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International Relations

India develops major-power diplomacy as Trump tears up status quo

Modi steps up relations with China and Russia in quest for multipolar world order

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting in Russia May 21.   © Reuters

MUMBAI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have made it his mission in 2018 to strengthen his country's presence in the international political arena, having bolstered relations with China, Russia and France, as well as Iran and various other Middle Eastern countries.

The Indian prime minister's multifaceted diplomatic drive comes as the unilateralism of U.S. President Donald Trump upsets many of the subtle balances in the Middle East and in the established world trade order. And it appears to be bearing fruit.

Moreover, Modi appears to have seized the moment in order to realize a long-held national ambition of cementing the country's status among the world's major powers.

The 67-year-old kicked off his offensive in mid-January by hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That was followed up in February with meetings with the leaders of Jordan, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Shortly after, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited New Delhi. India relies heavily on Iran for oil and natural gas and it must play a delicate balancing act in its relations with Iran, Israel and each Arab state.

In March, Modi played host to French President Emmanuel Macron. The two leaders agreed to cooperate on nuclear power generation and the fight against global warming. Modi and Macron also reportedly discussed establishing a new maritime security framework for the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.

In April, Modi attended a hastily arranged "informal" two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, where the two agreed to diffuse tensions that had been simmering since last summer after a military standoff in a disputed are at Doklam on the border between Tibet and Bhutan and further incidents in the Arunachal Pradesh region of Northeast India.

"We discussed ways to give impetus to our economic ties as well as people-to-people relations," tweeted the Indian prime minister after the summit.

Sourabh Gupta, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies, said that "the Wuhan meeting will be primarily remembered as a moment when the Chinese and Indian leaders jump-started a fresh, virtuous cycle in Sino-Indian relations."

It could even be said that the summit reshaped the geopolitical dynamics of Asia, of which tensions between the two countries have been a long-running theme.

This will likely have knock-on effects throughout the region, particularly for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration, which has strengthened relations with New Delhi in an effort to counterbalance China's influence.

On May 21, Modi visited the Black Sea resort of Sochi at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin for another informal summit.

Russia is a longtime ally and India's largest arms supplier. New Delhi was facing new U.S. sanctions against Russian arms exporters. India's request for an exemption from U.S. sanctions has been ignored. 

In addition, Washington on May 8 unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, which could also have an adverse effect for India.

During lengthy discussions in Sochi with only translators present, Modi and Putin reportedly focused on how to cope with U.S. sanctions on Russia and Iran.

The Indian government has high hopes for the realization of the International North-South Transport Corridor project, which would link the country to Europe via Iran, the Caucasus and Russia.

India has invested $500 million in the construction of a port at Chabahar in southern Iran, which will be a key part of the project.

In Sochi, Modi and Putin reaffirmed their intent to jointly promote the INSTC, with the Indian prime minister describing the talks as "extremely productive."

Modi's diplomatic calendar remains packed. In June, he is scheduled to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao, before heading to Johannesburg in July for a meeting of the BRICS economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Putin is also scheduled to visit India by the end of this year.

If economic exchanges with China and cooperation with Russia strengthen further, India may change its stance toward Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, opening the way for it to be integrated into the INSTC project under a trilateral partnership.

Modi's government has so far been opposed to Belt and Road, not least for its involvement of Pakistan.

India and France have held working-level discussions on establishing a new framework for maritime security.

Macron floated the idea of an "Indo-Pacific axis" involving military and economic cooperation among France, India and Australia in early May, having come up with the concept following his talks with Modi.

Last autumn, Trump gave his blessing to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy advocated by Abe, which calls for defense cooperation among Japan, the U.S., India and Australia. India has also backed the strategy. The U.S. military on May 31 even renamed its Pacific Command the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

But a series of actions taken unilaterally by the Trump administration have led to doubts over Washington's commitment to New Delhi, and made Macron's Indo-Pacific axis seem like an increasingly viable, if not exclusive, option.

The joint statements released during Modi's diplomatic offensive have consistently described India as a "major power" and made reference to agreements to build a "multipolar" global order.

On a purchasing power parity basis, India's economy has overtaken Japan's to become the world's third-largest, and is growing at an annual pace of around 7%. Moreover, the size of India's population is expected to overtake that of China by 2022.

In addition, India stands at No. 4 in Global Firepower's military strength rankings, after the U.S., Russia and China. 

In recent years, there have been growing public calls within the country for it to acquire a status more in tune with the size of its population and economy. 

India was one of the founders and a leading member of the Nonaligned Movement and has a history of dealing with global powers by keeping its distance to ensure complete autonomy. That makes the concept of a multipolar world order resonate well with the world's largest democracy, even if it is promoted by the two largest authoritarian regimes with the intention of diminishing U.S. dominance in international affairs.

While India has been stepping up its relationship with Washington in recent years, it still carefully avoids too much dependence on the U.S.

Trump's impulsive and unilateral foreign policy has forced the rest of the world to seek new international schemes without the U.S. with regard to issues like peace in the Middle East and free trade. Modi is trying to make the most of the situation to gain global influence and cement India's status in the international community, in line with the country's diplomatic tradition of autonomy and neutrality.

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