Modi & the Great Power Game

The world looks a different place through the other end of the telescope. For westerners, the crisis in Ukraine is about the threat to the European order posed by Russian revanchism. Visiting New Delhi the other day, I was presented with a different perspective. There was only one winner from President Vladimir Putin’s confrontation with the west: China’s Xi Jinping.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has surprised during his first months in office. The pace of economic modernisation has fallen short of high expectations. Indian business leaders mutter that while the prime minister has set off in the right direction, his caution has belied an unchallenged grip on power.

Many expected a “big bang”. They are getting instead a series of useful but unspectacular advances. Foreign investors have been reminded of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) mercantilist roots. Modi is navigating — by most accounts — a bit too cautiously, between the need for foreign capital and knowhow and the defensive nationalism of his own party.

A contrary surprise has come in the realm of foreign policy. Widely expected to be a domestic prime minister, Modi has been energetic and assertive on the international stage. These are early days, but the signs are that India is thinking like a power intent on shaping the space around it. Modi has shed what an ally calls the “third-worldish” outlook that flowed from India’s long allegiance to the nonaligned movement. He has also sidestepped the BJP’s instinctive anti-Americanism.

Prime ministerial visits to Tokyo and Washington have heralded an extravagantly close relationship with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a noticeable warming of ties with the US. Attention to India’s neighbourhood, including long-forgotten places such as Bhutan and Nepal, has improved India’s frayed regional standing. The new government has opened up military cooperation with Vietnam and struck a long-term deal to buy uranium from Australia. An apparently convivial meeting in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may foreshadow the first visit to the Jewish state by an Indian prime minister.

Those looking for binding threads in this flurry of diplomatic activity will find two. They are interwoven. The first centres on the imperative of attracting foreign investment and advanced technology. Indian power depends, above all, on a faster economic growth rate. Japan has both the money and the knowhow that New Delhi needs to modernise its infrastructure. Washington has the defence equipment required by a neglected military. Israel is relaxed about selling on sensitive military technologies.

The second thread is security. Modi is establishing a more explicit strategic hedge against China’s rising economic and military might. You can see why. Beijing has extended its regional influence beyond a longstanding understanding with Pakistan. Also called the “string of pearls” strategy, it aims to build China’s presence in the Indian Ocean. Only the other day, a Chinese submarine docked in Sri Lanka. Simultaneously, Beijing has upgraded its forces and modernised its military infrastructure along the disputed and largely undemarcated Himalayan border with India.

India has learnt to live with the ever-present danger of another war with a nuclear-armed Pakistan. The humiliation of its defeat at the hands of the Chinese in the 1962 border war cut deeper into the national psyche. Xi’s unapologetically revisionist foreign policy rekindles the painful memories. Chinese troops chose the occasion of Xi’s September visit to New Delhi to stage a cross-border incursion into Indian territory. Beijing is anything but subtle.

India is not looking for a confrontation. It has a lot of catching up to do, economically and militarily. It wants to expand the economic relationship with Beijing. If Japan has money to invest, China, potentially, has more.

That said, each of Modi’s diplomatic forays — and particularly the closeness of the relationship with Abe — speak of the effort to balance rising Chinese power. Modi has been confident enough to publicly chide Beijing for stirring tensions in the East and South China Seas and to offer Indian support for the Vietnamese navy.

Which takes us back to Ukraine. During the Cold War, India’s hedge against China came in the form of the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty. Moscow still supplies vital defence equipment, but the relationship has fallen into disrepair. Few expect anything new from Putin’s visit to New Delhi next month. Instead, the Ukraine crisis has driven the Russian president into the arms of China. With only enemies in the West, Putin has felt compelled to show he has a friend in the East. Xi has been quick to exploit this supplicant status. By Indian estimations, Moscow’s gas supply deal with Beijing was struck at a bargain basement price.

Word in New Delhi also has it that Putin has been under pressure to sell China some of Russia’s most advanced military technology.

Geopolitics is full of unintended consequences. In this case, Putin’s military adventurism in Ukraine has encouraged New Delhi in its quest for friends elsewhere. It is hard to imagine India forging anything like a formal alliance with Washington. There is too much historical baggage for that, but all strategic logic now points to a deepening security partnership with the US. And, in this, Russia has become very much the unwitting accomplice.

— Financial Times

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