Mixed USA and India flag, three dimensional render, illustration: iStock

In A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in the American Imperium, Peter J Katzenstein wrote: “How should we think about world politics after the end of the Cold War, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, after the September 11 attacks, with the onset of the war on terror? My answer is simple: Ours is a world of regions, embedded deeply in an American Imperium. A generation ago, Hedley Bull imagined a world without the Cold War as a more regionalized world system. What was pure speculation then is now becoming a reality.”

Either for cooperation or to maintain the balance of power, in this anarchic world system, the state is bound to develop a cobweb of relationships not only in the neighborhood and in its region but also at the global level. This is the prime inspiration behind the national interest of any given state actor in the world arena. All the states of the world system are trying to maximize their national interest and minimize the scope of traditional and non-traditional threats to their nation, in order to better survive and to become an influential world power.

In the modern era, after the culmination of the industrialization of Europe, Britain ruled the world by imperial means and reduced several countries to mere colonies. This started with the journey of exploration and culminated with the processes of exploitation. Colonization suddenly brought immense affluence of resources to imperial countries and this eventually led to the First World War and the Second World War. The race for the accumulation of resources and profit made the European imperial powers wage war within and beyond.

After the conclusion of the world wars, the United States slid into Britain’s shoes willingly or unwillingly and the world system bifurcated again from “the colonial states and imperial states” to the “US bloc and Soviet bloc.” In the late 1950s, the world system became embroiled in the Cold War. Finally, in the 1990s, the USSR disintegrated but the US retained its power and position. This put the US in a highly dominant position in the world system. There are other world powers, but only the US has enjoyed sole superpower status.

Globalization of world politics has become evident and gradually the multiple interests of diverse states are interconnecting with each other. Experts say that now the world system is tilting toward multipolarity from unipolarity. Multipolarity might be a possibility tomorrow but there is no denying the fact today that the US is the most decisive power in the contemporary world system. Of course, the processes of globalization have given impetus to the processes of regionalization, too, but the US still cannot be ignored in any part of today’s world.

India has shown its commitment to assisting in establishing a democratization process, ensuring food security, investing in renewable energy and building security mechanisms for its comprehensive interests in the Indian Ocean

After its second nuclear test in 1998, India had crossed the Rubicon and with the Jaswant-Talbott talks, India’s foreign policy has reached the point of no return and the new chapter of Indo-US cooperation has begun. In the following decades, this cooperation was converted into strategic partnership and now the Trump administration wants greater Indian participation in the regions in line with the US and its allies.

Geopolitically, India is at “the center of great Asian arc” and is bound to play a larger role, particularly in South Asia and generally in Asia. Irrespective of changing of governments in India and the US, the partnership and understanding between the two are qualitatively deepening. In view of the geopolitical conditions and India’s relations with neighboring countries and the omnipresence of the US in all regions of the world, it is imperative for India’s national interests that it fall into line with the US, not only in the Asian matrix but also in global complexities.

The steady pace of the relationship of these two democratic countries is now advancing, ironically on expected lines that were earlier expected just after India got independence, and that’s why then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee described the US and India as “natural allies.” After Vajpaayi, Manmohan Singh intensified the bilateral relationship and the country finalized its nuclear deal. Now, Narendra Modi has advanced the cooperation, saying that this is the time when both countries must leave behind “the hesitations of history.”

Modi’s active foreign policy worldwide strongly resonates. Undoubtedly, the prime minister has put his primary focus on foreign policy and he is quite good at telling the world that India takes its global and regional responsibilities quite seriously with its active engagements and programmes. India’s foreign policy under the Modi government can be analyzed in various ways, but the qualitative India-US relationship is evident and for obvious reasons, it is inevitable, too. The US designs its foreign policy according to its role and requirements in each region. In fact, the US has its own way of seeing the world system and it has defined the regions in its own unique way. On the US Department of State website, there is a tab named “Countries and Regions.” This explains how the US sees the world system, which shapes its “diplomacy in action.”

