US Trumps Modi’s Diplomacy

US President Donald Trump’s Iran and Russia move makes India feel jittery 

By Shankar Kumar

India is faced with new challenges thrown by US President Donald Trump-first on Iran and second, on Russia. Analysts feel that US actions may imperil Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy and would cast a shadow on the BJP’s bid to come back to power at the Centre in the 2019 parliamentary elections. But seasoned diplomats who have experience in handling American tantrums, feel that India is prepared to find a way out of the US dictate and that too without harming its interests. And it was apparent when New Delhi decided not to compromise with its engagement with Tehran, even as the US has, after walking out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, begun to dangle out threat that those who will deal with Tehran will have to face consequences.

Instead of being deterred by the US threat, India sent across a clear message when External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, during a press conference on May 28 said: “India follows only UN sanctions and not unilateral sanctions by any country.” Earlier India had said that Iranian nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully through dialogue and diplomacy by respecting Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear energy and international community’s strong interest in exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. It had also said that,“all parties should engage constructively to address and resolve issues that have arisen with respect to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”

Iran is India’s third largest supplier of crude oil after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. New Delhi has invested $500 million for the development of Chabahar Port which will allow it to trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia without having to cross Pakistan as well as connect with Russia and Europe through shorter multimodal transport routes. Besides, India’s overseas exploration firm ONGC Videsh Limited has made a large investment in Iran’s Farzad-B gas field, and recently promised to invest $11 billion to develop the field. Although, India is confident of wriggling out of sanctions if they are at all re-imposed by the Trump administration, but to meet two-way exigencies, India and Iran will revisit barter system which helped both sides meet their demands. Before 2015, as many as 45 per cent of Iranian oil sales to India were settled by rupees which were in turn used for Tehran in buying Indian wheat, rice, sugar, soybeans, auto parts, pharmaceuticals and other products.

However, if this plan doesn’t work well, India will then have to come out with an alternative plan in order to keep its bilateral economic and trade engagement with Iran alive. It may opt for making payments in euro which will be routed from State Bank of India to Germany’s Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank AG (EIH). Should this plan also fail, India will seek waivers from the US or go back to using a mix of barter and gold to settle payments. But India, under the Modi administration, will not meekly surrender to the threat from the US, even as Washington has maintained that any country or company having trading relationship with Iran would be subjected to secondary sanctions.

What is stirring political pots in the US is that not only Europe, but India is also ready to red flag the Trump administration on its whimsical and disingenuous foreign policy on the Middle East, Russia and Afghanistan. More than others, the US has itself realized this in no uncertain terms. US Congressional report has maintained that it is not sure to what degree India and the Indian firms will cooperate with the Trump administration’s re-imposed sanctions on Iran. It further adds that New Delhi does not agree with the US that Tehran has violated the nuclear deal. “The degree to which Indian firms and the government of India will cooperate with re-imposed US sanctions is not certain. As do the EU countries, Indian leaders assert that Iran did not violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and sanctions should not be re-imposed on it,” said the Congressional Research Service report.

To the chagrin of the US, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held two back to back “informal summits” with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. Devoid of pre-determined agenda, the two meets enabled India to do away with some misconceptions that had settled on its bilateral relations with China and Russia. With China, India was successful in sending across a message that any repeat of Doklam or Doklam like incident would imperial relations. Both Indian and Chinese leaders’ agreed to in principle tell their commanders that there should not be any Doklam like standoff in future between the two nations as their bilateral ties hold special significance. Prime Minister Modi pulled off another victory for India when his suggestions of opening the Chinese markets to Indian pharmaceutical companies was agreed on by President Jinping. .

They also agreed to work jointly on an economic project in Afghanistan, a development that might have sent chills down Pakistan’s spine as it has worked very hard to keep India out of Afghanistan, a region which is considered by Islamabad as its strategic backyard. Though analysts say this is clever move by China to engage with India as it has resolutely attacked Beijing for the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which crisscrosses through disputed territory of Kashmir, the region on which India makes its sovereign claim. However, India too is going to reap strategic benefits out of its engagement with China over these economic project/s in Afghanistan. It may help India in keeping Pakistan in check as any targeted attack on Indian interests in Afghanistan by Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups would face China’s ire.

Experts agree that China would back India in Afghanistan to smoothen up India’s ruffled up feathers over the CPEC project which is an extension of One Belt One Road, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dream initiative that India has already rejected. Several countries, including the US, Europe and Australia have also attacked the project for its non-inclusiveness and lack of transparency. There is a feeling in China that if India is won over to its side, Beijing may be able to do away with major protests it faces on account of the ambitious BRI project. This has discomfited the US administration. Particularly at a time when the world is vertically divided into two camps—one led by Washington and other led by China and Russia, the US will not like India cozying up itself in the company of China and Russia. The US administration is already uncomfortable with India’s inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a China-led security arrangement which is seen as counterbalance to the US-led NATO.

But the US under the Donald Trump administration suffered a major snub from India when soon after signing intothe law of CAATS (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions) which expressly targets Iran, North Korea and Russia, Minister of State for External Affairs Gen(Retd) V K Singh reached Pyongyang via China to meet North Korean leaders. For the first time in over two decades, any Indian leader made a visit to North Korea. Through this, India sent a message that the world’s largest democracy maintained its own independent foreign policy. No one knows what other objectives were there behind Gen (Retd) V K Singh’s much talked about visit to Pyongyang with which New Delhi has maintained diplomatic relations despite Washington’s objections.However, what is clear is that India has not kept aside its desire to know North Korea-Pakistan nexus which led to Pyongyang’s controversial nuclear programme. This apart, India doesn’t like to forgo any chance to have business opportunity in North Korea which is likely to advance if the Singapore summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proves to be successful.

