With Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the United States (US), it has been a busy period for Indian foreign policy. It has also been revealing, for various strands of India’s international outlook, its strategic and economic priorities, its key relationships, and its message to the world have emerged over this period.
To get a comprehensive sense of how India sees the world, it is useful to pick out and closely observe the following: The PM’s Houston speech, delivered in the presence of US President Donald Trump and a 50,000-strong Indian-American audience; the PM’s speech at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly; his address to investors at the Bloomberg Summit; external affairs minister (EAM) S Jaishankar’s conversations with former diplomat, Frank Wisner, at the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) and with former Australian PM Kevin Rudd at Asia Society; and the Twitter timeline of both Modi and Jaishankar, showcasing their multiple engagements. Put together, they illustrate five key strands of how India is approaching the global order, great powers, and its own region.
The first message that clearly emerges is how focused India is on connecting its own development story with its foreign policy goals. India’s achievements in the realm of social services, or the “ease of living” as Modi puts it, found mention in several public interventions. From gas connections to sanitation, the effort was to showcase an India that is committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This was coupled with a strong emphasis on portraying India as an open, modern economy, which welcomes investment and engagement with the global economic order. The fact that corporate taxes were cut right before the visit – and then found mention in both the PM and EAM’s remarks – is perhaps not a coincidence. The message to the world is simple. India is on a strong development trajectory, committed to both growth and equity, to capital and the working poor, and any assistance that the international system can provide in achieving these goals would be welcome. It is also a responsible actor doing more than its bit on global issues like climate change.
The second strand is the relationship with the US. The bilateral component of the visit was important, for Modi was keen to dispel the sense that there was a drift in ties and the two countries were growing apart strategically. The US is India’s indispensable partner in the quest to grow. It remains a source of capital, a source of technology, a key trading partner – notwithstanding current differences, and a source of strategic support on counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing – notwithstanding Trump’s forays into offering mediation on Kashmir. By leveraging the power of the Indian-American community, and deploying the structural strengths of the relationship, India was keen to tell the US – and the rest of the world – that the relationship was on track. Washington happily reciprocated.
The third strand flows from the second. While committed to deepening ties with the US, India recognises that the international order is in flux. As Jaishankar put it at the CFR, the US is reorienting itself and becoming more nationalist; China is rising; there is a churn in continental Europe; the Gulf is volatile; there is uncertainty about the role Japan will assume; and there is a “return of history” in Russia. There is also increasing tension among bigger powers. For a country like India, the choice then is not zero-sum. Delhi has decided to deepen its policy of multi-alignment. That is why, within a short span, India held a meeting of Quad foreign ministers (a grouping that includes US, Japan and Australia – and is seen as a signal to China); BRICS (which includes Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa – and is seen as a signal to the global north); IBSA (which includes Brazil and South Africa – and is meant to signal the unity of developing countries which share democracy in common); and the G-4 (which includes Japan, Germany and Brazil and is a group committed to UN Security Council reform – a signal to both China and entrenched members of the international order who benefited from the post-1945 apparatus). As the EAM explained, the idea was to keep relations well-oiled with all major powers. “The country which does that best will have a political positioning in the world superior to its structural strengths.”
Flowing from this is the fourth key strand. Engagement with China will continue. There will be an effort to deepen convergence in areas like trade (but on more favourable and equitable terms), reforming international economic institutions, and climate change. At the same time, the competitive element in the relationship cannot be glossed over. The unsaid element in India’s engagements in the US was Delhi’s attempt to build leverage, multiple partnerships, and an insurance policy, to be in a position to manage China’s rise and ensure its ambitions do not translate into belligerence. This is a key strategic driver of the bonhomie with Washington; the elevation of the Quad from an official-level deliberation to that of a ministerial one was a step in this direction; and so was the repeated reference to India’s role as a democracy committed to pluralism and diversity.
And the fifth strand, which occupied predominant media attention, was Pakistan. India’s objective was clear – make a coherent case for the constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir, portray it as an internal development, ensure that no international actor went along with Pakistan in critiquing India on its handling of the situation in the Valley, and instead, turn the discourse around to reiterate how the root of the problem was terrorism from Pakistan. India did have to hear concerns about the human rights situation in the Valley, but Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s own admission that he was “disappointed” with the international community’s response must have cheered Indian diplomats.
This, then, will be the underlying approach in the coming weeks and months. India will focus on its domestic economic goals; it will remain committed to its ties with US; it will expand and deepen relations with all major powers, including those the US has differences with; it will work with China but also build checks to stem its aggression; and it will counter Pakistan, but not make it a central focus of its worldview.