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Modi’s India is in a foreign policy sweet spot by playing all sides — US, China, EU, Russia

Modi met Japanese PM Kishida, and is welcoming the Israeli PM and Chinese foreign minister. India is also buying cheap oil from Russia without US sanctions.

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In the middle of the horrific Ukraine crisis, India’s foreign policy is finding itself in a sweet spot. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just met the Japanese PM Fumio Kishida in Delhi, held a virtual summit with Australian PM Scott Morrison Monday, senior US diplomat Victoria Nuland is in Delhi Tuesday, Israeli PM Naftali Bennett is coming to Delhi in early April and it is likely that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit India later this month.

Even Pakistan PM Imran Khan has been laudatory of India’s ‘Azad foreign policy’ – congratulating Modi for buying discounted oil from Russia on the one hand and being very much part of the US-led Quad on the other.

For a change, Imran Khan has hit the button. India has, indeed, taken advantage of the fact that Russia is selling its oil 20 per cent cheaper in order to fund its disastrous war in Ukraine. The annual summit with a Japanese PM, a US ally, hasn’t taken place for four years for one reason or another, including the pandemic; Kishida used the opportunity to exchange notes on Ukraine – from all accounts, Modi heard him out courteously.

Bennett’s visit will be interesting. It is intended to mark 30 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and India, but Bennett is one of two leaders who has met Russian President Vladimir Putin since the war began (the other is French President Emmanuel Macron). Remember that as much as 15 per cent of Israel’s 92 lakh population is of Russian origin – including the former owner of the Chelsea football club Roman Abramovich. It will certainly be interesting to hear what Bennett says in Delhi.

Also read: Xi’s China isn’t just caught up with Ukraine, Taiwan. Someone’s disrupting Russia ties too

Delhi, Washington, Beijing

Perhaps the most interesting visit, if it takes place, will be that by the Chinese foreign minister. His arrival in Delhi will mark two years of the presence of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. There are some areas that Indian troops patrolled till 2014, like Patrolling Points 14 & 15, where they can’t go today. Agreement on some disputed areas, like Hot Springs, Depsang and Demchok, are still the subject of conversation between the two sides – the 15th round of talks took place last week. It is likely that the announcement of the visit is being put on hold because an effort is still underway to find a solution that works for both nations.

You might ask, why is Wang Yi coming to Delhi at all? And more to the point, why is Delhi ready to receive him, considering not so long ago 20 Indian soldiers were killed by the Chinese in the Galwan valley? That, in fact, is the whole point of diplomacy. Things can change in the flash of lightning. None other than US President Joe Biden has just a few days ago spoken on the phone for two long hours with Chinese president Xi Jinping. A meeting between their two aides had gone on for seven hours earlier this week. That old maxim by William Clay reasserts itself: There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, just permanent interests.

Remember that until before the Ukraine war, Biden was pushing the anti-China Quad with great enthusiasm; clearly, he is now being forced to court his former diplomatic enemy because Russia’s Putin is threatening a European nation. US analysts believe that Biden — who, by the way, says he knows Xi better than any world leader because he spent many hours with him when they were both Vice-Presidents – needs to remain engaged with the Chinese, who are under significant pressure by Putin for assistance in this inflection point of the war.

It is in US interest, they say, to keep Putin isolated. They believe the Chinese are wavering, one of the reasons they have abstained from the UN Security Council resolutions on Ukraine so far. The Chinese also understand the repercussions of Putin’s actions in the Asia-Pacific – in one word, Taiwan.

Also read: Ukraine has given an opening. Ancient civilisations India & China can now help end the war

China rethinks Russia

Most importantly, China’s trade with the US and the European Union is far too significant for Mr Xi to put it in jeopardy.

Fact is, US-China trade has soared by 28.7 per cent to $755.6 billion in 2021, despite the pandemic and US tariffs, keeping the US as China’s third-most important trading partner – first is the ASEAN bloc, followed by the European Union. China-EU trade amounted to $828 billion in the same year, up 27 per cent from the previous year.

Wang Huiyao, founder and director of the influential Center for China and Globalization think-tank, in which capacity he advises the Chinese government, wrote in The New York Times, “It is not in Beijing’s interests to rely solely on an anti-Western alliance with Moscow. Russia may possess a mighty military, but its economy is in long-term structural decline…It is worth remembering that China’s economic interests with Russia are dwarfed by those it shares with the West.”

The Chinese readout of Biden-Xi’s Friday phone call is hugely interesting. According to Xi, China doesn’t like the situation in Ukraine “to come to this” as it opposes war and stands for peace; China can mediate between the US and Russia to bring an end to the war; moreover, all sides “need to support Russia and Ukraine in having dialogue and negotiation” – implying the US is preventing the Russians and Ukrainians from doing exactly that.

“President Biden has just reiterated that the US does not seek to have a new Cold War with China, to change China’s system, or to revitalize alliances against China, and that the US does not support ‘Taiwan independence’ or intend to seek a conflict with China.”

“I take these remarks very seriously,” Xi was quoted to have said.

What does one make of all this? Are the Americans returning to their former “G-2” compact with China? Are the Chinese taking their pound of flesh from the Americans in exchange for tapering down their support to the Russians?

As for India, how does the Modi government negotiate its way through these difficult, shark-infested waters?

Also read: Right words in wrong places: Why Japan PM linking Ukraine with Indo-Pacific is embarrassing

A sweet spot for India

For the moment, the Modi government is doing well – listening to all sides and doing what it believes is best for its national interest. Like with Fumio Kishida and Scott Morrison – as well as with Naftali Bennett and Wang Yi, when they show up.

The classic example here is the purchase of oil from Russia. According to the Berlin-based journalist Paul Hockenos in Foreign Policy magazine, the European Union is dependent on Russia for 40 per cent of their natural gas, 35 per cent of crude oil and 47 per cent of coal. While Germany has capitulated to the US demand to shut down the NordStream gas pipeline from Russia, Europe’s dependency on its eastern neighbour remains to the tune of $1.1 billion daily.

Biden understands well the European dilemma. He knows that it won’t be right or fair for the US to tell India not to buy cheap oil from Russia — especially when India is so dependent on imported energy, which constitutes 85 per cent of its energy basket – when his own NATO allies continue to buy energy from Russia.

That is why the Modi government is in a foreign policy sweet spot this week. By keeping its head down and refusing to criticise anyone – either the US or Russia or China or Europe – New Delhi is keeping afloat by playing all sides.

It’s fascinating to watch the game from the sidelines of the Fourth Estate.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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