(This is a reprint from NewsBred ).
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, finishes his three-day visit to India today and a beaming him has made it to the front pages of all the dailies. Don’t be fooled by it. India has moved away from the United States big time.
It’s not a zero-sum game and hands would still be shaken and pictures clicked but the United States wants to swoop on India’s strategic autonomy while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is determined to protect his own turf.
India won’t let go on five squadrons of S-400 missiles from Russia nor would it back down on Iran beyond a point as Modi looks to pivot India for 2050 when the United States would be just one of the great powers and confronted with the possible axis of Russia, India and China.
The United States sees Russia and China as rogue nations who are going broke to dominate Eurasia but neither sanctions against Russia nor tariff wars and threats against China are yielding much. Indeed, Russia and China are now joined at hips and enjoy a bonhomie not seen since the heady Communist days of 1950.
That India has firmly moved into the Russia-China orbit was tellingly visible in the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan where Narendra Modi chose silence rather than condemnation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Modi’s India has been an unequivocal critic of BRI but he didn’t say a word in protest against the Bishkek Declaration which praised BRI and bore the endorsement of assembled heads of states.
Modi didn’t praise BRI but he didn’t criticize it either in his own speech. Indeed, he evoked “Wuhan Spirit” to charm the Chinese. Tellingly, it didn’t elicit any sharp barb either from Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin.
India, critically, has accepted Russia’s invitation to assist China in creating a “Polar Silk Road” in the Arctic Sea, a commercial shipping venture through Russia’s Northern Sea Route as part of the BRI. The project is worth trillions of dollars and would connect the two continents of Europe and Asia with sea. It would bring liquefied natural gas from central-northern Siberia to be delivered across Europe, Japan, South Korea and China of course.
Modi held bilateral meetings on the sidelines with Xi and Putin in Bishkek which is only one of many scheduled between the two leaders in the remaining months of 2019. Modi and Xi would meet thrice, besides an informal summit in India, probably in Varanasi. With Putin, it’s twice as many times in rest of 2019.
That Modi has decided to thumb his nose at the United States is visible on the revival of RIC (Russia, India, China) dialogue which the three nations have decided to hold at the very summit where G20 nations are meeting from Friday—Osaka, Japan. It sure would raise heckles from the US president Donald Trump who would also be present in Osaka.
Modi has been given a mandate by millions of Indians to lead the country on the path of growth and security. It’s only feasible when India pursues its interest with autonomy and not as a stooge of the United States, more so with a whimsical president like Donald Trump at the helm.
Alice Wells of the US State Department has recently outlined the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States. Said Wells: “The US, alongside India, Japan, Australia and other trusted allies and partners will support the political and economic autonomy of the Indo-Pacific countries…We cannot allow China or any other country to subvert our partners through unsustainable push economies into unsustainable debt…” Yet, as far as India is concerned—as Modi outlined in Shangri-La Dialogue, “Indo-Pacific” is not a strategy.
The US is also offering the bait of including India in the US’ International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) which would give India a status equal to one of NATO allies. Along with the status would come the export of high-level military technologies including ballistic missiles, drones, nuclear weapons simulation tools and energy weapons. It’s unlikely India would fall for it given how easily US dumps such pacts—sample TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), climate deal of Paris and the nuclear deal with Iran.
The United States knows what the alliance between Russia, China and India would mean. Even a casual look at the geographical map is enough to convey the control these three nations would exercise over the landscape of Eurasia. In wooing India, US is banking too much on the bond of democracy and a commitment to liberal international order which came into being after World War II and had rules and institutions dominated by the United States.
Kiron Skinner of the US State Department has already stated that the US perceives its strategy against China as a “fight with a really different civilization.” India has no such issues. It understands that the global power balance and West’s control of it is on its last leg. China and India are coming on to their own as they have for most of human history. India would push for its strategic autonomy and it lies in opening up access to Iran, deepening military ties with an all-weather friend like Russia, bringing neighbours’ into its orbit and be China’s friend, now that the latter really needs it.
