The meeting with Obama on September 29th is the culmination of hectic diplomatic activity: the new Indian premier is trying to revitalize the “arc of democracies” that unite New Delhi and Tokyo in order to contain China. But is controlling tensions with Beijing a reciprocal interest?
On September 29th, Narendra Modi will have coffee—or more likely, tea—at the White House with Barack Obama. And so, the ban preventing the current Indian prime minister from entering the US was removed, and he will be received with all the honors due to the leader of a great country. For now, the agenda seems vague—“expanding and deepening the strategic partnership between the US and India”—but the significance of the meeting resides in its taking place.
Modi’s ostracism on behalf of Washington and other Western governments for his role in the massacre of Muslims in 2005 has thus been consigned to history. According to the most benevolent accusers, Modi did nothing to stop Hindu nationalists during interreligious conflicts when he was prime minister of Gujarat. Now, he presents himself as the victor of the most recent elections, in a role that requires he relegate his most radical militancy to memory.
The White House is the landing point of a month characterized by frenetic diplomatic activity. According to Modi’s vision, foreign policy is instrumental to India’s growth and is needed to sustain the more purely ideological values of the Hindu right, which are crossed by conservative, if not reactionary, impulses but anchored to the economic lever. Not surprisingly, the overseas trip began in Japan, a country with strong affinities, even if on different planes when it comes to development.
Modi discussed economic cooperation to inevitably intrude in geopolitics with Shinzo Abe, who received Modi in Kyoto with an “exceptional welcoming gesture.” Tokyo has offered financing, technology, infrastructural projects, and the construction of high-speed trains between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. It’s a conspicuous deepening: India is already the primary destination of Japanese cars. In exchange, Delhi has offered its political support, aligning itself alongside Japan in disputes with China—and not just territorial disagreements. In doing so, Modi hasn’t changed his tune: the animosity toward Beijing has existed for more than 50 years since the Himalayan war in 1962.
The latest agreement signed with Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, follows the same lines, although with greater caution. It concerns the procurement of uranium, long debated for its dual use—civilian and military. Evidently, Indian assurances to devolve the mineral to energetic improvements were convincing, or they met Canberra’s aspirations, whose commercial relationship with India has been growing strongly for many years.
Joint Indian naval missions in the Philippines are the latest responsibility reserved for ASEAN, the ten Southeast Asian countries to whom India has not been able to propose itself as a useful economic or political ally until now.
Therefore, there appears to be a revitalization of the “arc of democracies,” the instrument that ideally unites Delhi, Manila, Tokyo, Canberra, and maybe Jakarta. With stronger and weaker arrows in the quiver, the bow is pointed at Beijing. They intend to protect themselves from the feared Chinese expansion into the southern seas, a political move inspired by economic power. Confirmation will be had in a few days when President Xi Jin Ping meets Modi in India.
There is no dearth of tensions: from disputed borders to the relationship with Pakistan, and the issue of Tibet to the rivers born in China that innervate the Indo-Gangetic plain. However, it is difficult to predict the summit’s failure. Modi is a pragmatic and expert politician; he knows well that China is India’s premier economic partner and that controlling tensions is a reciprocal interest.
In conclusion, a “look east policy” has been confirmed in Delhi. India is trying to recover a role that assigned its geography even before its history. The first test will take place in Washington at the end of the tour de force. There, we will discover India’s level of autonomy, if Modi’s activism is a fruit of his reflections, and whether it will disintegrate, as it seems, in the search for new but more stable equilibriums across two Asian oceans.