The “Modi Doctrine” and the Future of China-india Relations

China International Studies (English) - - Contents - Rong Ying

Pursuing an “India First” mantra, the “Modi Doctrine” has achieved much progress in the diplomatic field, but challenges old and new remain. To fulfill their respective aspirations of national rejuvenation, China and India should take a positive view of each other’s development, further expand areas of cooperation, and properly manage differences and competition.

In May 2014, the Modi administration took office in India. Over the past three years and more, India’s diplomacy has been vibrant and assertive, and has formed a distinctive and unique “Modi Doctrine,”1 a strategy for the rise of India as a great power in the new situation. Fully understanding the characteristics and trends of the “Modi Doctrine” will be of great practical significance in maintaining the healthy and stable development in China-india relations in the long run.

The “Modi Doctrine” Contributes to India’s Rise

The “Modi Doctrine” has inherited and further developed a major power diplomatic strategy for India since the end of the Cold War. It also reflects Modi’s personal political philosophy and style of administration with the following contents and characteristics:

Exhibiting authority and offering benefits in the neighborhood

Relations between India and its neighboring countries in South Asia

have always been the focus of India’s diplomacy. From the “Gujral Doctrine” to the peaceful diplomacy between India and Pakistan proposed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, all previous Indian governments have regarded the South Asian region as their diplomatic priority. After taking office, the leaders of all neighboring countries in South Asia were the first to be invited by the new prime minister to attend his inauguration ceremony, and the first country he visited as Prime Minister was Bhutan, the smallest country in South Asia, again highlighting his policy of giving priority to the development of relations with neighboring countries in South Asia. In the past, India and Bangladesh relations have experienced continual discord as a result of disputes over enclaves. Modi finally resolved the situation through the joint efforts of both parties after he took power, thereby eliminating a major obstacle that has affected the relations between the two countries for several decades.2 While continuing to provide massive assistance to Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Afghanistan, the Modi government pays more attention to its control over them. If these countries do not heed the will of India, India will not hesitate to inflict heavy penalties on them. In 2015, India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal because of constitutional issues. In order to exert pressure on Pakistan, the Modi government was not averse to crossing the border to attack the base of the anti-indian organization in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.3

The starting point of Modi’s South Asia diplomacy is to increase its control over small and medium-sized neighbors and to impede the presence or growing influence in the region of other forces outside South Asia. South Asia policy under the “Modi Doctrine” focuses on tightening the interest bond between India and neighboring countries, and better serving India’s economic and social development strategy by promoting regional and sub-regional connectivity. In recent years, India has accelerated

cooperation mechanisms such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Cooperation and the “Bhutan-bangladesh-india-nepal Connectivity Cooperation,” with a view toward forging an India-led regional and subregional cooperation framework. The concept and practice of the “Modi Doctrine” reflected in South Asia diplomacy, when compared to previous administrations, has highlighted both its own authority as well as the benefits it can provide to its neighbors, and is more concerned about its dominance in South Asia.

Strengthening common interests in the larger periphery

Since its launch of the Look East policy in 1992, India has expended much talk but little action, and in its relations with its ASEAN partners, India has failed to play a major role. After taking office in 2014, Modi proposed the strategy of Act East, emphasizing practical actions to enhance relations with ASEAN. After that, high-level exchanges between India and the ASEAN countries have been frequent, and India continues to voice its opinion on issues of concern to ASEAN. According to Indian media, India has identified ASEAN as the guest of honor during the 2018 “Republican Day” celebration. The ten leaders of ASEAN members will be invited to attend the celebrations and to visit India.4 One of the priorities of India’s Act East is infrastructure connectivity, that is, accelerating the construction of transport corridors connecting the east and west, promoting road construction in the northeastern region, and removing the “bottlenecks” hindering connectivity within ASEAN. With the aid of Japan and other countries, the Indian section of the “Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport (KMMTT)” linking Calcutta of India to the Sittwe Port of Myanmar has been fully launched. The India-myanmar-thailand highway project has been advanced at a faster pace.

After Modi took office, India’s neighborhood strategy has accelerated markedly. He emphasized that India’s interest should no longer be confined

to the South Asian subcontinent, but should be extended to a vast area from the Gulf of Aden to Malacca. India’s “Neighborhood First” strategy has quickly pushed the country westward to the Middle East and Africa.5 For over three years, Modi has not only visited major countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Iran, but he has also become India’s first Prime Minister to visit Israel. India has also opened up strategic channels to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and tightened its political and economic relations with the Gulf countries in the Middle East via Iran. It is true that his proactive moves in the Middle East are also aimed at isolating Pakistan diplomatically, but more importantly, Modi seeks to better safeguard India’s strategic interests such as energy security in the Gulf region, thus serving the long-term need for the country to be a great power.6

