Why Modi has failed in the foreign policy arena: the perils of Personalized Diplomacy

Image result for ics of xi and modi

A year before the next general elections, it is dawning on the Modi government that it has nothing much to show for the Prime Minister’s extensive travels all over the globe, whence the desperation-tinged diplomatic activity to fashion something out of thin air and that too with the sternest negotiator in the business — China!

The suddenly announced “informal summit” in Wuhan involving Modi and Xi Jinping on April 27-28, is presumably the vehicle that is supposed to get some results that Modi can crow about and Xi can hold up as the kind of transaction the Chinese supremo can extract out of a nettlesome country on its border with pretensions to become a “leading power” (of originally US description)!  Except, this coach is likely to turn, as in Cinderella’s case, into a pumpkin ere the clock strikes twelve or, as in this case, when the meeting at Xi’s private resort on East Lake ends with nothing in Modi’s bag!

That absolutely nothing will come out of this summit is hinted at by the prefix “informal”  attached to it. It means basically that even though the two governments tried desperately hard to narrow the differences on the numerous outstanding issues in which the two sides have a stake, nothing was able to be worked out, not between the Foreign Offices, nor at the level of the Foreign Ministers, Sushma Swaraj and Wang Yi, or Defence Ministers, Nirmala Sitharaman and General Wei Fenghe. And that it is now left to the principals to conjure up something.

What must particularly bother Modi is that time and again, in the run-up to the 2014 elections, he talked of “business” being in his “blood” which led the Indian people to expect, among lot else, that he’d also be extremely successful in cutting a whole bunch of deals to economically advantage the country. In the last four years the only deal the Prime Minister has managed to finalize is the $12 billion plus contract for 36 Rafale combat aircraft, an outlay for which France had previously promised 126 of these aircraft! This looks like a great deal. For France! So may be the French President Francoise Hollande deserves the award for champion businessman and deal-maker.

The question that arises in the face of such conspicuous failure is why Modi has failed? Perhaps he relied too much on his trademark hugs and embraces to personalize diplomacy to a point where he hoped the opposite numbers, succumbing to the charms of good fellowship, would up and generously agree to whatever Modi had in mind to obtain. The simpletonish premise here is that if you are physically pally with someone that person is somehow duty bound to be nice to you (which is subcontinental kind of thinking).  Except, as hard politicians just about every one of them kept to the true north represented by their nations’ interests and succeeded in pulling Modi over to their side rather than going over to Modi’s. This has happened frequently enough to now be a  pattern.

Consider this: Trump humoured Modi and gamely accepted his embraces in Washington and then stuck it into India — constricting the H1B visa worm hole through which a generation of Indian Indian techies — economic refugees with technical skills, had squirmed through with their careerist wives to the good life in America, imposing tariffs on imports from India (steel and aluminum), rejecting Delhi’s advice to return to WTO table, and readying legislatively to punish India for dealing with Iran, and for buying arms from Russia. And all this while Modi hoped that by tagging on to the American line, accepting Washington’s advice, he’d get something out of the US.

Or, China and Xi: the Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale — a Mandarin-speaking  diplomat — the kind this analyst has always warned as more likely to further China’s interests than India’s — was permitted cravenly to seek approval from Beijing for putting the clamps on the Dalai Lama by preventing the Tibetan exile community from celebrating 60 years of his safe exile in India. This was obviously seen as a sweetener in the hope that this gesture would soften the Chinese attitude and negotiating stance on numerous issues. Messrs Gokhale and others of his China loving ilk should have known that this would only whet Beijing’s appetite, which is exactly what has happened.

Having correctly gauged that Modi was in urgent need of some success in the external realm, the Xi dispensation laid out the agenda. Foreign Minister Wang wants India to sign on along with China as a “guardian of globalism” and jointly work out means and measures to oppose Trump’s protectionist policies. Global trade is, of course, good for India but shouldn’t Modi demand that Xi eliminate the trade deficit of $50 billion in bilateral trade and accord Indian companies in China the same treatment as Chinese firms in India enjoy? And if Beijing fails, to impose harsher but indirect counter-taxes to equalize the economic opportunity, and to keep China out of the RCEP benefits basket unless that happens instead of Delhi always playing the sap and sucker?

But  there’s no hint that Xi will concede even a millimeter on matters of interest to India, in the main, the expeditious resolution of the border dispute and delineation of the Line of Actual Control as the formal boundary, and the acceptance of ‘One India’ in return for Delhi’s agreeing to the ‘One China’ concept; ‘One India’ to include the boundaries f the erstwhile princely kingdom of Kashmir meaning, ipso facto, Gilgit and Baltistan and the rest of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. And that if Xi does not agree with this, then India would instantly withdraw from its earlier agreed position of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) as part  of China — which historically it never was, a fact proven by the Great Ming Unification Record of 1461.  (Incidentally, the conclusions of his revealing research into China’s imperial records going as far back as Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and up to the Ming Dynasty ,1368-1644, were conveyed  by Professor Hon-shiang Lau, formerly of the University of Hong Kong, in his lecture at the India International Centre on April 11, 2018,  among the most  enlightening this analyst has ever heard anywhere.) This research makes nonsense of the traditional Chinese claim of Tibet as part of China “since antiquity”, because it shows that “antiquity” means only as far back as the Yuan emperors in the Middle Ages, and then only to strengthen the point the Tibetan govt in exile has been making from the beginning that Tibet was never part of imperial China and was so acknowledged by the Emperors!

