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Above: US President Donald Trump with Pak Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House/Photo: UNI

Tentative steps towards peace are being taken by the four countries which will have a stabilising effect on a world beset by instability and security tensions

By Seema Guha

There is a sliver of hope that the dynamics of India’s immediate neighbourhood could change for the better. Whether it is China or Pakistan, things seem to be looking up. Though there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, India-China ties are back on an even keel. External Affairs minister S Jaishankar is to visit China in August to prepare for another informal Wuhan-type summit between PM Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping, this time in India.

The news is also encouraging from Washington where Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan met US President Donald Trump. The meeting between them went off well, with Trump saying: “To be honest, we have a better relationship with Pakistan right now than we did when we were paying that money. But all of that can come back depending on what we work out…and I think at the end of this, the end of a very short time, we can have a very great relationship with Pakistan.” Trump also held out hope that military aid could be resumed and investments by American companies encouraged if things panned out well. His outreach to Pakistan has much to do with the fact that he wants peace in Afghanistan and to get US troops out of harm’s way there before elections next year when he faces a tough Democratic challenge. So for now, the US needs Pakistan and Imran Khan needs the US to revive its dwindling economy. Pakistan is under pressure from the Financial Action Task Force, where there is the possibility of getting blacklisted by October. Having the US on its side will help Khan immensely. The arrest of Mumbai terror mastermind Hafiz Saeed, as well as a crackdown on nearly 20 terror camps in PoK is all good news for India, provided it lasts.

However, Trump’s claim, in his usual hyperbolic style, that Modi had asked him to mediate on Kashmir was a damper. That was immediately rejected by the external affairs ministry. No one would believe that any Indian prime minister would ever ask for third-party intervention in Kashmir. Modi may have asked Trump to put pressure on Pakistan to act against militant outfits there. Delhi has been saying that to every country which wields influence in Islamabad. This includes the US, China, Saudi Arabia, UAE and those in the EU.

India should welcome the easing of tension between the US and Pakistan. It is hardly likely that the US would revert to the bad old days when it would back every claim made against India by Pakistan. The world is now aware of Pakistan’s doublespeak and India is in a much better position to combat Islamabad’s propaganda. Trump can use his good offices to push both countries towards talk, sorely needed to stabilise the region. Normal relations with Pakistan are a must for the development of both nations.

India needs a peaceful neighbourhood to concentrate on revitalising the economy and creating jobs. Empty nationalistic rhetoric is not enough and Modi knows it. A secure border can help the government focus on what is important. China realised it long ago when it began to resolve its border disputes with all neighbours. The India-China boundary dispute is an exception. After the 73-day stand-off in Doklam in 2017, it is imperative that the two countries make sure that such incidents do not recur. Wuhan helped to defuse the tension. But the relationship has not reached even a quarter of its full potential.

When Xi comes to India, possibly Varanasi, for a follow-up meeting with Modi, it is imperative to ensure that such incidents do not disturb the rhythm of normalising the border. Despite the frequent intrusions across the Line of Actual Control, not a single shot has been fired by either side since the leaders of the two countries began negotiating a settlement of the boundary dispute.

In Beijing, Jaishankar will hold talks with State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the informal summit. Afghanistan, Iran and the oil crisis will all figure in the discussions. Enhancing people-to-people contact and expanding cooperation in trade and investment will be major issues. Opening China’s market for Indian pharma and agricultural products will be a key demand from Modi. The fate of Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant accused by the US of working directly with the Chinese government, will certainly come up. The US is hoping to persuade the world not to give business to the Chinese company. India is mulling what to do.

Delhi hopes to roll out the 5G spectrum by 2020 and has called for proposals. It has so far received six proposals, including from two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE.

According to Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister for telecom, a panel would look into security issues. Huawei’s technology is excellent and costs less than other global vendors, but it will not be allowed to operate in sensitive border areas. Since the 1962 war, Indians are suspicious of China. That mindset has not changed much. Add to this the close friendship between Pakistan and China and there is historical baggage which has to be tackled. But this is a time of unprecedented change. The global order which was in existence since World War II with free trade and liberal values is crumbling and a new protectionist order is being encouraged by Trump himself. Add to this the gathering war clouds in the Persian Gulf triggered by the US desire to redraw the power equation in West Asia. Any kind of military confrontation would send oil prices soaring, affecting the world economy, especially in developing nations like India and China. Modi and Xi could find much ground to cover. Modi 2.0 has set its ambitions high and promised to work for a $5 trillion economy and hopes to lay the foundation for that in its current term.

Most analysts, however, are not as optimistic and the forecast is dire with manufacturing slowing down, exports dwindling and oil prices expected to rise. The ongoing trade war between China and the US, two of the world’s largest economies, is showing no signs of abating despite trade talks that have shown little progress. Overall, both Modi and Xi will try to push relations forward.

India and Pakistan will also be under much pressure to start talking. Every major power wants lowering of tensions between the two nuclear powers. Unless there is another terror strike, India and Pakistan are likely to take up the stalled dialogue. Delhi should be confident enough not to be rattled. With a peace deal with the Taliban uppermost for Trump, there will be constant pressure on India to improve ties with Pakistan. Modi will not be averse to that if he is convinced that Pakistan will crack down on terror. For the moment, Pakistan will clean up its act, but for how long remains to be seen.

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