At SCO meeting, Modi navigated India through stormy seas

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For China and Russia, any reduction within the Atlantic Alliance in their level of trust in the reliability of India as a security partner would come as a bonus, and it must therefore have been a disappointment that PM Modi avoided such a trap at Samarkand, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat

During his meeting at Samarkand with President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated what he had been saying from the start, which is that the sooner the proxy war between NATO and the Russian Federation in Ukraine ended, the better for humanity. The same message would have been conveyed to the key members of NATO as well, as unless NATO persuades the Ukrainian leadership to follow the 2008 Georgia example by accepting a ceasefire, the conflict with its human and material cost will grind on. As will US-UK-EU sanctions on Russia that do not punish the Kremlin but ordinary people in every continent, including North America and Europe.

In his pursuit of India’s national interests, Prime Minister Modi met Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, raising expectations that Iranian oil will once again be added to the increase in supply of Russian oil since the beginning of the year. Being a reliable customer of Iranian oil is key to the unfettered availing by India of access via Chabahar to Central Asia and Afghanistan. Otherwise, Chabahar, would join Gwadar as a PRC outpost in waters close to the west coast of India. Unless freedom of the seas in the Indo-Pacific (including the South China Sea, now beginning to be known as the ASEAN Sea) is assured, the security of India would be affected. It is this imperative that explains why Prime Minister Modi has ensured a steady acceleration in military-to-military contacts between the Quad members, in particular the US.

While retaining the traditionally friendly ties that have long existed between Moscow and Delhi, Prime Minister Modi has been active in ensuring a close relationship between India and key countries within NATO. In the UK, the highest functionary of the Government of India, President Droupadi Murmu, will represent what is by far the largest country in the Commonwealth at Westminster Cathedral on September 19 in the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. President Murmu is what John F. Kennedy would have termed a Profile in Courage, who has faced with fortitude personal tragedies and other problems without slowing down on her life’s mission of seeking to ensure economic and social justice to some of the most disadvantaged citizens of India.

Such work would have come to the attention of King Charles III, who has himself long been active in promoting similar causes. Should there be a personal meeting between President Murmu and King Charles, that would showcase the improvement in India-UK relations that Prime Minister Liz Truss has been seeking to promote, including through the signing of an FTA. Under Prime Minister Modi and President Emmanuel Macron, relations between India and France have become even closer than in the past. From 1998 onwards, when President Jacques Chirac declined to join his partners in Ottawa, Washington and Canberra in their vitriolic abuse of India after the Pokhran II nuclear explosion, Paris and Delhi have had a relationship of mutual trust and support.

So far as Germany (the other powerhouse of the EU) is concerned, the SPD-led government has adopted a CDU-CSU line on the conflict in Ukraine. This has resulted in Chancellor Scholz departing from the policy of SPD predecessors such as Willy Brandt or Gerhard Schroeder, although this has not impacted the close relationship between Berlin and Delhi which was developed as a consequence of the cordial relationship between PM Modi and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Turning to Japan, another treaty ally of the US, the friendship between Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe developed even while the former was CM of Gujarat, and the Abe legacy lives on in Tokyo, as a consequence of which even hitherto absent military-to-military ties of Japan with India are visibly becoming strong.

PM AVOIDS SINO-RUSSIAN TRAP

For China and Russia, any reduction within the Atlantic Alliance in their level of trust in the reliability of India as a security partner would come as a bonus, and it must therefore have been a disappointment that PM Modi avoided such a trap at Samarkand. Ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific free of monopolistic control by any power is needed for the security of India, and this was in no way compromised at the SCO Summit. Indeed, the need to ensure transit access especially across land by SCO members to other members was stressed by PM Modi.

His remarks were an implied rebuke towards Pakistan and its mentor China for denying India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia for traffic originating or heading towards the world’s most populous democracy. Giving of such access to India in the manner that Bangladesh has done would boost the Pakistan economy, although neither GHQ Rawalpindi nor the PLA is likely to permit any such move by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. Where other countries are concerned, now that India is taking over the formal leadership of the SCO, India could seek to put on a fast track SCO membership to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all three of whom are important where security for the Central Asian Republics is concerned, ideally before a year has passed.

After the Ukraine conflict broke out in February, Prime Minister Modi refused to follow some of the partners of India in imposing sanctions on Russia that have ultimately ended up harming themselves, including in unexpected ways. The favouritism shown to Ukraine by NATO in terms of free supply of weapons or entry of its people into the US, UK or the EU are contrasted by several policymakers to the parsimony of weaponry supplied by the US to Taiwan where supply of weapons is concerned, and South America where migrants are concerned. An unfortunate perception that the policy of the Biden administration on such matters is literally skin deep has taken root within Asia, Africa and South America, to the advantage of the Sino-Wahabi and the Sino-Russian alliance.

Efforts by the White House to water down the measures being proposed by the US Congress to assist Taiwan in its confrontation with China are in contrast to the way in which the White House has assisted Ukraine by giving tens of billions of taxpayer dollars that would otherwise have gone to disadvantaged US citizens who voted for Joe Biden against Donald Trump in 2020. President Biden has yet to shake off the influence on his policies of the hangover of Cold War 1.0, when China was the most important ally of the US against the USSR. The US administration’s inability to adjust to changing needs has played to the advantage of the far more formidable foe that the US faces in Cold War 2.0

Central Asian Republics that are part of the SCO face an increased risk of Wahabi sabotage as a consequence of the alliance between the PRC and countries such as Turkey and Pakistan, where those loyal to that ideology run the government. In such a contest, India and Russia are on the same side as the leaders of the Central Asian Republics, as both are seeking to strengthen the moderate majority against attempts by the fringe to take control away from them. As during 1996-2001, when the Taliban was in control of Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and India are on the same side, whereas Pakistan, Turkey and China favour a Wahabi takeover.

Given such a clash of security interests, it was essential that PM Modi go to the SCO meeting and to accept the Chairmanship of that body. Now that he will soon head both the G-20 as well as the SCO for a year, it is expected that several initiatives will be launched by Modi in these two bodies as a consequence of working with like-minded colleagues in other countries. The presence of India in the SCO, followed soon after by the entry of Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, would be a substantial net security provider in the task of ensuring a multipolar world free of the dominance of fringe ideologies at the expense of moderate alternatives. Steering the ship of state in geopolitical waters that are likely to get even stormier is a complex task, yet one that Prime Minister Modi and the people of India have the capability to accomplish.

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