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US and China: How India must play its cards

By M K Bhadrakumar
November 10, 2011 17:27 IST
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The US is in desperate need to conjure up an ideology-driven relationship with India, to enable it to boost its arms exports to the Indian market, says M K Bhadrakumar.

As to what prompted the United States last week to offer to sell Pentagon's futuristic radar-evading fifth generation fighter F-35 [acronym JSF] promises to be an expose of their 'defining partnership' in the 21st century.

Put simply, a clutch of avant-garde truth diggers among India's smug community of defence analysts came up with a startling 'discovery' that the US was making a virtue out of dire necessity.

According to Robert Scher, US deputy secretary of defence for south and south east Asia, India has not made any request for information on the F-35, but the US's unilateral invitation was an "example of the high regard that we hold for India's military modernisation." The Pentagon offers that "Should India indicate interest in the JSF, the United States would be prepared to provide information on the JSF and its requirements… to support India's future planning."  

But the JSF's development program faces unaffordable rising costs, with a price tag as per current estimate of $150 million (about Rs 750 crore) per aircraft. In sum, the JSF has become a white elephant and cross breeding it with the Indian black elephant might just about make its uncertain progeny an affordable beast of burden.

The tragicomedy underscores the US' desperate need to conjure up an ideology-driven relationship with India, which enables it to boost its arms exports to the Indian market, which is one of the few world markets today remaining with growth prospects of around 7-8 percent.

Getting head examined

In these hard times, Indian think tankers are talking through their hat by choreographing security architectures for India with Australia or Japan, riveted around their cold-war alliance with the US, within a newfound strategy to 'contain' China.

The US is "flirting with national solvency", as a noted American scholar Robert Kelly put it, "which will dramatically impact all its alliances" in Asia, including even the robust ones with South Korea or Japan.

Kelly wrote: "The US is now borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends; the deficit is $ 1.5 trillion (160 percent of South Korea's entire GDP); the debt is almost $10 trillion; the International Monetary Fund predicts America's debt-to-GDP ratio will exceed 100 percent by the end of the decade; and integrated US national security spending tops $1.2 trillion, 25 percent of the budget and 7 percent of the GDP. These are mind-boggling figures that all but mandate some manner of US retrenchment from its current global footprint."

Except in the highly unlikely eventuality of the "Wall" protestors in New York or California accepting a still lower standard of living with deep cuts in social welfare programs, US cannot fix its finances without applying the scalpel on its defence spending.

The choice is between butter and guns. The former US defence secretary Robert Gates summed it up brilliantly, as he was leaving office in the Pentagon, that "any future defence secretary who recommends sending a big US army into Asia or Africa again should have his head examined."

Yet, the relative decline of the US is the untold story that Indian think-tankers would lock up in the attic in their fancy for a John-Wayne world of 'Have gun, will travel'. 

Of course, India's plight is not as grave as that of South Korea or Australia, which are placed in shark-infested waters with an increasingly difficult geopolitical context and are being called upon to realise the probability of US power receding from Asia in the budgetary environment. Indeed, Washington may conclude at some point that they are no longer central to the US's Asian priorities.

Kelly concluded: "America's political and financial dysfunction will soon force a painful re-prioritisation of US foreign policy. Commitments like Germany, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and others will be scrutinised, and no amount of Korean-American friendship will undo a $10 trillion debt."

Measure of balance

How does it all add up for India? The prominent US diplomat and establishment figure (former ambassador to India) Frank Wisner handed down a check-list during his latest tour of India, explaining with great sophistication how solid business can be combined with airy geopolitics.

He identified Pakistan, China and the US-India bilateral economic approach as the three key 'difficulties' that will shape the US-India partnership ahead.

Wisner made the astounding remark that there is no issue more important to the US-India relationship than the "question of Pakistan" -- that is, jointly devising a "winning strategy" that makes Pakistan a partner.  

He said the US would have to focus on building up ties with the Pakistani military while India should press Pakistan to have transparency with regard to terrorism while at the same time persisting with the dialogue to solve differences, including Kashmir.

With regard to China, Wisner was unambiguous: "The US and China want good relations, but the problem is not as much with China's economic expansion as it is with China's assertions that we have to be careful about." He cautioned India about developments on the Sino-Indian border and in the South China Sea.

Wisner added, "We [US and India] have to reach out to nations like Japan, [South] Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, among others, to build relations and give a measure of balance."

Now, Wisner is a strategic guru and he happened to echo what the US deputy secretary of state William Burns also said in a major policy speech in Washington recently (where Burns described the Asia-Pacific as the 'strategic pivot' of the US foreign policy and complimented that the US and Indian strategies 'reinforce each other'.)

Think twice

Burns exhorted Indian mandarins to switch from a 'Look East' policy to a new mode of 'Act East' policy. Burns, in fact, thought he saw this transformation already happening.

Indeed, India appears to bestir itself to scale up economic, energy and strategic ties with the Asia-Pacific region (India's 'extended neighbourhood') -- with Japan and Vietnam, in particular.

But bluster is an integral part of the US public diplomacy and separating the chaff from the grain isn't always easy. Two relevant aspects must be noted.

One, it serves Washington's purpose to create some angst in the Chinese mind about an emergent US-Indian strategic axis in the Asia-Pacific, while Delhi loses nothing thereby.

On the other hand, Delhi also may gain something if Beijing's angst translates into the policy domain as accommodative gestures toward India on a host of other geopolitical templates -- especially, the dynamics of Sino-Pakistani relationship or tranquillity of the disputed Sino-Indian border.

Delhi would also expect a helpful stance by China vis-à-vis its quest for a place on the high table – the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, in particular.

The clincher is whether China takes note of an assertive India. A Xinhua commentary on Tuesday would suggest it probably does. However, Beijing seems to be reading tea leaves still.

Xinhua concluded: "There is nothing to be said against its [India's] overtures to others [read Japan and Vietnam] for strategic cooperation. But if it intended to estrange and antagonise its neighbour [China] by taking it as an imaginary enemy and get unwisely involved in affairs which fall within others' backyards, it would hold its national strategies as hostage and put at stake its own national interests.

"It is highly advisable for New Delhi to think twice about the pitfalls in making its foreign policies."

Funnily, Delhi lost no time reacting to the Xinhua's advice. Indian government sources "leaked" to the media that contrary to general impressions, India is yet to respond to two demarches from Vietnam -- namely, to transfer to Vietnam medium-sized warships and to upgrade the strategic port of Nha Trang near Cam Ranh Bay. 

But Delhi also left tantalizingly open as to what it proposes to do with regard to another Vietnamese request -- transfer of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. Which, ironically, is an India-Russia joint venture and would actually make it a matter of double hedging of futures and options.

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