Sanjay Kapoor | New Delhi
A diplomat of an East European country posted in New Delhi, whose job is to keep track of what’s happening in India, was pleasantly surprised when he noticed that its foreign policy, like a ship in high seas, was slowly changing course. “After being so pro-US these past few years, Indian foreign policy was returning to its non-aligned roots,” he said excitedly His unconcealed joy was due to the fact that many of the pieces of the geopolitical game were getting reordered in a manner that gave comfort to him and those who were happier with a bipolar world. As is evident, Russia and China are occupying spaces that are being vacated by an inward-looking US President Donald Trump. “We are happier with India coming closer to Russia and China once again. Our government felt uncomfortable when the ties between New Delhi and Moscow were bad,” explained the diplomat.
This reassessment of India’s foreign policy stems from the two informal summits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both these meetings, coming before the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Qingdao, China, endeavoured to pivot towards an emerging compact of Russia and China. From media reports that followed the meeting between Xi and Modi, there was clarity that the two Asian giants did not want a Doklam-like confrontation. Furthermore, China wanted increased access for its businesses and goods to the Indian market to hedge against US increase in tariffs on their goods.
China also wanted a rapid clearance for their investments in infrastructure projects. Did India agree on joining China’s much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? India is the only country to oppose the BRI amongst SCO countries and it has criticised the manner in which the connectivity project has been conceived and how it had the potential to undermine those countries who are recipients of Chinese funds. However, in the Qingdao SCO resolution, there is some confusion over whether India has backed the BRI or not as the language is shrouded in officialese. When this fact was pointed out by some hawkeyed journalists, this resolution was promptlypulled down.
What is perhaps of greater importance is the meeting that took place between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi. Russian officials claimed great success by stating that whatever doubts and misgivings that the two countries had about each other have gone away. What apprehensions did the two countries really have about each other? Russia has been distressed by India’s look US policy and feels humiliated that New Delhi has ignored all that their country has done for them. Moscow has been nervous about whether India would stick to its commitment to buy its anti-missile system, S-400s, after Trump threatened to impose the provisions of CAATSA that involves slapping penalties on any country or company doing business with Russia.
India was also worried about the assistance Russia had given to Pakistan in recent times and the manner in which it was supporting Afghan Taliban. Both these issues, which were suitably highlighted by many US-backed think tanks in India to drive a wedge between the two traditional allies, were adequately addressed. It is learnt that India will go ahead with the purchase of S-400 systems. Indian lobbyists, including many US companies doing business in the defence sector, are hoping that India will get a waiver when it comes to buying Russian hardware as it could also put their deals in serious jeopardy. Russians are also beefing up supplies of LNG to India, which faces competition from the US. The first consignment from Russia was received after the PM’s visit to Sochi.
There is an iconic photograph of German Chancellor Angela Merkel glowering down at a recalcitrant Trump. Some commentators have already announced the end of the Atlantic Alliance and wondered what it means for the world
Russia is also an important player when it comes to India’s foray into West Asia. Chabahar port in the South-eastern part of Iran is the fulcrum around which it is weaving its new strategy to first sidestep Pakistan and then to reach out to Central Asia and Europe. India is also part of the Russia sponsored North-South Corridor that passes through Iran and will cut down the travel time to Europe substantially. All these projects could suffer if Trump carries out his threat, as he seems to be doing. He has told oil companies and those doing business with Iran to turn their taps off by November 4. This is a big challenge for India, too, which is a major buyer of Iranian oil.
What is India’s strategy on Iran? Here again, much of it would depend on how Russia deals with Iran. Unlike in the past, when Iran was largely isolated, it has more friends that have promised to continue to do business with them. Russian and China, besides Qatar, are the key allies of Tehran as it stands up to US pressure. If it can ride out the first few months of these claustrophobic sanctions, imposed to get Iran out of Syria so that Israel and the US can pretty much execute their long-held plans for this region, then it would hurt the image of Washington in unimaginable ways.
The fact that the US is getting isolated on Iran and on imposing tariffs on other countries, including India, was visible at the G-7 meeting in Toronto. There is an iconic photograph of German Chancellor Angela Merkel glowering down at a recalcitrant Trump. Some commentators have already announced the end of the Atlantic Alliance and wondered what it means for the world. The new world order, it seems would be Asia-centered. Many of these important issues came to fruition at the SCO in Qingdao, China, where India and Pakistan have been included as its members. SCO is called the Asian NATO and is in some ways a security alliance. Member states are meant to share intelligence and engage in military exercises to fight terror. The SCO has a lot of potential, but it is hemmed by the conflict between India and Pakistan.
While the SCO mandates that the member states should not be at war with each other, but attempts of China and Russia to convince the two neighbours to bury the hatchet has not yielded results. This, however, could change after a new government is elected in Pakistan later in July. During a recent trip to Pakistan, this writer found a desire in the military establishment to insert itself in the peace process with India. The Director General Inter Services Public Relations (DGISPR) claimed progress in conversation between the two countries. When India and Pakistan decided to go back to the 2003 ceasefire agreement over a hotline call between Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the two nations, it seemed as if something big on the peace front was in the offing.
Chinese Ambassador to Delhi suggested two plus one meeting between India, China and Pakistan, but New Delhi turned it down reiterating an old Indian position that disputes between India and Pakistan are bilateral issues. But end-of-Ramzan ceasefire in the Kashmir valley and the Indian security establishment’s bewildering suggestions about the rise of Islamic State in the state, when no such indications were given in the past, belie any optimism.
There is hope, though, that a newly elected government could begin a peace process with India. People who watch body language claim that there was visible warmth when Prime Minister Modi shook hands with Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain. These are small pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that could come together in a form that may be distinct in terms of how we have perceived the world and the balance of power. India, despite its endeavour to be close to the US, is compelled to change course and be part of the new reality. Prime Minister Modi’s speech at the Shangri La Dialogue, Singapore, and his resolve to keep India away from any blocs has a ring of the past — that enthuses those who pine for the return of the non-alignment policy.