Diplomacy: Modi goes for bold

Howdy Modi: Building personal equations with Trump, Putin, PM has opened up new space for India

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US was a significant initiative in reaching out to US President Donald Trump after months of negative headlines on the state of bilateral relations. During his visit, Modi managed to court Trump effectively so as to mellow down his criticism on trade even as he stood his ground on Kashmir. Trump himself was effusive in his praise of Modi and India at the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston and Modi showcased the power of Indian-Americans for the American political establishment. Modi has been engaging Trump systematically and this year itself, this was their fourth meeting. This has clearly borne fruit and Indo-US relations have been much more stable than America’s ties with some of its closest partners. Despite Trump’s reputation for being a transactionalist, his term has seen a burgeoning of the Indo-US strategic partnership. This was underscored by Trump at the Houston rally. This has happened as America’s ties with China have deteriorated dramatically, giving India a renewed space to carve out a productive engagement with the US at a time when its own ties with China have been troublesome.

China’s support for Pakistan’s position on Kashmir at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has once again underscored the difficult trajectory of contemporary Sino-Indian relations. Last month, the UNSC held closed-door informal consultations in response to a letter written by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to the president of the UNSC on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, which was supported by China. This was Pakistan’s desperate bid to internationalise the issue of Kashmir. Its efforts also saw Beijing working with Islamabad to rake up the status of Aksai Chin, a territory in Ladakh that China illegally occupies, arguing that New Delhi’s decision to abrogate Article 370 challenged China’s sovereign interests and violated bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and stability in the border area. Despite the isolation of China at the UNSC, the message to India was clear: Beijing would join forces with Pakistan to hurt Indian interests at every possible forum.

There were many in India who, rather unreasonably, expected China to moderate its behaviour vis-à-vis India in light of the so-called ‘Wuhan spirit.’ But that’s a misreading of Chinese foreign policy as well as of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to engage informally with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan last year. By backing Pakistan’s request for the UNSC to discuss India’s Kashmir move, China has signalled its priorities and made any normalisation of ties almost impossible. India’s deft diplomatic handling of the situation has ensured that China stands isolated at the UN. This has been happening repeatedly now. Earlier this year, China was isolated while trying to protect Masood Azhar from being declared a global terrorist and eventually had to backtrack in the face of global opinion. Last month as well, the UNSC consultations on Kashmir concluded without any outcome or formal statement. Most members supported India’s stand that this was a bilateral issue to be resolved between India and Pakistan.

This repeated isolation notwithstanding, China remains unambiguously committed to sustaining its partnership with Pakistan. That’s the strategic reality New Delhi will have to contend with. The Wuhan summit was an attempt by New Delhi and Beijing to lower temperatures after the Doklam crisis, and it succeeded in doing so. But the underlying factors that have shaped the trajectory of Sino-Indian relations over the last few decades remain unchanged. Moreover, as India becomes a more proactive player in the international order and China’s troubles with the rest of the world continue to grow, Beijing will target New Delhi even more pointedly.

China’s aggressive effort to “internationalise” the Kashmir issue will generate calls in India for standing up to it. India is not without options and has shown it’s not shy of using them. China can’t expect that its priorities on trade and 5G would be considered favourably by India if it continues to challenge the fundamentals of good neighbourly ties. If China is so aggressive on Kashmir, then nothing stops India from raking up issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Tibet and Taiwan remain Chinese vulnerabilities. Beijing should be under no illusion that just because the Chinese President would be visiting India in October, ostensibly to take the ‘Wuhan spirit’ forward, India would hesitate in responding to its provocations. It should realise that there is no major constituency left in India today that has a favourable view of China. If China has a long-term strategy of containing India within South Asia, then India can just as easily adopt a strategy of challenging China’s core interests. And this India is trying to do by building solid partnerships with other major powers like the US. Even Russia is being engaged with in the hope that the budding alliance between Moscow and Beijing can be snapped.

Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit the Russian Far East region last month to give “a new direction, new energy and new speed” to relations between the two countries. The Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) is a forum that since 2015 has been trying to push for the development of business and investment opportunities in the Russian Far East. Modi’s presence there as chief guest underscores the role this region can play in enhancing cooperation between India and Russia in the region and beyond. The summit level meeting between Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the two nations signing 25 pacts in areas ranging from connectivity, oil and gas, deep-sea exploration to space and energy.

Modi’s presence at the EEF is important at various levels. Russia’s Far East is a huge land mass which is rich in resources but is sparsely populated and underdeveloped. With the centre of gravity of global economics shifting to Asia, Putin is keen on focusing on the Far East and develop it with the help of Asian powers. So far, Chinese dominance in the Russian Far East has been palpable, much to the discomfort of Moscow. And it is in this context Putin’s attempt to diversify assumes importance so as to lessen Russia’s growing dependence on China. Indian investors will also find much of value as they look at the Russian Far East and explore investment opportunities there. Modi’s visit has resulted in a proposal for a maritime route between Chennai and Vladivostok, bypassing Europe, which would enable cargo transfer between Chennai and Vladivostok in 24 days in comparison to over 40 days currently taken to transport goods from India to the Russian Far East via Europe.

India’s economic ties with Russia have been struggling with bilateral trade hovering around the $10 billion mark. Energy is one area which has the potential to provide ballast to their ties. After having invested around $10 billion in acquiring stakes in hydrocarbon assets in Russia, Indian energy companies are keen to invest in Russia’s upstream sector. A consortium of Indian oil companies is reportedly making a play for a significant stake in the eastern cluster oil fields in Russia. Russia’s Rosneft in 2017 completed a $12.9-billion acquisition of Essar Oil to enter India, the world’s fastest-growing energy market. Russia and India are also becoming more ambitious in pursuing projects in third countries, such as the Rooppur nuclear power project of Bangladesh.

The challenge in front of India and Russia is that they need to transform a 20th century partnership and make it fit for the 21st century. Global trends are evolving rapidly and major powers are re-defining their ties with each other to match their contemporary requirements. In light of these trends, New Delhi will also have to be diplomatically nimble as it seeks to engage the major powers more substantively.

(The writer is Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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