Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May in India's biggest election victory in a generation, has signaled his determination to strengthen his country's diplomatic clout in its own strategic backyard while collaborating more closely with the major powers.
So far, Modi has limited himself to visits to two of India's smaller neighbors, Nepal and Bhutan, where the trips were hailed as successes. But the prime minister's powers of diplomacy are about to face a stiffer test in successive bilateral summits with the leaders of Japan, China and the U.S. His handling of these talks will set the parameters of Indian foreign policy for years to come.
Time for more substance
Modi's Aug. 30 to Sept. 3 tour of Japan is certain to deepen bonds between the two democracies -- one the world's largest, the other Asia's oldest (and richest). But if this emerging democratic axis is to turn into a game-changer in Asia, the two countries must add more substance to their collaboration through deeper strategic and economic links.
Modi's visit to Tokyo will pave the way for a greater Japanese role in India's development. But there is also scope for greater cooperation in the military realm. Some of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent steps, including easing Japan's arms export ban and reasserting the right of collective defense, open clear new avenues of potential collaboration with India.
By contrast, when Chinese President Xi Jinping comes to New Delhi in mid-September, Modi will have a more difficult task at hand, given China's increasing assertiveness on issues such as frontiers and its right to build dams on international rivers originating in Tibet. There may also be friction over the Indian prime minister's election campaign rhetoric criticizing Beijing's "expansionist attitude."
Despite these irritants, Modi is seeking to co-opt China, with its massive foreign-exchange reserves, as a partner in India's development, negating the early assumptions of some analysts that his government would be less accommodating toward Beijing than its predecessor.
In particular, Modi must find ways to address the lopsided trade relationship between the two countries: Beijing exports three times as much to India as it imports, and treats its huge neighbor as a raw-material appendage of its economy. The Indian leader has already sketched out ways in which this relationship can be transformed by inviting Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India's infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks.
To prepare the ground for Xi's visit, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend China. He received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. His first bilateral meeting with a major head of state was with Xi on the sidelines of a summit in Brazil of the BRICS grouping of major emerging economies. He allowed the Chinese president to move up his India visit to September while postponing his own Japan trip by eight weeks, a decision that allowed him to meet Xi first. And Modi agreed to let Shanghai host the proposed new BRICS development bank, accepting the consolation prize of having an Indian as its first president.
But the tensions between the neighbors will not go away: Modi's election-victory pronouncement that the coming decades would constitute "India's century" sits uneasily alongside China's similar proclamation of its ownership of the 21st century. And friction along their shared border is increasing, according to Kiren Rijiju, India's Minister of State for Home Affairs, who told parliament recently that Chinese border transgressions this year have exceeded more than one per day to reach 334 as of Aug. 4. For India, it is clear that China remains as much a strategic rival as an economic opportunity.
Rising above U.S. humiliation
Given the critical importance of the U.S. to India, Modi has wisely placed national interests above personal umbrage by shaking off visa-denial humiliations heaped on him by Washington. These date back to 2005, when the U.S. denied Modi a visa over his alleged involvement in anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. Washington maintained the ban for years, even though he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by an inquiry appointed by India's Supreme Court.
The U.S. abruptly reversed course when Modi emerged as the favorite to win the election, and in the wake of his overwhelming electoral mandate in May, Modi could have waited for U.S. officials to come calling. Instead, seeking to establish a mutually productive relationship with Washington, he quickly accepted President Barack Obama's invitation to visit the White House, thereby leaving no room for perceptions about bilateral strains to damage India's own foreign policy interests.
Nevertheless, the reality is that U.S.-India relations have gradually lost momentum since their heyday under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, even though Washington has quietly become India's largest arms supplier. Ties hit a new low in December after an Indian diplomat serving as deputy consul general in New York was arrested and strip-searched by police after being accused of underpaying a nanny she had brought with her from India. India's national security adviser called the diplomat's treatment, which included vaginal and anal cavity searches by police, "despicable and barbaric."
Modi appears keen to reinvigorate the bilateral relationship. But he will be visiting Washington at a time when Obama is beset with crises at home and abroad and appears increasingly under political siege, including from members of his own Democratic Party in the Senate. The contrast between a newly empowered Modi and a fading Obama could not be starker.
It is therefore unclear what the White House visit in late September can accomplish, other than drive home the message that all is well on the U.S.-India front. As if to highlight how transactional aspects overshadow strategic elements in the relationship, Washington will be expecting Modi to come bearing gifts in the form of new business and arms contracts.
Standing up for India
But Modi has already shown that he will unflinchingly stand up for his perception of the national interest, even if it means opposing the U.S. He demonstrated this in late July at the World Trade Organization negotiations in Geneva on a new global trade facilitation accord. Failing to win last-minute concessions in relation to India's food-stockpiling program, the Modi government vetoed the agreement, which the previous Indian administration had tentatively approved, drawing criticism from the U.S. and many of the 158 other countries that had voted in favor of the deal.
Modi's smoothest interaction will likely be with Japan, despite his apparent focus on wooing China. Abe will ensure that his Indian counterpart's visit is a success, not least because the relationship is seen in Tokyo as a win-win partnership that can help catalyze Japan's revival as a world power, while also driving India's infrastructure development and aspirations to become a top power.
In particular, Modi is expected to return home with a much-hoped-for civil nuclear accord with Tokyo. Such a deal will be presented in India as a diplomatic triumph, even though its practical value is largely symbolic because India cannot afford large-scale investment in imported nuclear reactors. The country would be better off using its own expertise to build fast-breeder reactors and more conventional small reactors.
The Japan-India partnership nevertheless holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China's rise or Obama's U.S. "pivot" to Asia. Modi says his visit is aimed at taking "time-tested" ties with Japan to "a new level."
India's foreign policy has never had a distinct strategic imprint, except for a period under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The country has always placed more emphasis on being liked than on being respected. Modi recognizes this failing and, as his actions in Geneva exemplified, appears intent on fixing it.
His overtures to Beijing do not conceal his resolve to build close strategic ties with Japan to help put discreet checks on China's exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which risks sliding into arrogance. Modi's vision for Asia is a stable equilibrium in which India can thrive unhindered.
Achieving that objective will not be easy, given the complex challenges facing India in its relationships with its three most important interlocutors. Yet Modi's record since May suggests that his government has a clear vision of how a proactive foreign policy might work. For New Delhi, that is a step forward.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of "Water, Peace, and War" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).