With an objective to explore the potential of the Indian Ocean rim region, which is projected to be very expansive and contain the expanding Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership shifted its regional focus toward BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries. All the members of BIMSTEC except Bhutan have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has caused security concerns in India.

However, the moot point is whether India under Modi’s leadership can build strategic bonding to an extent with the players in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asian regions that can keep its concerns about China in the long term and forge a successful balance-of-power strategy in relation to the US and China.

Many analysts have interpreted India’s foreign policy under Modi’s leadership as a break with the past, as the leader jettisoned the long-standing reactive and idealist character of policy shaped by non-alignment in favor of proactive and pragmatic policy characterized by multiple partnerships based on mutual benefits.

For instance, Reeta Chowdhari Tremblay and Ashok Kapur in their book Modi’s Foreign Policy (2017) observe a paradigm shift taking place under Modi’s leadership. They argue: “Within the framework of non-alignment, peaceful co-existence and anti-militarism, there has been a traditional reluctance among Modi’s predecessors to expand India’s diplomatic and military links with non-traditional partners of India, such as Israel, Japan and Vietnam. This reluctance has been replaced by a proactive, integrated view of regions and the simultaneous pursuance of multiple relationships.”

In fact, both experts went to the extent of arguing that India’s foreign policy under Modi is less concerned about strategic autonomy and more inclined toward expanding strategic space through building transactional relationships based on mutual benefits with various global partners. India shed traditional concerns of compromising autonomy when it forged a military alliance with the US and signed security pacts such as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, or LEMOA (and later the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, COMCASA). Mutual gains for India and the US in strengthening their Indo-Pacific strategic presence factored more into their relationship than Indian concerns for autonomy.

Raja Mohan, although in his book Modi’s World: Expanding India’s Sphere of Influence (2015) he does not see a paradigm shift in India’s foreign policy, he certainly believes that it has become proactive. He argues that under Prime Minister Modi, India’s engagement with the Southeast Asian and Indo-Pacific regions has deepened and assumed an independent character under the “Act East” policy.

He observes: “The UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government had set voluntary limits to India’s defense diplomacy in the east by deferring to presumed Chinese sensitivities even before Beijing expressed them.” On the other hand, Modi has been more assertive in the region and less mindful of Chinese reactions. Intensification of defense cooperation with Vietnam and expression of India’s concerns about the conflicts in the South China Sea are some of the evidence of India’s assertiveness in the region, according to Mohan.

Harsh V Pant, an expert on India’s foreign policy, contends that New Delhi has not abandoned the quest for strategic autonomy, but the idea has been redefined under Modi as an objective that is attainable through strengthened partnerships rather than the avoidance of partnerships – idea and practice wedded to India’s non-alignment policy. He argues: “When India engages in the so-called ‘Quad,’ it enhances its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China. When it sits together with Russia and China for a trilateral, it enhances its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis a Trump administration intent on challenging the fundamentals of the global economic order.”

Manjeet S Pardesi of Victoria University of Wellington in an article titled “Modi, from ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’: Semantic or Substantive Change?” does not observe any radical shift in India’s approach to the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asian regions in Modi’s Act East policy and contends that the policy is just like old wine in a new bottle. He argues:

“Given the Chinese military presence in Tibet and the Sino-Pakistani quasi-alliance, Indian strategists have always feared that Chinese hegemony in Southeast Asia would be tantamount to an encirclement of India. India’s Look East policy was partially a response to such thinking. Prime minister Manmohan Singh, who was one of the architects of India’s Look East policy in 1991 (when he was finance minister), noted that this policy was not merely an external economic policy; it was also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in the evolving global economy…. India’s destiny … [is] linked with that of Asia and more so [sic] Southeast Asia.”

Indicating continuity in India’s foreign policy, Pardesi argued: “The ASEAN-India Free Trade Area in goods came into effect in 2010 while the FTA in services and investment came into force in 2015. Both Singh and Modi have invested political capital to develop physical infrastructure connecting India and Southeast Asia.”

