Open door diplomacy

With the Modi government’s second term underway, G Parthasarathy explores India’s diplomatic outreach in multilateral forums

The 55-member Asia-Pacific Group of the UN General Assembly unanimously endorsed India’s candidature for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council on June 26. This united support was largely seen as a vindication of the ‘strategic autonomy’ policy which India has pursued, whilst simultaneously seeking greater economic integration across its Indo-Pacific neighbourhood.

Particularly gratifying was China’s support, despite differences between New Delhi and Beijing on border and regional security issues. India’s ‘Look East’ Policies involve regular exchanges of views between the two nations in forums such as the ASEAN-sponsored East Asia Summit, and in summit and ministerial level meetings of BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the G20, as well as in a regular trilateral India-China-Russia dialogue. These exchanges have been useful in helping to ensure that differences along the Sino-India border are carefully managed and that tensions do not get out of hand, as they nearly did in 2018 at Doklam, located at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China. China also makes no secret of its determination to increase its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, which is another contentious issue between the two countries.
Even more importantly, participation in these international and regional multilateral forums gives India a measure of ‘strategic autonomy’ in dealing with major powers, as they play an important role in enhancing cooperation and managing differences.

No multilateral forum has evoked as much attention in India as the G20. At the first G20 summit in Washington in November 2008, India’s then prime minister,the softly-spoken economist Dr Manmohan Singh, developed a close personal relationship with US President Obama. The Washington summit was convened in the wake of the global economic meltdown in 2007-2008, triggered by developments in the US and their aftereffects in Europe and elsewhere. The G20 has since sought global solutions to pressing economic concerns through regular meetings of finance ministers and governors of central banks. International financial institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and Asian Development Bank are integral to this effort.

A meeting between Modi, Putin and Xi Jinping focused attention on terrorism and climate change

Like his predecessor, Prime Minister Modi attaches the highest importance to G20 summit meetings. His attendance at June’s G20 summit in Osaka came soon after his visit to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO was formed by China and Russia to ensure that Central Asian countries sharing common borders with both do not become military bases for an American-led alliance, or an epicentre of what was the regarded as Saudi Arabian-funded radical Islamic organisations.

The BRICS grouping brought together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africato cooperate on global economic issues. BRICS was initially regarded as a confederacy of the world’s most promising ‘emerging economies’, bringing together Russia and China with influential and major economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, while excluding the US and its European partners, which were all characterised as affluent ‘developed countries’. India has also backed regional groupings which are not military alliances, though they have elements of military cooperation, focusing primarily on training and joint exercises. Its partners in such groupings are drawn from countries ranging from the US, Russia, China, Japan andEU member states, tonationsacross the Indo-Pacific Region.

The Osaka G20 summit took place amidst concerns of a new economic crisis arising from US President Trump’s policies of growing protectionism. President Trump has unilaterally imposed higher duties on trade with neighbours including Canada and Mexico, allies in Europe, and major Asian economies China, Japan and India. Mr Modi’s meeting with Trump in Osaka has led to the initiation of bilateral trade talks, which have commenced at the level of senior officials and experts. Trump’s trade representatives are hard-line protectionists, with scant regard for the World Trade Organisation or for a rule-based order on issues of world trade. India will be persuaded to revoke some of the recent protectionist measures it has taken prior to the forthcoming negotiations and discussions with the US, the primary focus of which have hitherto been bilateral trade, Iran, energy security, and 5G networks.

India made it clear to US Secretary of State Pompeo, who visited New Delhi on the eve of the Modi-Trump meeting in Osaka, that it intends to go ahead with acquiring S400 missiles from Russia, despite threats of US sanctions. The issue of US sanctions on arms purchases from Russia, therefore, did not figure in the Osaka meeting. India and Russia have devised payments arrangements which enable them to bypass American sanctions on India’s arms imports from Russia. New Delhi has also taken note of a recent US Senate Resolution calling for greater military cooperation between the US and India.

As for the subsequent Modi-Trump-Shinzo Abe trilateral meeting in Osaka, it was relaxed and positive, signalling that the three countries would be expanding economic and security cooperation across the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, a trilateral meeting between Modi, Putin and Xi Jinping focused attention on terrorism and climate change, while making it clear that India was determined to maintain its strategic autonomy on international issues. Modi also had nearly a dozen meetings with other world leaders, including French President Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and Australian Premier Scott Morrison.

The personal relationships that Mr Modi established and strengthened in Osaka will serve India well as it prepares to host the 2022 G20 Summit in New Delhi. The 2019 Osaka summit was marked by widespread regret and resentment at President Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Change Treaty, his brash rhetoric and unilateral resort to protectionism.India itself has faced challenges, especially on trade issues, in its relations with the Trump administration; but this has been offset by recent moves to enhance security cooperation across the Indo-Pacific Region, together with a mutual agreement to balance growing Chinese power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region while simultaneously keeping the doors open for enhanced dialogue with China, bilaterally and in regional and global forums.

G. Parthasarathy is a career Foreign Service Officer. He served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi

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