First, it was the Americans who spoke of a “pivot” to Asia; then, it was the Russians’ turn to consider a pivot to Asia. The Europeans, not to be left far behind, also debated a pivot to Asia. Now, it seems Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate for India’s general elections next week, is also hinting at a pivot to Asia.

Much has already been written about how Modi should order his international relations were he to become prime minister but much less has been said on what he has indicated in his dozens of public addresses so far. While assumptions have been made about Modi’s possible weltanschauung based on his criticism of the Congress’ policies over the past couple of years, they only reinforce stereotypes about the BJP and right-wing politics (though calling the BJP right-wing is problematic).

However, Modi’s speeches – to the public at large as well as to specialised audiences – indicate a different mode of thinking and potentially a new direction for India’s foreign policy. The net effect of Modi’s ideas on how India should conduct itself in the international community may well be considered an Indian pivot to Asia.

At first glance, describing Modi’s foreign policy as a pivot to Asia might seem dramatic, especially in the backdrop of talk of an American, Russian, and European pivot to Asia. Besides, India is already in Asia! However, there are several factors that make “pivot” the most apt term to describe what may most likely be India’s new approach to international affairs.

India has seen itself essentially as a Western power; despite its Indic heritage and historical influence in Asia, Indians tend to study, vacation, and do business far more in the West than in the East. Westerners also feel less alienated in India than they do further east – familiarity with cricket, curry, and Bollywood has made the country more comprehensible to Western sensibilities.

Yet the importance of Asia to India has been expounded from the very beginning. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, declared that with independence, the former colonised countries of Asia would rise again and take their rightful place in world affairs. Despite the rhetoric, however, Nehru and the next half-century of governments after his death did little to realise this prognostication. Perhaps because of his own education or by virtue of India being a British colony, Nehru led his newly independent country into the Anglosphere which was then defined by the titanic struggle between the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States even though India had no quarrel with either power.

Nehru’s need to occupy centrestage in international politics meant that he framed his foreign policy – non-alignment – in terms of the Cold War. India participated in the peace talks over the Korean War, the International Control Commission for Vietnam, and opined on other proxy conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union that had little to do with India. Even after the Cold War ended, India still follows the Western framework in conceptualising its region. In 2012, a quasi-governmental group in Delhi penned “Non-Alignment 2.0,” a foreign policy document that continued the Nehruvian legacy of a Western-oriented foreign policy.

Modi has so far shied away from commenting on most of the foreign policy issues observers are used to hearing from Indian politicians with ambition. Instead, Modi has repeatedly stressed the importance of trade to his foreign policy; each Indian province might have a trade representative to international partners and an economic delegation will be attached to every diplomatic mission. As Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, Modi has made several trips to Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, reputedly developing particularly close relations with China, Japan and Singapore.

These relations are even more noteworthy when Modi’s other agenda is considered – infrastructure. The dilapidated state of Indian roads, railways, waterways, housing, and power have created a bottleneck around India’s economic growth and analysts have projected the need for at least a trillion dollars of investments in infrastructure over the next five years if the country is to continue growing. Modi’s response has been to challenge Indians to develop a hundred new smart cities, bullet trains, national broadband coverage, and other infrastructural improvements in the next few years.

To deliver on this vision, India will need large investments from foreign partners in terms of finance, machinery, and skilled labour. The most suited countries for such assistance are India’s Asian neighbours who have experience with similar mega-projects and are also able to extend financial aid. In addition to the vibrant Southeast Asian economies, China is India’s largest trading partner and Japan has been its largest aid donor since 1986.

Modi has also emphasised the development of manufacturing in the country to provide jobs as well as to spur exports and growth. Part of this strategy relies on better relations with the countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and Association of Southeast Asian Nations. If Modi can address key bottlenecks such fear of India becoming an Asian Big Brother and trade protectionism, India can fuel a regional dynamo. Beyond trade, tourism, and education, the countries of the Indian Ocean rim naturally have a far greater convergence with Indian interests than others in terms of climate change, narcotics trafficking, regional security, and climate change.

The development of infrastructure and trade in the Indian Ocean Region will also ameliorate demographic problems at home. India has long talked about a Look East Policy but done little to deliver on it. An Indian pivot will develop links between the country’s troubled northeast and its southeast Asian neighbours, bringing development to the region and hopefully calming demographic friction between Muslims and tribals that erupted in 2012. This fits well with Modi’s strategy of development as panacea – in a country as impoverished as India, it just might be.

Traditional foreign policy analysts may worry that Modi’s approach ignores India’s three largest conundrums – China, Pakistan, and the United States. This is not the case. While Modi has made it no secret that he does not expect India’s relations with the United States to improve until the Obama administration, thought to be lukewarm towards India, leaves office, it is unlikely that he will ignore the world’s largest economy either.

However, Modi may be acting on what many South Asia analysts have realised but are afraid to accept – the road to Islamabad does not pass through Washington. Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the late 1980s forever changed power dynamics in South Asia. Since then, Islamabad has been waging asymmetric warfare from behind its nuclear shield. The United States has not only been unable to help curtail this cross-border terrorism by Pakistan but has even been selling Islamabad weapons for its fight against terrorism. India is forced to find a solution to Pakistan’s low intensity warfare on its own, potentially through improving its economic strength and defence manufacturing capabilities.

Similarly, India must face a rising China on its own – Southeast Asia and Japan may be of some assistance but demographics and geography dictate that any viable balance to Chinese power in the region must be provided by India. Given the massive disparity in military and economic power that exists between the two Asian giants, India’s defence must rely first, as Nehru realised, ironically, on its economy and ties in the neighbourhood. No doubt, Modi’s response to incursions into Indian territory or to terrorism may indeed be firmer than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s but that would be tactics and not strategy.

Modi’s pivot to Asia would help India augment its internal and regional balancing before taking on greater international responsibility. In this, the Modi seems to have paid attention to Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin: 1. 冷靜觀察 – observe and analyse developments calmly; 2. 守住陣腳 – secure your own position; 3. 沈著應付 – deal with changes with confidence; 4. 韜光養晦 – conceal your capabilities; 5. 善於守拙 – keep a low profile; 6. 有所作为 – take action; 7. 把握机遇 – seize the opportunity; and 8. 因勢利導 – make the best use of the situation. Nehru’s Cold War-informed non-alignment had its limitations; it remains to be seen if Modi’s Asia-centric policy will pay India more dividends.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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