Taking initiative to become an Indo-pacific leading force

After taking office, the Modi government has attached great importance to the affairs in the Indian Ocean region, accelerated its promotion of an Indian Ocean strategy, and proposed the five-pronged strategy on the Indian Ocean. India proclaims itself to be the “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean region. It focuses its efforts on strengthening maritime security cooperation with small and medium-sized Indian Ocean countries including Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Their cooperation includes building an Indian Ocean coastal radar surveillance network that reflects India’s presence and influence.7 India has also accelerated its construction of military facilities in the Bay of Bengal and invited Japan, Australia and other countries to participate in the construction of the

Andaman Sea Naval Base aimed at building it into a strategic outpost in the Indo-pacific region.8 Since 2016, India has hosted the Indian Ocean International Symposium in its striving for a greater voice in the region. India made it clear that Indian Ocean affairs “should mainly be managed by the countries in the Indian Ocean region,” and has tried hard to exclude the strategic presence of other major forces there, in order to prevent any challenge to its dominance over the Indian Ocean.9

For a long time, India had adopted a rather vigilant and exclusionist attitude toward any incursion of other major powers into the Indian Ocean. Since Modi took office, India has adjusted its policy to put more emphasis on the strategic cooperation and coordination with the US, Japan and other countries, taking advantage of the power of the US and Japan in an attempt to maintain its own advantageous position in the competition among the major powers in the Indo-pacific region. In 2015, the military exercise Malabar between the US and India extended an invitation to Japan to participate. When Modi visited the United States in June 2016, he clearly demonstrated the strategic significance of bilateral cooperation in the Indo-pacific region. India’s strategic sector responded positively to the initiative of the United States and Japan to construct an “Indo-pacific Alliance”. The Indian government, while making a show of reluctance to join, was actually ready to embrace it. In the eyes of its domestic media, India has adjusted its strategic goal to become a

India proclaims itself to be the “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean region, and focuses its efforts on strengthening maritime security cooperation with small and medium-sized Indian Ocean countries.

great power, and that “the construction of a ‘multipolar Asia’ — or balancing China — is turning out to be as important as the search for a ‘multipolar world,’ which for so long had been code words for hedging against American unilateralism.”10

Pursuing better position in major power interactions

After taking over, Modi has continued the diplomatic policies of previous Indian governments which emphasized relations with the United States. In September 2014, during his visit to the United States, Modi and Obama jointly published an article in The Washington Post emphasizing the global influence of the strategic cooperation between the two countries and expressed the will to “jointly work to maintain freedom of navigation and lawful commerce across the seas.”11 In January of the following year, Modi invited Obama to attend India’s Independence Day celebration, during which the two countries issued a joint statement on the vision of strategic cooperation. India-us cooperation in defense and security has been further strengthened. The United States promised to help India build its aircraft carrier and transfer anti-submarine technology to India. The two countries also signed an agreement on logistics support, which further enriched their strategic cooperation, especially defense cooperation. After Trump came to power, India was initially quite skeptical about the trend of US domestic and foreign policies. Modi was concerned that Trump’s “America First” policy would undermine the momentum of India-us relations. In June 2017, after Modi’s visit to the United States, Us-india bilateral relations continued on a stable footing. At the same time, India has also begun to actively expand its relations with the EU in order to hedge against uncertainties in the domestic and foreign policies of the US.

While increasingly promoting its strategic relations with the United States and other Western countries, India continues to maintain its

traditional relations with Russia and has attached great importance to strengthening cooperation and coordination with emerging powers. India has actively promoted the trilateral dialogue among China, Russia and India, striven to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, paid more attention to its strategic investment in the BRICS cooperation mechanism, and actively participated in such mechanisms as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank. India plays its role among the major powers such as the US and Russia, and strives to achieve benefits on all sides. Such an approach has not only maximized its political security and economic interests, but more importantly has maintained and strengthened its initiative in the interaction at the strategic level among the major powers.

Actively forging Indian “footprint” in global governance

Limited by its present stage of development and the influence of domestic politics, combined with the country’s dissatisfaction with the current international system dominated by developed Western countries, India had for a long time played the role of “spoiler” in multilateral negotiations. Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert from the United States, once said that India has often been seen as a “nay-sayer” in multilateral negotiations.12 For a long time, India was accused of insisting on its own position in the global climate change debates and in the Doha round of WTO negotiations based on its domestic political and development needs. Robert Zoellick and Susan Schwab, both US trade negotiators, have criticized India’s negative stance. Zoellick called India a ‘do-nothing country,’ and for Schwab, Indians are ‘elephants hiding behind mice’ in their reluctance to share greater responsibility for providing global public goods.13

After taking office, Modi surprisingly adjusted the Indian position on global issues such as climate change, the Doha round of WTO

negotiations and sustainable development. When Modi visited Germany in 2015, he made it clear that India would actively promote global issues including climate change negotiations.14 India has actively participated in the negotiations while overcoming domestic difficulties and has played an important role in the conclusion of the Paris Accord. In June 2017, after US President Trump announced the withdrawal of the Paris Agreement, India clearly expressed its opposition and stressed its adherence to relevant international obligations. India has also been actively participating in international agenda-setting to address climate change. It proposed to create an international solar alliance to make full use of renewable energy for sustainable development. India’s positive attitude towards global issues and its role in the transformation of the global governance system have attracted the attention of all parties.

