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By: Srinivasan K. Rangachary

On September 27th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the UN General Assembly (UNGA) for twenty minutes without mentioning Pakistan and Kashmir. His Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, did little other than rant about Kashmir and India for fifty. Modi, according to the domestic consensus, spoke like a statesman. Khan persisted with the clown act, as per the obverse of the same consensus. No surprises there. And just five days earlier, Modi had received a welcome accorded to rockstars by the 50,000-plus Indian American crowd at the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, with US President Donald Trump at his side.

Some surprise there perhaps, but Houston, too, was post-Kashmir and Modi was pulling off the biggest show of his new term on foreign soil. The support extended to Pakistan by Turkey and Malaysia at the UNGA has been much commented upon. But little notice has been taken of three brief meetings Modi held with three little-noticed individuals on the world stage. Modi assured the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, of India’s support for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Cyprus. The Prime Minister also held talks with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the new Prime Minister of Greece, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. These meetings took place at a time when three victims of historic or persistent Turkish wrongs-invasion and occupation (Cyprus), gun-boat diplomacy over hydrocarbons and territorial dispute (Greece), genocide (Armenia)- are drawing ever closer together, having formed a bloc of sorts to contain an aggressive Ankara.

Without raising a stink about the Turkish delight sweetening Islamabad and Ankara’s playing host to quite a bit of anti-India activism these days, New Delhi has been quietly cementing its ties with three of Turkey’s closest neighbours and staunchest adversaries. Such canny confidence usually characterises a diplomacy that correctly reads the strategic map and accurately locates tactical pressure points. It may be too soon to say that Indian diplomatic manoeuvring has jettisoned its diffidence but it has certainly wedded pragmatism to risk-taking, neither a longstanding attribute of Indian foreign policy. After five full years at the helm of India’s global campaign, Modi’s new term must be spent consolidating the gains made in his first and leveraging the same-even as some are lost and some new made-to deal with challenges getting bigger and closer. The resounding mandate that heralded Modi 2.0 will help, but geopolitics is unstable and subject to too many influences not in any individual state’s control. The pillars, departures and contours of Modi’s foreign policy were determined in his first term. Now, these will be tested and asked to adapt, nowhere more so than in India’s most important bilateral relationships. And India’s most important bilateral relationship is testing Modi. Strategically, India and the US have never been closer.

But there’s a distance that has opened up over trade-and to some extent, immigration-which, if allowed to widen, could confine the two to a transactional booth. Given the ‘domestically oriented political content’ at Houston’s ‘Howdy Modi’, Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that ‘foreign policy took a back seat.’ Yet, her colleague from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Richard Rossow, has pointed out that US President Donald Trump’s presence was a ‘tacit acknowledgement’ that Kashmir will not adversely affect India-US relations. It also signalled that disagreements over trade will not escalate into a trade war. India-US bilateral trade crossed $142 billion in 2018, 2017 having witnessed double-digit growth in their Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in each other’s economies. Pushing to sort out trade, Modi and Trump indicated that neither is willing to let the figures slide but, for now, it’s difficult to see beyond limited measures targeted at resolving sticking points, such as the withdrawal of the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP).

In other words, a fully fledged agreement on trade is not in the immediate offing.  Under the circumstances, it might help to put a buffer between the strategic partnership and the bickering over trade. Modi’s Government, never hostage to the Congress’ ideological baggage, has expanded defence ties with Washington, boosting defence trade-at $18 billion today from $1 billion in 2008-and force interoperability. The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) seek collaboration, emphasising co-production and co-development to guide India away from the ‘buyer-seller’ dynamic of its defence deals. India conducts most of its military exercises with the US and the Quad with Australia and Japan has been revived. None of that, however, means a complete strategic convergence. The US wants India to openly balance and confront China. India wants the US to punish Pakistan and contain China. Changes in America’s domestic political scene, too, are shaping up to impact ties.  Modi’s biggest challenge will remain China. India and China appear to have stopped coming closer together. Much of it has to do with how China sees itself and the world-a world that must more and more resemble itself. For Beijing, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and even the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), are strategic weapons to leverage geo-economics to change the world. When India opted out of the BRI, Delhi had looked isolated.

Today, when the EU and Japan ink their infrastructure cooperation pact to counter the BRI-pointing out the danger in everybody becoming dependent on one country and calling for environmental and fiscal sustainability in infrastructure projects that don’t burden states with debts that can’t be repaid-India stands vindicated. It had taken courage to stay away from the BRI but the gamble seems to have paid off, demonstrating once more the newfound canniness in Indian foreign policy. Full of contradictions, Sino-Indian ties pull in opposite directions. India can cooperate with China in criticising US trade practices at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), but the US-Australia-Japan-India Quad’s overt objective is to promote a rules-based Indo-Pacific against Chinese maritime aggression. Closer home, the longstanding border dispute may provoke more Doklam-like face-offs, since Delhi and Beijing have very different imperatives. And after Kashmir, Beijing is much more adversarial now than in recent years. Above all, it’s trade that unmasks China. In 2017-2018, the bilateral trade deficit stood at $63 billion.

