G Parthasarathy

Foreign policy in an uncertain world

G Parthasarathy | Updated on May 29, 2019 Published on May 29, 2019

Iran oil, bilateral trade with US, and growing Chinese assertiveness are among issues that Modi needs to handle deftly

Prime Minister Modi’s first-term was marked by his placing his own distinctive stamp on the conduct of Indian foreign policy. Just a few weeks preceding commencement of the general election campaign, he received a message of greetings from President Putin, who conferred the “highest decoration” of the Russian Federation on him. This was accompanied by his being conferred with the highest award of the UAE by its ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed. The personal rapport that characterised Modi’s relations with other leaders like Presidents Obama and Trump, French President Macron and Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, is also widely acknowledged

Days before election results were officially announced, China’s Global Times, praised Modi’s policies in an article entitled: Modi’s Reelection Further Reinforces China-India Trust. The Global Times lauded his meeting with President Xi Jinping in Wuhan and his role in resolving tensions over Doklam. It also praised him for India joining the Asian Infrastructure Bank, in the face of opposition from the US and Japan.

This Chinese approach, hopefully, signals encouraging prospects for continuance of cooperative efforts by India and China, to maintain peace along the border. One cannot, however, be sanguine about any significant narrowing of divergent approaches by New Delhi and Beijing on regional security issues, including China’s military and nuclear support for its “all weather friend,” Pakistan.

Promoting India’s interests in a growingly uncertain world order is going to be a far more challenging task for Modi than what he experienced in his first term. An important factor behind these uncertainties and tensions is the volatility that has been introduced in global relations, by the mercurial President Donald Trump.

Trade under Trump

The Trump Administration has rocked relations with close allies in Europe, like France and Germany. Even the British are wary of him. He strained trade relations with neighbouring Canada and Mexico, by imposing duties on steel and aluminum, which were withdrawn after retaliation by them. India has faced similar challenges on bilateral trade, which would need careful handling, bilaterally and in the WTO.

US relations with China are now under severe strain, because of punitive duties placed on a vast range of China’s exports. Trump has also placed stiff sanctions on China’s communications giant, Huawei, which can cause severe damage to China’s vital electronics industry. Such moves will inevitably result in a setback to the efforts of President Xi Jinping to make China the most important and influential power, globally.

These are, however, actions that Trump can justify internationally, given China’s propensity to blatantly violate international norms on trade and patents. Moreover, the US Pacific Fleet is now defying China’s untenable maritime boundary claims, across the Pacific Ocean. India has to deal with this situation carefully, backing friends like Vietnam and Indonesia against untenable Chinese maritime boundary claims, without being perceived to be acting at American behest.

Arms deal

India appears confident of settling its differences on trade with the US bilaterally, and through the WTO. Strains in bilateral relations with the US could well arise, because of American sanctions on arms purchases from Russia. The US can grant sanctions waivers on specific arms purchases from Russia, like it has done in the case of the S400 Air Defence Missiles we are acquiring from Moscow.

There also appears to be no intention to place sanctions on purchases of spare parts for equipment already acquired from Russia. But, we are preparing for large purchases from Russia of weapons systems including submarines, tanks, fighter aircraft, frigates and AK 203 assault rifles, for indigenous manufacture. While it was averred during the Putin visit that we had banking arrangements in place to deal with Russian acquisitions, it is not clear how and whether this could be done, in present circumstances.

American banking sanctions are also rendering the purchase of oil from Iran almost impossible. While Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can enable us to meet our requirements, Iranian oil is cheaper and its transportation costs lower than oil from other sources. The European Union, Russia and China do not accept the legality of US sanctions on Iran. The US sanctions are unilateral and in violation of the agreement to end all nuclear sanctions on Iran, which all these powers signed.

While most countries worldwide regard these US sanctions abhorrent, it would be useful for India, Russia and China to discuss measures on how they can be overcome or bypassed. Consultations with the EU, which is chary of challenging the US, are also essential. It would be only prudent not to take any unilateral steps on this issue.

Regional initiatives

India’s bilateral and regional initiatives in the recent past have enhanced its influence across the entire Indian Ocean Region, from the Straits of Malacca to the Straits of Aden. While ASEAN has been weakened and divided by China’s actions, viable policies are being devised to balance growing Chinese influence and assertiveness, involving subtle diplomacy with countries like Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam, together with enhanced interaction with the US.

The vast improvement in our relations with the Arab Gulf countries where over six million Indians live remitting back over $60 billion annually has been remarkable. Indian workers are welcomed and our professionals are steadily replacing their western counterparts, across this region.

Finally, in the sub-continent, Pakistan has excluded itself from economic integration within South Asia, by its aversion to promoting economic ties with India and denying India transit rights to Afghanistan.

While we need not rush into any high profile “composite dialogue” with Pakistan, we should discreetly engage its government and army.

International pressure has increased on Pakistan after the Balakot airstrike. Prime Minister Modi has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. The opening of the Kartarpur corridor should be accompanied by initiatives to expand educational and cultural ties and moves to promote group tourism to religious shrines and historical sites. Such moves will be welcomed by people in Pakistan, and by the world at large.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on May 29, 2019

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