Indeed, the Great  Unification Records–are documents clearly describing the exact  extent of the Chinese Empire, listing all the regions within it, that the dispensation of each emperor prepared anew are clear in identifying Tibet as lying WELL OUTSIDE the Chinese imperial domain.

Shouldn’t Mandarin-speaking Foreign Service officers, who busy themselves with useless work, not be tasked with researching into these documents to buttress India’s case for a rethink on Tibet?  (Communist Beijing’s  explanation for this is — according to Prof Lau –that, oh, the Qing and successor emperors  “had not educated” themselves on Tibet!!! On such  historical nonsense are China’s territorial claims based. Shouldn’t  Modi bring this up and his government hereafter draw up a legal case to separate Tibet from China?

Because of the wrongheaded orientation of his government from the start — Modi will likely be fobbed of by Xi with some infirm commitment about Beijing perhaps reconsidering its India’s case for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group — a cartel that I have long argued will restrict India’s freedom for policy maneuver and to exercise leverage in the nonproliferation field for a change instead of always being victimised by the NPT regime; and about declaring Azhar Mahmood a terrorist,and some small understanding that PLA will not start a flareup in Dok La and elsewhere on the LAC that could give the Indian army a bloody nose and sink Modi’s re-election chances.  Modi will return happy with this kind of small giveaways that he will then ballyhoo as some great achievement. If the Modi government thinks that the Gagan Shakti kind of military exercise (11,000 sorties, 6 sorties per platform per day) will impress, it should think again. They should recall that in 1958 when a joint air-army exercise was staged in Ambala for a visiting Chinese dignitary who led the PLA  in the 1962 War, complete with Hunter aircraft on strafing sorties, the PLA commander coolly turned to ask Nehru if he thought aircraft would be available to the Indian army in the mountains!

That Xi is the hardest negotiator Modi has met is evident from a simple fact: Modi never tried to hug Xi — if he did, he must have done so in secret because there are no pics of this momentous embrace on film. That’s because Modi instinctively understands that Xi is a hard nut to crack, as have been the other foreign leaders he has summitted with, except the Chinese leader is unwilling to give Modi even the satisfaction of a hug that as far as Modi is concerned signals to the Indian masses and media greater understanding and level of intimacy than exists in reality with leaders who push their national interests in extremis, even as Indian PMs are happy with pats on their back, while the country gets it in the neck.

The “informal” Modi-Xi summit is hence a lot of hoo-ha amounting to  nothing.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Bhutan, China, China military, civil-military relations, domestic politics, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Pakistan, South Asia, Terrorism, Tibet, United States, US., Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Why Modi has failed in the foreign policy arena: the perils of Personalized Diplomacy

  1. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Modi ji or for that matter his predecessors or his successors will always fail against China till they realize that Chinese leadership comes to the negotiating table with the power of all of China. This, off course presumes without proof that Modi ji or for that matter his predecessors or his successors wish to succeed against China.

    When the time started to take India on the path to real competition against China the leadership and babu log were all sleeping. Now these people are left with no option but to get dragged along by china given that chinese manufacturing of 60 odd billion USD year on year fulfill the demands of Indian economy and without this manufacturing prowess Indian economy would be forced to buy the same imports at 1.5x to 3x from USA and Western Europe. They cannot get out of this trap till they dig themselves out of the ditch of their own making. Again, that would require them to first acknowledge that they are in a ditch.
    Here is the debt trap being prepared for India. Notice only foreigners and wanna-be foreigners rant for this. China never went down this road and instead was berated as being ‘about to go bust’ by the same ever-ranting foreigners and wanna-be foreigners.

    India’s revamped bankruptcy process is in full swing and investors from Blackstone Group LP to Oaktree Capital Group LLC are salivating over an estimated $210 billion of stressed assets that are up for grabs.]

    And see the net result reaped in the strategic dialogues due to the neglect of Indian economy:
    The talks are scheduled for April 28- May 8 in Singapore. “The current situation can influence our negotiations. China looks keen to engage actively,” said a government official.

    Beijing’s sudden interest in the closure of the RCEP is fuelled by Washington’s renewed interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, another mega regional trade partnership.

    Till now, only the ASEAN countries have pushed for expeditious completion of talks while India has grappled with divided opinion about the trade agreement. Many departments and ministries including agriculture, defence and economic affairs have opposed the deal saying it would hurt India’s interest.

    The official quoted earlier said that all countries want to show there is some movement forward in the RCEP pact.]

    A new start is never too late. It is not difficult to see what needs to be done. Real strategic muscles cannot be supplanted by borrowed crutches.