However, it’s not enough to talk about economic cooperation when India’s lack of adequate economic openness is an obstacle. The aspect of external engagement that needs to become more positive and purposeful is India’s trade policy, particularly engagement in FTAs. India’s hesitation to grant market access and reluctance to commit to forward-looking trade agendas at Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership refrains it from fully exploiting commercial opportunities that an action-oriented foreign policy can produce. India, having understood the geopolitical imperative in the Far East, has not yet been able to match its words with action on trade. A meaningful trade policy aiming to expand India’s exchanges and economic connections with the rest of the world would perfectly complement its foreign policy when geopolitics, trade and connectivity are enmeshing through emergence of powerful strategic constructs like the Indo-Pacific, where India is poised to play a very significant role. Modi has understood geography to India’s east, although there are other challenges facing him there apart from China.

Looking to India’s west, he has again read the map correctly, to say nothing of security, energy and economic imperatives. The Middle East is the strongest case of recasting foreign policy in a non-ideological mould. India is that rare state balancing its relations with Israel, the Arab nations and Iran. For decades, India appeared ‘more Arab than Arab states’ in the Middle East but couldn’t elevate its ties above transactional hydrocarbon relationships. The Organisation of Islamic States was hostile to Delhi and was Pakistan’s playground. Post-Kashmir, both Arab states that Modi visited in August-the UAE and Bahrain-had already given unambiguous support to India. Barring Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan (none Arab), there has been little criticism of Delhi’s action from the governments of significant Muslim-majority countries. The UAE-which Modi has visited thrice in five years after three-plus decades of no Indian prime ministerial visit-in particular helps understand what Modi has achieved with the Gulf Cooperation Council states.

India’s third-largest trade partner (bilateral trade was $60 billion in 2018-2019) and fourth-largest crude supplier, the UAE as a strategic partner is a beacon to other Arab states who see India as a counter to a China-Pakistan axis they are growing wary of. The Gulf also has a large Indian diaspora whose concerns are finally being addressed by their hosts. But in diplomacy, even the smaller gestures assume significance. After last month’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, Riyadh-a strategic energy partner for Delhi-went out of its way to assure India that its needs would be met. The most remarked upon departure in the Middle East, however, was bringing the Israel-India relationship ‘out of the closet’. Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, returning the favour India silently owed the late Ariel Sharon-the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India-who had nudged Delhi towards a bigger global role than it had ambitions for. Indo-Israeli defence and security cooperation was the worst-kept secret on either side, yet the Congress could never muster the courage to sincerely acknowledge the robust ties. In shying away from overt engagement with Israel, India was not reading the Arab world right either, which tends to respect candidness and resolve. And India still couldn’t anticipate the Arab uprisings. But the Israeli partnership expands much beyond defence and security to technology, trade and harnessing India’s potential in agriculture, water treatment, skills, and etcetera.

Moreover, Russia is contracted to build 12 nuclear plants in India. Moscow, too, still needs Delhi. Its push for India’s entry into the SCO indicated its desire to use India as a counterweight against China, to whom Russia is now the junior partner. The US and UNGA was Modi’s biggest foreign trip after the decision to change Jammu & Kashmir’s status. There has been no major shift in attitudes since August—most states who offered India support then have continued to do so, some of those who criticised India then have become more strident since, and the media has remained mostly hostile. The US, in particular, is trying to balance its own objectives.

However, the Afghan situation, whether the US settles with the Taliban or not, may soon revert to Delhi’s gravest security concern. In connecting with Southeast Asia, Modi had built another bridge in his first term—India’s ancient civilisational ties with the region, primarily through Buddhism, which he brought to the foreground with ASEAN. Cultural ties constitute one of the pillars of Modi’s foreign policy and his UNGA speech did not neglect the topic. Modi touched base with most of his primary concerns in talking about terrorism, trade, culture and climate change on September 27th. The immediate future of renewable energy may be uncertain but India’s assumption of a leadership role on both renewables and climate change is not in question. Pragmatism, as demonstrated by Modi’s foreign policy, need not be devoid of the moral impulse, as long as one’s clear about what it means. It’s about balancing one’s permanent interests with the permanent greater good, something closer to the idea of ‘enlightened self-interest’. (INAV)

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