Modi making the world his stage

Modi making the world his stage
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before they hold a meeting in Xian.

It has been a busy, globe-trotting first year for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the former chief minister of Gujarat made his presence felt on the world stage.

The first major country he visited was Japan last August. Mr Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Mr Shinzo Abe, pledged to enhance their countries' strategic partnership during a five-day visit marked by displays of warmth, including a tea ceremony in Kyoto. Two weeks later, he played host to President Xi Jinping, receiving the Chinese leader in Gujarat instead of Delhi, in a break from protocol.

By the end of September, he was in Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama, who then visited India in January this year.

Last week, the Indian leader was the guest of Mr Xi, who welcomed him in the ancient Silk Road city of Xi'an, in a similar break from protocol. This made Mr Modi the first foreign leader to be hosted outside of the capital Beijing.

Since he took office on May 26 last year, Mr Modi has visited 18 countries as well as hosted world leaders in India. The flurry of visits abroad, analysts said, is aimed at raising international interest in India, convincing major economic powers such as China that India is ready for large-scale investments, while deepening strategic alliances with the United States, Japan and Australia.

Though Mr Modi has largely followed the broad contours of the previous government's foreign policy, he is seen to have brought his own flamboyant style and a greater clarity to foreign policy, such as reaching out further to Indian Ocean countries as India keeps an eye on China's increasing presence there.

"Before Modi came into office, people assumed he would be weak on foreign policy and rely on advisers since he was a provincial leader and did not have national-level experience. But this is one area he has proved he is in complete control," said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

"He has responded better (than the previous government) and in a much more coherent manner."

Mr Modi is credited with converting Gujarat into an economic powerhouse when he was chief minister by attracting foreign investments - and he is now attempting to replicate that success at the national level, through his travels.

In a sales pitch to Chinese businessmen in Shanghai last week, he told them to feel the "winds of change" blowing in India as US$22 billion (S$29.4 billion) worth of trade deals were inked during his three-day visit.

In Germany last month, he told investors "India is open and ready to embrace the world". Speaking to a crowd of Indian Australians chanting his name in Sydney last November, he said he was bringing in reforms and discarding obsolete laws, and urged them to invest in India.

Yet Mr Modi faces many challenges in his plan to boost the Indian economy through economic engagement in the immediate neighbourhood and beyond.

Reaching out to South Asian nations with an eye on reducing political discord and promoting economic integration and prosperity in the region - much like the 10-member ASEAN - is no easy task.

He started off by inviting South Asian leaders, including Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony on May 26 and chose Bhutan for his maiden visit as prime minister, but South Asia remains a difficult neighbourhood.

A year on, there is little improvement in ties between India and Pakistan, with Mr Modi hesitant to initiate diplomatic talks. And China's growing presence in countries like Sri Lanka remains a source of irritation for India. Beyond South Asia, Mr Modi expressed a desire to reshape ties with South-east Asia by renaming the moribund "Look East" policy and calling it "Act East".

This is part of an effort to create linkages between India's north-east, which in many parts has fallen behind in development, and South-east Asia. Yet it is not certain how he plans to breathe life into the "Act East" policy

On a strategic level, India and the United States early this year released the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, which supports freedom of navigation.

But with the US heading into a presidential election next year, it remains to be seen how the two countries intend to join forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

Foreign policy watchers say Mr Modi's biggest achievement so far is to give foreign policy great importance. "His greatest contribution is that with his more personal approach, Modi has energised foreign policy," said former Indian foreign secretary Salman Haidar.

"He has opened new fronts by going to countries that previous governments did not visit. He is in direct contact with so many leaders and that has - and will - make a difference."

This article was first published on May 23, 2015.
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