Some recent diplomatic events, many of them flowing from shifting global power equations, hold much significance for India. The overlapping visits by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and US special presidential climate envoy John Kerry raised eyebrows. India frets over the growing Russian proximity to the China-Pakistan axis. Mr Kerry met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss India’s Paris Agreement commitments. But Mr Lavrov could not, either due to Mr Modi’s preoccupation with the Assembly elections or India conveying a subtle snub as Mr Lavrov, unmindful of Indian sentiments, combined his Indian trip with one to Pakistan. Also, when Russia hosted an intra-Afghan meeting, India was not invited. To shape events in post-transition Afghanistan, Russia has now repositioned.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s India visit later this year will be against this background. India wants to retain Russian goodwill while enhancing America’s role as arms supplier and strategic partner. Thus, India retains its order for Russia’s S-400 air defence system, despite US warnings about the inevitable US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). External affairs minister S. Jaishankar termed India-Russia ties as time-tested and warm. Mr Lavrov listed areas of cooperation ranging from combating the Covid-19 pandemic, to nuclear energy, peaceful uses of space and infrastructure projects, in the Far East and the Arctic. Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and the Gulf were also discussed.
Russia strongly supported the Russia-India-China grouping (RIC), besides the East Asia Summit. A Russian role in the Sino-Indian de-escalation in Ladakh has been speculated about. Russia realises that India-Russia ties will get impacted if Russia’s burgeoning engagement with China is accompanied by China-India tensions. Both ministers emphasised the centrality of Asean in developing cooperative ventures in East Asia. This addressed Russian concerns, which China shares, about the “Quad”, of which India is a member alongside Australia, Japan and the United States.
During his media interaction, Mr Lavrov spoke on many issues. Asked about a possible military alliance between Russia and China, he said though their relations have “reached the best level ever”, such an alliance was not envisaged. In turn, he asked if a Middle Eastern or Asian Nato was possible, thus indirectly raising India’s membership of the Quad. Russia’s primary preoccupation is with the European theatre and Nato, with Ukraine as the friction point. China’s focus is on the Indo-Pacific, including South and East China Seas, Taiwan and the shoals and islands that its neighbours control or claim. In Central Asia, their interests diverge, as Russia will resent any Chinese consolidation of its influence via Belt and Road Initiative projects. India cannot veto Russia’s outreach to Pakistan but must have warned it against defence cooperation. On Afghanistan, Mr Lavrov argued that he “Taliban members are a part of Afghan society”, and thus any settlement must include all groups. This mirrors the Pakistan-China approach. India views the Taliban with suspicion, if not hostility.
Then news broke about USS John Paul Jones sailing 130 nautical miles west of India’s Lakshadweep Islands, without New Delhi’s permission. Being within 200 nautical miles of the island baseline, it fell in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The US is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) and asserts its freedom of navigation through such zones, unilaterally declared by some nations, under customary international law. UNCLOS Articles 55-75 outline EEZs and the rights and obligations of coastal states. But Article 51 allows “other legitimate activities” of non-coastal states in the EEZ. Indian law prescribes prior approval for military exercises and manoeuvres in its zone. It’s not clear why the US publicised the issue at this stage, but it also underscores the contradiction in India joining its Quad partners in asserting that right in the Indo-Pacific while, like two score other nations, restricting it in its own EEZ. The US objects to any unilateral delimitation of the high seas as it impacts its naval operations. For India, the interpretation is important as otherwise the naval vessels of China and Pakistan can manoeuvre near India’s mainland and islands, the territorial waters, where UNCLOS allows full sovereignty, extending to just 12 nautical miles.
Two other important developments are underway in India’s western neighbourhood. The intra-Afghan dialogue to be hosted by Turkey, tentatively on April 16, faces uncertainty. The Taliban demands issues like the withdrawal of American troops by May 1 be settled before they name their delegation. The Kabul government’s vision, as spelt out by President Ashraf Ghani at the Heart of Asia conference in Tajikistan, calls for a negotiated political settlement and ceasefire before a presidential election and establishment of a “government of peace”.
Simultaneously Iran and P-5+1 prepared to meet in Vienna to restore Iranian conformity with the nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action. Negotiated during Barack Obama’s presidency, it was abandoned by the Trump administration. Israel, stumbling through more post-election uncertainty, took credit for a cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz, causing a power failure. It may have set back the plant by a year. It was intended to undermine the Vienna talks and may do so as the Iranians favouring talks are isolated by such attacks.
In both these developments, India is just a spectator. On March 26, the China-Iran 20-year $400-600 billion “comprehensive partnership” was announced. Typical of Iranian tactics, a foreign ministry official later called it a “non-binding agreement”. Iran was using the China deal to lure the US and European interlocutors to the dialogue table, preferably with sanctions relief in hand. Iran realises that an India unwilling to defy Washington is of marginal use to its strategy of retaining its strategic gains in West Asia and advancements in its nuclear programme while normalising relations with Europe, if not also the US.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, India can’t help Ghani government retain power or even negotiating influence when the Taliban are gaining on the ground and the US keen to cut and run. Iran and Russia, India’s steadfast allies during the 1990s to counter the Taliban’s rise, are now positioned differently, with one leg in Taliban camp. India is perceived to be in the Saudi-Emirati-US corner, with marginal gains like calibrated de-escalation with Pakistan. The fragility of that and the trio’s ineffectiveness in restoring even partial trade between India and Pakistan indicates that Pakistan is recovering its mojo as the master of serial diplomatic blackmail. If India cannot quickly get on top of the pandemic re-spike, its diplomatic isolation in the neighbourhood will only grow....