India also knows that it could no longer be ambivalent. The United States and China are polarizing the world and there is no middle ground left for anyone. It has to make a choice and one gets the feeling it already has. If the US wants to pass sanctions against those who go against its wishes, then so be it.
(This is a reprint from NewsBred).
It would be a hectic two days for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (June 13-14). The flight detour through Oman and Iran too wouldn’t have helped. Then there is this little matter of bilateral talks with at least five heads of states: Xi Jinping (China), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Hassan Rouhani (Iran), Ashraf Ghani (Afghanistan) and Sooronbay Jeenbekov (Kyrgyzstan) besides the actual SCO Summit.
Modi’s diplomacy in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) isn’t just about his time. It’s also about the long shadow of United States which would follow his every move and not just with China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran—all in US crosshair for one reason or the other. Modi has the image of a tough leader, engaging the world but never aligned to any particular bloc. Much of it would be tested by Friday.
Modi, of course, can’t overlook the probing audience of a billion and a half people in India and Pakistan. There would be photo-ops with Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan. Every nuance of arched eyebrows, warm or cold smile, firm or limp handshake, would be dissected in reams of papers. A hug though is as good as ruled out.
In many ways SCO would be about optics. Its’ stated goal is to fight against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. But Pakistan would be spared this embarrassment. Our troublesome neighbour is making its debut in SCO since its formal induction in 2017—as is the case with India. This powerful Group of the East has had always China behind the wheels. Modi can enjoy the ride but can’t change the course. China is friends with Pakistan for nothing.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have chosen to embarrass each other on the eve of the 19th SCO Summit. India first sought a free airspace for Modi’s passage to Bishkek. However once it was granted, wisdom prevailed and Modi opted to decline the offer. Pakistan, or its propped-up separatists in Jammu & Kashmir, then killed 5 CRPF jawans in Anantnag on Wednesday. Be ready for some tough pictures from Bishkek.
It isn’t to say that SCO is without merit for India. US needs India for its Asia strategy and by appearing shoulder-to-shoulder with Putin and Xi, Modi would keep Donald Trump sober when the two meet in a fortnight’s time in Osaka for G20 Summit (June 28-29). Modi’s bilateral with Rouhani in Bishkek would further force Trump’s hands. That the host in Osaka would be Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who is outreaching to Iran later this week, is no little matter.
India also needs to have the right thermostat to keep matters with China from running too hot or too cold. Modi’s recent visit to Maldives must have prodded the wounds of China. Bishkek would be a good place to straighten out the ruffled feathers since the two leaders, Modi and XI, are slated for a summit in October, a la Wuhan style.
There is no gain denying India sees a friend in Russia. It was Russia which facilitated the entry of India into SCO which, to begin with, was primarily a Central Asia lobby that needed an axis after Soviet Union exploded in 1991. Modi and Putin aren’t taking any steps back on S400 missiles or their growing defence cooperation and Bishkek would afford the two leaders a moment to align themselves against the evil eye of US.
SCO is as good a moment as any to keep Afghanistan in India’s good books. The mountainous country could be fuming for having been not invited for Modi’s oath ceremony last month. Kabul is insecure for more than one reason—Taliban, fostered by Pakistan, is gaining international currency; and US is vowing a retreat of its armed forces. India has always been an all-weather friend and Bishkek couldn’t have come at a better time.
India also needs access to information and intelligence from the Tashkent-based RATS (Regional Anti Terror Structure). China’s push for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also can’t be allowed a free goal. India also can’t afford to be hemmed in by Pakistan and China on its two flanks. A global economy can’t be known as only a South Asian behemoth. India needs physical access over and above its northern borders into Eurasia and SCO affords an excellent opportunity. A rising India is critical to all big powers and it must keep all its suitors on tenterhooks. A stronger and more empowered Modi by his people would only help.