Sunday, June 23, 2024

Modi 3.0: India’s Janus Strategy in Global Diplomacy

The two-faced Roman deity Janus was also known for its dual approach. India wishes to be the Janus face in international relations in Modi’s third tenure, Modi 3.0. The duality was visible from the two striking deals by India in Sri Lanka and Chabahar inviting Russia and Iran, opening a new window to accumulate strength to push China away from India’s neighborhood while at the same time working with India’s partner, the US, to strengthen its Indo-Pacific strategy. Working with the US and its adversaries simultaneously, the dual approach is perhaps the best foreign policy maneuver designed by Indian Foreign Minister Subramaniam Jaishankar at the dawn of Modi 3.0. 

In Modi 3.0, India will test its ‘strategic autonomy’ to the limits. According to Shivshankar Menon, K. Subramaniam’s writings emphasized ‘the need to increase India’s real strategic autonomy. By this, he never meant cutting ourselves off from the world‘. Today, Subramaniam Junior is using the prescription spelled out by his father. India has used its ‘strategic autonomy’ from time to time, especially when dealing with Russia and the Ukraine war. India and Russia’s oil trade continues despite US sanctions, and India projects the importance of India-Russia defense cooperation as a priority. To a question raised by this author on India, Walter Russel Mead assessed at a recent Hudson Institute event: ‘Small countries would need to use its non-aligned projection to balance big powers, while larger nations(India) will use its strategic autonomy.’ Inviting Russia and Iran through India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ will challenge the United States considerably. Simultaneously, the Indian exercise will push China out of the neighborhood. However, the US view of Russia and Iran in the Indian Ocean through its Indo-Pacific prism will be a different take on how well India will manage Iran and Russia in Modi 3.0.

Chabahar Port to keep China out.

India signed a 10-year contract to operate a port with TehranChabahar Port, located close to Iran’s border with Pakistan, in Sistan, Baluchistan province, was identified by India for development in 2016 and subsequently took over operations in 2018. Indian Ports Global Limited (IPGL) and the Port & Maritime Organisation of Iran inked the deal for the development, which will invest a total sum of $370 million. The strategic port opens a transit route for Indian goods and products to Afghanistan and Central Asia, avoiding the land route through Pakistan. The Pakistan bypass was proven with trade, such as the 2.5m tonnes of wheat and 2,000 tonnes of pulses shipped from India to Afghanistan through Chabahar port. The India-Iran deal occurred weeks after Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi visited Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In both countries, Iranian leaders expressed concerns about the West, the usual anti-West sentiments, and a strong anti-Israel position. Indian strategic circle’s decision to invest in Chabahar was well calculated. India views this as a “historic moment in India-Iran ties.” 

However, the US will be concerned about their Indo-Pacific partner working with Iran. Unlike in 2018, when Chabahar Port was exempt from US sanctions, the present-day US-Iran relationship has taken a different turn. This was why the US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said, “Any entity, anyone considering business deals with Iran – they need to be aware of the potential risks that they are opening themselves up to and the potential risk of sanctions.” Rather than sanctions, Washington should prioritize India’s role in minimizing Chinese influence in the region over other geopolitical concerns.

The Iran-India port deal will provide India with three strategic advantages. The first is access to the Eurasia market for economic development. Second, the Chinese-built port of Gwadar should be counterbalanced by Chabahar. Gwadar Port, 107 miles away, connects to China through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Third, India’s strategic autonomy is further elevated by signalling the West of its alternative options to work with adversaries of Washington and, simultaneously, pledge for alternative connectivity projects such as the G7 India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor

Donald Lu and Sun Haiyan in Sri Lanka 

The US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, traveled to India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh in May. The Assistant Secretary’s visit to Sri Lanka was two months after Lindsey Ford, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence and Deputy Secretary of State of Richard Verma’s visit in February. Lu met with political leaders, including the front runners for the October presidential campaign, deepening the US partnership with Sri Lanka. Weeks before Donald Lu’s visit, Ms. Sun Haiyan, the deputy minister of the Central Committee of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, visited the island nation. Haiyan met with opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and other political leaders who will contest the presidential polls. The back-to-back visits of foreign dignitaries from China and the US to the island were to assure and sustain their support, indicating the strategic importance of Sri Lanka sandwiched between the Indo-Pacific strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

There was an attempt by the two powers to pull Sri Lanka towards their orbit of influence due to the domestic political risk at the presidential election in October.  There is a clear risk of sustaining the existing political order, the Wickremasinghe-Rajapaksa caretaker regime, appointed (not elected) after the people’s uprising. Donald Lu reaffirmed the US support for Sri Lanka’s economic recovery, highlighting Sri Lanka’s commitment to a ‘free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.’ Earlier this year, from January, Sri Lanka sent several positive signals to the US from its commitment to join the US-led naval force to combat the Houthi rebels, the rejection of Chinese research vessels seeking permission to berth in Sri Lanka and welcoming the US International Development Finance Corporation(IDFC) and Adani port project. India views this positively, especially recognizing India’s security concerns from Chinese research vessels. The present concern is that Wickremasinghe’s existing foreign policy trajectory could change by October with the new leadership, where China will double its effort to carve a much stronger position through political funding during the election, which is not a new practice for China. Donald Lu is aware of China’s significant influence on the island through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which burdened the economy and the political elite capture during the past, the two challenges that contributed to multiple policy blunders. 

