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He is author of Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition and blogs at SecurityWise. This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

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