Modi-MbS joint statement provides reality check about India's foreign policy: So many partners, so few friends

Not for the first time this week — or indeed, this day — will you read the following five words on this website: The Congress' outrage is misplaced.

On Thursday, the Grand Old Party's national spokesperson Randeep Surjewala lashed out at Narendra Modi over the inadequacies of the joint statement signed by the prime minister and Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday. Surjewala questioned why, among other things, the statement did not name and shame Pakistan as a 'terror nourisher'.

The real question Surjewala — and for that matter, anyone contemplating the reason for the exclusion — should be asking is: Would it have made a difference?

Let's assume for a moment that the statement had in fact, 'in the strongest terms', condemned Pakistan for fostering, grooming, nurturing, feeding, clothing, educating, organising the wedding of, babysitting for (feel free to add any other verbs that you deem apt) terrorism. Apart from causing a mild ripple in relations between Riyadh and Islamabad for the short term — do recall how Saudi Arabia's anger at Pakistan for opting not to join its anti-Yemeni Houthi forces coalition in 2015, soon evaporated and that both sides settled their differences — things will return to normal. The mere mention of Pakistan in a joint statement, that by its very nature is not legally binding, would do very little else than that.

That 'very little' being to cry itself hoarse at the UN and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) about how it was a victim of terror and was being demonised at big bully India's behest. This simulation could continue for a few paragraphs more, but what's the point? We've seen it all before and much too often.

As it stands, the statement contains no mention of Pakistan, which seems as good a point as any for India to wake up, smell the coffee and make sense of this latest reality check. Two reality checks, to be precise.

Modi-MbS joint statement provides reality check about Indias foreign policy: So many partners, so few friends

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday. Twitter @MEAIndia

Different strokes for different folks

First, India-Saudi relations are largely economic in nature. While there was a sprinkling of tourism-, housing- and culture-related content in the MoUs/agreements signed on Wednesday, the biggest thrust of the crown prince's visit was investment. Aside from the MoU between the Financial Intelligence Units of both countries to cooperate in the exchange of 'Intelligence related to Money Laundering, Terrorism Financing and Related Crimes', this was also the case when Modi visited Saudi Arabia in April 2016. That 2.7 million Indian expats — whose efforts in 'building Saudi Arabia' were lauded by Salman — work across industries in the Kingdom and New Delhi's energy dependence on Riyadh further the point that the bilateral is, for the most part, an economic relationship. To expect the relationship to suddenly transform into a strategic one is premature and unrealistic.

Second, India and Saudi Arabia might be economic partners, but Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are strategic partners... and more. There's a deeper link between the two that becomes a bit clearer upon looking at the following lines in the Saudi-Pakistan joint statement:

- (Salman) praised Prime Minister Imran Khan's agenda of transforming Pakistan into a welfare state, based on Islamic socio-economic principles...
- The Pakistani side appreciated the leadership and positive role of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in resolving the issues facing Islamic Ummah worldwide.
The Saudi side lauded Pakistan's important positions in the Islamic world and its efforts for regional peace and security.
They strongly condemned the atrocities and human rights violations committed against Muslims around the world.

Coupled with the faith-based connection, the joint statement refers to the two nations in three instances as "brotherly countries". Whether or not India chooses to accept it, Riyadh will always be closer to Islamabad than New Delhi. But, such is the nature of geopolitics, and India, as a country that proudly speaks of its 'strategic autonomy', should realise that Saudi Arabia too has its own strategic autonomy, which allows it to pick and choose what it wishes to do in partnership with whom.

But let's return to the topic at hand.

On terrorism

Barring the infinitesimally small vague possibility that Salman was unaware that India-Pakistan tensions have been greatly heightened by the Pulwama attack on 14 February — an incident acknowledged in the joint statement that bears the signatures of Modi and Salman, the Saudi crown prince had the opportunity, as this article points out, to play peacemaker. Contending that Salman could have invited the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers to Riyadh, a neutral(ish) venue, for talks, the article notes, "But he offered just vague observations about terrorism being a 'common concern', and an equally unspecific promise to share more intelligence with India. Plainly, the prince is not prepared to play peacemaker."

And a look at the joint statements he signed on his visits to the two South Asian neighbours takes this notion a step further.

The statement signed in Islamabad reads that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan "reiterated their commitment to continue combating extremism and terrorism and expressed their deep appreciation for the achievements and sacrifices made by the two sides in the war against terrorism. They also applauded the martyrs who sacrificed their lives in order to confront this serious scourge and called on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities to join all international efforts to combat global terrorism. They also underlined the need for avoiding politicisation of UN listing regime".

