India’s Tit-for-Tat Foreign Policy: Taking a Leaf out of China’s Playbook?

22 October 2019 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • India has, until now, retaliated against perceived slights through diplomatic initiatives.
  • Now, however, it appears to be striking back against similar slights through economic means.
  • Two cases in point are the economic and political measures that it has taken against Turkey and Malaysia.
  • India has also refused to re-schedule or cancel its planned military exercises in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its territory, during Chairman Xi’s visit to India.
  • In those instances, it appears to have emulated China’s tactics.

Summary

India’s decision on 5 August to abrogate Article 370 of its Constitution, which gave special status and a degree of autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, saw four countries – China, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey – condemn that action. Pakistan’s reaction to New Delhi’s decision was to be expected (Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech at the UN General Assembly being one aspect of that reaction). The reaction of China, too, was expected, for at least three reasons: to align with Pakistan in order to demonstrate its friendship; to keep India off-balance by aligning with Pakistan; and because India’s decision to make the Ladakh region a Union Territory separate from those of Jammu and Kashmir would enable it to take measures to protect that territory against incursions by Chinese troops (thereby forcing China to expend more resources by having to pay greater attention to that region at a time when its economic growth is faltering).

Not quite as evident is why Malaysia and Turkey chose to castigate India’s action on Kashmir. What is becoming increasingly evident, however, is that both of those countries will now pay an economic price for doing so. Equally evident is the fact that India has decided to emulate China’s dictum of punishing what it sees as political intransigence with economic costs.

Analysis

India appears to have won the diplomatic battle over Kashmir by having many countries acknowledge that Kashmir is an internal matter for India, no matter what China and Pakistan may say. Thus, after demonstrations broke out in London to protest India’s action on Kashmir and leaked reports almost simultaneously emerged that the United Kingdom had sided with Pakistan and China on the issue at the UN Security Council, India made a formal complaint to the United Kingdom, leading that country to issue a statement denying those reports. Pakistan’s economic woes, the imminent danger of it being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force and its alleged ties to terrorist and militant groups have severely constrained its options on Kashmir. Perhaps recognising the inherent advantage to India that Pakistan’s situation affords, India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, warned Pakistan to change its thinking on Kashmir or it would be split again, just as it was by India in 1971, saying:

Today with utter politeness, I want to give a suggestion to Pakistan that they must change the way they think and the direction of their thinking, else the Pakistan that was divided into two parts earlier, will now be divided into several parts … I was listening to Imran Khan’s speech where he had said till Kashmir gets freedom, we will continue our fight for it. He also said that his country will continue to raise the Kashmir issue at international forums. Forget about Kashmir. Don’t even think about it. Raise the matter, nothing will happen. No one can exert pressure on us.

Pakistan’s all-weather friend, China, has its own set of problems that force it to leave Kashmir on the backburner: the Uighur issue, the riots in Hong Kong and, most of all, its faltering economy and the trade war with a very aggressive United States led by an equally anti-China president come to mind immediately.

India’s economy, which is closing in on US$3 trillion ($4.4 trillion), is yet another reason why many countries chose not to complain about India’s action. Saudi Arabia, which needs India to continue buying its oil, said Kashmir was an internal matter, the United Arab Emirates bestowed its highest civilian order on Prime Minister Modi in mid-August and Bahrain conferred its own award on him soon after. These countries are traditional Pakistan allies and key members of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which has traditionally opposed India on Kashmir. Russia, which has long been an Indian ally, supported India’s move. France, which is in the middle of a focussed effort to sell its fighter aircraft to India, could hardly have been expected to do any differently. Japan, which has developed a close relationship with India under Prime Minister Abe, followed suit.

While the reasons for Turkey’s decision to chastise India for its abrogation of Article 370 are not immediately evident, closer examination reveals why Ankara made that decision. To begin with, Turkey has several bilateral trade agreements with Pakistan. That aside, Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan appear to be combining forces within the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation in order to displace that organisation’s traditional leader, Saudi Arabia, which is part of Ankara’s overall desire to be seen as the leader of the Islamic world. It would have appeared weak, therefore, had it not taken Pakistan’s side in the matter.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, travelled to Turkey in January this year, ostensibly to further ties with a leading country of the Muslim world but, in reality, to drum up financial support for Pakistan’s ailing economy. In order to achieve that objective, he used Pakistan’s longstanding ties with Tukey, their common religion and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to promote himself as the leader of Muslims around the world. That desire and his goal of returning Turkey to the vanguard of world politics, as it was during the Ottoman Empire, Khan calculated, could see Turkey assist Pakistan in attracting foreign investment, funding and support for its foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis India.

Turkey has a close relationship with Pakistan and especially with the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Pakistan’s oldest religious party, which was established in Lahore on 26 August 1941. JI, which propounds a rigid interpretation of Islam, maintains a close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamic groups. It also provided the ideological basis for its militant wing, the Hizbul Mujahideen, which was founded in 1990 and works towards the Islamisation of Kashmir.

