Biegun, unfortunately (in Hindi) means, “without redeeming quality”!
Still, let’s give the US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun arriving in Delhi Oct 12 the benefit of doubt. He will be here to set up the scene, firm up the agenda, for the next edition of the 2×2 meeting Oct 27-28 involving the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries.
In the lead-up to this visit, Biegun made the sort of noises to the Indian media that Americans know will put the foreign policy establishment in Delhi in the right mood to, as has been typical of Indian representatives who go weak in the knees when dealing with their American counterparts, to give away far, far more than India can ever hope to receive. After all, heading the MEA is the arch symbol of India’s giveaway culture — S. Jaishankar who signed the unequal and entirely unfair 2005 nuclear deal, and then contrived to stay on to reap the rewards!
Biegun made clear the American approach. After the de rigeur comments about the shared democratic values, etc., at some do called by the US India Strategic and Partnership Forum, Biegun responded to a question about what more the US can do on defence cooperation, export controls and tech transfer, by playing to this country’s conceit as a “world power” and potential “net security provider” to countries in the extended Indian Ocean region. “We’re very eager to help India become and remain a world-class power in contributing [to] net security rather than worrying about net security and how it affects their interests. And I think defence cooperation is a key avenue for this.” He thus pointed out that Delhi does more talking about providing security than actually doing so.
Having slyly shown India its rightful place as talker more than doer, Biegun used his initial comments as launch pad for the business end of his trip and that of the Americans at the forthcoming 2×2 meeting — selling antiquated military hardware to squeeze the last cent for American defence companies before their production lines are junked, sold for scrap metal. He called India’s desire for self-reliance in armaments a “countervailing trend” that while appropriate in some sense, doesn’t jell with Washington’s ideas. “I get that”, he said. “No country wants to be entirely dependent on other parties.” But on this subject, he said, “Even…a partnership as close as the United States-India, can be tested… I understand that”, he continued smoothly, “but I think it can’t come at the exclusion of giving India the best-in-class defence capabilities, and I think India’s going to find a very willing and creative-thinking partner in the United States [in the time ahead] in that exact area.”
There’s no question that the US Government (starting in the George W. Bush era) has been very creative indeed in first fluffing up that tottering old granny of a combat aircraft from the Sixties — the toothless F-16 in new raiment, presenting it as an entirely new ‘F-21’ just for the yokels, and then pressuring India to go in for this bill of goods. Indeed, the Industrial Security Annex (ISA), as part of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, signed at the last 2×2 round in Washington in December 2019, is meant specifically to facilitate Lockheed Martin’s sloughing off the F-21 to the IAF and Boeing selling its F/A-18 Super Hornet for use on aircraft carriers to the Indian Navy. At the time of ISA signing, defence minister Rajnath Singh, hoped it would “enable smooth transfer of technology and information between private entities of the US and India.”
So, F-16 is apparently “the best-in-class” capability Washington is generous enough to want India to buy for billions of dollars that India does not have, and even if it did, it is money that could be better spent on stuff that is more critical to national security than aged aircraft looooong past their sell-by date.
It is another matter that the requirement for 114 single engine fighters was created by IAF at the Indian government’s behest to accommodate Washington. It was spun off from, and as an additionality to, the supposed need for Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft that the purchase of 36 Rafales partially met. Have presciently maintained all along — look up my posts- that the acquisition of the F-21 was always Jaishankar’s priority in whatever capacity he found himself in government, or outside of it. Chosen by Lockheed as its “strategic partner” per the Defence Procurement Procedure, the Tata Group has been itching ever since to produce the F-21 in India, and so hired Jaishankar as ‘President for Global Affairs’ in April 2018 to push for it. Jaishankar was appointed by Tata straight after he demitted office as Foreign Secretary, with the Prime Minister waiving the 2-year “cooling off” period rule applicable to all retiring civil servants. From this perch he canvassed for the Modi regime’s approval for the F-16 deal purchase. Tata hit the jackpot when little over a year later its President for Global Affairs was anointed foreign minister, putting him in a position to lubricate the F-16 transaction from within the cabinet. It’s just a matter of time.
So, as I had long ago warned, brace yourselves because the F-16 will soon be expensively in the IAF fleet for the Pakistan Air Force to make mincemeat out of in prospective encounters — and all this at the poor Indian taxpayer’s expense! It is necessary to reiterate Jaishankar-qua-Modi government’s follies because they are going to cost the country plenty.
But to return to Beigun; at the said Forum in Washington he emphasized that for US’ strategy for the Indo-Pacific to be successful “we have to tap into the full scale…of economics,…of security cooperation, and that’s impossible to do without India as centrepiece….So as important as I’d like to think the United States is to this strategy, it’s not going to be successful for us without India also standing side by side”. And then he went to dilate on the Quadrilateral — India, Japan, Australia, US, before re-emphasizing India’s importance to this geopolitical scheme, and urging India not be a “passive player”. And then as if to stress that it was beyond the Indian government’s ability to think expansively and strategically, he concluded, that “Quad concept has really helped India find a place in the Indo-Pacific — in the larger Indo-Pacific theatre [and] it’s…obviously…in our interest to have India as a partner in these issues.”
