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New Directions in Foreign Policy: Engagement with Australia, Fiji and ASEAN

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Being the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Australia for the first time in 28 years and to address the Australian Parliament, PM Modi’s visit has marked a new beginning for the India-Australia relationship. Both the countries signed agreements on social security and transfer of sentenced persons and MoUs on drug trafficking, police cooperation and cooperation in arts, culture and tourism. The visit comes in the context of Modi’s three-nation tour to attend the East Asia and ASEAN-India summit in Myanmar, G20 summit in Australia and a visit to the Fiji islands. While at the multilateral engagement at G20, he asserted India’s position on issues such as black money, digital infrastructure and clean energy, what is more significant is the substance of Modi’s bilateral engagements with the ASEAN bloc, Australia and Fiji.
India’s bilateral engagement with each of these actors forms an important part of the government’s foreign policy prioritization of the Asia-Pacific, following close behind strengthening India’s position in South Asia. Through the PM’s recent visits, it is clear that the strengthening of economic partnership and securing India’s energy supply is common to all major engagements by the government. Even in Modi’s recent visits, economic partnerships formed an important highlight of India’s efforts to forge trade linkages with ASEAN and culminate the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Australia. In Asia, in general, this is further supplemented by efforts to forge military cooperation in order to maximize geopolitical advantages vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. Modi’s Australia visit highlights this by an affirmation of the Framework for Security Cooperation for combating terrorism and security cooperation in defence, Indian Ocean maritime cooperation and cyber security.

While this kind of a securing of interests and maximizing geopolitical advantages forms a traditional part of any country’s foreign policy, in the Indian case, a change is now visible in recent times, which is influenced by several factors:

First, India has, since the last few years, been engaging in bilateral arrangements that can maximize its power in international politics. By acting increasingly in the capacity of a donor since the last few years, India is displaying the potential to take on a new role in determining issues in international socio-economic development. The new government has already engaged in such an approach through its commitment to continue development investment in Afghanistan, extending line of credit to Vietnam and Nepal and most recently, announcing lines of credit and development aid for Fiji and a slew of other measures for all Pacific island nations.

This process, which has been going on steadily for a long time since 2008, is extremely important from the point of view of India’s future role in international affairs. While India may target short-term economic and military objectives while disbursing development aid to smaller nations, the approach is entirely different from that traditionally taken by the Western donors, who impose conditionalities that interfere with the internal development of countries. If such an approach spearheaded by India and like countries replaces the traditional processes of development aid, it may herald a new era of global cooperation on common concerns and bring nations closer together in more than merely artificial and obligatory ways.

Second, India is also dictating terms in the creation of new markets – especially in Asia – abroad through which it can source imports to meet its domestic energy needs. This formed an important thrust of Modi’s visit to Australia to secure uranium imports through the civil nuclear deal and also source coal and gas, and can also be seen in how the government agreed to provide funding for existing power projects in Bhutan and construction of new projects in Nepal, in which India would wield considerable power. This would not only serve the objective of meeting our energy needs, but would also not impair India’s position in the process, since it is framed within an equal partnership and may even work to India’s political advantage in smaller countries.

Third, one of the weakest factors in India’s engagement with larger countries on trade issues has been that India ends up bearing disproportionate trade deficit. India will have to ensure to leverage as much advantage through economic agreements as other countries derive. The government’s strong approach in this regard was highlighted through the PM’s Australia visit. Economic partnership was one of the main highlights of the visit. Apart from seeking to conclude the long-pending free trade agreement by 2015, Australia is also hoping to make forays, through FDI, into India’s agricultural and services sectors. However, the government remains non-committal in this regard, especially vis-à-vis the agro-food business. This would be a welcome approach by the Indian government, as India needs to prioritize national interest while engaging in global economic cooperation.

Finally, the prioritization of international policy by the new government is doing a lot to strengthen India’s cosmopolitan culture in a globalizing world. While the BJP has always struck a chord with the Indian diaspora in the Western countries, Modi’s recent visits to US and Australia have greatly strengthened the sense of national belonging among the NRIs. This is significant, as mobilizing Indians abroad is just the first step towards giving global meaning to the new Indian nationalism.

The government is also being moved onwards such a path, as is clear from Modi’s recent declaration in Fiji that India will play the role of ‘Vishvaguru’ to the rest of the world, in teaching deeper values dear to India’s soul. The international policy that this government has been treading so far is displaying the potential to realize such a future. Such an outcome is not based simply on India’s international interest or some narrow view of leadership, but is based on a deeper perception of the future spiritual and cultural needs of humanity and India’s leading role in satisfying these.

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