Buying peace with Trump by buying arms

Howdy Modi event

[Modi and Trump at the “Howdy, Modi” event]

While the national interests of India and the United States overlap a little, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald J. Trump are personally in sync. This last is, perhaps, because they are alike — self-centered, autocratic, and relentless in playing to their political bases. So drama attends on any cooperation they can muster, especially in the foreign policy field because differing geographies dictate divergent approaches, tactics and strategies.

     Dealing with the mercurial Trump is like traipsing through a minefield. He threatens termination of trade and US military presence abroad to get his way. He perceives India as a soft target and is ranging on it, complaining about unbalanced trade, Indian software companies exploiting the H1B visa regime, Delhi’s delay in activating the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that will permit US forces to use Indian bases, and about India’s reluctance to manufacture under license the 1970s vintage F-16 fighter aircraft outfitted with new doo-dahs and designation (F-21). Trump’s bargaining method is to insist the other side meet his demands or face pain. It has fetched him success with NATO allies (anteing up $400 billion in additional defence spending) and China (removing $75 billion in tariffs).  

     To prevent Trump tilting against India, Modi’s strategy is one of placating the US with periodic buys of non-lethal, defensive, capital military hardware – P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft and C-17 and C-130J transport planes, Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters (a contract for 24 of these rotary wing aircraft may be signed to mollify Trump), or outdated weapons systems (M-777 howitzer) that don’t occasion controversy abroad or scrutiny in the US Congress. However, far from softening Trump’s attitude, it has strengthened his belief that he can keep pushing because Delhi has nothing to pushback with – a view Modi apparently concurs in. How else to explain that in the last four years vis a vis  the US there has been no give and take, just give and more give on India’s part?

     Toting up the pluses and minuses and weighing the outcomes, a dispassionate assessment shows meagre returns on Modi’s policy. On Pakistan-sourced terrorism – the PM’s signature tune, the US has limited itself to making anti-terrorism noises at the Financial Assistance Task Force and other forums amounting to ineffectual posturing because it is not followed up by hard pressure on Pakistan and China. This pressure the US won’t impose because it needs a helpful Islamabad to extricate itself militarily from Afghanistan. For the same reason, Delhi’s longstanding request for “raw intelligence” on Pakistan-based terrorist gangs has been denied, with only “processed”, meaning appropriately diluted, possibly doctored, information being onpassed to Indian agencies.

     Further, despite Modi’s pleas, Trump is closing down the H1B visa regime, virtually eliminating the comparative low labour cost advantage of the $181 billion Indian software industry, and is pressing India to lift restrictions on US agricultural commodities and dairy products. With respect to the Indian government’s perennial hope of collaborating in advanced military technology development, the 2012 Defence Trade and Technology Initiative set up for the purpose has not resulted in even a single project. Delhi fails to appreciate that America won’t transfer in-date technology for love or money or disturb the military balance in South Asia it helps sustain.

     And what of the shared geostrategic objective? The US is determined to avoid armed conflict with China at all cost. In practical terms, therefore, for India there’s little beyond arms sales and simple military exercises. The annual Malabar naval exercise, for example, graduated to joint fleet air arm maneuvers only in 2019, its 24th year. But huge diplomatic energy is expended in the “dialogue” process – frequent Modi-Trump meetings, 2×2 summits, etc.. If dialogueing mattered all that much, the Indo-US “strategic partnership” would be flying.

     High time India explored an alternative security coalition organic to Asia of “rimland” states and offshore countries to strategically hamstring China. Such as a modified Quadrilateral involving the littoral and maritime assets-rich India, Japan, Australia and a Southeast Asian group of Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, an arrangement that would minimize an unreliable America’s role.

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[A truncated version of this article with the title “Buying peace with useless arms” is published in The Week, issue dated March 1, 2020]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Australia, China, China military, Culture, Decision-making, Defence Industry, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Intelligence, Internal Security, Japan, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Northeast Asia, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, society, South Asia, South East Asia, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, Terrorism, United States, US., Vietnam, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Buying peace with Trump by buying arms

  1. Mr.Mister says:

    “And what of the shared geostrategic objective? The US is determined to avoid armed conflict with China at all cost. In practical terms, therefore, for India there’s little beyond arms sales and simple military exercises.”
    Somewhere implied in that seems to be a perverse desire that US does indeed indulge in an armed conflict with China, thus cutting the “dragon” down to size. A classic example of “Let’s you and him fight.” How is that for some Freudian thinking, yeah Karnad?

    • Exactly right. It is not in India’s interest that China and the US not fight. How to escalate their differences should be pour concern, how to avoid conflict their’s. Don’t confuse one for the other. There is nothing Freudian about it. It is all ruthless reapolitik which is what, I have always maintained, India should subscribe to.

  2. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat Sir…everytime China behaves like a hegemon in SCS, nations like Vietnam, Philippines, Japan etc. look at India for the help. They really want India to act more aggressively . But India’s response is NOTHING. So how will this impact India’s relevance in the region, given India’s defensive mindset and its having no strategic sense? Don’t you think that it will severely impact India’s credibility despite all the hype by PM Modi and EAM Jaishankar?

    Also let us assume that a miracle happens and India is ready to transfer nukes and related technology to nations on China’s boundary like Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia etc. Will they accept India’s offer now? I mean don’t you think that they have lost faith in India’s words and credibility ,given our pacifist nature??

    I am 200% sure that Taiwan will fully accept nukes, followed by Vietnam. But I have some doubt regarding Indonesia as it is not fully prepared to cross the red line, though it may be aggressive. What to you say sir?

  3. Which country, including Indonesia, will not accept absolute security against China that nuclear weapons provide it?

  4. V.Ganesh says:

    Sir, regarding raw intelligence, can’t we ask the NDS for the same now that its former head Amrullah Saleh is the Afghan VP? Because during Manmohan Singh’s time NDS was willing to work with R&AW to payback Pakistan in the same coin, unfortunately India didn’t sanction it.

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