A few points stick out like a sore thumb:

- 'achievements... in the war against terrorism'?
- 'called on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities to join all international efforts to combat global terrorism'?
- 'the need for avoiding politicisation of UN listing regime'?
(emphasis added)

Whether a display of wilful ignorance or something far more insidious, these remarks — the third in particular that is an unveiled dig at India's efforts to have Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar designated a 'terrorist' — look a lot like a mockery of India's position made clear across fora, domestic and international, bilateral and multilateral.

Let's move on to the India-Saudi Arabia statement. It does note that the two sides "condemned in the strongest terms, the recent terrorist attack on Indian security forces on 14 February, 2019 in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir". A little earlier in the communiqué, came the following paragraph:

"Affirming that the menace of extremism and terrorism threatens all nations and societies, the two sides rejected any attempt to link this universal phenomenon to any particular race, religion or culture. Both sides called on all states to reject the use of terrorism against other countries; dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists perpetrating terrorism from all territories against other states; and bring perpetrators of acts of terrorism to justice. The two sides also noted the need for concerted action by the international community against terrorism including through early adoption of the UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism and underlined the importance of comprehensive sanctioning of terrorists and their organisations by the UN."

And here's a look at an excerpt from the 2016 joint statement:

"Affirming that the menace of extremism and terrorism threatens all nations and societies, the two leaders rejected totally any attempt to link this universal phenomenon to any particular race, religion or culture. They called on all states to reject the use of terrorism against other countries; dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists operating and perpetrating terrorism from their territories against other states; and bring perpetrators of acts of terrorism to justice. The two leaders agreed to further strengthen cooperation in combating terrorism, both at the bilateral level and within the multilateral system of the UN. The two leaders called upon the international community to strengthen multilateral regimes to effectively address the challenges posed by terrorism. The two sides agreed to work together towards the adoption of India’s proposed Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in the United Nations."

Whether boilerplate text or a quick bit of Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V action is as-yet-unknown, however, there are a few important differences (emphasised in the lengthier section contained in the 2016 document). Agreeing to strengthen cooperation and calling upon the international community to do something is as much a part of any joint statement as fruit is a part of any healthy breakfast. However, underlining the "importance of comprehensive sanctioning of terrorists and their organisations by the UN" is undoubtedly a noble thing to underline, but when one has signed a statement 48 hours or so earlier decrying the 'politicisation' of the UN listing regime, it begins to look increasingly like a cruel joke. After all, how do you sanction that which you cannot list or designate?

Another interesting point to note is the absence of the word 'totally' in the 2019 iteration. Make of that what you will.

Elsewhere, the line expressing "strong condemnation of the phenomenon of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, irrespective of who the perpetrators were and of their motivations" is absent in the 2019 edition, while a welcome addition is the line "Both sides called up on all countries to renounce the use of terrorism as an instrument of State policy". Ultimately, all of this flies out of the window when looking at the statement signed with Pakistan. Strategic autonomy, it would seem, goes hand-in-hand with the autonomy of logic. The most heartening part of the whole section on terrorism was the plan to constitute a 'Comprehensive Security Dialogue' at the National Security Advisor-level and the setting up of a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism. It's probably best not to speculate on how useful all of this will be.

But one glaring aspect sticks out like a sore thumb.

Playing the CCIT both ways

Both the 2016 and 2019 joint statements call for the early adoption of the draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT). The convention has faced pushback from a number of nations and multilateral groupings for a handful of reasons. One of the biggest sources of disagreement, however, is the way the CCIT defines terrorism and terrorists. As noted in 2014, on the occasion of Modi attending his first UN General Assembly as Prime Minister of India with a view to pushing the CCIT, "the OIC — comprising 57 countries — [is] opposed to the CCIT... [because it] feels the draft does not adequately distinguish movements of self-determination from terrorism."

Bearing in mind that the OIC has not changed its stand and that Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest players in the grouping, it seems downright bizarre that Salman would back the CCIT in a bilateral setting, but oppose it as part of a multilateral grouping.

Also, consider at this point that Saudi Arabia's 'brotherly nation' Pakistan views the acts of terror being perpetrated in what it gallingly refers to as "Indian-occupied Kashmir" as part of a self-determination movement for Kashmiri 'azaadi'. It suddenly appears highly unlikely that Riyadh is going to oppose Islamabad, ergo, unlikely that Riyadh is truly going to get behind the CCIT. Perhaps the fact that said convention is unlikely to get the unanimous and global approval any time soon, it's probably a safe, no matter how insincere, line to throw into joint statements.

The bottomline

At the end of the day, the Congress' outrage is indeed misplaced. But, at least now India can unburden itself of unrealistic expectations from its bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. After all, when you have a myriad basket of natural partners, economic partners, strategic partners and partners-linked-by-DNA, you tend to have a lot of partners for all sorts of purposes, just not a lot of friends.

Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.

Updated Date: Feb 21, 2019 16:24:40 IST

Also See