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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 24 New Delhi June 6, 2015

Modi in the Gobi Desert

Saturday 6 June 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

A high-level visit is always best assessed the morning after. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Mongolia offers a keyhole to take a peep at his visit to China (from where he headed for Ulanbator). Modi said immediately after arrival in Ulanbator (from Shanghai) that he could experience “true friendship”. We now have a fair idea what he’d missed from May 14-16 in China—“true friendship”.

The highlights of Modi’s visit to Mongolia are three: a) decision that the two countries would upgrade the relationship from “comprehensive” to “strategic partnership”; b) announcement of a $1 billion Indian credit line, and, c) disclosure that Mongolia forms an “integral part” of India’s “Act East” policy.

Why such hype over a country with a population that is equivalent to that of Kanpur city in Uttar Pradesh? Can it be because Mughal Emperor Babur (who is a 13-year-old itch for India’s ruling party) was a descendant of Genghis Khan who founded Mongolia? Can it be really all because of the “civilisational links” based on Buddhism, a religion which Hindu zealots vanquished ruthlessly from India itself?

The clue, perhaps, lies in Modi’s disclosure regarding the enhanced geographical spread of India’s “Act East” policy. It’s China, stupid!

Our Sinophobia is running berserk. President Xi Jinping linked his visit to India last September with a visit to Colombo. So, Modi will also have stopover at Ulanbator. Xi secured Colombo’s support for China’s Maritime Silk Road. Modi secured Mongolia’s concurrence for India’s “Act East” policy. Xi announced investment plans in Sri Lanka. Modi left behind an envelope with $ 1 billion.

Logically, when Mongolia becomes part of the “Act East” policy, India should as well include Russia within its ambit. Because, the access route to Mongolia lies through Russia. How can India pursue a robust “Act East” policy in Mongolia without Russia’s cooperation?

But, given the anti-China bias of our “Act East” policy, how could Russia cooperate at the present juncture when the Sino-Russian entente has touched unprecedented heights? That poses a problem. Because, without Russia’s cooperation, how does Modi implement the geo-strategic thrust in Inner Asia that aims at whittling down China’s influence in the heartland? It’s elemental geo-graphy. To be sure, the mandarins in South Block overlooked it.

Indeed, if India has such big money to spare, why not give it to the Central Asian states? All the Indian credit lines given to all the five post-Soviet “Stans” in Central Asia put together in all these twentyfive years since they appeared on the world map as independent states do not add up to even a quarter of a billion dollars.

What an illogical sense of grandeur! Isn’t it Kazakhstan that will supply us uranium? Come to think of it, South Block just had a dignitary visiting from Central Asia, the Foreign Minister of Tajikistan. Tajikistan used to be a key country for India’s regional strategies—the staging post for India’s anti-Taliban resistance in the late nineties, gateway to the headquarters of Ahmed Shah Massoud in Panjshir, the only Indian military base anywhere abroad.

However, we didn’t have even a token amount of $ 10 million to spare for H.E. Sirodjidin Aslov Muhridinovich. Clearly, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had no money in the kitty. And yet, it is Tajikistan that will still play a key role in the geopolitics of Afghanistan and Delhi and Dushanbe are on the same page when it comes to the vital issues of regional security. Which is why a big Russian military exercise has just begun there.

Now comes the really difficult part. India must find a way to spend the $ 1 billion credit line. Maybe, it’s all preordained. Some Indian corporate group eyes Mongolia’s mineral resources and the amount will go into its pocket? But then, how do they evacuate the minerals? Maybe, we will speed up the Chabahar Port construction in Iran, and thereafter proceed to build a highway up north to the Turkmen border, which would cut right across the Karakum and Kizilkum and the vast steppes of Central Asia (almost the size of India) and cross the border, finally, into southern Mongolia and enter the Gobi Desert? For sure, Modi took us for a very long ride into a fantasyland.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.