Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Amidst waffling over China, US-India embrace deepens

The Asian Age.  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

It is India’s permanent dilemma that complacency about foreign policy alternatives leads to a fatal complacency about defence

File photo of US President Joe Biden, left, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Image: AP)

History repeats itself. The expectations and disappointments of India- United States relations in the past century seem destined to be repeated as Narendra Modi and Joe Biden, both seemingly oblivious of the past, go through the steps that Jawaharlal Nehru and American leaders from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy took. Yet, many Indians are cock-a-hoop that Mr Biden’s plan to visit in September, following other G-20 and Quad meetings, not only reinforces Atal Behari Vajpayee’s “natural allies” theory, but also marks the triumph of Mr Modi’s diplomacy.

It is India’s permanent dilemma that complacency about foreign policy alternatives leads to a fatal complacency about defence. How much of India’s huge military budget is productively spent is anybody’s guess, but the public statements of our leaders do not indicate any realistic view of how to cope with the economic, diplomatic and military challenges presented by China. Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary, had accused Dr Manmohan Singh of trying to make India the “new Pakistan” when he moved closer to then US President George W. Bush to facilitate the civil nuclear deal. Today’s more appropriate analogy is with the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of the former dictator, who warns of the “complicated geopolitical situation” in which the two countries must negotiate. He should know, having recently hosted China’s foreign minister Qin Gang in Manila, and been Mr Biden’s guest in Washington.

What Mr Biden told Mr Marcos Jr he could well have said to Mr Modi as well. “We are facing new challenges” he said, referring to the deepening Sino-US rivalry, “and I couldn’t think of a better partner to have than you”. The compliment was backed by a promise to transfer three C-130 aircraft and two coastal patrol vessels to the Philippines. Then followed ground rules for enhanced intelligence-sharing in the face of common “threats and challenges” and jointly countering Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. China claims almost all of the resource-rich region through which about $3 trillion worth of maritime merchandise passes annually.

The Philippines is not alone in opposing China’s attempt to control this strategic area. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam also have territorial claims there. In some ways, the situation resembles the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, where the current Chinese action invokes memories of the ancient Silk Route’s global trade, and where China and Pakistan both vigorously contest India’s position.

It may not have been entirely a coincidence that Mr Qin visited Manila as the Philippines and the US were holding their annual military exercise named “Balikatan” involving 17,600 military personnel. China’s foreign minister must have noted that the Filipinos and Americans have now named four new bases in the Philippines to which US troops will have access and updated their 1951 mutual defence treaty.

That treaty belongs to the Cold War era to which a war-torn world that squanders $2.24 trillion on arms and armaments, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, is being dragged back. What is most shameful is that a poverty-stricken country like India that cannot feed, clothe, house and educate all its people should be among the five nations (with the US, China, Britain and Russia) that account for 62 per cent of this dangerously wasted expenditure. Indifferent to the ethical and humanitarian aspects of this conundrum, Beijing fears that the Philippines and the two main US allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, might be drawn into disputes over Taiwan as the US extends its influence in what China considers its backyard.

Beijing is similarly suspicious of the Quadrilateral Initiative, or Quad, involving the United States, India, Japan and Australia, and now with Australia being armed with nuclear submarines. Donald Lu, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, identifies Quad membership with “leadership roles” that bring the region’s countries “closer together”. China sees the Quad as a provocative Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

This US activism in Southeast Asia is matched by attempts to push the belief that treating India as a potential superpower and a key partner in what is now flatteringly called the Indo-Pacific region will strengthen its own global leadership. This assumption goes hand in hand with the conviction that American supremacy will promote freedom, strengthen democracy and enhance free trade.

The underlying supposition is that initiatives to facilitate India’s access to cutting-edge technology and the acquisition of sophisticated defence equipment will not only give India an edge over China but make her a more “democratic” nation in the political sense in which the American neo-con school interprets democracy.

Nothing seems to affect this colossal blind spot among US policymakers who are immune to the lessons of Nicaragua’s prolonged dictatorship under a US protégé or the examples of assorted Asian autocrats like South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, the senior Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and his outrageously extravagant wife, Imelda, who eventually had to flee the wrath of the Filipino population, the Shah of Iran, erstwhile South Vietnam’s Diem family or a succession of Pakistani generals. Uncle Sam’s benediction turned out to be the kiss of death for the strongest of Asia’s strongmen.

This alone may not have boded ruin if India had a viable strategy in place for dealing with China’s rise. There is little evidence of any serious thinking on the subject as India flounders from one under-reported border crisis to another and our political leaders continue to confuse a loyal public with contradictory claims and obvious dissimulation.

The confusion takes one back to 1962 and official denials of Jawaharlal Nehru’s desperate appeals for help. The US was still such a political untouchable that he was mortified at the publicity that the American media gave to Operation Shiksha, a defence exercise involving British, Canadian, Australian but mainly American aircraft, equipment and personnel. Air Marshal Aspy Merwan Engineer, who was waiting on the runway at Palam in 1963 with ambassador Chester Bowles to receive a squadron of 18 American F-100s, rejected the mike, flatly refusing to utter a word of welcome for the visiting instructors and airmen. They had to be content with tea and sandwiches.

Waffling about diplomatic initiatives may sometimes be understandable. But no electorate can forgive today’s government if it is found to be waffling over defence in Ladakh or anywhere along the border.

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