To corroborate his argument, he cites how India has been involved in oil exploration along with Vietnam in the South China Sea under Singh as well as Modi despite Chinese suspicions. Similarly, the Singaporean air force and army obtained long-term access to military facilities in India for training purposes under Singh, and Singapore continues to use these facilities today. India started conducting coordinated patrols in the Malacca Strait with Indonesia in 2011.

Economic performance, bureaucratic reforms

While a proactive dimension to Modi’s foreign-policy approach is visible in his extensive visits, engagement of overseas Indian communities in Australia and Fiji, and New Delhi’s commitment to liberalization of visa rules, the “Make in India” policy and readiness to conclude pending free trade agreements as well as to expand the scale and scope of India’s development assistance to the less developed and the Pacific islands, Modi’s commitments outside must be matched by bureaucratic reforms and inter-ministerial coordination at home apart from economic capabilities to deliver.

Underlining the significance of economic strength to foreign-policy strategy, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues that New Delhi’s decision not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) now “seems like an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that India is simply not in a position to compete strongly in the global economy, without risking serious trade imbalances and domestic economic disruption.… But the idea that you can define strategic ambitions far in excess of your economic clout is deeply misplaced, and all our pretensions in that regard, like ‘Look East,’ now ‘Indo-Pacific,’ always had a ring of exuberant hollowness to them. You can bank on strategic narratives to solve economic problems only so much.”

Raja Mohan underlined the limitations to India’s Act East policy when he said: “Modi too sounded cautious, with phrases like ‘balanced trade’ that reflect the conservatism in Delhi rather than an appreciation of Asia’s rapid pace of economic integration under simultaneous pressures from China and the United States.” There was little new or bold from Modi on connectivity while on the other hand China floated ambitious Maritime Silk Road proposal. He also contended that India must work toward making the conception and delivery of aid more effective.

David M Malone in his book Does the Elephant Dance? (2011) quotes India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (labeled as an idealist by the scholars who see a paradigm shift in Modi’s foreign policy), when he articulated Indian foreign policy in a speech to the Constituent Assembly in December 1947: “It is well for us to say that we stand for peace and freedom and yet that does not convey much to anybody, except a pious hope.… What then do we stand for? Well, you have to develop this argument in the economic field.”

Even before Modi came to occupy the national political scene and became instrumental in shaping India’s foreign policy, Malone observed that with faster economic growth India’s military and strategic capabilities were becoming more consequential for Asia and relations between the navies and militaries of India and their Asian counterparts were increasingly institutionalized through a multitude of defense agreements. For instance, since 1991 (the year India liberalized its economy and showed potential of higher economic growth), India has periodically held joint naval exercises with Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in the Indian Ocean and in subsequent years with Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. In November 2009, the prime ministers of India and Australia issued a joint statement upgrading relations to the level of “Strategic Partnership.”

India’s shifting regional focus could address the concerns emanating from the rising Chinese influence among the neighbors through a web of greater connectivity and coordination among the BIMSTEC members. For instance, the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway is one of the key projects to enmesh Myanmar into intricate physical ties considering it is the only Southeast Asian country with which India shares a land boundary. Similarly, through the Kaladan Multimodal project, India seeks to tighten interconnectivity with Myanmar further. The project envisages connecting Kolkata to Sittwe Port in Myanmar, and then Mizoram by river and road. Although India and Myanmar signed a framework agreement in 2008 for the implementation of this project, it is far from being accomplished as yet.

Much like India’s non-alignment policy professed in the past, Prime Minister Modi’s penchant for multi-alignment indicates an ideological position that includes elements of pragmatism as well as rhetoric and platitudes intended to provide India a larger global profile than warranted by its domestic capacities. Real transformations and consistency in foreign policy are only possible when it is informed by internal economic reforms and growth as well as political and bureaucratic reforms at home.