Issues on the table

Issues on the table


As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for his June 26 meeting with US President Donald Trump in Washington DC, he would be singularly aware that some regions and countries, significant to India’s interests, are in confusion and turbulence.

In some cases, Trump’s approaches are sharpening regional contradictions and eroding global consensus reached on sensitive international issues. In other instances, the political choices of national leaders are the reason for potential or real dislocations.

China continues to be assertive and the Belt and Road Forum which Indian boycotted shows its intention to become a super power in almost the same league as America. All this requires Indian policy makers to adroitly navigate through tricky diplomatic waters and the Modi visit will provide opportunities to ascertain Trump’s thinking.

India’s western neighbourhood — immediate and extended — continues to be in turmoil. There is no light at the end of Afghanistan’s woes. The country’s security situation is fragile. 

The cohesion of the National Unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah is fraying as witnessed after the horrific Kabul bombing on May 31. Trump has decided to send more troops America to at least maintain a military stalemate with the Taliban.
However, he has not spelt out his full Afghanistan policy but it appears that he is going the way of his predecessors: lean on Pakistan to push the Taliban towards a political solution. Pakistan as yet has simply no incentive to change course on Afghanistan despite a weak signal recently to the contrary. 

At the White House, Modi needs to forthrightly convey India’s views on the Pakistan Army’s obsessions and determination to use terrorism. The need for greater India-US cooperation in counter-terrorism in this context needs to be emphasised.

Trump has clearly reversed Obama’s West Asian policy of gradually drawing, after the nuclear deal, a nuclear-defanged Iran into regional equations. The Obama approach had alarmed America’s traditional Arab allies led by Saudi Arabia as well as Israel especially as Iran quickly sought to spread its regional influence.

Now, with his participation in a gathering of Sunni Muslim states in Riyadh, Trump has reinforced his targeting of Iran. This has encouraged Saudi Arabia to do house cleaning on their side of the Gulf; hence, the attempt to isolate Qatar for its temerity in maintaining good ties with Iran and breaking the Sunni consensus.  
This development as well as the recent terrorist attacks in Tehran has taken the West Asian confrontation with clear sectarian roots to more dangerous levels.  This threatens not only the Indian but global interests because of the world’s dependence on energy supplies from the region. India’s interests go beyond only energy to the welfare of the expatriate Indian community, trade and security. 

It would be appropriate for Modi to project to Trump India’s interest in the stability of the Gulf region. Outside powers including influential Islamic states such as Turkey, instead of aligning themselves with regional actors and light sectarian fires, need to work for stability.

American policy of aggressively going after Iran and encouraging the Sunni states to do the same may provoke wider sectarian strife that can have unforeseen repercussions.

As it is, the Islamist groups such as IS and the al-Qaeda, while targeting the Sunnis, consider apostates have a particularly venomous attitude towards the Shias. In such a situation, the Trump approach can have major repercussions.

Modi will need to probe Trump’s thinking on China. An urgent estimate is required by Indian policy makers if Trump thinks strategically on China or is viewing it exclusively through economic and commercial lenses. 

Trump has blown hot and cold on China. The real strategic question is: how much uncontested space is he going to allow the Chinese to spread their influence in the Asia-Pacific region?

Trump’s policy will have consequences for India. There is no question of India giving up its strategic autonomy and following any power or group of powers in dealing with China.

This means that ultimately India has to craft its approaches towards China without relying on any other power but both tactical and strategic cooperation have to be considered as India continues to expand its role throughout south-east Asia and the Pacific. At the same time, it has to be wary of Chinese intrusions in India’s strategic space in south Asia.

Climate change
Like most countries, India has decided to adhere to the Paris Accord on Climate Change despite Trump’s decision to take America out. The Indian side needs to inform the Americans plainly that Trump’s abandoning the basic premises of the international compact on combating climate change can only have very dangerous consequences for the planet.

Besides, equity inherent in the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is obvious and it is only right that developing countries like America transfer its technology and financial resources so that developing countries’ development process does not suffer while they maintain their climate change commitments.

A candid discussion on this issue is needed during the Modi visit with the Americans inter alia because Trump named only India and China in his climate change speech.

Modi will be meeting Trump after a recent and successful European tour which took him to Germany, Russia, France and Spain. His talks with leaders of these countries would have given him a feel of what they think of Trump and his policies. This is an advantage.

There is no substitute though to direct and straightforward personal interaction. This is also because personal relationships with his international peers matter to Modi though the significance of personal chemistry should not be over rated.

(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)