President Erdoğan’s overarching ambition is to become the political leader of the Muslim world. His motivation derives from his Islamist roots and his nationalist desire to further Turkey’s standing in the region, essentially a continuation of the Ottoman Empire. It did not take long for him to see JI as a political force in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

When Bangladesh hanged the JI leader there, Motiur Nizam Rahmani, in Dhaka in 2016, Erdoğan denounced its government. He called the hanging ‘neither fair governance nor a democratic mentality’. A senior Erdoğan aide, Yasin Atkay, noted JI’s role in advancing Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party in an interview (in Turkish) with the pro-Erdoğan Hilal TV, in December last year. The leader of JI Pakistan, Senator Siraj ul Haq called Erdoğan ‘a great leader of the Muslim world’.

No surprise then that the relationship has spilled over into the political domains of Pakistan and Turkey. Ali Sahin, a Turkish Islamist who studied in Pakistan and is now Deputy Minister for European Affairs in Erdogan’s cabinet, established the South Asia Strategic Research Centre (GASAM in Turkish). This is a think-tank that organises conferences to which it invites Muslim clerics, politicians and community leaders from South Asia, to export Erdoğan’s Islamist ideology to Pakistani and Indian Muslims. India viewed this with some suspicion and, not surprisingly, turned down Erdoğan’s offer to mediate between Pakistan and India on the Kashmir issue. One Indian editorial suggested that he ‘mind his business on matters relating to India and Pakistan’.

Imran Khan visited Turkey in January this year and spoke of the close ties between the two countries that are ‘rooted in history, culture and religion’. He also stated that he wished to use Ankara’s know-how to build six million houses in Pakistan, to learn from the Turkish health system, its legal aid to under-privileged people and its education reforms. He suggested that Turkey take part in bringing peace to Afghanistan and to end India’s human rights abuses against the Kashmiri people.

Erdoğan praised Pakistan’s decision to hand over schools affiliated to US-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, to a Turkish government foundation and declare the Pak-Turk International Cag Education Foundation a proscribed organisation. Both leaders then reiterated their resolve to ‘fight against the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation’. Turkey is advancing its position in South Asia, with the aim of changing perceptions there of Saudi Arabia being the de facto leader of the Muslim world.

Turkey has problems of its own, however, including a slowing economy and a deteriorating relationship with the US. Erdoğan, furthermore, has decided to turn more to China (although his criticism of Beijing’s repression of its Muslim Uighur community could cause some disagreement between them). He has decided to take his bid for membership of the European Union off the table for now. Europe has been too busy dealing with such issues as Brexit, in-fighting between Italy and France, riots in France and increasingly hostile Visegrad bloc reactions to decisions emanating from Brussels, to also deal with Turkey. How much concrete assistance Erdoğan can realistically offer Pakistan at this time, therefore, remains to be seen.

By chastising New Delhi, on the other hand, President Erdoğan has jeopardised his country’s political and economic relationship with India. Following his visit to India in May 2017, trade between the two countries grew almost by a third to US$7.4 billion ($10.9 billion) in 2018, with plans to grow that figure to US$10 billion ($14.7 billion) by 2021. Around 147,000 Indian tourists visited Turkey in 2018, a growth of 85 per cent over 2016. India could, if it chose to do so, constrict that flow of tourists to Turkey. New Delhi is currently examining reducing the number of flights operated by Turkish Airlines to and from India.

Following the UN General Assembly, India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That meeting was likely part of an effort to isolate Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia within the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. The leaders of those three countries had announced the creation of a TV channel that would represent the Islamic world globally. Saudi Arabia, however, was not particularly enamoured of that initiative for at least two reasons. First, to the Saudis, it represented an effort by the three countries to displace Saudi Arabia as the de facto leader of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, a position it has held since the organisation was established. Having largely funded and directed the organisation for many years, Riyadh now finds it difficult to cede its overall management. Also, losing control of the organisation could place Riyadh under the direction of Ankara, a competitor for leadership of the Islamic world.

Second, as the Saudis recall with some pain, it was to a large extent the al Jazeera TV channel that caused the rift between Riyadh and Doha, which led to perceptions that Riyadh had failed to prevail against a much smaller opponent and, eventually, a loss of face. Riyadh will be very aware now of the dangers associated with trying to shut down a TV channel on the one hand and failing to counter its views if those do not fit the Saudi narrative on the other.

