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How China facilitated the India-US strategic embrace

By Shekhar Gupta
November 03, 2020 18:53 IST
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China is now the most significant strategic concern in Washington, as in most of the world's capitals.
Today, strategic autonomy has acquired a sharper definition: To ward off the Chinese challenge to India's territorial integrity, sovereignty and regional stature, observes Shekhar Gupta.

IMAGE: United States Secretary of Defence Dr Mark Esper addresses the media along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at a joint news conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, October 27, 2020. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
 

How do the two most important members of the US administration fly all the way to India, in times of the pandemic, for what could be just another episode in an ongoing 2+2 process?

More importantly, why did India engage with them in aplomb when neither side knows who would win a week later?

In usual times, the conservative Indian 'system' would have preferred to wait.

But then, these are not usual times, and not merely because the Chinese are refusing to budge from their six-month dharna in Ladakh.

That is a big concern for India, but not the top-most foreign and strategic policy priority for Washington.

What changes the picture, however, is the fact that China is now the most significant strategic concern in Washington, as in most of the world's capitals, especially the democracies.

That is all of Europe, including the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The Arabs may not say so, but they watch in fright, and from close, the ties between Iran and China on the one hand.

And then the enormously more organic linkage with Pakistan, which in turn is also tilting so decisively towards Turkey that its foreign minister attacked and demeaned Saudi Arabia in a public statement.

IMAGE: General Manoj Mukund Naravane, chief of the army staff, interacts with Indian Army soldiers on his visit to Ladakh to review the security situation, September 4, 2020. Photograph: ANI Photo

Xi's China has unleashed waves of panic to its west, east and south.

Just to the north, it may be ok at the regional level.

Russia is now China's only close and truly powerful ally.

Sorry Pakistan, we exclude you in this category because your relationship with China is more of dependence than an alliance.

Russia is China's pre-eminent supplier of energy, thereby helping it hedge the Malacca Strait risk.

Military ties are also growing.

Russia has the technology and an industrial base.

China has the military that needs it and the money to buy it.

As a result, we see a peculiar new military-industrial complex developing: Between China's military and Russia's industry.

Please note that the Indian Air Force already has to presume that it operates in the Ladakh sector under the challenge of Russian-made S-400 and S-300 missiles.

India's S-400s won't be operational before sometime in 2022.

It's a complex new strategic reality.

Between Pakistan and North Korea, the Chinese already had two unpredictable nuclear-armed protectorates and Putin's Russia as an ally.

India, Japan and Australia, the only balancing powers in the region, are being pushed around, Taiwan is intimidated, Hong Kong is 'taken', all members of the US-led Five Eyes Alliance are worried, and China's will be the only major economy to grow in this globally shambolic year.

This makes it the number one bipartisan strategic concern in America.

Probably the only thing Trump and Biden agree on, their fight being over who is going to be tougher on China.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi interacts with Indian soldiers during his visit to Ladakh, July 3, 2020. Photograph: ANI Photo

In Goswami Tulsidas's Ramcharitmanas, an irate Lord Ram lays down an important principle in all relationships, whether among human beings or nations.

'Bin bhay hote na preet (Nobody loves you unless they fear you).'

He might have said it then to justify exercising his own formidable strengths, but it also works in reverse.

For example, nobody would give up the pretence that this flurry of India-US contacts, the urgency with Quad, Australia's return to the Malabar naval exercise, are not all about China.

But senior US officials such as Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E Biegun, who was in India two weeks ago, are no longer shy of saying China is the 'elephant in the room'.

It is that 'bhay', the fear of a rampant China, that is bringing these powers together, tossing all diplomatic reserve.

In my more facetious moments, which are prolific, I would even describe the Quad as the 'Cheen Peedit Samaj'.

That is the reality.

China has lit this fire on every cautious diplomat's desk in these countries.

That is why, after New Delhi, Pompeo went to Colombo and Male.

Yes, Male, Maldives.

Days before the voting.

I read interesting views from Indian strategic scholars as we reflect on this change.

C Raja Mohan wrote in The Indian Express on August 25 how the notion of the much vaunted strategic autonomy has now been redefined for India.

In the 1990s, as a unipolar world emerged after the Cold War, he says, strategic autonomy for India meant the freedom to define its strategic interests and policies independent of the dominant power, the US.

It was particularly important because, whatever the difference between the two Clinton presidencies, his people still thought that India-Pakistan was the most dangerous place in the world, a nuclear flashpoint and also fantasised that they could help them resolve the Kashmir issue.

This made India seek strategic balance by reigniting the old affair with Russia and reaching out to China.

Today, strategic autonomy has acquired a sharper definition: To ward off the Chinese challenge to India's territorial integrity, sovereignty and regional stature.

I also read the speech Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018 where he asserted a very different, conventional definition of strategic autonomy.

That India will plough its own furrow, and the big powers should avoid getting caught in another competition.

This was an echo of the old South Block 'Missionary Position'.

He won't be reading from the same text again today.

Second is Dhruva Jaishankar, who now heads the think-tank ORF Centre in the US.

In an interview to FirstPost, he says the era of 'Talmudic Debates' on India's strategic autonomy is now over.

Now you might quibble with him over his choice of the definition of an endless argument from the Jewish tradition instead of our Vedic one, shastrartha.

But the message is quite clear.

Supreme national interest drives strategic policies, not nostalgia and old hypocrisies.

When a Cold War rages, or a new one begins, as now, India can never be truly non-aligned.

I say this with a deep breath because this might anger so many fans of Nehru and Indira.

But I admire the two even more so because, whatever the pretence, they never shied away from choosing a side.

It is just that Nehru chose America too late after 1962 when he was in steep decline.

And his daughter preferred the Soviet Union.

Under her, at least between 1969 and 1977 and then from 1980 to 1984, India was anything but non-aligned.

She was an ally of Moscow because she was acting in the national interest.

That choice has been made again now.

India has been moving in that direction for two decades, with the US matching that enthusiasm.

There have been a few breaks, in India particularly after the nuclear deal as the Congress high command seemed fatigued and the new defence minister A K Antony was so risk averse in an old Cold Warrior sense that Exercise Malabar also lost its oomph.

Today no such hesitations remain.

A choice is made, in Washington and New Delhi.

It is a full embrace.

It is also bipartisan in both countries, especially in the US, where a change is a real possibility.

That is the reason this 2+2 took place even a week before the Americans vote.

By special arrangement with ThePrint

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

 

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