The NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has under nine months till the next Lok Sabha election. Multilaterally, the UN General Assembly session that is commencing next month and the November East Asia Summit in Singapore may be on the Prime Minister’s diplomatic itinerary. The New Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is likely to pitch strongly for a Kashmir solution, and is expected to be the star at his first UNGA in New York. But overall, as the government’s attention turns towards vote consolidation by focusing on selective issues, often with a divisive agenda, foreign policy will have to take a back seat for the time being. Nevertheless, some matters will continue to demand attention.
The news leak that US President Donald Trump would be the Republic Day chief guest next January was neither confirmed nor denied by New Delhi. The government may have seen it as a likely public relations triumph on the eve of a crucial do-or-die Lok Sabha election, or possibly may have backpedalled, fearing the Trumpian propensity for off-script self-projection or seeking transactional concessions in trade and defence purchases that may play badly domestically. It is also possible that the White House did not bite the bait. But as the much delayed 2+2 meeting of the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US takes place next month, three issues with broader geopolitical ramifications overhang it.
One, while the Presidents of the US and Russia act as “buddies”, the US is sanctioning Russia over its poisoning of civilians in Britain, its Ukraine policy and alleged cyberwarfare. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa), which applies secondary sanctions to countries engaging in energy or defence business with Moscow, casts a shadow over Indo-US relations. India can hardly abandon its defence relationship with its oldest defence equipment supplier, or afford pushing it deeper into the Pakistan-Chinese embrace. A waiver, if it actually materialises, will enjoin India to gradually reduce its defence purchases from Russia and to favour US supplies. After the Opposition uproar over the inexplicably opaque tweaking of the Rafale fighter deal with France, giving in to such US pressure would be politically expensive domestically.
Second, India-Iran relations are at a critical point. Reports indicate that the Indian Oil Corporation is set to reduce its current 140,000 barrels offtake per day of Iranian crude. But India cannot abandon the Chabahar port project, critical to obtaining connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. China gained greater access to Iranian oil, gas and goods market after UN sanctions were imposed in 2006. China may simply resurrect its alternative yuan-based financial networks that bypass Western controls. China is unlikely to abandon either its Iranian oil imports or investment in oil and gas sectors. CNPC has a 30 per cent stake in South Pars gas field and the North Azadgan oil field, which was offered to India in 2003-04. But if Total withdraws, China alone lacks the capability to establish LNG terminals at South Pars. Russia has toyed with letting Gazprom and Lukoil invest in Iran, but strategically it suits Russia that Iranian gas remains unextracted as that safeguards its European market, already threatened by America’s shale gas.
The third critical issue is China. Trade skirmishing, if not war, is already underway between the US and China. Initial reports indicate rising concern in China over a possible misread of Mr Trump. On the other hand, Mr Trump doesn’t see India as a strategic necessity in his containment of China, as did his two predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Thus, Prime Minister Modi undertook some corrective measures after the two-month-long Doklam standoff last year. Beginning with India attending the Brics summit in September last year and then the informal summit at Wuhan this year, there is a gradual softening of India’s confrontational cross-Line of Actual Control stance.
Meanwhile, President Trump is ratcheting up his Iran-baiting by encouraging the development of a Sunni Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), consisting of the six GCC members, Jordan and Egypt, minus of course Turkey. He will meet their leaders in Singapore, perhaps on the sidelines of the East Asia summit. Such a grouping presupposes Mr Trump settling serious intra-GCC differences over Saudi Arabia and the UAE pillorying Qatar, supported in turn by Iran and Turkey. Oman and Kuwait prefer neutrality in that quarrel. Russia appears reluctant to help resolve the Syrian imbroglio if that is at the cost of long-time ally Bashar al-Assad, or the Yemen mess which keeps its oil rival Saudi Arabia tied down. Mr Trump’s Iran policy may end up as his Vietnam, as he will only complicate the scenario with more divisive alliances.
These geostrategic developments show the marginalisation of India as a global or even regional player. The Indian response began with kowtowing to China, perhaps tactically to await Chinese embroilment in a trade war. Our Saarc neighbours are also readjusting, some unwisely, to the perceived new reality. The Maldives is cheekily forcing the return of Indian helicopters. Bangladesh must be aghast over the mass declaration of 40 million people in Assam as stateless, implying most are Bangladeshis. This will play into its domestic politics. Pakistan has a charismatic new leader close to the military, thus producing both opportunity, which the Modi government may not risk ahead of a crucial election, as indeed the risk of a new voice globally to Pakistan’s warped logic, despite Pakistan’s financial mess which may compel China to write another bailout cheque, with the IMF seeking tough concessions. In Nepal, the Communist rulers are re-balancing between India and China, tilting towards the latter. Finally, Bhutan has received the Chinese vice-foreign minister, ending its India-only approach, although reportedly New Delhi was kept informed. All are assuming a permanent Chinese ascent, appearing already unsteady after the first trade war blows.
Against this background Indian diplomacy has few options but, in sporting terms, to play defence rather than offence till the next Lok Sabha election or until greater geopolitical clarity emerges.
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