  2. Spot on.
    Right on dot.
    Doklam was a fiasco which could have been tackled diplomatically instead of couple of armored bulldozers which ruffled the Chinese feathers. India is no US with gunboat diplomacy. Because of this Doklam, India is in for probable troubles with China who did not take it lightly. India’s Nirav Modi extradition request went unheeded in Hong Kong – a slap named Doklam. Modi is not good for India as far as his world view and handling of foreign policy is concerned. The fellow is less than perspicacious for 69 percent of Indians who did not vote for him.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      The US cannot pull its “gunboat policy” against China.

    • AKHIL says:

      It is very easy for “Commie China Bhakts” to forget that it was the great congress regime which lost the war with the damn Chinese in 62 and didn’t bother to fortify Arunachal or undertake infrastructural development in the north east for 50 bloody years.

      And u still want to vote the congress back to power? WOW!

      Modi is far from perfect, but i have no doubt in my mind that India’s foreign policy is finally growing a pair viz-a-viz China.

      “Doklam was a fiasco which could have been tackled diplomatically instead of couple of armored bulldozers which ruffled the Chinese feathers.” ohhh my god heavens….pray tell me how else has Delhi dealt with the Chinese historically until Doklam?( Don’t mention 1987, it was all General Sundarji’s guts). I remember Shivshankar Menon begging(under the guise of negotiations) the Chinese to call back their troops whenever they trespassed into our territory . How well has that worked out?

      China only understands hard power(as repeatedly emphasized by Mr.Karnad).But India is weak to confront China. Thats why we have to mellow down our rhetoric until we become strong militarily.

      Like the Chinese say “Hide your power and bide your time”

      And it isn’t India’s time yet. And Modi should be the last one to be blamed for it.

  3. &^%$#@! says:

    WRT:”They should recall that in 1958 when a joint air-army exercise was staged in Ambala for a visiting Chinese dignitary who led the PLA in the 1962 War, complete with Hunter aircraft on strafing sorties, the PLA commander coolly turned to ask Nehru if he thought aircraft would be available to the Indian army in the mountains!”

    There were indeed Hunters and Mysteres armed and waiting in their bases, AND, flying over the mountain passes literally begging for permission to bomb the passes and adjoining areas. No permission came because Nehru trusted the CIA and MI6 over his own peoples first-hand accounts. NM shares too many of Nehru’s qualities and preferences or Indians to be comfortable.


    Honest, precise and interesting. Such discerning views are an imperative to warn governments of inept foreign policy initiatives.

  5. Major general Murali(Retd) says:

    I do value your views. Has India had a directional approach on foreign policy? Foreign policy has to be active and dynamic. With China even the US has been fooled along because of the overarching importance given by China on the lessons of The Warring States period in their history and the practice of “shi”. Naïveté has been the problem with India. Unless we have demonstrable capabilities there is no chance in hell in this anarchic world

  6. Kya says:

    Induan beauricracy is a coolie class in fireign and elute insude India.
    Unfortunately they are controlling foreign policy and not politicians.

    Secretary K. Jaishankar and the Ministry of External Affairs that the Indian government
    Have always been clueless relying on crutches of American vassal state after Modi or previous pm bribes Americans with billion dollar worth of order for American and British military junk.
    No wonder with such ineffective functionaries India has had no friend in last 39 years.they annoyed the only freind Russia.
    In mid 80s India had to rely on tennis star Vijay amritraj to plead Indian case before American Shultz because Indians had no guts or status to talk to Americans at that time when Americans were finding the Taliban and Sikh terrorists in 80s

    Yes India under MMS lost it’s neighbours Myanmar and Sri Lanka while trying to please the Americans and the ‘West’. US wanted India to sanctimoniously preach democrazy and (in)human rights in Myanmar. India followed orders. Myanmar ended up on China’s lap. And India on the insistence of ‘west’ took anti Lanka stand in various international forums. Lanka today is Chinese outpost. And delayed construction of chabahar port in Iran under Amriki pressure. Modi being a status quoist will continue to be in the good books of the ‘west;’


  7. sanman says:

    Should India ever decide to pursue legal arguments on why Tibet is not part of China, then China is the last party that India should bring the case to, and should be the last party for India to consult with. ChiComs don’t care about history or facts, they only care about power. India can weaken China by growing the Indian economy into a competitor against China, and that will be enough to cut down the ambitions of Chinese leaders, whose whims are currently unopposed (other than the newfound oppobrium from Trump).

  8. Zhuanjia says:

    The author is highly frustrated as he himself doesn’t know Chinese language. India can’t take on China alone and the govt has rightly decided to underplay dalai lama activities.

  9. &^%$#@! says:

    See, just a simple civilized handshake, After the Chinese said 没有 to hugs and bum patting, Chaiwalla started behaving normally. I gather he even spoke in the Sansjritized Hindi (a superb language) which he speaks so well,

  10. &^%$#@! says:

    It is Sanskritized Hindi

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