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Testing times ahead for India's new foreign minister S Jaishankar

India's new foreign minister faces a Trump-sized disruption, which will thoroughly test his core skills.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jun 12, 2019, 06.08 AM IST
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S jaishankar (File Pic)
It’s good that India’s new foreign minister S Jaishankar embraces change & tries to read the world as is — not as it was or should be. Sticking to dogma can be dangerous, especially in these turbulent times. The US is changing the rules of engagement with friends and foes alike. China’s rise is no longer ‘peaceful’ as promised. Russia is maximising its clout, and Europe is struggling.

The existing world order is breaking down in front of our eyes. Few ‘set plays’ can be deployed in this minefield of competing interests, rising tensions, tariff wars and diminished international institutions. The new normal demands new responses.

India will position itself by optimising ties with all major players, said Jaishankar two weeks before being named external affairs minister. It means ‘cultivating America, steadying Russia, managing China, enthusing Japan and attending to Europe’ while increasing India’s footprint in the neighbourhood. “Every relationship will have to be leveraged.” “Playing safe” is passé because it can easily become an “opportunity-denial exercise”. Let that sink in, especially for the perennially risk-averse.

As foreign secretary, Jaishankar saw US President Donald Trump’s ‘disruptive’ policies as an opportunity to increase India’s options. As foreign minister, he faces a Trump-sized disruption on trade issues. Things are getting tetchy by the day. His ingenuity and savvy will be tested.

The first high-level US visitor in Modi 2.0 will be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later this month. Both sides will give each other a sense of what’s on their mind as they prepare for the India-US-Japan trilateral on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, when Modi will meet Trump for the first time since his election victory.

Officials will try to contain the interaction within predictable parameters. But with Trump, that’s a limited exercise. Pompeo and Jaishankar are likely to engage in a free-flowing discussion on the regional situation — Pakistan, Afghanistan and, of course, China. Pompeo is expected to make a case against India going to China for 5G technology. Both sides are acutely aware that unresolved trade issues should not be allowed to rock the larger India-US relationship. It would help if the easy issues were resolved first to put some goodwill in the bank, which stands depleted, and go on to tackle bigger ones. Why should airlines’ ground handling be allowed to become a dispute? It frazzles the mind.

It’s good to keep in mind that India is not being uniquely targeted because Trump has pushed all US friends and allies to demand ‘reciprocal’ relationships. Japan, Germany, Canada, South Korea and Mexico are all under pressure and their flagship industries affected. They are negotiating despite extraordinary ‘Trumpian’ demands. Last week, he threatened to raise tariffs on all Mexican imports unless Mexico curbed the surge in migration on the border. An agreement reached in the nick of time.

India will have to be imaginative on trade disputes — give some, take some and absorb some. The Trump administration is reportedly getting ready to launch a full-blown ‘investigation’ into India’s trade practices under Section 301of the US Trade Act.

The issue of Iran oil sanctions is over. India has stopped its imports from Iran and increased imports from the US. Incidentally, China’s State-owned oil companies have done the same, despite all the sabre-rattling from Beijing. Any attempt to set up a separate payment line and continue imports could invite sanctions on the Indian entity and could jeopardise the waiver for Chabahar Port in Iran. This is a sanctions-happy administration.

But make noise India must, not just to get satisfaction but because there’s alimit to becoming collateral damage in US policy obsessions. It makes hedging appear much more attractive and undermines relations. The challenge of India potentially coming under Russia sanctions because of the S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft air defence system is far more complex and could see areal confrontation between Washington and New Delhi down the line.

But shouldn’t the US be equally worried about the fallout of any precipitous action under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa)? Will it punish India, a ‘major defence partner’, and be prepared to drive a hole into its own Indo-Pacific strategy?

Any sanctions will impact US arms sales and, consequently, the diversification towards which New Delhi has been moving. That will help Russia instead of punishing it. Trump’s former defence secretary, Jim Mattis, had warned of such a scenario. But Trump listens mostly to himself. From all accounts, the new ‘adults’ in the room are less prone to trying to change his mind on issues than their predecessors.
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