As categorized in this tab, the US divides the world system into seven broad categories containing six regions:

  1. Africa (Sub-Sahara)
  2. East Asia and the Pacific
  3. Europe and Eurasia
  4. Near East (Northern Africa, Middle East)
  5. South and Central Asia
  6. Western Hemisphere (Latin America, The Caribbean, Canada)
  7. UN and other international organizations

This article humbly aims to analyze Modi’s activism at the regional and global level and the way the US sees the world. Needless to say, in this way we can also be able to look at the prospects of current trends in India’s foreign policy and its suitability according to the needs of today and tomorrow.

India in Africa (Sub-Sahara)

Even after the completion of the decolonization process, resource-rich Africa is still struggling to modernize. In almost every other region, countries are pursuing development, but many African countries remain undemocratic or are poorly governed. The rest of the world, including the US and India, is interested in exploiting Africa’s natural resources and market potential. This region needs foreign aid, foreign direct investment and gradual political development. Having influence in this region, the US can ensure its presence as well as in the Indian Ocean. This also helps to check other countries’ similar intentions. The US was very conscious earlier about Russian influence on the region and it tried to minimize it gradually.

India cannot be confident about the security of the Indian Ocean without having access to the African region, especially when China has marked its presence in the region already. India understands the urgency of the situation. Though a little late, it started the “India-Africa Summit” on an annual basis and initiated engagements in Africa. India has shown its commitment to assisting in establishing a democratization process, ensuring food security, investing in renewable energy and building security mechanisms for its comprehensive interests in the Indian Ocean.

India recently inked a defense cooperation deal with South Africa. Under the leadership of Modi, India has raised its global profile. The Indian approach to this region is defined by economic engagement and multilateralism. India joined the African Development Bank (AfDB) in 1983, and in 2017, India hosted its annual meetings at Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat. At this meeting India reiterated its promise to work on the “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’ in partnership with Japan. In July 2016, Modi visited four African countries – Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. Hence, Modi made India’s presence felt in the region and it is in sync with the US’s African policy.

India in East Asia and the Pacific

“For too long, India and the US have looked at each other across Europe and the Atlantic. When I look towards the East, I see the western shores of the US.” Narendra Modi

For quite a long time, East Asia and the Pacific region did not figure prominently in the strategic thinking of India. The Narasimha Rao government believed, however, that India should engage with East Asia and advocated the Look East Policy (LEP). Through the Gujral doctrine, this approach gained more prominence. It emphasized expressions of goodwill that did not demand reciprocity. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh further advanced the approach.

In July 2011, while visiting India, then-US secretary of state Hilary Clinton suggested that India should play a stronger role in the region, coining the term  “Act East.” For the US, the Pacific region is strategically quite important. Here, China and Russia are trying hard to maintain their leverage, and the US does not want to lose its influence. Also, through the Pacific, the US is connected to Asia, where it wants to be an impressive actor. Pressuring India to play a more active role in the region certainly advances the interests of the US even further. Obviously, India must respond to the call as the bilateral relationship between India and the US is growing. In 2014, India updated its policy towards East Asia, and at the East Asia Summit, Myanmar and India launched the “Act East Policy” (AEP).

To some, changing LEP into AEP is just superficial, but the facts say otherwise and Modi can feel content with the progress on AEP. Myanmar and Thailand are the two pillars of India’s East Asia strategy. India has explored further avenues of cooperation with the two countries. India has invested in the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which should eventually deepen the connectivity between South Asia and East Asia and beyond. Modi also has come out from the dilemma in which Indian strategic thinkers were reluctant to use the North East region of the country to connect the East Asia region through infrastructure development.

In May 2017, Modi inaugurated the longest road bridge in Assam and said that the northeast would play a major role in connecting East Asia to South Asia. Connectivity, commerce and culture – the three Cs – essential to the current Indian approach towards the region. Asean is the only regional grouping for trade and other cooperation that is actually flourishing, and India has announced the allocation of $1 billion to India-Asean for connectivity.

