Tight-rope walking !

Modi in Qingdao

By Dr. D.K. Giri
Prof. International Politics, JMI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was at Chinese port town Qingdao last week to attend the 8-country Shanghai Cooperation Organisations (SCO) meeting, held almost in parallel to G-7 conclave held in Quebec Canada. It is no secret that SCO, led by China and Russia is aimed at countering the influence of G-7, led by US and Europeans. Russian President Vladimir Putin was claiming competitive edge of SCO over G-7 group as he compared these, “The per-capita income of G-7, countries may be higher, but SCO accounts for 42% of world population and 20% of world GDP.” Many observers suggest that SCO may be a countervailing structure to NATO.
In the light of New Delhi’s engagement with ‘American block’ and Shino-Russian led groupings’, one could observe that India is back to the ‘balancing act’; ‘straddling two horses’. There is a difference though, which is yet to be defined in clear terms. New Delhi, appears to breakout of a constrictive framework, a non-aligned position, yet bureaucratic conservatism and inertia tend to reinforce old ways of thinking and operation.
Modi’s foreign policy looks like it is ‘walking on two legs”. It is perhaps evidenced by New Delhi’s ability to engage all the major powers, its refusal to be a camp follower to any power. The focus of the foreign policy is on self-interest, and self-assurance that New Delhi can carry the contradictions in international politics by engaging with most powers simultaneously. If New Delhi, in the past, was professing principles in its foreign policy, now it is being pragmatic, or trying to do the improbable, adopting an approach of principled pragmatism although it could be contradiction in terms.
How else one could explain, New Delhi being actively involved in Quad, comprising US, Australia, Japan and India, to counter China in Indo-Pacific region; and at the same time, being a member of BRICS, and since 2017, a full member of SCO, led by Russia and China?
Curiously, India was the only country that once again opted out of ambitions BRI project of China. India is seen to have stood her ground as rest of the seven members endorsed BRI. Modi reiterated, “Connectivity in SCO region and in our neighbourhood countries is a priority for India. We welcome such new connectivity projects that are inclusive, sustainable and transparent and which respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations”. India was referring to 50 billion China-Pak Economic corridor passing through Gilgit and Baltistan, in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, (POK) region.
However, the moot question is, will India endorse and join the BRI project if the route is diverted away from POK? New Delhi will have to answer this strategic question? China intends to connect with Europe and Africa through OBOR (BRI). It wants build an alternative to US hegemony in the world? Where does India stand in such scheme of things?
Let us note that SCO meeting was taking place against the backdrop of Washington pulling out from the Iran nuclear deal, its sanction regime against Russia, and trade dispute with China. Iran, attended the meeting as an observer member along with Afghanistan and Mongolia. It was obvious that SCO took up these issues on board, and formulate counter-strategies to deal with the situation. What Beijing got out of the summit was India’s apparent backing for China in the trade dispute with Trump administration. Chinese President Xi Jinping declared, “We should reject selfish, short-sighted, narrow and closed-off policies. We must maintain the rules of the WTO, support a multilateral trade system and build an open global economy.” China was advocating for free and fair trade despite China’s status and image as the most-closed major economy.
Be that as it may, what was India’s take away from the SCO summit? New Delhi was apparently trying to secure Chinese support for her entry into NSG – Nuclear Supplier Group. It also secured China’s partnership in implementing joint projects in Afghanistan. Thirdly, Beijing and New Delhi agreed to increase their trade to $100 billion by 2020, as against $84.4 billion at present. Beijing agreed to import agricultural items like sugar, non-basmati rice and to increase its investment to offset the trade deficit. For ease of business, Bank of China would open a branch in Mumbai. Fourth, Modi in his speech talked of increasing tourist traffic from SCO countries and promised to organise Buddhist festival to promote cultural links.
As always, Modi invented a new acronym for peace and security called SECURE, where ‘S’ stands for Security for all citizens, E – Economic development, C – Connectivity in the region, U – Unity, R – Respect for sovereignty and integrity, and E – Environment protection. He talked about his initiatives in connectivity, like the developing Chabahar port in Iran, for accessing Afghanistan, the International North-South corridor, a 720-km long multimode transport project for moving freight among India, Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe, and the Ashgabat Agreement, a transport arrangement among several Gulf and Central Asian countries, a transit corridor to spur trade and investment.
Modi was sharing his concept of connectivity, “Today, we are again at a point where physical and digital connectivity are changing the definition of geography”. Were China and Pakistan impressed or persuaded by such perspectives? New Delhi will have to reckon with China’s ambition as ‘new power’ and how much balancing India could do?
As expected, Modi met other leaders of SCO countries to promote bilateralism. Interestingly, Modi and Xi Jinping met 14 times during the last four years, the last one just over five weeks ago, at Wuhan before the SCO meeting. Modi invited Xi for the next informal summit in India. Modi will have tough challenge in dealing with China. His discomfort was evident in his speech at Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month, “No other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China… our relationship is maturing and our trade in growing”. Beijing had promptly welcomed his comments.
Yet, New Delhi is wary of China’s muscle-flexing, both militarily and economically. Modi warned that “when nations make international commitments, they must uphold them”. He was referring to China’s island-building and militarisation in the disputed South-China Sea. Modi also underlined, “the connectivity initiatives must be based on respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, consultation, transparency, viability and sustainability, and empower countries, not to put them under debt burden”. He was referring here to BRI.
Given India’s discomfort with China’s expansionist approach, how much New Delhi could leverage its association with China in several forums, interpersonal dynamics between the two heads of countries is a matter of speculation and time.
New Delhi has to decide whether it will settle for an Asia-centric regional arrangement for security with China on the lead, or it will engage internationally. New Delhi may have to eventually reconcile to BRI – The main elephant in the room – without compromising its core interests. What are the options for India? A close co-operation with China is desirable, but is it possible? One school of thought suggests, New Delhi should bind Beijing in an extensive trade regime which will reduce the security risk. The contrarian suggestion is to stand up to China, with strategic alliances like ‘Quad’ etc. It is matter of diplomacy, and is situation specific, as nothing is constant in international politics. —INFA