India finding a solution for Chinese Ghost town Diplomacy.

Weeks before Donald Lu’s visit, the Sri Lankan government leased out Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, built by the Chinese, to India and Russia. The airport was also known as the ‘World emptiest airport‘ by Forbes due to China’s‘ ghost town diplomacy,’ a phrase used for building town infrastructure that had to be abandoned due to no economic returns.  The 30-year management contract was with Shaurya Aeronautics Pvt Ltd, an Indian company, and Airports of Regions Management Company of Russia. The joint award to India and Russia was through a recommendation submitted by the Consensus Negotiating Committee appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers of Sri Lanka.

The southern airport, known for its strategic location 18 miles away from Hambantota port, was seen as a complete waste of government funds due to its failure to operate entirely from its inception. First, the Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs) were not followed, which was a concern for the Sri Lankan auditor general. The airport was constructed near a forest, and managing the wild elephants approaching the airport was also included in the management cost. During the past regime of Sirisena-Wickremasinghe 2015-2019, the airport was used as a storage facility to stock paddy. In 2017, when Prime Minister Wickremasinghe attempted to lease the airport to India, Rajapaksa was on the street, protesting for leasing out strategic assets. Namal Rajapaksa handed over a letter to the Indian government through the Consul-General expressing the displeasure. Today, President Wickremasinghe and Rajapaksa decided to proceed with the award to India. Today’s shift depicts India’s successful foreign policy calibration, winning political actors who were against India and having a consensus on the importance of deterring Chinese influence. The Wickremasinghe/Rajapaksa policy changed to balance China’s growing footprint in Sri Lanka. The same balancing act was used in 2017 to their favor when Wickremesinghe attempted to lease to GMR, another Indian company. Back then, Namal Rajapaksa explained to Indian media, “The government’s spokesman has been very vocal about the airport. He has been saying we must give it to India because of geopolitical aspects. We want to balance India – the term he used – for giving China the Hambantota seaport.” The 2017 position applies to 2024 if the government intends to balance India and China. In the present context, India’s 30-year lease with Russia is an achievement that has positioned India well in the growing Chinese sphere of influence on the island.

India’s regional security and geo-economic ambition

India will prove in Sri Lanka and Chabahar its strength in an increasingly turbulent geopolitical environment from its Janus strategy. The abandoned international airport constructed by the Chinese in Sri Lanka will be turned into a fully functioning facility by India, catering to regional air traffic and air-craft maintenance along with Russia. In Chabahar, India will reduce its dependency on Pakistan ports through the India-Iran initiative, primarily the Chinese-built port Gwadar, managed by China Overseas Ports Holding Company (COPHC). At the same time satisfying the US, India’s Adani will work with the US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) ‘s $553m assistance for a deep-water container terminal in the Port of Colombo to reduce the Chinese influence in Sri Lanka’s port operations. India’s dual role in working with US adversaries Iran and Russia and the US to achieve the same goal, to push China out, is a considerable, unique foreign policy achievement by New Delhi. The Janus-faced approach will benefit India in growing its economic footprint in the region and beyond to Central Asia. Chabahar will connect India to a multimodal connectivity project connecting Iran, Central Asia, Caucasus, Russia, and Europe. With geo-economic benefits, India will have geo-strategic security benefits to play a broader role, not limited to South Asia. 

The Indian ambition of providing ‘regional security‘ invoking defense consideration in its port development projects was articulated by Karan Adani, the son of billionaire Gautam Adani, during the US/India deep water terminal project commencement ceremony. India will work with multiple partners, not limited to its Indo-Pacific partner, to achieve its geo-economic ambition and geo-strategic security goals. Washington’s strategic circle will closely examine the two deals in India’s immediate neighborhoods in Sri Lanka and Iran. India’s partnership for a joint venture with Russia and Iran is a considerable security concern for the US and an opportunity to push China away from the region. In the present complex geopolitical environment, the latter choice should be the priority of the US rather than sanctions. 

Author profile
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a Senior Fellow at the Millennium Project in Washington DC and the author of Teardrop Diplomacy: ChinaSri Lanka Foraypublished by Bloomsbury (2023).

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