Narendra Modi’s ‘damage control’ diplomacy

PM’s sudden dash to Russia, preceded by informal meeting with Xi Jinping, and V K Singh’s visit to North Korea, the first by an Indian minister in 45 years, are pointers to shifts in foreign policy

IANS photo
IANS photo

Ashis Ray

Narendra Modi’s misguided embrace of America, especially Trump, has been more a minus than a plus for India. It has compromised India’s carefully considered non-alignment. Besides, impending US sanctions against Russia and Iran could in turn impose American penalties on India.

Thus, having annoyed Moscow by falling into Washington’s lap, Modi was left with no choice other than to scurry to Sochi with a weak bargaining hand. Indeed, the amusing part of the MEA’s briefing on the talks with President Vladmir Putin was of Modi anaemically agreeing to “the importance of building a multipolar world order”, having toed just the opposite for the past four years.

Indeed, if Korea blows up in Trump’s face, can one rule out his inclination to be an unwelcome mediator between India and Pakistan? Don’t forget, his White House and the US’s permanent representative to the UN in New York, the Indian origin Nikki Haley, have already expressed such ambitions.

Relations between India and North Korea “have been generally characterised by friendship, co-operation and understanding”, according the Ministry of External Affairs’ website. In diplomatic parlance it is, admittedly, indelicate to be direct. At the same time, the correct circumstances could have been couched in diplomatic language to reflect the truth. Namely, that it at best a non-relationship; at worst inimical to India.

No Indian prime minister or external affairs minister has ever visited North Korea. In the 1990s, Pyongyang’s surreptitious transferred missile technology to Pakistan—to help it develop a delivery system for its nuclear weapons. Other than that, even under the Narendra Modi government India has “condemned” North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests in recent years.

So, what prompted VK Singh to become the first MEA minister to set foot on North Korean soil? A conspicuously banal press note issued by the ministry said: “The two sides decided to explore possibilities of co-operation in areas of mutual interest including vocational education, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, promotion of Yoga and traditional medicines.” The fact that such linkages had not even been navigated before, exposed the non-relationship, despite diplomatic relations between the two countries having existed for 45 long years.

Running dog of the US

There was an abusive term the Chinese used to hurl at pro-West or pro-Washington countries, even those who were non-aligned, during the height of hard-line communism under Mao Zedong—“running dog of capitalism”. To put a gloss on Singh’s sojourn, the press release stated: “The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—the nation’s official name) side provided an overview of some of the recent developments in the Korean Peninsula.” What intelligence could Singh have obtained, which either the Indian ambassador in Pyongyang or the East Asia Division of the MEA did not already possess? In short, if the Modi dispensation reached out to North Korea only because Donald Trump is apparently pursuing détente with it, India could well be accused of being a running dog of the United States.

That said, Trump’s initiative on North Korea is only to be welcomed. It, though, is really a creation of the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who deserves much credit for the progress made so far. Moon, a refugee from the North, is a liberal who has pressed for rapprochement with Kim and for which he was earlier labelled an “appeaser” by Trump. Moon, though, might have got ahead of himself in thinking Kim Jong-un would forsake nuclear weapons while American troops were still stationed on South Korean soil.

The low hanging fruits have been plucked. The two Koreas competed in harness in the winter Olympics. North Korea announced abandonment of a nuclear test site. The almost de facto end to hostilities seems to be becoming de jure. Three North Korean Americans imprisoned by the Kim regime—two of them during the Trump presidency—have been released, thus granting Trump a pyrrhic victory, which of course he has unsurprisingly trumpeted in middle America as a diplomatic coup d’etat.

Kim unlikely to be an idiot

Undeniably, important concessions have been made by Kim. But Trump is living in a fool’s paradise if he thinks the North Korean leader will imminently surrender his nuclear weapons, that, too, without securing anything significant in return. Moon, the central figure, was, therefore, compelled to hurry to Washington to tackle uncertainty over the scheduled Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore on 12 June. US administration officials were reliably quoted as saying the US president had “begun pressing his aides and allies about whether he should take the risk of proceeding” with a summit encouraged and facilitated by Moon.

Kim may be isolated from the real world; but he is unlikely to be an idiot. Indeed, Trump’s extreme right-wing national security adviser John Bolton’s comments that the US was pursuing the “Libya model” not unexpectedly drew a sharp response from Pyongyang. Kim cannot be oblivious of the fate that befell Muammar Gaddafi after he gave up his nuclear options. To Kim, denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula means a nuclear free East Asia region sometime in the future, not just a North Korea stripped of nuclear weapons.

Far from hinting at unilateral denuclearisation, North Korea has not even reiterated statements hitherto given to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Jeffrey Lewis, an American expert on non-proliferation in East Asia, was quoted as saying: “I have said from the beginning that this is a fiasco of the White House’s own making and we should not let them shift the blame to Pyongyang. No one double-crossed you; Trump is just a moron.” Could it be that Trump in his excitement over a prospective Nobel Prize proceeded on an unrealistic course?

Washington’s North Korea policy was the handiwork of Mike Pompeo while he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Rex Tillerson, then secretary of state, was in the dark over the outreach. He has resigned since. As in the case of Modi’s India, an intelligence-led foreign policy is bound to lack intellectual input. Kim undoubtedly desires a summit, for United Nations mandated sanctions against North Korea are crippling the country. But it has China by its side. The borders between them have recently become “porous” in violation of UN strictures. Big brother Beijing may ask Pyongyang to swim; but it is unlikely to let it sink.

London-based Ashish Ray, former head of CNN in India, is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

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Published: 22 May 2018, 12:35 PM