India’s #foreignpolicy moves deft in 2014, but #Putin visit a damp squib

January 1, 2015

a rather badly-edited version of the following appeared on firstpost.com at http://www.firstpost.com/world/pm-modis-foreign-policy-marred-putins-damp-squib-visit-2025969.html.

i was particularly annoyed they took out the graphic, which i think is dramatic, and came from ye olde harvarde, which india’s leftists are left breathless by (yeah, even rahul attended some classes there).

here’s the original text i sent them

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India’s Foreign Policy moves mostly deft, but Putin visit a damp squib

Rajeev Srinivasan considers this a missed opportunity to engage an old friend in need

The Narendra Modi administration has been generally successful in its foreign policy outreach, in effect announcing that India has arrived and is ready to be punch its weight, and it has raised India’s profile quite substantially. A survey from Harvard University put Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a close second to Xi Jinping , which is impressive considering the general awe China invokes in the west, and the fact that Xi has been the darling of such NATO mouthpieces as The Economist, which  recently gushed about Xi’s leadership.

national leaders 2014

So far so good. The reaching out to neighbors like Bhutan and Nepal, the camaraderie with Japan and Australia, even the US visit (and the return visit planned for the near future) all show a new-found sense of confidence. There was a systematic reaching out in what looked like a series of concentric circles: subcontinent first, Japan, the US, Asia and Australia — all of them showed a willingness to put national interests first. The Modi government deserves an A for its first six months in the field of foreign relations.

But the visit of Vladimir Putin for the 15th India-Russia summit, I felt, was seriously underutilized by India.  It could have been a major opportunity to ruthlessly drive hard bargains with Russia, and given its current troubles such as sanctions and a collapsing ruble, it is likely that India could have got some attractive pricing, for instance as the Chinese did: they got a steal on some hydrocarbon deals.

In the event, a slew of agreements was signed regarding oil and gas, LNG, and space. It was agreed that bilateral trade, currently a measly $10 billion a year, will go up to $30 billion a year by 2025. 12 nuclear  plants are to be built in 20 years, with increasing local content, taking off from Koodankulam. There are MoUs for oil and gas exploration in India’s offshore exclusive economic zone.

There was, however, almost no press coverage of the Putin visit, in marked contrast to the huge amount of newsprint spent and oceans of ink spilt on an earlier visit by Chinese strongman Xi Jinping.  Part of this can be explained by the media’s apparently congenital passion for all things Chinese. Similarly I expect an orgy of news coverage when Obama comes to India in January. But the fact that the visit of the head of a major power, a member of the UN Security Council, got so little visibility was a little odd. Perhaps there was also an element of reluctance on Putin’s part too: he did not make a visit to Koodankulam, nor did he address the joint session of Parliament, although both were suggested to him.

This is a little alarming. Why is Putin so reticent? Why is he so reluctant to play to the crowds? Is the long Indo-Russian alliance unraveling now? That is a disturbing idea.

In addition, Russia is cozying up to China in ways that are not helpful for India. Worse, it is now selling Pakistan military hardware, including a big consignment of helicopters, which may well be pure economics, but ends up hurting India in a geostrategic way. This may simply be Russia looking to diversity its market, just as India is looking to diversify its arms purchases to several suppliers, while maintaining Russia as its biggest. Sensible business decisions: no sole-sourcing, no single customer.

Despite this, the many possibilities that were not explored were a huge missed opportunity. For, Russia is going through a manufactured crisis, thanks to the Americans. It has been evident for some time that the Obama administration has a dim view of three major players on the world stage, named Vladimir Putin, Shinzo Abe, and Narendra Modi. The trio have been subjected to withering attacks.

There have  been concerted and apparently orchestrated attacks on all three, quite likely for the simple reason that they are not toeing the NATO line. Putin has been vilified and painted as a monster for some time, and now with Crimea and the Ukraine affair, he is presented as the devil incarnate.

Abe has been unfairly hounded over his visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which to a casual observer seems no more sinister than America’s Arlington National Cemetery. I am sure that if Yasukuni has war criminals (according to Americans), then it is likely that Arlington has some too (according to, say, Cambodians, or Vietnamese).

The dehumanization of Modi by what appears to be a coterie around Hillary Clinton, a putative Democratic candidate to succeed Obama in 2016, does not need to be retold.

The case of Russia is particularly instructive for India as well, although the treatment of Shinzo Abe, formally speaking an American ally, is not without its lessons: it boils down to the question of whether the US is a dependable ally. But it is in Putin’s case that American mischief is most evident. In a nutshell, NATO underestimated Russia’s resolve to maintain its sphere of influence, and now NATO will try hard to make Russia pay for that error. Error by NATO, punishment for Russia!

The attempts to turn Georgia earlier and Ukraine recently into outposts of NATO influence was an unnecessary provocation with ill intent. The possibility that the Russians would not take this kindly was also known ahead of time: they have been known to be a little touchy. Just ask Napoleon, or the Germans.

Putin demonstrated this without any room for doubt when he sent troops into Georgia a few years ago. In particular, when Crimea, which was territory given away by Russia to Ukraine, was in contention, it was quite evident that he would do whatever it took to protect his national interest.

Thus the slew of self-righteous fulminations and sanctions are just so much theater, and have more to do with NATO’s coveting Ukraine than with anything Russia has done. Besides, the big plunge in oil prices over the last few weeks has been a power-play aimed at Russia’s biggest export, oil, and thus at pushing Russia into economic collapse, as was done to the Soviet Union at the end of the 1990s.

All this means Russia needs friends. Instead of stepping into the breach as a white knight, to Russia’s eternal gratitude (or at least better pricing), India has held back. Perhaps this is because of irritants like the ever-escalating costs of Sukhois or the erstwhile Admiral Gorshkov. But India needs Russia for its counter-string-of-pearls to contain the rampaging Chinese: Vietnam, Japan, et al are not enough.

Second, India had the opportunity to wrap up some long-term forward contracts on oil and LNG at the current rock-bottom prices, and using rupees instead of hard currency, given Russia’s dire straits – a bit like the deals Iran, also sanctioned, was willing to do.

Given all this, I’d say this has been a surprising mis-step in the generally smooth, even laudable, conduct of foreign policy by the NDA government. The fact that India didn’t take full advantage of an old ally, now fallen on hard times, is a pretty bad instance of realpolitik conspicuous by its absence. Nevertheless, compared to the vacuum of the last ten years, India’s foreign policy has improved by leaps and bounds in 2014.

December 30, 2014 1230 words

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