Modi and the Future of India’s China Foreign Policy

A change of leadership in the world’s largest democracy is bound to impact geopolitics. India – part of the BRICS – is a force to be reckoned with on the world stage not only because of its size but also its support of Afghanistan, problems with Pakistan and not to mention nuclear weapons. The recent Indian elections which led to the rise of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister is bound to affect India’s foreign policy. New foreign policy plans have yet to be fleshed out by Modi but there have already been signs of change to come in relations with China, Singapore, Japan, and the US.

Image courtesy of Narendra Modi, © 2014, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Narendra Modi, © 2014, some rights reserved

There have always been tensions between China and India. However, commercial diplomacy is expected to be an important priority for the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The BJP’s focus on international trade will undoubtedly mean closer ties between China and India. The US$20bn pledged Chinese investment into India’s infrastructure indicates the willingness of both countries to focus on the economic aspects of their relationship to smooth out other discussions. Furthermore, Modi has dropped his anti-Chinese campaign rhetoric in which he accused the Chinese of expansionist ambitions. Yet, the fact that India’s trade deficit with China now stands at US$40bn, when it was only $1bn 12 years ago, leads one to wonder if Modi will be able to avoid repeating the US’ mistake of having too large a trade deficit with China. If Modi does not address the trade deficit now, India can no longer claim to be a competitive challenger to China in regional and global politics. However, Modi is hoping that India can catch up by strengthening ties with Singapore and Japan.

Ties between Singapore and India are closer than commonly perceived as PM Modi “led a business delegation to Singapore in 2006. And in 2014, Singapore is a partner country for the Vibrant Gujarat convention” (Chaudhury 2014). States are not unitary actors, they are composed of individuals and accordingly since Modi has a personal connection with Singapore, there can be reasonable expectations that both countries will work towards furthering ties. Moreover, “Modi’s Swachchh Bharat Mission is reminiscent of a similar drive launched by Singapore in 1968” (Business Standard 2014). The similarity in outreach efforts indicate that both the Singaporean and Indian governemnts are taking efforts at an economic rapprochement very seriously. This can also be seen with the rapprochement between India and Japan.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an already existing attempt to balance the power of China in Asian geopolitics. Modi’s efforts at revitalizing relations with Japan highlights his desire of further balancing the rise of China. The doubling of Japan’s investment to US$35bn reveals a clear rapprochement strategy. This is further emphasised by the closeness of mentality between both leaders, “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s own nationalistic and militaristic policies will strike a chord with Modi” (Ramachandran 2014). However to effectively counterbalance China’s rise in Asia, Modi is not just reaching out to fellow Asian leaders but also to the United States.

Manmohan Singh’s controversial approach to nuclear weapons has made Indo-US relations very tense. Both countries are now looking forward to facilitating and renewing constructive bi-lateral discussions. Accordingly, Modi’s visit to the US in the first week of September has allowed both leaders to express their mutual desires to strengthen ties but nothing concrete was actually said nor agreed on, for example there is no mention of agreements surrounding nuclear capabilities or human rights (Davis 2014). Yet the power of rhetoric cannot be understated because it highlights a desire to change but Modi must find the political will to actually enact change (Mehta 2014). The US also has an interest in improving ties with India. In its role as the ‘global policeman’ the US military is stepping back and looking to reduce its global presence. The US will need strong allies in Asia. It already has Japan, but India is an actor that simply cannot be ignored both in its role to balance China and simply because of its sheer importance in our modern world.

Modi is not expected and does not appear to have the intentions of revolutionizing the way India handles itself on in the international stage. Instead, it seems that Modi is shifting the priorities and overall tone of Indian foreign policy. For example, Modi is expected to be less patient with Pakistan but is not expected to adopt a radically different approach to the one previously held (Ramachandran 2014). Modi must deal with certain ideological and internal institutional constraining factors which Modi has to abide by.

When leading the largest democracy in the world, it is hoped that Modi will demonstrate a certain degree of restraint. Mutually beneficial economic policies will hopefully make war in Asia more improbable and therefore decrease the likelihood of violence in the continent.

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