Now that the media hoopla and hyperbole attending on US president Barack Obama’s visit is mercifully over, we can exhale, begin dispassionately to evaluate it. One was bemused and appalled by what was projected in the media as the things America will supposedly to do for India, ranging from coaxing the Indian economy on to a higher and faster growth trajectory, facilitating bigger investment inflows, livening up the manufacturing sector, triggering a surge in the indigenous defence industry, to improving our educational system and enabling our cities become smarter. It is as if Delhi had outsourced India’s problems to Washington.
On the “centerpiece” and politically combustible nuclear issue, prime minister Narendra Modi shoved it onto the plate of American companies, Westinghouse and General Electric, and the Indian companies seeking to manufacture components, but also made the Indian taxpayer stand guarantee, as indicated in my last column, for the quality of imported nuclear reactor technology. The US and Indian companies will have to assess the risk of nuclear mishaps and weigh the costs of inevitably being dragged to the court. Modi’s is a problematic solution considering that capping of liability payouts and making the Indian people responsible for them, prima facie, violate the spirit and letter of the 2010 Indian nuclear liability law legislated with the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in mind when the culprit US firm, Union Carbide, got away with mass murder.
A more satisfactory result of the Obama trip was China’s being lined up as India’s natural adversary. The “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean” by flagging maritime security, and freedom of navigation and of overflight in the South China Sea area as international rights in the global commons, emphasised the strategic stakes of the two countries in preventing China from obtaining a “closed sea” off Southeast Asia. And by hinting at a “road map leveraging” the effort of all states in the extended region to beef up collective security arrangements, indicated the means of holding Chinese ambition and aggression in check.
As follow-up to Modi’s reference when in Japan about an “expansionist” power, it showed clear-headed threat perception that no amount of diplomatic niceties by visits such as by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to Beijing can mask. The nature of inter-state affairs has evolved such that drawing clear red lines by removing uncertainty may actually facilitate a more stable and equitable economic and trade relationship. For this newfound common sense-driven attitude to have meaning will necessitate a series of logical actions. Such as amending the Operational Directive from the defence minister to the armed services requiring the military to orient itself north and northeast-wards and, maritime-wise, towards the Indian Ocean. In its wake should be schemes to restructure the Indian combat forces optimised for limited war with Pakistan to take on the greater challenge posed by China. Further, the “Joint Vision” by stating that “Regional prosperity depends on security”, finally settled the longstanding argument about national priorities by implying that without the latter the former is impossible.
The only thing wrong with the otherwise correct geostrategics undergirding the Modi-Obama talks is the impression of India seeking to ride America’s coattails. Delhi did not sufficiently stress India’s commitment principally to a security architecture organic to Asia involving Asian states that relies only minimally on the US. As analysed in my previous writings, the United States is an unreliable strategic partner. Determined to avoid military confrontation or conflict with China at all cost, Washington is exploring a modus vivendi with Beijing to protect American interests in Asia, and will prefer in most situations to concert with China. Many Asian states, including the nationalist regime of Shinzo Abe in Japan, perceive America as too thin a reed to lean on. India and like-minded countries in Southeast Asia and East Asia directly confronting China will, in the event, have to handle the security dilemmas facing them by themselves.
In this context, the politico-military value of Russia to India grows. This was squarely acknowledged in the far more comprehensive “Druzhba-Dosti Vision” statement issued at the end of president Vladimir Putin’s December 2014 visit, which garnered little media attention. It referred to India “deeply (valuing) the monumental contributions made by Russia to (its) developmental and defence needs” and elaborated on the “economic engagement” and collaborative activity in the energy, technology and innovation sectors, including space, “futuristic technologies” and “joint design and development of defence systems”. But unlike the generalised view in the ‘Joint Vision’ of “closer partnership …promoting peace, prosperity and security” animating ties with the US, the “Druzhba-Dosti” document refers specifically to “a strong…strategic partnership” advancing “the national interests” of both India and Russia.
It is obvious that Delhi’s wanting closeness with America is aspirational; Indo-Russian relations, however, reflect hard reality. This is because, while the two Visions apprehend China as the destabilising factor, Russia fronts on China even as the US is separated from it by a vast ocean and has more intimate economic and trade interlinks with it. Hence, India’s fears cannot but resonate more with Moscow’s than with Washington’s.
Economic and military heft is not available by association. Rather, India will have to get serious about a geostrategic edifice primarily serving its core interests. As articulated repeatedly in my writings and in this column, an Indian Monroe Doctrine system is what needs to be put in place as does a tiered defence with Japan and Taiwan constituting the outer defensive perimeter, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore the middle tier, and the Integrated Andaman Command connected to the mainland, anchoring this system and India’s policy of “acting East”, the innermost tier. With its episodic presence, the US Navy can play the part in the Indian Ocean the Royal Navy did in enforcing the original Monroe Doctrine strictures in the southern Atlantic in the mid-19th century.
Countries do not put out for other countries unless they have lots more to gain than lose from doing so. The US has calculated what serves its purposes. Delhi, as in the past, seems swept away by American promises.
[Published in the New Indian Exp-ress, February 6, 2015, at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/The-Correct-Geostrategics/2015/02/06/article2654073.ece