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Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP

Responding to Donald Trump’s disruption

The challenge for India is to use its convergence with Russia and China on global issues to bring a semblance of balance to American capriciousness on the global stage

Informal summitry, it seems, is the flavour of the season. After engaging Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Sochi earlier this week to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, devoid of the baggage of formalities and unencumbered by the expectations to produce breakthrough agreements. These were attempts to give a boost to two important bilateral ties which were sagging under the weight of bilateral contradictions and global trends. Where in China Modi sought to remove the cloud of Doklam from the relationship, in Russia he tried to reaffirm New Delhi’s commitment to galvanize one of India’s oldest strategic partnerships.

Underlining that friendship between India and Russia had stood the test of time, and that the ties would continue to scale new heights, Modi suggested that the seeds of the “strategic partnership" sown by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Putin have now grown into a “special privileged strategic partnership" between the two countries. Welcoming Modi to Sochi “personally as a big friend" of Russia, Putin said his visit would give a fresh impetus to bilateral ties.

What is of significance behind these summits is the role of the US President Donald Trump and his disruptive approach to international affairs. His ham-handed handling of global diplomacy has once again brought the world back to early 1990s when the threat of American unipolarity drove countries like Russia, China and India towards collective action. The idea of a Russia-India-China axis was born out of such an environment where the three countries started coordinating their actions on issues of global governance. Today, once again, the three nations have begun to explore similar collaboration, though motivations are different.

China is worried about the looming trade war with the US though it seems to have been averted, at least for now. The Trump administration had announced plans to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, mainly steel and aluminium, earlier this year. China retaliated by threatening reciprocal tariffs on a range of US imports, such as aircraft, soybeans, cars, pork, wine, fruit and nuts. This trade war between the world’s two largest economies has been put off after recent talks during which China and the US decided not to impose punitive import tariffs after Beijing committed to “significantly increase purchases" of US goods. The US maintains that it will impose tariffs worth $150 billion if China does not implement the agreement by buying $200 billion of US goods and services, thereby reducing the trade imbalance. Trump has threatened India as well with retaliatory tariffs if New Delhi does not lower taxes on American products.

Relations between Russia and the West have hit an all-time low with the term “new Cold War" being bandied about. Domestic politics in the US has made it virtually impossible for any sort of rapprochement between Washington and Moscow for the time being. The West is coming to terms with the limits of its ability to influence the political trajectory of Russia and China which have consistently refused to subscribe to the liberal underpinnings of the post-Cold War order. In many ways, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy is an acknowledgment of this reality by categorizing China and Russia as revisionist powers. But it fails to provide specifics as to what means would be needed to achieve the desired end of containing such revisionist powers, underscoring the challenge facing the West today when it is consumed by multiple domestic crises.

One of the means being employed by the Trump administration is that of sanctions with the signing into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) by Trump last year which imposes sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea and mandates secondary sanctions on those who conduct significant transactions with the Russian defence and intelligence sectors. India could bear the brunt of such sanctions given its defence ties with Russia. With more than 60% of India’s military hardware still being outsourced from Russia and a multi-billion dollar deal for five S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems in the offing, India cannot really afford to sideline Russia in its defence calculus.

The US is also tightening the screws on Iran as it begins to impose the “strongest sanctions in history" on that country. The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has suggested that Iran would be “battling to keep its economy alive" after the sanctions take effect. He has made clear he expects the backing of his allies in Europe but also called for support from “Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, India, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea (and) the UAE".

Given India’s significant stakes in Iran, this could be a serious challenge. From Chabahar to oil, Indo-Iranian relationship is critical for India from the perspective of its key interests. Russia has emerged as the key benefactor of Iran in strategic terms and China is Iran’s most significant trading partner. Beijing and Moscow can be critical for India in managing the fallout of American sanctions on Tehran.

The challenge for India, therefore, is to once again use its convergence with Russia and China on global issues to bring a semblance of balance to American capriciousness on the global stage. New Delhi has engaged Trump administration at multiple levels to give it a sense of Indian sensitivities and priorities. But in order to hedge against a Washington which is hell-bent on disrupting the “rules of the game", most of them laid down by the US itself, it is imperative for India to engage with Russia and China. Unlike the India of the 1990s, the India of today is much better placed to set the terms of these engagements. Informal summitry with China and Russia should be seen as a positive beginning, not the end game of this diplomatic chessboard.

Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and professor of international relations at King’s College London.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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