New Delhi, Aug. 16: Growing US pressure on India to scale down diplomatic ties with North Korea has left New Delhi torn between the hunt for tighter ties with the Donald Trump administration to counter China and worries about signalling declining faith in diplomacy on the Korean peninsula.
(Sources in Delhi today said Indian and Chinese troops scuffled in Ladakh yesterday and threw stones at each other. A flag meeting called to resolve the brawl remained inconclusive.
Over the past six months, India has pulled out its sharpest criticism and deepest sanctions ever against North Korea, as the reclusive country has tested missile after missile and nuclear weapons and levelled open threats against the US and Japan.
But it has responded with far more caution to prods from visiting US state department officials late last month that India ask North Korea to cut the size of its diplomatic staff in New Delhi, one of Pyongyang's largest missions.
The foreign ministry has held at least two meetings this month with North Korea's ambassador to India, Kye Chun Yong, warning of the pressure to cut back on diplomatic relations unless Pyongyang dials down anti-US rhetoric, officials told The Telegraph.
Kye has returned to the North Korean capital for consultations with his government after the conversations with Indian officials, officials said.
Kim Jong-un, the country's 33-year-old leader, yesterday appeared to pull back from threats of imminent aggression against the US island of Guam, though his reasons - pressure from India, fresh Chinese sanctions, American diplomacy, or all these factors combined - remain unclear.
India continues to press for peaceful dialogue as the only route, and is worried that a cutback in diplomatic ties may both impair that messaging and reduce New Delhi's already very limited influence in the international debate on North Korea.
But it is even more anxious to shore up its partnership in the Indo-Pacific with Trump who yesterday, in a phone conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, re-emphasised that North Korea was his principal focus in the region at the moment.
"The leaders resolved to enhance peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific region by establishing a new 2-by-2 ministerial dialogue that will elevate their strategic consultations," the White House said, in a read-out of the call. "Prime Minister Modi thanked President Trump for his strong leadership uniting the world against the North Korean menace."
For India, the push from the White House for a clear Indo-Pacific partnership with the US comes after months of uncertainty over Trump's priorities, and at a time when New Delhi is locked in a tense border stand-off with Beijing.
Indian and Chinese soldiers have faced off for almost two months now on the Doklam plateau that is claimed by both Beijing and Thimphu, and that New Delhi views as critical for its security.
Although North Korea is Trump's biggest foreign policy challenge at the moment, American strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific will principally serve to challenge China's growing assertiveness in a region where most countries view Beijing with suspicion.
The "2-by-2 ministerial dialogue" that the White House referred to in its statement involves a meeting between the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries. India has such a mechanism only with Japan at present.
In 2015, India and the US had expanded an annual "strategic dialogue" - between their foreign ministers - to a "strategic and commercial dialogue" also including the commerce arms of their governments.
Hours after Trump called up Modi, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson also telephoned his counterpart, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, to discuss the "2-by-2" dialogue. Sushma is scheduled to lead India's delegation to the UN General Assembly in late September, and officials said the countries may hold the first meeting of the new dialogue mechanism then.
If the way to Trump's heart is through North Korea, some officials here have argued internally within the foreign ministry, India should take up the opportunity that in itself doesn't carry too many direct costs.
Although India is North Korea's second-largest trade partner after China, it has sharply cut its exports to Pyongyang - from $203 million in 2012-13 to just $44 million in 2016-17. India is also importing much less from North Korea - from $259 million in 2012-13, its imports were valued at only $85 million last year. Total bilateral trade is down from $462 million in 2012-13 to $129 million in 2016-17.
Still, India wants to avoid downgrading ties with North Korea if it can help it, officials said - and has quietly maintained even cultural and sporting ties with that country
At present, the North Korean embassy in the wealthy neighbourhood of Greater Kailash II in south Delhi hosts between 35 and 40 officials, an Indian diplomat suggested. That strength was decided jointly by the sending and host countries - as is the practice - based on requests and arguments presented by the sending nation.
India also has its own embassy in Pyongyang, staffed by just five Indian officials - not because North Korea won't allow more, but because New Delhi with its stretched diplomatic resources can't afford to have more posted in that country.
Expelling North Korean diplomats from the mission here would create a spat India doesn't need, and likely retaliatory action in Pyongyang, where India's smaller delegation is far more vulnerable.
Negotiating the reduction of North Korean staffers at the mission here would also effectively signal declining faith in diplomacy - a message India does not want to send. It may also spark criticism of India acting under pressure from the US - a suggestion New Delhi does not want to have to counter. Reducing diplomatic ties would also lead to a decline in any leverage India has in the debate over the world's approach to that country.
Instead, India has tried to juggle harsh public criticism and sanctions against North Korea with quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy to keep ties with Pyongyang intact.
In April, India announced a slew of sanctions against North Korea in keeping with sanctions declared by the UN Security Council. As North Korea over the past few months has kept up a steady stream of provocation - missile and nuclear tests and threats to target the US and Japan - India has joined in the international criticism of Pyongyang's actions.
When Modi visited Trump at the White House in June, the two countries issued a joint statement that had a section dedicated to criticism of North Korea and to plans to work together. Trump praised Modi for the April sanctions - after which India only sends food and medicines to North Korea.
At a meeting of the East Asia Summit - a grouping of 18 Indo-Pacific nations - on August 9, junior foreign minister V.K. Singh said North Korea's tests and proliferation posed a "grave threat to international peace and stability".
But in parallel, India has also continued with its humanitarian aid to North Korea, starting with 50 tonnes of soya bean delivered as a part of the World Food Programme late last year.
India has even timed its sanctions and pronouncements to minimise diplomatic mishaps.
In early April, the Indian women's team visited Pyongyang for Asian Football Confederation qualifiers, where they were trounced 8-0 by North Korea, 10-0 by South Korea and 7-1 by Uzbekistan, but defeated Hong Kong 2-0.
India announced the sanctions against North Korea only after the women's team left Pyongyang.