Indian-American strategic expert says Modi must resuscitate ‘Neighborhood First’ policy

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech at an election rally ahead of Phase VI of India's general election in Allahabad, May 9. (Getty Images) 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ashley J. Tellis, arguably one of the country’s foremost strategic experts, has said that in the aftermath of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide victory, it was imperative that he should immediately “go back to resuscitating the “Neighborhood First” policy if India’s larger foreign policy agenda is to succeed.”

In an interview with India Abroad, Tellis, the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — a leading Washington, D.C. think tank — said that this was the first among his “three big thoughts” and added, “The best path to success here is through economic integration.”

He predicted that implementing such a policy would “undo the damage cause by Partition and rebuild India’s partnership with its neighbors.”

The second priority, according to Tellis, was for India to accelerate its economic reforms, “which had faltered in recent years,” because this was the only way the subcontinent could be reintegrated economically.

Thirdly, he noted that “India’s partnership with the United States is the most important extra-regional engagement for India,” and argued that “despite the erratic policies in Washington, India should persevere in deepening U.S.-India ties for multiple reasons.”

These included, Tellis said, “Balancing China, securing advanced technology, and improving India’s status claims in the international community.”

Asked about the potential irritant between Washington and New Delhi over the latter’s close relations with Iran and in the wake of India and several other countries being threatened with punitive sanctions if they don’t cut off importing oil from Iran and keeping a distance from the powers that be in Teheran, Tellis said he believed “India will satisfy the U.S. on Iran sanctions for now.”

But, he acknowledged that “the larger issues surrounding U.S. policy toward Iran will remain.”

Indian-American strategic expert says Modi must resuscitate ‘Neighborhood First’ policy

Ashley Tellis 

Meanwhile, Tellis said on the burgeoning U.S.-India trade conflict, “We can do better on tariffs and I’m confident we can get a good solution on this issue.”

Earlier, in anticipation of a Modi victory, he said in a Carnegie brief that the post-election government in Delhi would have to confront serious regional and global foreign policy challenges, and argued that “India’s strategic objectives are threatened by an unsettled external environment.”

Tellis attributed this to “structural reasons that New Delhi cannot easily remedy even by elegant diplomacy.”

Compounding this problem, was China, he said, pointing out that Beijing “continues to remain both an assertive rising power and an enduring strategic competitor that is increasingly penetrating India’s natural sphere of influence in and around the subcontinent.”

And, if that wasn’t enough of a challenge for New Delhi, Tellis said the “weakening U.S. strategic altruism toward India,” was exacerbating “doubts in the minds of Indian leaders about whether Washington can be a trusted ally in the face of rising Chinese power.”

He acknowledged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had enjoyed a string of foreign policy successes during his first term and had “Modi has displayed an extraordinary international activism ever since he was elected in 2014,” and added, “Arguably not since former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s long tenure has India been so engaged in such a wide range of global issues ranging from climate change to strategic realignments — and in so conspicuous a fashion revolving around the sheer personality of the prime minister himself.”

“This activism and its underlying motivations are ultimately grounded in a vision of India as a leading power in the international system: both Nehru and Modi are united by their shared conviction that India is destined for greatness on the global stage, even if the wellsprings of that conception are quite different in each case,” he said.

Tellis said that among Modi’s impressive performances during his tenure, and taking pride of place was “sustaining the partnership with the United States during the convulsive early months of Donald Trump’s presidency.”

Additionally, he said, included the “cementing the relationship with Japan to advance the intra-Asian balancing of China; new outreach toward the Sunni Arab states to realize meaningful forms of political and economic support for India while simultaneously strengthening ties with Israel and preserving relations with Iran; resolving long-standing irritants with Bangladesh to reset friendly ties with a country that India had a critical role in creating; and articulating a persuasive vision of order in the Indo-Pacific that not only binds the United States and India more closely but also opens doors for deeper Indian involvement in a vast swath of the globe from Africa at one end to northeast Asia at the other.”

But Tellis argued, “Even virtuoso leaders inevitably must be backed by the availability of material power if they are to enjoy enduring political success,” and noted, while “the record of the last five years suggests that even when Modi did not falter, India’s strategic aims were often frustrated by both contextual constraints and the limitations of its national capabilities.”

Thus, he said, the second Modi government, would inevitably “continue to be taxed on both counts while the foreign policy challenges facing New Delhi remain serious and hard to resolve speedily.”

With regard to the “two great powers currently resident at the core of the global system, China, an emerging great power, and the United States, the long-established hegemon,” Tellis said unfortunately the new Modi government would have “to cope with two different kinds of problems where the great powers are concerned: strategic threats posed by Beijing, which only promise to grow in intensity for a long time to come, and geopolitical fickleness on the part of the United States, which will repeatedly call into question New Delhi’s gamble to rely on Washington for help with balancing China.”

However, he was hopeful that India’s “ problems with the United States may be self-limiting, if Trump either chooses to treat India differently or is replaced by a more strategic leader once he departs from office.”

But where China is concerned, he argued “are more enduring because its rise, despite likely slowing, will make Beijing a formidable problem for New Delhi indefinitely.”

Meanwhile, Tellis predicted that “the relationship with the United States, in particular, still remains hostage to the anxieties in Indian domestic politics.”

But he credited Modi’s deft handling of disputes with the U.S. ranging from the S-400 purchase from Russia, Trump’s tariffs on Indian goods and his threat to end Indian privileges under the Generalized System of Preferences, Washington’s pressure on New Delhi to end its oil imports from Iran, and the threats posed by a possibly hasty U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

Consequently, Tellis said all this suggested that Modi would remain “wedded to deepening ties with the United States in order to meet the major challenge posed by China and to advance long-standing Indian ambitions within South Asia and globally.”

Tellis reiterated, “That India’s external engagements have yielded important gains during the last five years remain a tribute to Modi’s international activism and the sterling efforts of the Indian Foreign Service, which, despite its small size, has usually managed to punch above its weight.’

But he maintained that “the environment around India remains unsettled in diverse ways,” and that “evidence suggests that India is still unable to shape its surroundings, both near and afar, to suit its interests, sometimes because of failed initiatives but, more fundamentally, because it still lacks the material capacities and the appropriate kinds of penetration abroad that would induce greater support for its objectives by others.”

Tellis said, “The limitations of India’s foreign policy are thus linked intimately to its weaknesses at home,” and argued that “if India is to realize its great power ambitions in the decades to come, the next government will have to accelerate economic reforms domestically, strengthen India’s institutions, preserve its constitutional ethos, and protect the nation’s internal cohesion, all of which have floundered dangerously in recent years.”

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