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International relations

Kashmir looms over Modi's trip to France and Middle East

Indian PM makes countermove as Pakistan vows to take dispute to Hague

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives his Independence Day speech on Aug. 15, in which he insisted that scrapping the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was necessary for the region's development.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins a three-nation trip to France, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on Thursday, with analysts expecting a diplomatic push to counter Pakistan's efforts to internationalize its dispute with India over Kashmir.

Modi's five-day tour follows New Delhi's revocation earlier this month of Jammu and Kashmir's special constitutional status, which had allowed India's only Muslim-majority state to frame many of its own laws. The region, over which Pakistan also claims sovereignty, has been split into two "union territories" to be ruled directly by India's central government.

Islamabad said on Tuesday it will take the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. "Pakistan has decided to approach the ICJ over [the Kashmir] issue after considering all legal aspects," Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told a Pakistani TV network. The United Nations Security Council also discussed the matter last Friday in a rare closed-door meeting called by Pakistan's close ally China.

Modi will start his Aug. 22-26 trip with a visit to France, where he will meet President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday evening. The two leaders are expected to discuss cooperation in maritime security, space, counterterrorism and nuclear energy.

They are also likely to discuss the $8.8 billion sale of French Rafale fighter jets, agreed to in 2016. The sale was delayed for a number of reasons, including drawn-out negotiations over technology transfers and the price. France is to begin delivering the 36 aircraft to India this year, and may bring up the possibility of selling additional fighters in the meeting.

On Friday, Modi will leave for the UAE, India's third-largest trading partner after the U.S. and China. The next day he will meet the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, before heading to Bahrain for what will be the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the kingdom.

On Sunday, Modi will return to France for the Group of Seven summit, in which India is participating as a partner. He will attend some sessions on Monday in the southwestern city of Biarritz, where leaders will discuss climate change, biodiversity, the oceans and digital transformation.

France has been a strong supporter of India in international forums, while New Delhi's ties with the Gulf countries are at an "all-time high," said T. S. Tirumurti, a top official with India's Foreign Ministry, at a media briefing ahead of Modi's visit. India enjoys "excellent relations with the Islamic world," he added.

Analysts say Modi will be looking to make India's case on Pakistan, which India accuses of supporting terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. Islamabad maintains that it only provides moral and political support to Kashmiris.

"I won't be surprised if Kashmir figures in closed-door discussions during the prime minister's visit," though it is unlikely to be part of any joint statement as India's official stance is that it is an internal matter, said Navnita Chadha Behera, a senior professor of political science at Delhi University.

Though it could be an awkward topic in Muslim-majority Middle Eastern states, she does not foresee Kashmir becoming a point of contention unless a "big thing happens" there during Modi's trip, such as a terrorist attack or another trigger that escalates tensions on the India-Pakistan border. This could prompt uncomfortable questions from journalists.

The Gulf nations may press India to step into the U.S.-Iran standoff. "It could be a quid pro quo under which these countries may abandon Pakistan if India [supports them] on Iran, which is a bigger issue for them," said Pankaj Jha, an associate professor of defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University. "This is a conundrum, a mind game where everybody wants to play one against another."

Similarly, Modi may use the G-7 platform to argue that his government's moves in Kashmir are aimed at improving the lives of people there.

"India will try to put across its position," Jha said, "and there's no better person than Modi to do so."

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