Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, an Indian TV channel held a discussion on likely foreign policy reorientation. When the doyen of South Asian Studies, Stephen Cohen, was asked in which direction Mr. Modi would tilt -the U.S. or China – without hesitation he replied, “China,” adding, “because it is the Asian century.” Mr. Modi hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping last year but despite the fanfare preceding the visit, there was little to suggest any strategic overlap. Alas, Mr. Cohen was proved wrong after the Modi-Obama Joint Vision Statement reflected a sharp, strategic congruence. Mr. Modi has reset the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s policy of equidistance between the U.S. and China and dropped the political refrain that India will not contain China.
Choosing friends and allies
In New Delhi last year, at a seminar, the former U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert D. Blackwill, posed the question: “How can New Delhi claim strategic autonomy when it has strategic partnerships with 29 countries?” After the latest Modi-Obama vision statement, even less so. Strategic autonomy and no military alliances are two tenets of India’s foreign policy. Quietly, India has converted strategic autonomy to strategic interconnectedness or multi-vectored engagement. When the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation 1971 was signed, Mrs Indira Gandhi had requested the Soviet Union to endorse India’s Non-Aligned status, so dear was the policy at the time. That multifaceted treaty made India a virtual ally of the Soviet Union. Russia inherited that strategic trust and has leased a nuclear submarine, provided high-tech weapons to all three Services including technology for nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. At the BRICS meeting in Brazil last year, when asked a question, Mr. Modi said as much: “If you ask anyone among the more than one billion people living in India who is our country’s greatest friend, every person, every child knows that it is Russia.”
On the other hand, differences over foreign policy with the U.S. are many including over Syria, Iran, Russia, BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). These policy irritants will not go away. The vision statement highlights (at the U.S.’s insistence) that both countries were on the same page in ensuring that Iran did not acquire nuclear weapons. The tongue-lashing by Mr. Obama to Mr. Putin over his bullying small countries has certainly embarrassed Mr. Modi who was himself disingenuous by inviting the leader of Crimea as a part of the Putin delegation in 2014, which deeply offended the Americans.
What Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi easily agreed on was China’s “not-peaceful rise” which could undermine the rule-based foundations of the existing international order. So, Mr. Modi became a willing ally to stand up to China. The synergisation of India’s Act East Policy and U.S. rebalancing to Asia is intended to ensure that China does not cross red lines including the code of conduct at sea. The two theatres of action where freedom of navigation and overflight have to be ensured were identified as Asia-Pacific especially the South China Sea and, for the first time, the Indian Ocean Region.
This is a veiled riposte to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Mr. Modi had earlier mooted the revival of the Quad, an enlarged format for naval exercises between India, the U.S., Japan and Australia. When it was mooted earlier in 2006, it was shot down by China. Underlying the strategic centrality of the Indian Ocean Region is the realisation that the existing India-China military imbalance across the high Himalayas can be offset only in the maritime domain where India has the initiative. Beijing realises that teaching India a lesson in 1962 was only a tactical success because territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh got delegitimised after the unilateral withdrawal and worse, pushed India into the U.S.’s arms.
The rise of India which will punch to its weight under a new self-confident leadership pursuing a policy of multi-engagement is a manifest U.S. strategic goal. Defence has been the pivot around which India-U.S. relations were rebuilt, starting in 1991 with the Kicklighter Plan (Lt.Gen. Kicklighter of the U.S. Pacific Command) who initiated the multilayered defence relations which fructified in 1995 into the first Defence Framework Agreement. It was renewed in 2005 and now for the second time this year, the difference though is that for the first time, the vision statement has provided political and strategic underpinnings to the agreement. What had also been lacking until now was trust and the extent to which India was prepared to be seen in the American camp. Just a decade ago, while contracting for the Hawk trainer aircraft with the U.K., India inserted a clause that “there will be no US parts in it.” This followed the Navy’s sad experience of the U.S. withholding spare parts for its Westland helicopters. Such misgivings have held up for a decade the signing of the three “alphabet- surfeit” foundational defence agreements of force-multiplication. But we have moved on and purchased $10 billion of U.S. high-tech military equipment and another $10 billion worth will soon be contracted. The most elaborate defence cooperation programme after Russia is with the U.S.
Dealing with China
What made Mr. Modi, who visited China four times as Chief Minister, change his mind on the choice of the country for primary orientation was the jolt he received while welcoming President Xi Jinping to Gujarat last year. Mr. Xi’s delegation was mysteriously accompanied by a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intrusion in Ladakh which did not yield ground till well after he had left. A similar affront preceded the 2013 visit of Premier Li Keqiang, making routine the PLA’s bad habits. While the UPA government had made peace and tranquillity on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) a prerequisite for consolidation of bilateral relations, border management rather than border settlement had become the norm. Seventeen rounds of Special Representative talks on the border yielded little on the agreed three-stage border settlement mechanism. It was therefore path-breaking when Mr. Modi during the Joint Statement asked Mr. Xi for a clarification on the LAC -the process of exchanging maps that had failed in the past and led to the ongoing attempt at a political solution skipping marking the LAC. Clearly, we have moved full circle in calling for a return to that process. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who was in Beijing this month, sought an out-of-the-box solution for the border, in which category LAC clarification will not figure. Mr. Modi is determined not to leave resolution of the border question to future generations as Chinese leaders have persistently counselled.
Mr. Modi, in Japan last year, expressed concerns over “expansionist tendencies.”
Chinese scholars I met in Beijing last year said that conditions for settling the territorial dispute were not favourable because the border is a very complicated issue, entailed compromise and had to take public opinion along. And most importantly, strong governments and strong leaders were needed for its resolution.
While Mr. Xi did promise last year investments worth $20 billion, the fact is that, so far, Chinese investments in India do not exceed $1.1 billion. Mr. Xi’s dream of constructing continental and maritime Silk Roads are intended to complement the String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean Region, bypassing choke points like the Malacca Straits as well as neutralising the U.S. rebalancing to Asia.
Risks and opportunities
How will India walk the tightrope between the U.S. and China, given that the U.S. is about 13,000 kilometres away and Beijing exists cheek by jowl, peering over a disputed border and with a whopping $40 billion in trade surplus? China’s reaction to the vision statement has been to warn India against U.S. entrapment. Operationalising the strategic-security portions of the vision statement will not be easy, especially as India has no independent role in the South China Sea. Once the euphoria over the Obama-Modi statement dissipates, ground reality will emerge. Instigating Beijing, especially in the South China Sea will have costs like having to deal with the full frenzy of the PLA on the LAC with most likely ally, Pakistan lighting up the Line of Control (LoC) – the worst case two-front scenario.
Given Mr. Modi’s growth and development agenda, for which he requires the U.S., China, Japan and others, he cannot afford to antagonise Beijing. The U.S. is vital for India’s rise and a hedge to China. So, New Delhi will necessarily be on a razor edge. In any realisation of the Asian century, while China and India are likely key players, Washington will be large and looming, making a geostrategic ménage à trois.