G20 Osaka Summit: India stays firm on trade, terrorism and tariff talks; PM's bonhomie with world leaders carried weight of balanced foreign policy

It’s was a merry go round of sorts in Osaka, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted one world leader after another, each of whom met him with a different agenda, and, quite possibly, requiring a different body language.

Bonhomie was evident in his greeting with Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe, long seen as a friend apart from being a prospective partner in the all-important “neighbourhood policy”. Whereas, boisterousness was evident in the “fist bump” with Abe and US President Donald Trump, and some caution in his meeting with Trump separately.

All the public smiles and photo ops are only an end result of meetings held, sometimes months ago, where issues are shaken out, examined and re-done to address new challenges or a subtle shift in policy. An example of that was evident at the JAI ( Japan, America India) meeting, which Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale presented as dealing with “connectivity, in terms of infrastructure…ensuring that peace and security is maintained (and) working together to build upon this new concept so that it benefits the region as a whole and for the three countries of course."

The meat in that was discovered a month earlier. In May, Japanese, Indian and the US navies together with the Philippines did their first joint drill in the South China Sea. That was widely seen in the media as a challenge to Beijing. The foreign secretary’s job is to apply the corrective brakes on abrasive headlines, even while letting the country get on with it.

 G20 Osaka Summit: India stays firm on trade, terrorism and tariff talks; PMs bonhomie with world leaders carried weight of balanced foreign policy

Narendra Modi with Donald Trump during G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. Image courtesy: Twitter @MEAIndia

A delicate balancing on policy issues was evident in the warmth that seemed to pervade the Russia-India-China trilateral, where the other two seem to have concurred to New Delhi’s priority on fighting terrorism, even while the trio remains the leading edge against protectionism. This was very nearly a continuation of the Bishkek Joint Declaration in essence, but with only the core countries operating.

As Russian president Vladimir Putin said, “the RIC format could become a model for establishing an up-to-date, just and multipolar world order that rejects protectionism, the policy of unilateral actions and illegitimate sanctions”. That may be a strong language for Delhi, but it is not holding back from siding with them on the centrality of the World Trade Organisation.

The same sentiment was evident at the BRICS informal meeting where President Xi Jinping held forth on the need for a 'BRICS plus' — which means that he’s looking for more partners against unilateral sanctions. He’ll probably get it too.

In an entirely different forum, European Union leaders were celebrating a draft EU trade pact with South America. That’s a none too subtle hint that as the US closed its doors, the EU’s own pinewood doors were wide open. All this clubbing seems to have worked to an extent, with Trump delaying (very temporarily) a further chunk of tariffs on about $300 bn of Chinese goods. But the trade war will continue, and there’s no doubt China is hurting.

India is hurting too, and not just because the tariff guns are turned on it as well. The shift from cheap Iranian oil, the ensuing rise in oil prices and our import bill — estimated at a 30 percent rise due to rising oil prices, and the weakening of ties with an important ally in the turbulent area are some difficulties that arise from being a ‘good friend’ to the US. This much was conveyed to Trump bilaterally together with a vitally important offer. According to the foreign secretary's briefing, India also seems to have done a doubler.

Delhi seems to have turned the fight for 5G (and entry into the massive Indian market), into a 'Make in India’ project using India’s expertise in the Silicon Valley to the full. That’s a great idea that could lose its soul in the cut and thrust of a bureaucracy that has difficulty in seeing the woods for the trees. The PMO would do well to keep a monitoring eye on it.

No sooner was that proposal made, came a knocking on the door by China. According to The Hindu, an offer came from Xi Jinping for cooperation between India, China and Russia on not just connectivity but also 5G networks. Curiously, however, there was no reference to this at all in the media briefing by the Indian foreign secretary. Jinping’s offer comes in the wake of the plunging fortunes of not only Huawei but across its entire supply chain. The fight for India could prove crucial, and China will not scruple to use all levers to push the Modi government into a favourable decision. As of now, it seems to be still intent on getting Delhi to talk to Pakistan. That’s not just bad diplomacy, it’s bad thinking.

And finally, the somewhat perilous path of policymaking was apparent in the fact that India stayed out of the Japan-sponsored Osaka Declaration on digital economy which was signed by 23 countries. India was one of the few to opt out, being, surprisingly, a custodian of far more data centres than China. Besides, New Delhi’s stance is that such action should be made through the WTO. That’s another example of a quick skip around an ally on one issue, even while warmly clasping hands on another.

Policymakers accustomed to handling ‘bilateral’ formats are going to find the going hard. What works in one forum may not necessarily work in another with the same country. And friendship in bilateral terms is not a permanent fixture as in past, with ‘traditional’ friends and enemies. For media analysts, it’s proving even more difficult. That was apparent in the shrill commentaries both before and after the Pompeo visit, and the puzzling questions at G-20 on the S-400 deal.

The US is neither the ogre that certain left-leaning liberals like to think it is nor is it – nor should be – in the business of charity. Yet it is probably one of our most useful levers or balances in the complicated game described above. Diplomacy can no longer be a gentle Viennese waltz, or a pas de trois from Swan Lake. It’s a mad carnival, and the merry go round is only going to go faster.

Updated Date: Jun 30, 2019 11:38:58 IST