Mr Doval’s trip to Saudi Arabia, therefore, appears to be an effort by India to turn Riyadh against Ankara and, thereby, to isolate Turkey and its partners, Pakistan and Malaysia. It also appears to have paid immediate dividends, albeit not against Turkey. Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who had lent a private aircraft to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Khan to travel to the UN General Assembly, now recalled it, forcing Mr Khan and his delegation to return on a commercial flight. As one source recounts:

Inexplicably, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, was so alienated by some dimensions of the Pakistani prime minister’s diplomacy in New York – he couldn’t have been happy at the prospect of Imran Khan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mahathir Mohammad planning to jointly represent the Islamic bloc, nor with Pakistan’s interlocution with Iran without his explicit approval – that he visibly snubbed Imran by ordering his private jet to disembowel the Pakistani delegation. Significantly, too, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi, lost her job (did Khan’s cronies have anything to do with it?) before the dust of “victory at the UN” had settled.

India will probably terminate Turkey’s effort to construct fleet support ships for the Indian Navy in a contract worth US$2.3 billion (around $3.4 billion). Hindustan Shipyard Limited’s collaboration with Anadolu Shipyard, which had only recently been nominated as the preferred builder, is expected to be put on hold. As one source noted:

The contract for the 45,000-ton fleet support ships for the Indian Navy with the Turkish Company could be (indefinitely) delayed. It could be a fall out of Turkey cosying up to Pakistan and raising [the] Kashmir issue at the recently concluded 74th United Nations General Assembly.

During his recent visit to the US, Mr Modi met with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the leader of Armenia, all countries that are opposed to Turkey for one reason or another, at the UN General Assembly in New York. Apparently not quite satisfied with those measures, India took Turkey to task, noting that:

India and Turkey are friendly countries. We, therefore, deeply regret that since August 6, there have been repeated statements by the Turkish Government on a matter completely internal to India. These statements are factually incorrect, biased and unwarranted. We call upon Turkish government to get a proper understanding of the situation before making any further comments.

Going further, New Delhi recently castigated Turkey’s shelling and incursion into Syria, saying:

We are deeply concerned at the unilateral military offensive by Turkey in northeast Syria. Turkey’s actions can undermine stability in the region and the fight against terrorism. Its action also has the potential to cause humanitarian and civilian distress. We call upon Turkey to exercise restraint and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. We urge the peaceful settlement of all issues through dialogue and discussion.

Given all of that, it is probably true to say that President Erdoğan now has two options regarding India. He could write off the relationship and, along with it, the economic benefits that Turkey would have accrued or, if India chooses to follow China’s example closely, issue an abject apology and hope to continue business as usual with New Delhi. There does not appear to be a third way at this stage.

India’s retaliatory measures against Malaysia, while not as concerted as its efforts against Turkey, also appear to emulate Chinese tactics. New Delhi was angered by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammed’s comment during his speech at the UN General Assembly that it had ‘invaded and occupied’ Kashmir and is, consequently, looking for ways of striking back at Malaysia. It did not have to look far to find one.

India is the world’s largest importer of edible oils, of which palm oil accounts for nearly two-thirds of its total edible oil imports. India buys more than nine million tonnes of palm oil annually, mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia. According to data compiled by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, India imported 3.9 million tonnes of Malaysian palm oil between January and September this year. Those exports are now threatened. According to several sources, India plans to substitute Malaysian palm oil with palm oil from Indonesia, soybean oil from Argentina and sunflower oil from Ukraine. India is allegedly also looking to place restrictions on other Malaysian imports, according to another source. It remains to be seen if New Delhi will similarly amend its military relationship with Kuala Lumpur in any way.

China, which was one of the four countries to speak out against India’s revocation of Article 370, has not been spared, either. Chairman Xi is on a visit to Mamallapuram, near Chennai, in India, at the time of writing, as a confidence-building measure between the two countries. Immediately prior to his arrival, India began its Him Vijay military exercise in its north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, territory that China claims as South Tibet. Three recently-created Integrated Battle Groups that comprise five thousand troops each are said to take part in the exercise, which is focussed on mountain warfare preparedness. Tanks, light artillery, air defence units including C-17 Globemaster-III and C-130J aircraft and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters are involved, airlifting soldiers and equipment over the month-long combat exercise. China objected to the exercise, saying that it could undermine the purpose of Mr Xi’s visit but India replied that the exercises had been scheduled months before. This appears to be India’s way of informing China that it has not escaped New Delhi’s attention that when Chinese leaders previously visited India, China would create a situation during those visits that caused tensions between the two countries to spike. This time, though, India was prepared for such an event and anticipated it by conducting its own exercise.

There could be little doubt that India has changed its stance regarding retaliatory measures against countries that, in its perception, work against it. Whereas, previously, New Delhi was content to take diplomatic measures against such countries, today it goes further, taking economic measures against them. To that extent, it appears to emulate China. If that is indeed the case, the Modi Government may believe, as does China in broadly similar terms, that an enhanced parliamentary majority and growing influence in the international system – predicated on growing economic and military prowess – makes it a potent opponent.

If India has taken a leaf from the Chinese Communist Party playbook, it will not be long before it repeats the measures it has taken against Turkey and Malaysia and provide definitive evidence that it has embarked on a new and more aggressive path.

 

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