Seeking changes to create a personal diplomatic style

After taking office, Modi’s strong and decisive governing style and pragmatic governance philosophy began to affect the diplomatic field. Modi paid special attention to enhancing delivery in diplomatic efforts. External Affairs Minister Smt. Sushma Swaraj said that the Modi doctrine is “led by vision and implemented through delivery”.15 In the past three years since Modi assumed power, India’s diplomatic delivery has indeed improved. Many foreign aid projects have been promptly implemented and the projects that had been delayed for many years have also been completed in time. Indiasupported projects such as the Parliament building and the Salma Dam in Afghanistan, the Duriappah Stadium in Sri Lanka, and the trauma center in Nepal have been completed and put into operation as scheduled, which fully reflects the shift of India’s diplomatic style under Modi’s government.16

Under the influence of Modi’s governing style, the risk-taking and practicability of India’s diplomacy are also on the rise. In order to clear out separatist rebels, Indian troops crossed the border into Myanmar.17 In 2016, India risked a conflict with Pakistan and crossed the border to attack a militant camp in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, at one point causing great anxiety both at home and abroad. Modi has adjusted the diplomatic philosophy of non-alignment. While insisting on advancing all-round diplomacy, Modi has adopted a “coalition not alliance” strategy on many major regional and international issues so as to increase India’s bargaining chips in the great power games. This clearly reveals the relative pragmatism of his policy with shades of strategic speculation. Modi has also made it clear that India should position itself in a leading power globally, rather than simply serving as a balancing force.18 While adhering to strategic autonomy, India should determine its position on issues based on its own interests and pay more attention to safeguarding its economic interests. Modi stresses that India should strive to maintain its strategic independence while playing a role among major powers. India will not become a vassal of any other country and will not rely on security guarantees from others.19

New Issues for “Modi Doctrine”

The “Modi Doctrine” is the product of India’s rapid economic growth and consequent increase of its overall national strength over the past 20 years. As an emerging power, India has been supported in recent years by the international community, especially the United States and other Western countries. This has not only enhanced India’s international status but has also

provided ample room for Modi’s government to play a role in foreign affairs. With its rapid economic growth and rising international influence, India’s sense of being a major power and self-confidence has soared to an all-time high. It is generally felt that India has become one of the world’s powers with a major say in international affairs. People feel that their country is no longer a “second-class” country, one that “has neither the money to buy anyone nor the strength to influence any one.”20

The “Modi Doctrine” reflects the influence of India’s traditional strategic culture. India’s diplomacy not only stresses strength but also morality. While holding high the banner of idealism, it follows the path of realism. It is a result of the India’s traditional pluralistic strategic culture. Modi strives to strike a balance in the strategic interplay of the major powers, and seeks to seize the initiative in the checks and balances among major powers, so as to hedge any changes in the power structure and seek tangible strategic benefits. This is an adept skill of India’s diplomacy.

The “Modi Doctrine” serves India’s rise to a leading power. Since taking office, Modi has proposed to make development and good governance the goal, and to promote major revolutionary changes, so as to fundamentally change India and establish a grand ideal of a new political culture for India to rise in an all-round way.21 In his speech at the 70th anniversary of independence in August 2017, Modi put forward a vision of “New India”, a clean and beautiful country by 2022 when the country will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of its independence. He proposed the idea of “Sakha Saath, Sakha Vikas”, which literally means “collective efforts and inclusive growth”.22 The “Modi Doctrine” is becoming a booster for building New India.

The “Modi Doctrine”, nevertheless, also faces many new problems and challenges.

Task of development remains complicated and arduous

The vision is ever beautiful, but the reality is somewhat threadbare. Despite its rapid development and remarkable achievements, India starts with a very weak foundation. It suffers from a large poor population and backward infrastructure, and the economic driving force is sluggish. India’s manufacturing competitiveness is weak. And whether it can maintain its rapid growth in the next two or three decades has always been a big issue. In India, ethnic groups, religions, caste and class issues are all over the country. Social and economic development has brought about a gap between the rich and the poor. At the same time, the expectations of all walks of life for greater development have also been constantly raised, putting pressure on Modi’s government.

India’s economic growth has shown signs of slowing down recently, with poor macroeconomic indicators. Economic growth slowed to 5.7% in the first quarter of fiscal 2017, the lowest in three years.23 After Modi took office, he undertook bold measures to push forward with reforms such as demonetization and tax reform, all of which left a profound impression. However, there are still many important reforms that need pursuing. India’s current macroeconomic difficulties have already raised concerns in various sectors both at home and abroad. Former Indian Finance Minister Yashwant Singh expressed his particular concern in an article. He believes that the Modi government’s diplomatic performance has exceeded people’s expectations, but progress in economic reform has hardly been satisfactory. Ashley J. Tellis, the Indian-american scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that India cannot be considered a “leading” power unless it consolidates its economic foundation, improves the governance ability and realizes its military capabilities.24

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