Long-distance Diplomacy: Was Trump's 25-minute Chat with PM Modi a Counter-China Strategy Call?

As the United States engages in a war of words with China over the Covid-19 pandemic and trade issues, and India counters an aggressive Chinese army at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump spoke over the phone on Tuesday evening. A large part of the 25-minute conversation seems to have revolved around China.

The press statement from India said the two leaders exchanged views on the situation on the India-China border. Ministry of external affairs had clarified last week that there are five agreements and protocols in place starting from 1993 between India and China to be able to maintain peace and tranquility on the border after the US President made an offer to mediate or arbitrate on the LAC issue. With this India had pretty much ruled out mediation, yet the US administration has continued to express concern and this was also discussed in the call between the two top leaders.

Significantly, the ministry of external affairs had accused China of “hindering India’s normal patrolling patterns”, in a statement on May 18. In an interview to News18 on Wednesday, defence minister Rajnath Singh said a sizeable number of Chinese troops were at the border. The two countries are in the fourth week of the current stand-off and the situation is yet to be defused.

The Indian statement on the phone call also said that President Trump extended an invitation to PM Modi to attend the G7 summit in the US. Last week, Trump announced the postponement of the summit to September or later so as to include countries like India, Australia and South Korea, as currently it is a “very outdated group of countries”. There was no clarity on whether this was going to be a permanent expansion or their engagement would be as invitees.

It is important to note that India was invited to the G7 summit in Biarritz last year as well by France. But, interestingly, the Indian press statement said PM Modi “commended President Trump for his creative and far-sighted approach, acknowledging the fact that such an expanded forum would be in keeping with the emerging realities of the post –Covid world”. India has already indicated that it would like to offer an alternative to countries to shift businesses to India from China in a post-pandemic world. States like Punjab, Gujarat and UP have announced incentives to attract more businesses already.

But analysts believe that it may do India no good joining the “rich boys’ club”. Former diplomat and India’s one-time envoy to Canada Vishnu Prakash said that though the G7 has time and again invited countries, but India’s priorities are vastly different from this group of seven richest countries of the world. He said, “India’s GDP is certainly more than a couple of G7 countries but our per capita income is barely $ 2000. Our concerns are absolutely different. If it is long term then it will be a diluted kind of G20, so I don’t know how it adds value to global framework on economic governance or is it to needle China? I am not sure if it has been thought thorough. It appears like mere tokenism.”

But even before Trump’s call for expansion of the G7, there has been some buzz over such a possible development. The idea was first floated by the United Kingdom that had proposed G7+3 including India, Australia and South Korea. The immediate trigger for the idea was the concern over cyber security in view of the Huawei controversy and the need to reduce dependence on China for 5G technology.

The British high commission in India told News 18: “The security and resilience of our networks is of paramount importance. Following the US announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC (National Cyber Security Centre) is looking carefully at any impact they could have to the UK’s networks. The UK is collaborating with a number of international partners on a range of issues including cyber security.”

The UK has, however, categorically said that Russia will not be welcome. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson was quoted in the media saying that any push by President Trump to re-admit Russia would be vetoed by the UK. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also spoke at a press conference to say, “Russia was excluded from the G7 after it invaded Crimea a number of years ago, and its continued disrespect and flouting of international rules and norms is why it remains outside of the G7 and it will continue to remain out.”

Russia, on its part, has rooted for China. Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “The idea of an expanded G7 summit is in general a step in the right direction, but it does not really mean a true representation. For instance, it is obvious that it is hardly possible to implement serious global initiatives without China.”

Others too have expressed scepticism. Alexey Pushkov, member of Russia's Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building, tweeted, “If Trump expects to try to create an anti-Chinese coalition at an expanded G7 meeting, and he wants, in his words, to discuss the future of China, he may be disappointed: few will support such an undertaking. Neither France nor Germany is inclined to this, not to mention Russia. Bad idea.” Pushkov was formerly a member of the committee on defence and security of The Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of Russia.

While Australia has welcomed the idea and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he is keen on it, South Korea has shown hesitation. A source said while it’s a friend of the US but it can’t forget that China is its neighbour. As expected, Beijing has reacted sharply to the developments. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhao said, “Any attempts to seek a small circle against China is doomed to fail and is unpopular."

Apart from this, PM Modi and President Trump also engaged in taking stock of the Covid-19 pandemic. This at a time when the US has pulled out of the World Health Organization for failing to inform the world on time and showing a "dangerous bias" towards China. India is currently the chair of the Executive Board of the WHO for one year and would play a crucial role in seeking accountability.