Modi government likely to continue Look East foreign policy

Modi government likely to continue Look East foreign policy

NEW DELHI - Indians have voted themselves a prime minister known for his decisive leadership and assertive style but it may be a while yet before Mr Narendra Modi can put his personal stamp on foreign policy.

"There was a deliberate ambiguity in the Manmohan Singh government's foreign policy while Modi's will be more clear-cut," said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

"But, while Modi can bring greater emphasis on certain aspects, his room for manoeuvre is small."

Once in power, Mr Modi is expected to move swiftly to repair his personal equation with the United States, which has made the first overtures to him with congratulatory messages from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. He will also likely open several new windows with China, particularly on building economic ties.

Yet, as he assumes national leadership and has to take stock of the inevitable competition for strategic dominance in Asia, larger considerations are likely to come into play.

This is why, two days after the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) stunning win by a landslide, the bets are on the development-focused Mr Modi travelling to Japan for his first bilateral visit.

However, before that trip, people familiar with his thinking say that he may travel to Myanmar for a multilateral meeting, the East Asia Summit.

Strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney points out that Mr Modi's soft nationalism and market-oriented economics mirror those of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, making them natural allies.

Like Mr Abe, said Professor Chellaney, Mr Modi will focus on reviving the economy while boosting India's defences and strategic linkages to key world powers.

"Modi's victory is likely to turn Indo-Japan ties into the main driver of India's Look East policy," Prof Chellaney added.

Should that happen, it would reflect not so much of a break but a continuity in foreign policy.

Earlier this year, when Mr Abe arrived as chief guest at India's Republic Day parade, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that Japan was at the centre of India's Look East policy.

Ties between Asia's second and third largest economies are growing apace and Tokyo, which is building a military industrial complex, is breaking with the past to sell India advanced technology that could also have military implications.

Within South Asia, many expect that Mr Modi's forceful personality and public criticism of Pakistan could lead him to take a tougher line with Islamabad, where the military dominates external policy.

The BJP manifesto, they point out, spoke of "revising and updating" India's nuclear doctrine, which was widely interpreted as a relook of its "no first use" policy on nuclear weapons.

But Mr Modi himself laid that speculation to rest.

"There is no compromise on that," he said, referring to the "no first use" policy.

"We are very clear. No first use is a reflection of our cultural inheritance."

There has also been speculation that should India suffer another attack from non-state actors based inside Pakistan, as it did in 2008, Mr Modi would order a strike back.

If so, the retaliation would probably come not by direct military means. Mr Modi's elbow room is limited.

One reason is that Mr Modi's home state, Gujarat, borders Pakistan and he would be fully aware of how vulnerable to attack its massive petrochemical complexes and ports would be.

The extensive investment drawn by Gujarat is in part a factor of reasonably stable India-Pakistan ties.

Second, no Indian leader can afford escalating a conflict to the point of using nuclear weapons.

While India does have the means to obliterate Pakistan in minutes, the reverse is possible as well.

Besides, New Delhi is fully aware that wind patterns on the subcontinent are such that the radioactive fallout from an attack on Pakistan would enter India in no time and would not only affect cities across northern India, but also wipe out much of its grain bowl.

"You cannot take foolhardy actions with any neighbour, Pakistan or China," said South Asia foreign policy specialist S.D. Muni.

"The fundamentals of foreign policy are based on a broad national consensus. I don't see a radical change."

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