On assuming office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inherited a foreign policy marked increasingly by drift and uncertainty in the face of a sinking economy, growing global challenges and far-reaching changes in the power dynamics of Asia. With characteristic self-confidence, Mr Modi has since rapidly restored India's stature in the international arena and redefined the terms of its strategic outreach to major powers. While handling important summit meetings with precision and poise, Mr Modi has struck a fine balance between transformative and transactional elements to build subtly differentiated partnerships with Japan, China and the US. This augurs well for the forthcoming round of regional and global summits on which he will embark in November. The PM's brand of strategic ambition has several distinct components. It is aimed at restoring India's credibility. It signals pragmatic engagement of all major powers, each on its own merit. It raises India's profile by leveraging the soft power of democracy and the universal values that India upholds. It signals the full alignment of foreign policy with India's domestic economic goals, security interests and global aspirations. It marks the interjection of India's role and responsibility in shaping the Asian and global power balance. It displays flexibility on economic engagement, firmness on meeting security challenges and resolve in safeguarding India's "core" sovereign and territorial interests. And finally, it promises the rapid operationalisation of commitments made with foreign partners, as witnessed by the constitution of a "Japan Plus" team and Core Group within a month of Modi's Tokyo visit. Each component is driven by strategic intent. A new "Modified" framework for strategic engagement to advance India's national interests is emerging. The foreign ministry has tended to use the terminology of "strategic partnership" rather liberally and without appropriate categorisation. There is need for much greater rigour to shape the nature of these partnerships in line with long-term global assessments and a long-overdue national strategic doctrine. If India is to build genuine "strategic partnerships", these need to be better understood and defined. Various categories of mutually beneficial partnerships can come into play when there are congruent interests between countries in multiple domains. However, a far more accurate definition of "strategic partnership" would be a broad convergence of interests between two countries which has the capacity to fundamentally impact the balance of power to their mutual advantage, regionally and globally.
In other words, this transformative element of serving each other's fundamental national interests is inherent to relations between strategic partners. Commitments are reciprocal, so trust and credibility become indispensable. Evaluated against this definition, distinctions among the strategic partnerships which Mr Modi has sought to advance become clear. India and Japan share democratic values and a commitment to each other's national strength and economic vitality. They have a common vision of a balanced regional security order with strong normative frameworks to underpin economic prosperity in an Asian Century. Together, they can make a lasting contribution to Asia's power balance, security and stability. With the United States, PM Modi has restored strategic direction and engaged vital constituencies to sustain a long-term strategic partnership. Apart from affirming support for Mr Modi's domestic agenda and India's economic rise, the Modi-Obama summit has signalled transformative change in bilateral defence and defence industrial cooperation, as well as security cooperation to advance shared interests in regional peace and stability, both bilaterally and in conjunction with other Asia Pacific partners like Japan. India-US relations may continue to witness some short-term stress, but in the long term their interests are more than likely to be aligned. In comparison, the "strategic" threshold signalled by the India-China summit has restricted bandwidth. India and China have a strategically important relationship with cooperative, competitive and adversarial components, not a "strategic partnership". Mr Modi went out of his way to welcome the Chinese President but made it clear that even progress on economic relations would be difficult to sustain in the face of repeated Chinese border transgressions and the absence of progress in resolving the boundary dispute. While we can reserve judgment on the future of India's partnerships with the European Union and Russia till after the next India-EU and India-Russia summits, constraining factors are already emerging. With the EU, there can be meaningful economic engagement but the "strategic" element will be limited as the EU lacks the capacity or the inclination to help shape the balance of power in Asia. Russia's importance for India in the areas of defence and energy will continue, but long-term prospects will depend on what kind of Asian order Russia will support. Meanwhile, India's strategic horizon has already expanded. Taken together, the outcomes of the summits with Japan and the US have enlarged the scope of India's commitments on regional stability and security. If India is to measure up, it will need to scale up contributions to the power equilibrium in the Asia Pacific. It will also need to forge new strategic partnerships in Southeast Asia to support regional order and stability. The PM recognises this responsibility. In his address to the Combined Commanders Conference on October 17, he observed that the world is looking at India with renewed interest and there is "a universal current of expectation from India to emerge not only as one of the poles of the global economy, but also as one of the anchors of regional and global security". The EAS summit in Myanmar and the G-20 summit in Australia next month will provide further opportunities for Mr Modi to continue his transformative impact on India's strategic partnerships. Aspirational India will stand to benefit.
The author is a former ambassador to Japan. He is currently at ICRIER, New Delhi