Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. Author of nine books, Chellaney is one of India’s leading strategic thinkers. His columns regularly appear in Project Syndicate and The Japan Times.
Harvard Political Review: How has Indian foreign policy evolved under Narendra Modi’s government?
Brahma Chellaney: What we are seeing under Mr. Modi is a new approach. As you know, Mr. Modi has animated domestic politics in India quite immensely. And to some extent, he has also animated the country’s foreign policy by departing from conventional methods. The question is whether despite this change the Modi era will mark a defining moment for India just as Xi Jinping’s ascension to power has been to China. The answer to that question is still not clear. What is clear is that Modi’s stint in office has profoundly impacted Indian politics and diplomacy.
Mr. Modi has emphasized … building closer ties with like-minded democracies like the United States, Japan, Australia, and European democracies. They have been his primary focus. At the same time, he has also sought to build partnerships around China’s territory. Japan is very critical in that respect, so also are countries like Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan. For him, the ties with Russia remain very important because of the China factor. So the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations makes his task more difficult. But I think more broadly he sees himself as a practical policy man, and he loves to play on the grand chessboard of global geopolitics.
HPR: Both India and Pakistan have non-traditional political parties in power now. How do you think this will affect the future of the India-Pakistan relationship?
BC: The future of India-Pakistan relationship, I am sorry to say, looks quite bleak because of fundamental asymmetries between India and Pakistan. India is a secular democratic state while Pakistan is a theocratic state guided by an anti-India philosophy. Also in Pakistan the military controls strategic policy while in India the military is completely under civilian control. These basic asymmetries make [the] prospect of a genuine rapprochement between India and Pakistan not very promising.
The Pakistani prime minister recently compared the India-Pakistan situation with Franco-German rapprochement after World War II. Now that’s a very inept analogy for the India-Pakistan situation because the Franco-German rapprochement was facilitated by the fact that both these countries had similar political systems and both respected rules, norms, and constitutional principles. That’s not the case in South Asia between Pakistan and India. And you also have to add the military factor. Even though there is a supposedly elected government in Pakistan today, it came to office in what was widely perceived in Pakistan to be a military manipulated election, an election that helped to bring to power the military’s latest puppet, Imran Khan. So Pakistan’s domestic constraints and the civil-military tensions make it very difficult for Pakistan to be at peace with India or with Afghanistan or with itself.
HPR: China’s influence in South Asia has been increasing lately. Could you comment on New Delhi’s response to this development?
BC: China’s influence in South Asia has been growing quite rapidly, often at the expense of India. India’s response has been slow but of late there seems to be some clarity in Indian foreign policy. And some developments are working to India’s advantage now. For example, in the Maldives the people have thrown out a dictator and voted [into] power a government that has promised to restore the country’s “India First” policy. There have also been setbacks. For example, in Nepal, the communists who are now in power are overtly pro-China. In fact, the Nepalese communists came to power with the support of China. They have made known their intention to cut dependence on India by building closer ties with China including by signing a transit agreement with China that will cut its dependence on India for trade with [other] countries. So, it’s a mixed picture, but three years ago, China clearly had the momentum and India was on the defensive. Now it seems that India is seeking to reassert itself and ensure that it does not lose strong grounds in South Asia.
One other element which might work in India’s favor is that there is now an emerging backlash against China’s so-called debt-trap diplomacy not just in South Asia but in the wider developing world. There is a rethink going on in many countries about Chinese loans and the Belt and Road Initiative. They are fearing that they are getting trapped by China in a situation where their sovereignty might be compromised. This rethink has resulted in countries seeking to renegotiate loan agreements with Beijing or even scrap some of the projects that they have agreed to initiate. So this backlash might be helpful for India to recoup it losses in South Asia.
HPR: Given the rise of China, a partnership between India and the US seems quite natural. What do you think … New Delhi and Washington [should do to] capitalize on this strategic convergence? Any particular challenges or opportunities the Trump administration presents for this relationship?
BC: The U.S.-India partnership has become stronger under successive American presidents, and Trump is no exception. But the Trump administration’s transactional approach to foreign policy is troubling India like it is troubling other U.S. allies and strategic partners. For example, Trump seems to be concerned that the United States has a $29 billion yearly trade deficit with India. Additionally, the Trump administration’s Iran and Russia policies have created new irritants in ties with India. The Trump administration’s actions in May to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and to reimpose sanctions on Iran have made things difficult for India. India has been the main victim of American actions against Iran even if it was unintentional. The new American sanctions against Russia designed to undercut its arms export industry are also impinging on Indian interests because India has had a long standing defense relationship with Russia.
Despite these irritants and other obstacles, the U.S.-India relationship is progressing quite well. New strategic elements are being introduced in the relationship. More importantly, the Trump administration’s paradigm shift in China policy is creating greater room for collaboration in a number of areas. As this policy shift on China becomes more pronounced, India’s role in U.S. policy will increase.
Both the United States and India are the main drivers of the Trump administration’s new policy to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan is another important actor in this regard. The U.S.-India-Japan triangular relationship is central to achieve a stable balance of power in the Asia Pacific region and stop China from establishing its preeminence in Asia. This triangular relationship is going to be critical in shaping an open, inclusive, and rules-based Indo-Pacific. I think Trump and Modi are playing an important role along with Prime Minister Abe of Japan in ensuring that there will be a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and that no single power will be able to enforce its power in this part of the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image Source: Wikimedia/Chellaney