The PM’s recent meetings with Macron, Trump and Putin show Delhi’s diplomatic astuteness
The last two weeks have witnessed Indian foreign policy at its strategic best. The three summit level meetings that PM Modi has had with French President Macron (22-23 August), US President Trump (26 August) and finally, Russian President Putin (4-5 September) displays a remarkable dexterity in our foreign policy. At a time when the multipolar international order is characterised by fundamental instability, this augurs very well for India.
The last two weeks have witnessed Indian foreign policy at its strategic best. The three summit-level meetings that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had with France’s President Emmanuel Macron (August 22-23), United States’ President Donald Trump (August 26), and finally, Russian President Vladimir Putin (September 4-5) display a remarkable dexterity in our foreign policy. At a time when the multipolar international order is characterised by fundamental instability, this augurs well for India.
The strategic partnership that we have with France is not new, but Modi deserves a lot of credit for energising and rejuvenating it. I still remember, as India’s ambassador to France, that within one month of Macron winning elections, Modi was keen to visit Paris to get to know the new leader, and establish a personal rapport with him. Modi paid a visit to Paris in June 2017, and was one of the first foreign leaders to meet Macron.
His latest visit was again planned painstakingly because it meant that the PM had to go to Paris first for the summit with Macron, then finish the West Asian leg involving the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and then come back to Biarritz in France again for the G7 meeting. The only reason the two leaders did this was that the time available for a bilateral at Biarritz would not have sufficed for the detailed summit meeting they wanted to strengthen bilateral ties. There is now little doubt that Indo-French ties are free of major irritants, and the latest joint statement proves that the two sides are taking it to a whole new level by talking about a roadmap for cybersecurity and digital technology, implementing a joint-strategic vision for cooperation in the Indian Ocean (read Indo-Pacific), as well as areas such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence. France has stood rock solid by India, as evidenced recently when we took action in Kashmir. It is noteworthy that Modi has invested time and energy in such a crucial relationship for India.
It is a cliché to say that our relations with the US are important. It has grown from strength-to-strength, and is virtually unrecognisable from, say, 20 years ago. Yet, when Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Washington in July, Trump made an alarming statement that he would be inclined to mediate in Kashmir. It is a tribute to our diplomacy that we did not go ballistic at this Trump statement and preferred to wait until a one-on-one meeting between Modi and Trump. And true enough, the correction came after the meeting in August, with the US saying that Kashmir was a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan. The strategic partnership with the US cannot be expected to be trouble-free, and so the challenge is to nip problems in the bud so that the tenor of the relations remains positive. Trade is one such irritant at present and it is good that the two commerce ministers are going to meet soon to try and resolve issues. India’s foreign policy will meet its most stringent test for it needs to pursue excellent ties with US, even while retaining enough strategic space to deal with other players such as Russia and China.
That brings us to India’s “time-tested friendship” with Russia. Modi and Putin met recently at Vladivostok. It is enormously symbolic that PM participated in the Eastern Economic Forum there. This is a forum to which Putin attaches great importance, and the PM going there as chief guest, and announcing $1 billion credit for the development of the Russian Far East is huge by any reckoning. India has taken a position of principle that it will not sacrifice its ties with Russia, which is fundamentally in its national interest. As the external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, pointed out in an interview recently: “I will do what I think is right for India’s national security and our national security requires us to have relations with many countries and many powers.” He said this in Brussels in response to a question on India purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia. India’s strategic stance could not have been articulated any more clearly.
This complex game of strategic hedging will probably come full circle when Modi meets the China’s President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram (near Chennai) in October. India’s ties with China are arguably the most- challenging at this time. China’s axis with Pakistan aimed at India, its persistent thwarting of our great power ambitions, the one-sided trade relations, its lack of concern for our core interests, and its deliberate policy aimed at diminishing India’s strategic space in our neighbourhood, all pose a threat to our interests. In many ways, a summit-level meeting between India and China is a basic necessity to ensure that relations do not spiral out of control.
In a world that is moving away from globalisation into unknown territory, it is imperative that India maintain all its options through strategic hedging. India, of course, is not the only power that will do this. All major powers will seek to maximise their strategic choices, and minimise concurrent risks in an uncertain world order.
Mohan Kumar was India’s ambassador to France, and is now an academic and Chairman, RIS.
The views expressed are personal