Amidst uncertainties over the Trump administration’s trade policies, India is reviewing its own external strategies, writes G Parthasarathy
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, India embarked on policies of trade and economic liberalisation which served as the key for rapid economic growth and regional economic integration. Relations with the US and the European Union blossomed, with expectations of the strengthening of a liberal, democratic world order. While the rapid rise of China and a slower economic revival of Russia were anticipated, hardly anyone envisaged the present erosion of the liberal Western order. The weakening of the EU caused by Brexit and the havoc that ‘Trump Tweet Diplomacy’ has wreaked on institutions like the G7, amid concerns of growing American unilateralism, will inevitably lead to erosion of Western influence in the conduct of international relations.
While the Modi-Trump personal relationship has been warm and there is a growing confidence in greater India-US security cooperation across the Indo-Pacific Region, there are now concerns in India arising from American trade policies. Both India and the US have filed complaints against each other’s trade practices in the WTO. Moreover, American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has openedthe door for a larger Pan-Asian grouping, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes ASEAN member states and six additional states with which ASEAN has separate Free Trade Agreements: China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. In the absence of the US, the RCEP would inevitably become a China-dominated economic grouping.
Given the uncertainties and unpredictability in US policies, PrimeMinister Modi is placing enhanced emphasis on relations with ASEAN and Russia, after engaging China’s President Xi Jinping in an unprecedented ‘informal’ two-day summit in the provincial capital of Wuhan on April 28-29. In light of the complexities of Sino-Indian relations – India and China recently emerged from a long military standoff in 2017 across the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China in Doklam – the two leaders avoided raising public expectations about their meeting. But two important aspects of India and China’s relationship were addressed in Wuhan. Firstly, the two leaders agreed that their forces deployed along the disputed borders would observe norms to avoid face-offs and tensions. Secondly,efforts would be made to expand trade and investment relations.
The Wuhan summit was followed by similar Modi-Putin talks in the Russian Black Sea port of Sochi, which came in the wake of unilateral US Sanctions on Iran and on the purchase of Russian defence equipment. India still imports over 60 percent of its defence equipment from Russia, while the US is its second largest supplier, followed by Israel and France. India is set to acquire a number of weapons systems from Russia, including long-range surface-to-air S-400 missiles, which will provide formidable air defences on its borders with China and Pakistan. Russia is also set to provide India with ‘stealth’ frigates for its navy and helicopters for its armed forces.
With New Delhi having made it clear that it will not abide by the American sanctions, Defence Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo have indicated that measures willbe taken to ensure that Indian defence preparedness, through acquisitions from Russia, is not adverselyaffected by US sanctions. The Pentagon sees India as a major security partner in the Indo-Pacific region and, whileit would ideally like to see a US-Japan-India-Australia ‘Quad’ security partnership for the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi is focused on strengthening the existing US-Japan-India defence partnership, comprising tripartite joint military exercises, including maritime exercises, across the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans.
While China has consistently sought to politically, economically and militarily undermine Indian influence across the shores of the Indian Ocean, India has generally sought partnerships with other Asian and international partners, in order to balance Chinese economic and military power. China’s massive resources haveto be balanced by India partnering Japan, the US and select Asian countries, which are themselves facing Chinese territorial and political pressures. China has unilaterally determined its maritime frontiers in the South China Sea – in most cases, in violation of international law and the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas.One of India’s most remarkable diplomatic achievements, however, has been to settle its maritime boundaries with all its eastern neighbours.
This has been done not only with bilateral agreements on the sea boundaries with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh, but also tripartite agreements to determine tri-junctions with Myanmar and Thailand, Indonesia and Thailand and Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Even arriving at an agreement to demarcate its maritime frontiers with Pakistan will not be difficult for India, once agreement is reached on demarcating the land boundary in the Sir Creek area.
In a major effort to enhance regional understanding and cooperation on maritime issues, MrModi recently undertook official visits to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, where he addressed the ‘Shangri La’ dialogue, a gathering attended by the defence ministers and security specialists of the ASEAN members and their dialogue partners, including the US. Spelling out Indian perspectives by alluding to his Sochi meeting with Putin, Mr Modi noted that India, like Russia, favoured a multipolar world.
In the presence of US Defence Secretary Mattis, who had barely a few days earlier renamed the US Pacific Fleet the ‘US-Indo-Pacific Fleet’, Mr Modi alluded to India and the US ‘sharing a vision of an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region’. He also spoke optimistically about his Wuhan meeting with President Xi Jinping and the prospects for improved bilateral relations with China. Without naming China, he stressed the importance of countries respecting the principles of freedom of navigation and the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. He made it clear India would not support China’s Belt and Road Initiative and that foreign funded infrastructure projects should not lead recipients into a debt trap.
With Parliamentary elections due in mid-2019, the predominant focus of attention in New Delhi is going to be on domestic economic and political issues. There has been an abiding consensus in India that it should not become overly dependent on any external power, whileat the same time seeking to promote a multipolar world order. Modi’s visits to China and Russia, and India’s participation in forums like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, indicate that while New Delhi seeks better relations with the US, it will alsocontinue to engage and cooperatewith Russia and China. More importantly, Mr Modi’s message to partners in the Indo-Pacific Region and especially members of ASEAN was that India understands their security concerns and will cooperate with themon maritime issues and respect for the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.