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Astana to Washington: Modi needs to navigate through tricky strategic waters

The challenge for Modi is that currently the US, China and Russia are beholden to the  Pakistani military for their own security and strategic reasons and this is proving to be counter to the consensus that Modi is striving for, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor

Jun 10, 2017
By C Uday Bhaskar
 
Participating in the Beijing-led SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization)  summit at  Astana, Kazakhstan on Friday (June 9) where both India and Pakistan were  admitted as full members, after having been observers for a decade, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dealt with a curious foreign policy challenge in an adroit manner.
 
Modi was meeting his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping soon after  his government pointedly distanced itself from the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in mid May, citing sovereignty issues. 
 
However the SCO had fully endorsed the Belt-Road at its 2015 summit meeting and the new members were expected to sign on to  past commitments.  At Astana, Modi drew attention to India's concerns apropos territorial sovereignty and integrity even while endorsing the need for regional connectivity. 
 
The major takeaway from the SCO summit was a reiteration at the highest political level that the Sino-Indian relationship was on an even keel and that the differences and dissonances would be addressed at the appropriate forum and level. This sub-text that involves China, Russia and India  is reassuring when the global strategic framework is experiencing unexpected turbulence in various ways.
 
Sailors are familiar with the sea state being described in numbers – from 0 to 9 – and this is a universally accepted scale that moves from very calm and still (level zero)  to phenomenally stormy with waves of 14 metres height (level 9).  Using this scale in the global politico-diplomatic domain, it may be  valid to suggest that the Modi ship   has  entered very turbulent waters  in June.  The Indian Prime Minister  has just concluded a  four-nation Europe-Russia tour and at the SCO Astana summit he was dealing with multiple contradictions. The most visible is the Pakistan terrorism strand wherein the more recent Kabul attack and the killing of Chinese workers by the Islamic State is illustrative. 
 
The  steadily increasing global turbulence was triggered by US President Donald Trump on June 1 when he announced that the US will no longer be part of the Paris climate agreement.  The unwarranted barb in this Trump  announcement was when he identified India  as being a recipient of undue financial advantage and this has introduced a  diplomatic wrinkle in the bilateral relationship .
 
Modi is expected to meet President Trump in Washington DC in end June (though  no date has been officially announced by Delhi) and the discordant note is on display. In a firm rebuttal  of the Trump assertion about India by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
 
The Trump administration is currently on the defensive over the climate issue since the US  withdrawl has elicited adverse comment globally and even in his own country.  The US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, had a caustic response when she said that the US does not need India, China and  France  to tell it what to do over the Paris agreement. This is only the tip of the ice-berg for the India-US bilateral,  for the Trump administration has also prioritized ‘Buy American’ and ‘Hire American’ – which has meant that many of the H1B visas for Indian IT workers are now in considerable uncertainty.
 
The main challenge for  the first  Modi-Trump meeting will be the  index of re-assurance, or the lack thereof, about ensuring a credible degree of continuity in the bilateral relationship whose foundations were laid during the Bush presidency and nurtured by the Obama team.  If climate change is an indicator, it is evident that  Trump is determined to reverse most Obama policies  and the India-US defence  relationship carefully crafted by former Defence Secretary Ashton Carter  will be the test case  for Modi.
 
This determined attempt to reverse Obama policies has already been implemented in relation to Iran. While this is not a surprise – for Trump in his election campaign was extremely critical of the US led nuclear rapprochement with Iran – the recent visit of the US President to Saudi Arabia  has resulted in a return to a familiar American  position in regional geopolitics, namely that the US steadfastly supports Saudi Arabia and  perceives Iran to be the source of instability and radicalism in the Muslim world.
 
Such a US binary reduction has already led to a chasm in the politics of West Asia – a region critical for India – and the sudden decision by Saudi Arabia and its allies to boycott Qatar is case in point.   Riyadh is wary of both Iran and Qatar for  ostensibly supporting the Islamic State (IS)  and the Muslim Brotherhood but nowhere in the current US policy assessment is there an acknowledgement of the role being played  by the Wahabbi-Salafi  constituency in abetting terrorism.
 
India and Pakistan have now joined  the SCO formally - and paradoxically regional security cooperation with an emphasis on counter-terrorism  is one of its major planks.  China and Russia who are in the driver's  seat on security matters have their own deep anxiety about the kind of terrorism stoked by Islamic jihadists. 
 
The SCO Astana summit has concluded against the backdrop of major terror attacks in Afghanistan, UK and now Iran and as always the politics about terrorism in general and Pakistan in particular was  the unstated sub-text at Astana.
 
Despite the sizeable evidence that is available with security agencies globally and the most recent charges levelled by the Afghan intelligence agencies about the role of the 'deep-state’ in Pakistan  and the Indian exhortation to the global community to close ranks over the scourge of terrorism,    Kazakhstan did not  lead to that elusive consensus despite Modi’s consistent caution on terrorism at Astana
 
The challenge for Modi is that currently the US, China and Russia are beholden to the  Pakistani military for their own security and strategic reasons and this is proving to be counter to the consensus that Modi is striving for.  Clearly, India’s  foreign policy template ought to be evolved in such a manner that its bilateral with the US, China and Russia  at one level; and with the European powers and Japan at the other, is not allowed to get constrained in an exclusive option  formulation.
 
 Modi demonstrated his ability to navigate choppy waters even before he became the PM , as seen in his handling of the US visa denial in early 2014.  This kind of acumen and more will be called for as he sets course from Kazakhstan to the US towards the end of the month as the global strategic waters get even more roiled.
 
(C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

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