Interestingly, the US President who is foreign to any international norms and decorum, gave the world community an unpardonable jolt when he announced scrapping of his June 12 summit with the North Korean leader in Singapore, but just two days after this announcement on May 24, he hinted about his readiness to meet Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Analysts say that the US credibility has already taken a blow after it pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. In this circumstance, if Trump continues with blow hot and cold the engagement with North Korea, the US would shoot itself in the foot. It will have to take a calibrated move on North Korea in view of the fact that it appears to be a tough nut to crack; Kim has made it clear that he wouldn’t like to meet Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi’s fate. At the instance of the US, Gaddafi sacrificed his nuclear programme, but in reward, he received humiliation and a brutal death at the hands of the America supported rebels on October 20, 2011 in Sirte in Libya. However, it is this unpredictability of Donald Trump’s behaviour that has forced countries like India, China, Russia and Europe to find new geo-political arrangements to tackle the US-led disorder.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 21 visit to Sochi to have an informal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to be seen in this context. Like the Wuhan summit with the Chinese President, the Sochi summit allowed India to clear several misgivings that had cropped up in the recent past in between the two countries. New Delhi was worried about increasing tilt of Russia towards China and Pakistan. It was in shock when Russia started backing Taliban for peaceful resolution of on-going crisis in Afghanistan. Red carpet welcome by Russia to Pakistani leaders, including the country’s Army Chief and the National Security Adviser put India in awkward situation. The Prime Minister’s summit with the Russian President is said to have addressed India’s concern on such developments. This apart, India and Russia discussed way forward to their defence engagement.

India is not able to finalise the purchase of five S-400 Triumf long-range surface-to-air missile defence system from Russia, nor is it in a position to execute the deal for 200 Kamov Ka-226T light utility helicopters from Moscow because of the US threat that any go ahead on these purchases would attract penalties under CAATS Act. Though India is seriously lobbying with the US lawmakers and the officials of the Trump administration to get relaxation on these purchases from Russia, but a significantly large number of officials from the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office are of the view that India should not surrender under the US dictate and that the country should go ahead with S-400 Triumf and Ka-226T light utility helicopters deal.

In all likelihood both the deals–S-400 Triumf and Ka-226T helicopters–would be finalized in October when Russian President Putin visits India for the annual summit between the two countries. Yet, before the deal is sealed, both countries will like that this high-profile deal is insulated from the US sanctions. India wants to procure the long-range missile system to strengthen its air defence mechanism, especially along over 3,600-km long India-China border. In April, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis had appealed to the Congress to urgently provide India the national security waiver, stating that imposing sanctions under CAATSA for S-400 air defence missile deal would only hit the US interests.

But then a senior PMO official who had gone along with Prime Minister Modi to Sochi for an informal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, doesn’t feel “rash” decision is needed to go ahead with the purchase of either defence equipment or other high tech goods from Russia. “We definitely need them and we are trying to sort out ways for this,” he maintained without elaborating on plans India will chalk out to make the deal successful. Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, his use of sanctions and walking out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal would be discussed at the forthcoming SCO meet aswell. It is to be held in the Chinese city of Qingdao in June.

There is a considered opinion among mandarins of South Block (it houses the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office) that the country should move against the US in the WTO if the later fails to keep India away from the impact of sanctions it plans to re-impose on Iran in the coming days. That even the European Union members who are upset with America’s decision to move out of the Iran deal, are ready to challenge the US in the WTO if it imposes pre 2015 sanctions on Tehran is a development that is sure to soothe New Delhi’s frayed tempers. India fears that if the sanctions are re-imposed on Iran then its’ strategic and connectivity plans in the Middle-East, Afghanistan and Central Asia would be jeopardized. However, it is not that the US interests will remain unharmed if America hits Tehran with sanctions.

The Middle-East country enjoys historical ties with Hazaras and Shias living in northern part of Afghanistan. It would like to disrupt stability in Afghanistan if the US goes ahead with its plan against it. If Pakistan and Russia also decide to join in the Iranian-supported disruption, the US presence in Afghanistan would become more complicated. If Afghanistan becomes a theatre of US-Iranian confrontation, politically negotiated settlement will become even more difficult. As India finds itself unable to do anything to prevent a dangerous escalation of regional tensions after Trump’s walking away of the Iran nuclear agreement, New Delhi’s first priority is to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan. Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and earning the trust of the Ashraf Ghani government is alone not sufficient in Afghanistan’s rapidly shifting political strategy in the region. This is also one of the reasons why India wants to close its ranks with China and Russia. The US has hardened its battle lines with these countries. It wants India to follow suit. However, New Delhi has made it clear that it would do what suits its political and strategic interests. It enjoys very strong relations with France and Germany in Europe, Russia in the Eurasia region and Islamic countries in the Middle-East region.

Economically too, India is the fifth most powerful nation of the world. But Trump is Trump who hardly cares for convention. He is ready to turn friend into foes or foes into friends. Differences between him and Narendra Modi sharpened since the latter raised duties on certain imported goods in the budget for 2018-19. Amid this, there is also a fact that the US has deepened its strategic partnership with India and extended ties across various fields, including defense, research, trade and fight against terrorism. America also called India a “leading global power” and promised to support India’s leadership role in South and Central Asia. So, it all depends on Modi how he handles Trump and sails India through in less than one year of his tenure.