What is significant is that earlier this summer Biegun had for the first time called US’ China policy a failure, and issued a mea culpa for China-friendly policies of the last 30-odd years. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 22, 2020, he said — and this is worth quoting in extenso:
“Across multiple administrations the United States has supported China’s entry into the rules-based international order in hopes that China would be a partner in upholding international law, norms, and institutions and that the United States and China could develop a friendly relationship with reciprocal benefit. Over more than three decades, U.S. policies towards the PRC have advanced that goal through a massive outpouring of international assistance and lending, foreign investment, facilitation of Chinese membership in global institutions, and the education of millions of China’s brightest scholars at our best schools. Where this Administration diverges from previous Administrations is in the will to face the uncomfortable truth in the U.S.-China relationship that the policies of the past three decades have simply not produced the outcome for which so many had hoped, and that the United States must and take decisive action to counter the PRC.
“As stated in the 2017 National Security Strategy, despite the huge dividends to the PRC in terms of prosperity, trade, and global influence that United States support and engagement has delivered, Beijing has instead chosen to take increasingly hardline and aggressive actions, both at home and abroad; and China has emerged as a strategic competitor to the United States, and to the rules-based global order. We find the U.S.-China relationship today weighed down by a growing number of disputes, including commercial espionage and intellectual property theft from American companies; unequal treatment of our diplomats, businesses, NGOs, and journalists by Chinese authorities; and abuse of the United States’ academic freedom and welcoming posture toward international students to steal sensitive technology and research from our universities in order to advance the PRC’s military.
“Other areas of concern include China’s increasingly assertive use against partners and allies of military and economic coercion and state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, including, among others, India, Australia, Canada, the UK, ASEAN Members, the European Union, and several other European countries.”
The US Deputy Secretary of State then outlined the actions the Trump Administration was taking to counter China. “Across the Indo-Pacific region, the United States is deepening relationships with the countries that share our values and interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific. Last September, we held the first ministerial-level meeting of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, marking a new milestone in our diplomatic engagement in the region. We are enhancing our alliances with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, which have helped sustain peace and security for generations, and we are furthering our engagement with ASEAN, an organization central to a free and open Indo-Pacific. Our security assistance to South China Sea claimant states and our recent rejection of the PRC’s maritime claims helps partners protect their autonomy and maritime resources. We are working with the Mekong countries to ensure sustainable development and energy security.
“Last month, I joined Secretary Pompeo in Hawaii to meet with our Chinese counterparts. In the two-day discussion the Secretary stressed that deeds, not words, were the pathway to achieve mutual respect and reciprocity between our two countries across commercial, security, diplomatic, and people-to-people interactions. He made clear our determination to push back against Beijing’s efforts to undermine democratic norms, challenge the sovereignty of our friends and allies, and engage in unfair trade practices, but at the same time, he also outlined areas where the United States and the PRC could cooperate to solve global challenges.”
Two things to note: Firstly, that Washington has defined India’s centrality to America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and hence also Delhi’s leverage. The question is will Modi, Jaishankar, and the PMO-MEA lot habituated to giveaways rather than selling India’s participation dear, strictly condition Indian military involvement in Quad activities on monitorable tech-transfer and assistance to specific programmes, like the one to design and develop a scalable Kaveri jet turbine to power present and future Indian-designed combat aircraft? I think not. After all, the Trump Administration not too long ago shelved any collaboration in developing a jet engine in India because of Pentagon’s concerns about parting with cutting edge technologies and the Indian government did not even object. So one can expect the Modi government to make much of wasteful, vapid transactions for the F-16 and the like designed to keep India an arms dependency.
And secondly, refer to the last bit of Biegun’s Congressional testimony reproduced above: After cataloguing all the reasons why China cannot be trusted, he repeats Pompeo and Washington’s readiness to discuss with Beijing the “areas where the United States and the PRC could cooperate to solve global challenges”. In other words, as long as the US can however and by whatever means ensure that China does not step on its toes, it wouldn’t care a fig before throwing the interests of the other countries of the Indo-Pacific overboard. This is the harsh reality that ought to contextualize Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla’s deliberations with Biegun, but won’t.
Indo-Pacific is absolutely crucial to India’s security, but an unreliable US as the central pillar of the Quad is a liability. The reason why I have been advocating the concept of the Modifed Quadrilateral — Mod Quad — of India, Japan, Australia and a set of Southeast Asian states to include principally Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore that can more than even the balance of power with China. It is the only geostrategically organic and feasible solution the Modi government ought to be realizing instead of pursuing the chimera of the US as centrepiece in India’s security architecture. Combined with BRIS — Brazil, Russia-India-South Africa (BRICS minus China) as a complementary globe-girdling but loose security coalition harnessing the power and capacities of Russia, Brazil, and South Africa as well that Delhi should do its utmost to obtain, India could — with this twin security schema (elaborated in my 2018 book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’) — get into a position to dictate terms to China. And to even win America’s respect that Delhi so craves.
But this’d require a sea change in the mindset of the Indian government and military and, more specifically, in the thinking and approach of Prime Minister Modi. Of this last, however, there’s no sign.