India’s Foreign Policy Shift

Spearhead Analysis – 18.03.2019

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

On February 14 a suicide attack conducted by Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) claimed the lives of more than 44 paramilitary personnel in Pulwama, Indian Kashmir. In the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, on February 26 the Indian Air Force (IAF) carried an aerial strike on a JeM terror training camp in the city of Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. 

Striking a target in Pakistan with the 12 Indian Mirage 2000 aircraft was the first use of aerial power to target Pakistani territory by India since the 1971 war between India and Pakistan.

As Modi’s term in office comes to an end, his decision to approve of the first aerial bombardment since 1971 is of great significance. PM Narendra Modi’s response to the Pulwama terror strikes challenged the idea that Pakistan’s nuclear capability is perhaps enough of a deterrent against India wanting to start a war, if it has to. The decision clearly signals that with Modi’s leadership India’s foreign and security policy has undergone fundamental changes. India may be inclined and willing to fight a conventional war. Subsequently, it can be said that India’s Pakistan policy has shifted.

The Government of India issued a statement following these air strikes, wherein the administration referred to them as a “non-military preemptive action” against a military camp of the JeM stationed in Balakot, Pakistan.

The stance India’s official statement took was a particularly interesting one as it attempted to paint India as the more responsible power. Calling the strikes “non-military” in the official statement indicated that the target of the attack was neither the military of Pakistan nor the civilian population. India held that the strikes instead only sought to destroy JeM terror camps. In this way India attempted to evade any charges of having challenged Pakistan and questioned its responsibility against non-state actors. The official statement by its very phrasing also attempted to avoid escalation by confirming there was no engagement between the militaries of either country. Moreover it reflected India’s compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

Use of the term “preemptive strikes” however hovered between two crucial variations of the ‘right of self-defense’: one being anticipatory, and the other preventive. According to the official statement, the “preemptive strikes” were undertaken “in the face of imminent danger”, based on credible intelligence that the JeM was planning another attack. Basing the decision to strike in the absence of concrete evidence of the imminent threat however leaves the lawfulness of the action and India’s legal argument in significant doubt.

Nonetheless following this line of argument, the Indian government has demonstrated to all powers in the region a dangerous shift in its security policy with respect to Pakistan. Alongside its Pakistan policy, India’s policy towards the United States has also shifted gears under PM Modi.

Modi during his time has used his influence and decisive mandate to carve a new partnership with the United States—one that has up until now helped to better serve his domestic development agenda by encouraging the inflow of capital and technology from the US. 

In 2016, India signed the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the United States to encourage logistical support, supplies and services between the United States and Indian militaries on a reimbursable basis. Modi further also set up a framework to monitor and govern such exchanges. In 2018, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) was signed to assist access to advanced defense systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing platforms of US-origin.

India also enjoys its status as a developing country under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program. Recently however US President Donald Trump announced in a letter to the US congress the he has decided to end the trade provision that has for a long time now favored India. The decision comes after a review process of India’s GSP status that the USTR’s office initiated in April 2018. The review began as a result of significant complaints from domestic US constituencies in the dairy and medical device sectors, where members of both sectors claimed they faced barriers to access to Indian markets.

“I am taking this step because, after intensive engagement between the United States and the Government of India, I have determined that India has not assured the United States that it will provide equitable and reasonable access to the markets of India,” Trump added.

According to the USTR’s study, in 2017 India was the United States’ ninth largest goods trading partner: India reported a $22.9 billion deficit that same year, which meant it exported more to the United States than it imported in American goods. Both the service trade balance and deficit were smaller. The US services trade deficit in 2017 was reportedly $4.4 billion.

The US decision to end the trade provision now however is expected to impact as much as $5.6 billion in Indian goods.

Even as relations with the US remain fairly volatile under President Trump, Modi has been able to build strong partnerships with US allies like Japan, Australia and Vietnam. India is a part of the quadrilateral involving Japan, the United States and Australia. Under Modi India’s foreign policy is increasingly looking towards East and Southeast Asia. India has also gained some grounds in the Middle East, earning an invite to the inaugural address of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which has occurred for the first time in the country’s history. It is important to note that despite India being home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, India has never before been a part of the OIC.

Under Modi’s administration, India’s method of forwarding its foreign policy interests has altered and become slightly more acceptable of taking risks. India it seems has been successfully balancing both its ties with the US and China. At the same time with respect to Pakistan, Modi’s policy stance is heard by and well-known to all powers in the region. Modi has introduced a certain level of ‘boldness’ in India’s global engagement which will certainly have consequences for the future of India-Pakistan relations. Most significantly, even with a strong rhetoric against Pakistan and the threat of war now as an added possible factor, it would serve the Indian government well to keep in mind that there are limits to what can be done on the ground. It is time cooler heads prevail. The volatile dynamic is neither in the interest of the region nor the two country’s stability or progress.