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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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India’s Muscular Diplomacy

India’s assertive new diplomacy has been noticed in global capitals. And yet in key areas the country comes up short.

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He speaks fluent Mandarin, Russian, Hungarian, Japanese, Tamil, Hindi and English, has a Japanese wife and a legendary father, K Subrahmanyam, who formulated India’s nuclear doctrine. 

It’s no surprise that since his induction as External Affairs Minister in May 2019, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has given India’s Foreign Policy new vigour. As Foreign Secretary earlier, he had Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ear. A former Ambassador to both the United States and China, Jaishankar has played a key role in nuancing India’s strategic relationship with the country’s key geopolitical partner and putative rival, respectively.

The contours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy are now clear. His visit to Saudi Arabia last month had three key objectives. First, to tie the Sunni kingdom into an ever-tighter commercial and security embrace. Two, to ensure that the reaction of the larger Muslim world that often takes its cue from Riyadh remains muted on the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status following the state’s reorganisation on October 31 into two federally administered union territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Third, to ensure that Saudi Arabia maintains its neutral stance in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). 

The next FATF meeting is due in February 2020. Pakistan escaped blacklisting at the FATF’s October 2019 plenary in Paris because of the support of China, Malaysia and Turkey. A minimum of three votes blocking Pakistan’s blacklisting by the 39-member body was needed to save it in Paris. Islamabad got them from Beijing, Kuala Lampur and Ankara. 

Malaysia and Turkey have been especially hostile to India’s position on J&K. Unlike in the past, when India tended to keep its head down on controversial foreign policy issues, New Delhi has displayed a new muscularity in its approach. It is set to cancel a $2.3 billion contract with a Turkish shipyard for building Indian naval fleet support vessels. Weapons exports to Turkey have been curtailed. An advisory to Indians on travelling to Turkey following Ankara’s military intervention in northern Syria has been issued, a rarity for India which is the target, rather than an issuer, of travel advisories. 

With Malaysia, punitive action could be even harsher. Angered by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s description of India’s actions in J&K as an “invasion and occupation”, New Delhi is weighing a series of retaliatory options. Malaysia is a key supplier of Palm Oil to India, the world’s biggest importer of edible oils. While Indian traders’ associations have unilaterally sought to boycott Malaysian Palm Oil imports, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry is quietly working on replacing all Malaysian edible oil imports with alternative supplies from Indonesia, Ukraine and Argentina. 

The move has rattled the Malaysian business community as well as the futures market for palm oil. As Reuters reported: “The benchmark palm oil contract for December delivery on the Bursa Malaysia Derivatives Exchange that had earlier been trading up on the day, fell 0.9 per cent to close at 2,185 ringgit ($522.23) per tonne. A Mumbai-based refiner said it would not create a shortage of edible oils in India if buyers stopped importing palm oil from Malaysia. ‘Indonesia is eager to sell more and more palm oil to India,’ the refiner said, adding that India could also increase imports of Soy Oil from Argentina and Sunflower Oil from Ukraine to offset any drop in Malaysian Palm Oil shipments.”  

More economic sanctions against Turkish and Malaysian interests could follow. Turkey is keen to expand its bilateral aviation rights in India with codesharing partner IndiGo. It currently has 14 flights to and from India. An increase in flights is likely to be denied. According to a government official, calibrated action is being directed against both Turkey and Malaysia: “There is informal instruction from the Ministry of External Affairs to go slow on all diplomatic and business relationships with the two countries as part of retaliatory measures. The instruction has been sent to all ministries.” 

Malaysia has a $4 billion trade surplus with India and is vulnerable to cuts in edible oil imports which total nearly $2 billion. Turkey’s economy too is vulnerable with its currency plummeting. Ankara buys dual-use military equipment from India, including explosives and detonators. President Recep Erdogan is facing increasing pressure from the conflict with the Kurds despite the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. Though US President Donald Trump has lifted sanctions on Turkey following the ceasefire with the Kurds, the country’s economy continues to flounder. 

India’s assertive new diplomacy has been noticed in global capitals. And yet in key areas the country comes up short. The US Congressional hearings on human rights in South Asia last month were hijacked by pro-Pakistani and Islamist voices. India did not even bother to send an official representative nor hold briefings with influential US lawmakers on the root cause of the violence – Pakistan-abetted terrorism – inflicted on J&K for over 30 years. 

In Washington, India cut a sorry figure as Democratic leaders from the hard Left wing of the party attacked India’s policy in J&K. Pakistan has recruited several top lobbying firms headed by former US lawmakers to manufacture a false narrative on Kashmir. Alice G. Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, while calling out Pakistani-sponsored terrorism as the key factor in determining India’s security measures in J&K, was forced to concede: “The Indian government has argued that its decision on Article 370 was driven by a desire to increase economic development, reduce corruption and uniformly apply all national laws in Jammu & Kashmir, particularly in regard to women and minorities. While we support these objectives, the (US State) Department remains concerned about the situation in the Kashmir Valley, where daily life for the nearly eight million residents has been severely impacted since August 5.” 

While India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Bipin Rawat have been vocal on the issue of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), Indian diplomats abroad are consistently wrong-footed by the Pakistani army’s ISI-sponsored lobbyists in the US and Britain. Jaishankar has introduced a professional and robust approach to India’s foreign policy but clearly much more work needs to be done.


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