Can India’s Multi-Polar Commitments in the Indo-Pacific be a Game-Changer for the U.S.? 
The Wire, September 21, 2019

By Pradeep S. Mehta and Prashant Sharma

There is no dearth of converging narratives between India and the U.S. But it depends upon how agile the US can be in accepting India’s stance on Afghanistan, Iran, and the Indo-Pacific.

When India’s Prime Minister meets the US President, Donald Trump soon, it would be good if ‘Howdy’ Modi can become an American and be candid in telling Trump how New Delhi sees the Indo -acific and its own strategic interest. And, more importantly, that it may not always be in line with what Trump thinks.

Given the geo-strategic advantages that India possess through continuing embrace of multi-polarity while implementing its Indo-Pacific doctrine, there is a strategic opportunity for partner countries to build on India’s multi-polar commitments. A case in point is the US, with which India has bolstered its strategic partnership, particularly under Trump and Modi.

There is no dearth of converging narratives between India and the U.S. But it depends upon how agile the U.S. would be in accepting India’s stance on Afghanistan, Iran, and the Indo-Pacific.

Minimise the conflict in Afghanistan

Debunking the conclusion of the Afghan peace process while citing ‘increasing violence by the Taliban as a false leverage’, Trump has prevented a historic blunder. Since the roll out of the peace talks, growing violence in Afghanistan has affected civilians and officials including American soldiers.

It is a great move that the U.S. has rejected ‘terror-in-exchange-for- peace’ bluff of the Taliban as a measure to seek gains in the peace process. Nevertheless, the outcome of U.S. efforts may have been different if they factored in Indian concerns, as a major factor in shaping and concluding the outcome of intra-Afghan peace talks.

For instance, India strongly holds the view that Pakistan plays a destabilising role in Afghanistan. It even urged Pakistan “to join international efforts to bring inclusive peace in Afghanistan by putting an end to all kind of support to cross border terrorism from territories under their control”, but it went in vain.

Neutralise the impact of U.S.-Iran conflict

Since the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran post its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last year, tensions in the region have intensified. As a counter step, news about Iranian nuclear enrichment have begun surfacing. Besides that, Iran has received renewed attention after Russia and China appeared to be engaged in providing overt and covert support to the beleaguered nation.

The Russia-backed administration in Crimea has even invited Iran to use ports in Crimea as a workaround to U.S. sanctions. In addition, Russia has offered Iran to undertake joint patrolling in the fiery Persian Gulf. Smothering of Persian Gulf by American, British, Russian and Iranian warships including those of others is prone to precarious escalations.

Also suspicion (and thereby punitive measures) on Iran for sponsoring recent drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s state owned Aramco’s oil facility, which is allegedly carried by Houthis rebels from Yemen, may have grave repercussions. This can even aggravate the simmering tensions and thwart any resolution unless great powers agree to find common ground. Along with France, India can play a major role in bringing peace to the Strait of Hormuz.

Dealt with differences in the Indo-Pacific

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s formal engagement with President Vladimir Putin at the 20th Indo-Russia Annual Summit and 5th Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok earlier this month was successful in providing strategic directions to bilateral cooperation on issues of mutual and global concerns.

On Indo-Pacific, it implied what Prime Minister Modi deliberated at the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018. It was then heralded that for India turning east (including Southeast Asia, East Asia and Russia) remains crucial for the implementation of India’s ‘Free, Open and Inclusive’ Indo-Pacific doctrine.

In fact, Modi’s emerging nomenclature for Russia as an important partner in Indo-Pacific could eventually help contextualise U.S.-Russia convergence on strategic matters.

Almost two decades ago, it was Narendra Modi who as a Chief Minister of Gujarat accompanied the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the First Indo-Russia Summit. At that time, Russia had Vladimir Putin as its President. Such an extent of mutual understanding and personal chemistry between the two leaders is likely to help them leverage Indo-Russia relationship beyond imagination.

The proposed maritime route between Chennai and Vladivostok can generate tremendous scope on economic and strategic fronts. The route may even lead to the creation of eastern production and transport networks, connecting India, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Being a major port city and the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok can help India penetrate into Russian markets and beyond from the eastern front. For example, beyond Russia, the Chennai-Vladivostok route will bolster India’s economic and strategic ties with the landlocked Mongolia and other parts of the erstwhile greater Manchuria. Also, it will help India to become a major player in future geo-political developments in the Arctic region.

In fact, since 2015, the Indian government has augmented extensive exchanges with the resource rich Mongolia. Prime Minister Modi and Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga met on the side lines of the Eastern Economic Forum. The two countries are slated to review the status and scope of bilateral cooperation during the ongoing visit of President Battulga to India.

Eventually, the revival of this historic connectivity between Russia’s far east and India’s east coast will complement another multi-modal connectivity initiative – i.e. the International North-South Transport Corridor connecting India’s west with the European partner of Russia via Central Asia.

In this context, Indo-Russia cooperation in ensuring ‘Free, Open and Inclusive’ Indo-Pacific remains ever more important. The recently announced India’s Act Far East Policy can potentially be an architect of this notion.

Facilitate a common ground

India’s role as a possible ice-breaker in every context discussed above is becoming increasingly important. Its overture towards Russia in the context of Indo-Pacific could significantly be leveraged by the U.S. in placating differences elsewhere, including on Iran.

But it will first require America to be agile enough in acknowledging India’s contribution in shaping up, though in a different form, the Indo-Pacific narrative. In this context it is important to note that Iran and Russia enjoy long standing economic and strategic relations with India and the European Union, among others. In spite of this, India complied with the U.S. Iranian sanctions and reduced the procurement of Iranian oil considerably.

However, pressurising India not to buy the Russian S-400 missile defence system will only undermine American influence. Thus, instead of being resentful, it will be essential for the U.S. to respect sovereign choices of its partners including India. For example, Turkey, despite being a NATO ally, has taken the delivery of the Russian missile defence system. The U.S. should keep strategic transactions out of the purview of secondary sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act.

This special consideration could create space for the U.S. to build on India’s multi-polar advantages in furthering American interests and influence in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, it is vital for the U.S. to emphatically engage India on matters related to the Indo-Pacific.

It could also serve the interests of the incumbent U.S. government domestically. President Trump joining Prime Minister Modi for the latter’s address to the largest gathering of the Indian-American community on 22 September in Houston, Texas, USA should deepen that engagement.

Prashant Sharma and Pradeep S. Mehta work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

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