One area where the prime minister has acquitted himself rather well is foreign affairs. Though without any experience of diplomacy, he seems to have taken to it like a duck to water, revealing consummate skills in engaging foreign dignitaries from all continents and of all persuasions. The charge that Modi travels abroad very often is baseless given the tangible and intangible gains that flow from engaging world leaders. Last he was in Qingdao, China, to attend the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
A few days earlier, he was in Singapore to participate in the Shangri-La Dialogue. Here he broadly elaborated India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, stressing on a rule-based order that respected the maritime freedom of all in the South China Sea. Without saying in so many words, he indicated that China’s on-going attempt to militarise the disputed islands in the South China Sea was unacceptable and posed a threat to peaceful coexistence in the entire region. In the SCO summit, the agenda focused on security cooperation, counter-terrorism, economic development, etc. The SCO summits present an opportunity for India to link with the Central Asian nations and is dominated by China and Russia. It helps India balance a seeming tilt towards the US.
In the multi-polar world, India cannot be seen to be putting all its eggs in the US basket. Of late, though it is part of the Quad, that is, US, Japan, Australia, it has also shown eagerness to befriend members of all other groups on the other side of the global divide of which China and Russia are key members. The presence of Pakistan President Manmoon Hussain at the SCO summit afforded an opportunity for Modi to convey his concerns about the continuing breach of the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir for infiltrating the region with the ‘jihadi’ elements. What influence Hussain would have on the ISI was in doubt, considering that he was a mere figurehead and in dealings with India even an elected government in Islamabad can do precious little.
However, no harm would come from engaging with Pakistan at the summit level, even if positive gains remained illusory. Modi again had a summit meeting with the host country’s President nearly two months after the two had met one-to-one in an informal summit in Wuhan. A tangible from the Modi-Xi meeting was the welcome memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries which would provide India hydrological data on the flow of the Brahmaputra river waters. Considering the Indian concerns that China was interfering with the flow of the river waters into India, building dams and even trying to divert waters to its arid region, the sharing of hydrological data ought to go some way in relieving these concerns. The Brahmaputra river waters are the life-blood of the north-east and even Bangladesh. According to reports, China was allowed to open a branch of its bank in India while India successfully won some concessions on exports of its pharmaceutical products to China.
Modi also held a one-to-one with Putin. The global situation, given the way Trump is bent upon disrupting the world order, ought to have led to a commonality of views on several issues. India and Russia, after the drift in earlier years, have again rekindled their friendship to their mutual benefit, especially after the US President has taken to pointedly wag his finger at India for pushing cheap exports into his country. It is notable that despite the Chinese pressure, Modi stood his ground on not joining the Belt and Road project. The prime minister, however, supported the Shanghai summit’s initiatives on connectivity, especially with Afghanistan, though India had very, very strong reservations on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a project which has already begun to evoke fears in Pakistan, especially from its politicians and intellectuals who fear that it was set to ‘enslave’ them through the infusion of money and manpower into their country. Meanwhile, how far Modi’s successful forays into global summitry will aid his domestic agenda, particularly in the crucial election year, remains to be seen.