The coming week begins with the arrival of US Secretaries of State and Defense, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper, in New Delhi. Now, these 2+2 talks have been an ongoing process for some time. Whatever the struggles and niggles on trade, India-US strategic ties have grown phenomenally. So, what’s so special about next week?
It is the timing. This will be just a week before the US Presidential elections, and probably even the results. How do two of the most important members of the US Administration fly all the way to India, in times of the pandemic, for what could be just another episode in an ongoing 2+2 process?
More importantly, why is India engaging them with aplomb when neither side knows who will win a week later? If at all, odds from all opinion polls now suggest that Donald Trump is more likely to lose than win. In usual times, the conservative Indian “system” would have preferred to wait.
But then, these are not usual times, and not merely because the Chinese are refusing to budge from their six-month dharna in Ladakh. That is a big concern for India, but not the topmost foreign and strategic policy priority for Washington.
What changes the picture, however, is the fact that China is now the most significant strategic concern in Washington, as in most of the world’s capitals, especially the democracies. That is all of Europe (including the United Kingdom), Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The Arabs may not say so, but they watch in fright, and from close, the ties between Iran and China on the one hand. And then the enormously more organic linkage with Pakistan, which, in turn, is also tilting so decisively towards Turkey that its foreign minister attacked and demeaned Saudi Arabia in a public statement.
Xi’s China has unleashed waves of panic to its west, east and south. Just to the north, it may be OK at the regional level. Russia is now China’s only close and truly powerful ally. Sorry Pakistan, we exclude you from this category because your relationship with China is more dependence than alliance.
Russia is China’s pre-eminent supplier of energy, thereby helping it hedge the Malacca Strait risk. Military ties are also growing. Russia has the technology and an industrial base. China has the military that needs it and the money to buy it. As a result, we see a peculiar new military-industrial complex developing: Between China’s military and Russia’s industry.
Please note that the Indian Air Force (IAF) already has to presume that it operates in the Ladakh sector under the challenge of Russian-made S-400 and S-300 missiles. India’s S-400s won’t be operational before sometime in 2022.
It’s a complex new strategic reality. Between Pakistan and North Korea, the Chinese already had two unpredictable nuclear-armed protectorates and Putin’s Russia as an ally. India, Japan and Australia, the only balancing powers in the region, are being pushed around, Taiwan is intimidated, Hong Kong is “taken”, all members of the US-led Five Eyes Alliance are worried, and China’s will be the only major economy to grow in this globally shambolic year.
This makes it the number one bipartisan strategic concern in America. Probably the only thing Trump and Biden agree on — their fight being over who is going to be tougher on China.
In Goswami Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, an irate Lord Ram lays down an important principle in all relationships, whether among human beings or nations. “Bin bhay hote na preet (nobody loves you unless they fear you).” He might have said it then to justify exercising his own formidable strengths, but it also works in reverse.
For example, nobody would give up the pretence that this flurry of India-US contacts, the urgency with the Quad, and Australia’s return to the Malabar naval exercise are not all about China. But senior US officials such as Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun, who was in India a week ago, are no longer shy of saying China is the “elephant in the room”.
It is that ‘bhay’, the fear of a rampant China, that is bringing these powers together, tossing all diplomatic reserve. In my more facetious moments, which are prolific, I would even describe the Quad as the ‘Cheen Peedit Samaj’. That is the reality. China has lit this fire on every cautious diplomat’s desk in these countries. That is why, after New Delhi, Pompeo goes to Colombo and Male. Yes, Male, Maldives. Days before the elections.
I read interesting views from Indian strategic scholars as we reflect on this change. C. Raja Mohan wrote in The Indian Express on 25 August how the notion of the much-vaunted strategic autonomy has now been redefined for India.
In the 1990s, as a unipolar world emerged after the Cold War, he says, strategic autonomy for India meant the freedom to define its strategic interests and policies independent of the dominant power, the US. It was particularly important because, whatever the difference between the two Clinton presidencies, his people still thought that India-Pakistan was the most dangerous place in the world, a nuclear flashpoint, and also fantasised that they could help resolve the Kashmir issue. This made India seek strategic balance by reigniting the old affair with Russia and reaching out to China.
Today, strategic autonomy has acquired a sharper definition: To ward off the Chinese challenge to India’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and regional stature. I also read the speech Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018, where he asserted a very different, conventional definition of strategic autonomy. That India will plough its own furrow, and the big powers should avoid getting caught in another competition. This was an echo of the old South Block ‘Missionary Position’. He won’t be reading from the same text again today.
The second scholar is Dhruva Jaishankar, who now heads the think-tank ORF Centre in the US. In an interview to FirstPost, he says the era of ‘Talmudic Debates’ on India’s strategic autonomy is now over. Now you might quibble with him over his choice of the definition of an endless argument from the Jewish tradition instead of our Vedic one, shastrartha. But the message is quite clear. Supreme national interest drives strategic policies, not nostalgia and old hypocrisies.
When a Cold War rages, or a new one begins, as now, India can never be truly non-aligned. I say this with a deep breath because this might anger so many fans of Nehru and Indira. But I admire the two even more so because, whatever the pretence, they never shied away from choosing a side. It is just that Nehru chose America too late after 1962, when he was in steep decline. And his daughter preferred the Soviet Union. Under her, at least between 1969 and 1977 and then from 1980 to 1984, India was anything but non-aligned. She was an ally of Moscow because she was acting in the national interest.
That choice has been made again now. India has been moving in that direction for two decades, with the US matching that enthusiasm. There have been a few breaks, in India particularly after the nuclear deal, as the Congress high command seemed fatigued and the new defence minister, A.K. Antony, was so risk-averse in an old Cold Warrior sense that Exercise Malabar also lost its oomph.
Today, no such hesitations remain. A choice is made, in Washington and New Delhi. It is a full embrace. It is also bipartisan in both countries, especially in the US, where a change within a week is a real possibility. That is the reason this 2+2 is taking place even a week before the Americans vote.