The G-20 Summit 2018 will be remembered for large number of bilateral and trilateral meetings. High-profile bilateral meetings between the US and China, and the US and Russia (scheduling of which has seen many flip-flops) are significant in the context of trade war or the Ukraine crisis. The two trilateral meetings, involving US, Japan and India; and China, Russia and India, are significant because of centrality of the Indian position at both. One of the reasons for this is that the world has got largely inter-linked and even bilateral ties between global powers impact the world directly or indirectly.
When a large number of countries, including US allies, strategic and trade partners, joined AIIB, against the US wishes, it was evident that a time has come when many countries will like to have alternate sources of funding other than the West-dominated IMF or the Japan-dominated ADB and will follow their own national interest. Similarly, when China displayed intent of converting feature and atolls to artificial islands, with a view to have the South China Sea (SCS) as ‘Chinese lake’, based on unilateral interpretation of history ignoring international laws, UNCLOS and decision of ICJ, a group of countries came together to form QUAD to counter balance the moves that have possibility of obstructing global trade and exploitation of global areas. The Russian aggression westwards after Crimea brought many western countries together resulting in sanctions on Russia, (followed by the recent standoff with Ukraine, Martial Law in some parts of Ukraine and the criticality continues). The Western opposition and curbs were instrumental in pushing Russia nearer to Beijing. The international ties and strategic interests of most countries in this interlinked world are so interwoven that it’s difficult to count countries only in one grouping. Hence, many new issue-based groupings have emerged in last few decades.
In the exuberance of pursuing ‘America First’ policy, in last few years the US has been critical of some of its allies, strategic and trade partners, whenever they didn’t follow a course that was of interest to America. In some cases it used threats, in others, imposed sanctions. The policy got a major jolt when the US threatened one and all to support its decision of shifting embassy to Jerusalem. Many countries junked the threat and voted as per their perceptions. Similar issue had come up earlier, when the last US president got all head of states of Asean countries together to discuss SCS and wanted a joint statement condemning China. Pulling out of the Paris climate accord, Iran N-deal and TPP are other examples when all the ‘Friends of US’ were not on the same page, and they decided to continue with it even without the US. Pulling out of Russia N-deal is facing global criticism as it could trigger fresh arms race, although the US has some strategic logic to do so.
The last G-7 Summit was not a pleasant experience for US allies due to its alleged self-centred economic approach. The Nato allies are also relatively less confident of the US backing and keep waiting for the next surprise from Washington. Thus, the US concept of ‘With US’ or ‘Against US’ is outdated.
On the other hand, China after announcing the ‘belt & road initiative’ in 2013, has exhibited expeditionary designs starting from SCS to land grabbing in the Indian Ocean. It also tried to present its methodology of governance better than democratic model. The ‘incremental encroachment strategy’ in Doklam as well as SCS exhibited Beijing’s ambitions beyond peaceful growth to the arena of global strategic dominance. Hence, it started facing opposition. Interestingly, China’s most neighbours didn’t agree with its go-vernance model. In case of Russia, we see Germany, a US ally, buying gas from Moscow. Russia and China started helping N Korea with fuel and other essentialities after the Singapore summit between Trump and Kim. Russia, a strategic partner of India, is supplying arms to Pakistan and many other countries. A cross-pollination of relations is thus evident.
Thus a time has come when most countries want to manage international relations as per their national interest, and don’t want strategic choices to be dictated by others.
During Abe’s visit to China on the 40th anniversary of ‘Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China,’ hardly any issues of divergences were discussed. It seemed as an effort to ‘fostering mutual political trust’ and ‘cooperation and confidence-building in maritime and security affairs’. Beyond optics, it can be seen as an effort to balance/reset ties with China and a message to Uncle Sam about independence in foreign policy formulation of Japan. Just a day after Beijing visit, first since 2012, Abe hosted Indian prime minister Modi. While leaders may say that India-Japan partnership was strengthened as a ‘special strategic and global partnership,’ beyond optics it was an effort to balance ties between China and India. India would perhaps be looking to move forward in convergences and need not be concerned of the Sino-Japan engagement because Delhi and Tokyo have hardly any issues of divergences. The balancing/resetting by Japan was again exhibited by the fact that Abe seems to be ‘determined’ to wrap up talks toward peace treaty based on 1956 declaration with Putin, stipulating the return of two of the four northern islands by Russia to Japan, while retaining claim on all four. The confidence of Japan in balancing acts between the US, China, Russia and India is noticeable.
S Korea despite being apprehensive of dangerous arsenal of N Korea continues to be an ally of the US. Deployment of THAAD, military exercises with the US have caused anxiety not only in N Korea, but in China and Russia as well. Despite sanctions, N Korea continued with nuclear and missile tests. When Trump started giving out ‘America First’ signals and asking allies to pay for security, S Korea was inclined to attempt peace in the Korean Peninsula and making it nuclear-free. It was successful in seemingly impossible diplomatic exercise of getting together Kim and Trump together for a summit. Though the summit didn’t offer anything beyond optics, S Korea improved its relations with North applying the theory of strategic balance. North and South Korea had summits exhibiting lot of bonhomie, decided to field sports team under single flag, started people to people contact, and S Korea started helping N Korea with essential humanitarian needs, where China and Russia joined in to start business as usual with North, immediately after the Singapore summit. Keeping missiles and nukes away from N Korean parade doesn’t mean Korea will really destroy the only leverage it has, which is making the US talk to him.
After the Wuhan (China) visit of Modi, it’s being alleged by western media that India has drifted towards China. But there’s hardly any worthwhile change in the Indian strategic behaviour. India has a set of convergences and divergences of interests with major global players like China, the US and Russia. India has been able to keep these relations exclusive of each other and has been able to manage independent foreign relationships without any bias. But in the turbulent complex environment of today, convergences and divergences have started impacting each other. India’s differences with China on certain aspects of Sino-Pakistan nexus, use of global commons in SCS, its adventurism in the Indian Ocean and obstruction to Indian entry in NSG can also be viewed as convergence of interests with the US. The silver lining is the US being strategic partner will like to have well equipped Indian forces to balance China, and Indian connectivity to Afghanistan in case Pakistan doesn’t serve its strategic interest. The US waiver on Chabahar port and connectivity to Afghanistan as well as import of Iranian oil for 6 months is a welcome step.
India, therefore, has to maintain harmonious relations with all its friends and neighbours to pursue its national interest. With smart diplomacy, India should be able to manage an independent foreign policy. The number of bilateral and trilateral meetings attended by India explains the balancing diplomatic exercises carried out by it as per national interest.
(The writer, a globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst, is the chief instructor of USI of India)