Ignoring Pakistan, showing deftness in engaging with China, Russia: Narendra Modi in good form at SCO summit

It is remarkable how a section of the Indian media continues to obsess over whether Narendra Modi glanced at Imran Khan, shook his hands, sat at the dinner table opposite, diagonally, beside or at an acute angle, whether there was a pull-aside, whether there was a flutter of eyelids, nudge-and-wink etc., etc., when the ministry of external affairs (MEA) had made it clear with their official statement that there is no chance of a formal or informal bilateral meeting between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers at the ongoing Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Bishkek.

Indian media's myopic Pakistan obsession interferes with its ability to focus on developments of far greater import that took place the day Modi landed in the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The prime minister held two delegation-level talks with China and Russia where some important steps were taken towards stabilising the relation with two key foreign powers.

Modi also made it clear to Chinese President Xi Jinping that "talks" with Pakistan is only possible within a bilateral framework — nipping in the bud any possibility of Chinese involvement — and reiterated India’s stated position that Islamabad has so far failed to create an atmosphere conducive for dialogue because no concrete steps have been taken towards turning off the terror tap.

 Ignoring Pakistan, showing deftness in engaging with China, Russia: Narendra Modi in good form at SCO summit

Narendra Modi made it clear to Chinese President Xi Jinping that "talks" with Pakistan is only possible within a bilateral framework — nipping in the bud any possibility of Chinese involvement. AFP

According to the transcript provided by the Ministry of External Affairs on media briefing by the foreign secretary on the bilateral between Modi and Xi, the spokesperson quoted Vijay Gokhale as saying, "There was a very brief discussion on Pakistan. Obviously time was a constraint but Prime Minister in fact said that we have a consistent position with respect to Pakistan, we discuss all issues through bilateral mechanism and we look for peaceful settlement through negotiations. We are committed to this process, the prime minister recalled that he has made efforts in this regard and these efforts have been derailed."

The significance of the word “derailed” lies in the fact that India’s hardening of position towards Pakistan is not due to lack of effort on India’s part in improving the ties. It is a result of the disillusionment caused by Islamabad’s repeated betrayals.

The foreign secretary also said that Modi “did inform President Xi that Pakistan needs to create an atmosphere free of terrorism and that at this stage we did not see this happening as yet. And that therefore we expect Pakistan to take concrete action on the issues that India has proposed in the areas of concerns….”

Modi also handed an expected snub to Pakistan by ignoring Imran’s pleas for “talks” which is anyway a frothy exercise attempted by the Rawalpindi generals to wriggle out of the diplomatic doghouse. India has pushed Pakistan into a corner and there is no reason why this policy needs to change, at least in the short term.

To the more serious end of the business, Modi showed that in his second term he retains the maneuverable deftness to play the great power game into which India has been thrust due to the changing geopolitical environment. An emerging Sino-Russian axis poses some difficult choices for India. India’s bilateral dynamic with China and Russia and own power constraints limit New Delhi’s ability to shape the strategic choices of an emerging and a waning superpower. The axis, that has emerged primarily to balance the influence of the US, also carries implications for India in terms of constraining its ability to firm up alliances or project power in the regional periphery.

In an article in The Indian Express, National University of Singapore director C Raja Mohan noted: “That the Sino-Russian alliance is being framed as a counter to the United States makes it that much more complicated for Indian diplomacy. Navigating the rivalry between the great powers remains the biggest challenge for India’s foreign policy during Modi’s second term.”

For all these reasons, SCO provided an excellent opportunity for Modi to navigate the geopolitical realignment and ensure that the trajectory of India’s rise as a leading power remains unhindered. On China, the challenge before Modi is to remain engaged and not let Beijing use the power differential between the two nations as a leverage against New Delhi. Continued engagement should let India buy some time to focus on lessening the power differential and at the same time jointly navigate some challenges on trade posed by a transactional US president.

Donald Trump’s sword-wielding on trade, while targeted at China, has also managed to wound India in some respects and at the same time present some unexpected opportunities in reducing the trust deficit with China. It was interesting to note, therefore, that Modi-Xi meet stressed primarily on “raising mutual expectations” from the relationship and taking the “Wuhan spirit forward”.

According to the foreign secretary’s media briefing, Modi brought up the topics of China’s cooperation in letting Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar be listed as a global terrorist at the UN, opening of Bank of China branch in India and he attributed it to “improved” “strategic communication” between the two sides.

“PM specifically conveyed to President Jinping and he agreed that both sides need to raise our expectations from the relationship. PM welcomed him to India for next informal summit, President Xi Jinping confirmed his readiness to visit India this year,” Gokhale was quoted, as saying.

China’s foreign ministry statement claims that Xi reportedly congratulated Modi on his re-election, highlighted the need to strengthen confidence-building measures, maintain stability as well as strive for a speedy, “fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable” solution to the border dispute through the special representative mechanism and — quite significantly — stress on “jointly safeguard(ing) free trade and multilateralism,” according to media reports. (See here and here). While the fundamental strategic and antagonistic nature of the relationship shall endure, the engagement should provide India more opportunities to avoid the pitfalls.

With Russia, the nature of the beast is different. Bilateral ties with Russia have eroded substantially from the Soviet-era to now settle on a transactional relationship centred around India’s purchasing of Russian defence equipment. In this arena, ties have remained strong.

More than 65 percent of Indian military hardware are sourced from Russia. Moscow still retains its integral role in partnering with India on R&D and military training and remains the only nation to offer cutting-edge defence technology — be it nuclear submarines or advanced air and missile defence system such as S-400. However, people-to-people contact has taken a steadily downward turn, trade is minimal and both nations have more differences than agreements on key strategic challenges.

The narrow-basing of the relationship almost exclusively on military equipment and to a certain extent on India’s energy security resists diversification in other areas of interests. Russia finds better strategic synergy with China on various issues including balancing the US. And Moscow’s ‘seller-customer’ relationship with New Delhi, too, has come under US pressure.

Modi and Putin share a personal rapport that was readily evident, but there was nothing to show in the bilateral beyond Putin’s invitation to Modi to be the main guest at the Eastern Economic Forum (EEC) in Vladivostok in September and Modi’s “warm acceptance” of it, to show that the relationship has moved beyond “buyer-seller” relationship.

Russia’s own interests in retaining a major chunk of India’s defence-spending pie will prevent it from letting the ties go south but equally, Moscow’s journey from being a part of a solution to India’s China challenge to adding to it will test the strength of the relationship.

What Modi showed, however, is a willingness to engage with key powers while strategic realignments are taking place and an awareness of India’s leverages in navigating the turf. The emergence of a clear-eyed Pakistan policy, at long last, is also a welcome move.

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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2019 07:37:42 IST