India continues to reckon with what kind of power it wants to be, this time in acknowledgement of global shifts.
On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a speech on Indian foreign policy and the country’s place in the world in New Delhi. Modi was delivering the opening address for the 2017 Raisina Dialogue, which was held for the first time in 2016 and is approximately India’s analog to other regional security forums, including the Shangri-La Dialogue and the China-hosted Xiangshan Forum.
Modi’s speech came as his government marked two-and-a-half years in office and comes two weeks after his 2016 New Year’s Eve address, which included a spirited defense of the Indian prime minister’s controversial policy of removing high denomination rupee notes from circulation in India, known as demonetization.
On the eve of Modi’s speech to the Raisina Dialogue, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank both released revised GDP growth estimates for India that highlighted demonetization’s toll. The IMF’s estimate lopped a full percentage point off India’s expected growth, bringing its expectation of Indian growth below that of China in the year ahead. (India had previously had the distinction of being the world’s fastest growing major economy in 2016.)
Given the Raisina dialogues focus on international issues, Modi didn’t directly touch on the increasingly uncertain economic picture back at home. Instead, he was afforded an opportunity to reflect on India’s continued rise as a major power, his government’s accomplishments on the global stage, and New Delhi’s visions for a regional security architecture in Asia. (In a coincidence, Modi’s remarks came within hours of Chinese President Xi Jinping addressing the World Economic Forum’s meeting at Davos with a defense of globalization and open trade.)
Modi’s address was largely familiar for anyone that’s been tracking Indian foreign policy over the last few years. He emphasized India’s focus on economic development, noting that “India’s transformation is not separated from its external context.” However, from there, the Indian prime minister’s remarks transition into a timely treatment of the surge of populism, protectionism, and anti-globalization sentiment seen worldwide in 2016 — most prominently with the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the United Kingdom’s June 2016 referendum decision to leave the European Union.
Interestingly, echoing themes present in Xi’s remarks at Davos, Modi acknowledged that these were “unsettled times” in which India was pursuing its transformation. He cautioned that “walls within nations, a sentiment against trade and migration, and rising parochial and protectionist attitudes” were evidence of global uncertainty and put “globalization gains” at risk. Modi, similar to Xi’s message on existing global governance mechanisms being inadequately representative of rising powers, cautioned that “institutions and architectures built for a different world, by a different world, are outdated.”
The similarities between Modi and Xi’s takes on global affairs diverge, however, when the Indian prime minister turns his attention toward the Asian security architecture. Modi calls on states to “guard against any instinct or inclination that promotes exclusion, especially in Asia.” Warning against “exclusion” evokes an idea that U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spent most of last year promoting, namely the U.S.-led “principled and inclusive security network in Asia.” Contrast Modi’s remarks on exclusion with the ideas on regional security governance outlined by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a recent white paper, for example.
While Modi expressed a continued belief in older trains of Indian foreign policy thought that saw a multipolar world as a just and desirable outcome, he took the opportunity on Tuesday to call for a “security architecture” in Asia that is “open, transparent, balanced, and inclusive” that is “rooted in international norms and respect for sovereignty.” Modi also offers a subtle critique of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative: “Only by respecting the sovereignty of countries involved, can regional connectivity corridors fulfill their promise and avoid differences and discord.”
The Indian prime minister’s speech also included a significant line on how New Delhi increasingly conceives of its power projection capabilities and influence in the Indian Ocean region:
In all directions, our maritime interests are strategic and significant. The arc of influence of Indian Ocean extends well beyond its littoral limits. Our initiative of SAGAR — Security And Growth for All in the Region — is not just limited to safe-guarding our mainland and islands. It defines our efforts to deepen economic and security cooperation in our maritime relationships. (Emphasis mine.)
The section in bold above could presage a shift in Indian strategic thinking about where the country’s primary areas of maritime interest begin and end. In two significant policy documents released in recent years — India’s 2015 Maritime Security Strategy and 2009 Maritime Doctrine — areas defined as primary areas of interest are squarely within the Indian Ocean littoral.
Modi’s inclusion of these words may indicate that New Delhi is poised to elevate areas outside the Indian Ocean littoral, including the South China Sea, the Mediterranean, and perhaps even the Western Pacific in Indian maritime strategic thought. The Indian Navy’s capabilities for extended expeditionary operations in these areas will remain limited for some time, but Delhi may increasingly seek to speak out more on normative issues affecting security outcomes in these regions. Modi additionally reminded the audience of India’s function as a “credible first responder,” both in the Indian Ocean region and on land (in the case of Nepal).
There’s a lot more in the address that largely rehashes old accomplishments in Indian foreign policy. Modi draws attention to Delhi’s ongoing strategic convergence with Tokyo, which has quickly blossomed into a close dyad in the ten years since India and Japan elevated their relationship to a strategic global partnership under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first term as prime minister. Modi also nods at gains with the United States along the “entire spectrum” of ties and mentions Russia as an “abiding friend.” Interestingly, Modi draws attention to defense cooperation with Russia without specifically mentioning progress on defense-related matters with the United States. (This is somewhat curious given the quick pace of India-U.S. defense accomplishments since Modi’s inauguration in May 2014, including India’s elevation to a U.S. “major defense partner” last year.)
As a final thought, it remains notable that Modi used his speech to remind the global audience at the Raisina Dialogue that Pakistan remains “isolated and ignored.” Since the eruption of violence in Kashmir over the summer and a surge in cross-Line of Control violence in Kashmir, India has worked directly to isolate Pakistan within the South Asian region. Pakistan’s isolation, while increasingly robust within South Asia, is not complete; both China and, more recently, Russia have intensified their ties with Islamabad.
Xi’s Davos address picked up quite a bit of global attention this week, with headlines lauding the Chinese leader’s defense of globalization. Even while India continues to lag China in terms of its global clout and economic significance, Modi’s speech merits serious reflection as a statement of Indian plans as the world prepares to enter a period where U.S. leadership grows uncertain and a democratic swing-state like India may take on greater significance in Asian security outcomes.
We’re still waiting for an unambiguously articulated ‘Modi doctrine’ from the Indian prime minister, who has largely reaffirmed his predecessor’s priorities of economic development and domestic stability while tweaking his diplomatic style. Nevertheless, anticipating a potential recession in U.S. global leadership and surge in anti-globalization sentiment worldwide, India is beginning to think more seriously about what kind of power it wants to be. Amid both global and regional uncertainty in early 2017, however, India continues to hold its cards close to its chest.