Using the northeast area strategically requires more security and economic development of the region and the government has already initiated several projects, including a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. India is working towards a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The most dynamic and deepening growth one can witness in the relations of India and Japan is in this context. Both countries have concluded a nuclear deal, Japan is investing in a high-speed train in India, it is helping to build Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and it has joined the Malabar Exercise along with the US to check the growing activism of China in the Indian Ocean region.

Modi’s visit to Australia was the first trip to the country by an Indian prime minister in 28 years, and his trip to Fiji was the first in 33 years. Modi has even visited Mongolia, a landlocked country bordered by China and Russia; that was the first visit by an Indian prime minister ever.

India is a strategic partner of Asean. Asean and India have a combined population of over 1.8 billion and a combined GDP of more than $3.8 trillion. That’s why India is continuously trying to be more engaged with Asean. Asean, as a collective, now occupies the fourth-largest position in India’s total external trade; it was the 10th largest in 2015. The government of India has just confirmed that in the coming Republic Day Parade, India has invited all 10 Asean leaders (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Phillippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) to attend as special invitees. This should further advance India’s engagement with Asean.

As the US wants it and it is also in the interest of the country, India has started to take a stand in the region on several issues. India has reiterated its position on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and stressed that any disputes must be addressed as per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In December 2015, when the then-defense minister, Manohar Parrikar, visited the US Pacific Command Headquarters at Camp Smith, the idea of joint US-India patrolling of the South China Sea emerged, though this has not been confirmed by Indian sources. The territorial disputes China has with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei create avenues of cooperation for India and vulnerabilities for China. Hence, India has definitely expedited its cooperation and coordination towards East Asia and the Pacific.

India in Europe and Eurasia

Europe has so far ignored India diplomatically and has long seen the country just as a regional power. It also has a lukewarm attitude toward India’s membership in the UN Security Council. But Europe has always enjoyed a privileged relationship with the US. Since the 1990s, the transatlantic relationship has flourished. An integrated Europe is good for American interests and unlike after World War I, the US decision in 1945 not to withdraw from Western Europe has actually stabilized the region.

France has a special rapport with the US. Germany is a leading country of Europe and without the US, German reunification would never have become a reality. In Europe, the US definitely enjoys a special status and has several economic and strategic partnerships with the countries of the region. Europe is still quite dependant on Russia for its energy needs and the US want to minimize this dependency, but this will not be easy. Russia is also accumulating diplomatic capital in the region and has even built a Eurasian Union (EuU) located primarily in northern Eurasia. Europe is quite professional in establishing diplomatic and economic relationships with rest of the world, which is why Europe is engaged with each world power in its own way.

There was a time when Europe was quite apprehensive about an Indo-US nuclear deal and not so enthusiastic about its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), but the ice is melting. Now the EU is quite supportive of India’s geopolitical position in its neighborhood and the broader region, and has often criticised China on several issues. The European Union is India’s largest trading partner and the bloc is a growing voice even in diplomatic circles.

Recently it concluded 5 + 1 talks on Iran. Thus, it is in the interest of India that it would claim the yet untapped potential of an India-Europe partnership. In 2007, the EU and India began talking about a free trade agreement. Germany is leading the EU and India is highly engaged with its leadership.  There are some economic agreement issues between the EU and India, and Germany has raised concerns. Modi visited Europe in May 2017 and went to Spain, Russia, France and Germany. In a joint statement issued by India and Germany, Angela Merkel said: “They conducted a comprehensive review of bilateral relations and discussed new and upcoming opportunities and challenges in Asia, Europe and across the world. This joint statement affirms not only Germany’s affinity with India but also Europe’s support for India worldwide.

Part II of this article can be found here.

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Dr Shreesh Pathak

Dr Shreesh Pathak holds an MPhil and a PhD from the Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He heads the Department of Political Science at Galgotias University in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

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