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The US Nexus: India Must be Careful

October 27, 2020 11:27 IST

Indians at large harbour a notion that their country is cherrypicking out of the American basket of goodies, but the policymakers in Delhi and the political leadership are well aware that it can only be a pipe dream since a military alliance with a superpower is a profound irrevocable commitment, observes Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

IMAGE: External Affairs Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and United States Secretary of State Dr Michael Pompeo ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, October 26, 2020. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

The mystery about the awkward timing of the so-called 2+2 US-Indian security dialogue due in New Delhi on October 27 is largely because there is a chicken and egg situation about it.

It is impossible to decide which of two things caused the other one -- the mushrooming US-Indian military alliance or the continuing downhill slide in the India-China relationship.

There is a curious dialectic at work today -- on the one hand, the US-Indian military alliance was struggling to take off notwithstanding the 2008 nuclear deal but it began accelerating after the BJP came to power in 2015, while on the other hand, the Sino-Indian relationship that had acquired a degree of predictability during UPA rule but it steadily, inexplicably began degrading under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's watch and has been reduced to a state of acute rivalry bordering on motiveless malignity.

The paradox lies here -- Indians at large have a tunnel vision of the mushrooming alliance with the US (QUAD being its most visible template) while the Americans have a much broader global vision of what they are methodically building with India.

Within this paradox, there is also an enigma: The Indians at large harbour a notion that their country is cherrypicking out of the American basket of goodies, but the policymakers in Delhi and the political leadership are well aware that it can only be a pipe dream since a military alliance with a superpower is a profound irrevocable commitment.

The American analysts lavishly compliment our External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar as the mechanic who is assembling the QUAD, keeping his head below the parapet.

Some Indian analysts have tended to see the 2+2 on Monday just a week before the November 3 in the US election as a rushed event.

But they fail to comprehend the great deliberateness about the timing of the 2+2 meet.

It must be held now, precisely now, before November 3, for the reason that even a week later, a host of uncertainties can arise if a Joe Biden presidency sails into view.

As the saying goes, there could be many a slip between the cup and the lip.

And all those nuts and bolts Jaishankar has been screwing into the prototype in his closed garage -- BECA being the finishing touch -- may start rusting if a cranking of the engine doesn't happen now.

After such a long effort, hidden from public view, the engine has been assembled, but in order to get the engine running, it first needs to be rotated at sufficient speed so that the fuel gets pumped up to the cylinders and ignited, and enables the engine to run on its own power.

Any car mechanic would know that cranking the engine -- that is, turning the engine's crankshaft -- is necessary at this point to make sure he can rotate the engine to power itself.

A defining moment has come for the US-Indian military alliance.

The test driver is flying in from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is bringing Defence Secretary Mark Esper for the prestigious assignment to test the efficacy of the US-Indian military alliance.

It cannot and should not be delayed.

The Indian side has a problem with Esper, a thorough professional with a remarkable record -- an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne ('Screaming Eagles') who saw active service during Desert Storm and the Gulf War (awarded the Bronze Star); graduated in engineering from West Point; holds a master's from Kennedy School at Harvard and PhD from George Washington; deputy assistant secretary of defence; and secretary of the army before taking over as Pentagon chief.

Esper neither has a counterpart in our MOD nor any counterpart in Modi's Cabinet who matches up to him in erudition and professional skill.

That is what makes the transcript of his 'conversation' with the CEO and President of the Atlantic Council Frederick Kempe on October 20 -- in anticipation of his trip to India -- a must read.

Esper thoughtfully picked as topic for his discussion, Strengthening US alliances and partnerships in an era of great-power competition (external link) -- just what his trip to India is all about.

Esper gave us a fantastic preview of the road map he will be carrying to Delhi to test drive the engine that Jaishankar assembled.

The following elements that Esper highlighted are worth summarising, largely in his own words:

The Pentagon's 'number one priority' is implementing the US National Defence Strategy, which enumerates that the US is presently 'in an area of great-power competition, with our primary competitors being China and Russia.'

In this context, the Pentagon pursues three 'lines of effort: First, improving the lethality and readiness of the (US) force; second, strengthening alliances and building partnerships; and third, reforming the (Defence) Department to redirect our time, money, and manpower to our highest priorities.'

A network of allies and partners is crucial as it 'provides us (America) an asymmetric advantage our adversaries cannot match... China and Russia have probably fewer than ten allies combined.'

However, the US cannot rest its oars as 'our primary competitors -- China and Russia -- are rapidly modernising their armed forces... and shift the balance of power in their favour...and undermine the resilience and cohesion of countries and institutions critical to US security, including NATO.'

This will 'require us to think and act more strategically and competitively.' The Pentagon has 'two recent initiatives that will help us to do just that' -- a new Department of Defense Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships (GDAP) and the so-called Defense Trade Modernisation.

Together, these two instruments will help the US to 'build the capacity and capabilities of like-minded nations and foster interoperability with friendly militaries', while also providing stimulus to the American arms industry so that it 'can compete in the global marketplace.'

The GDAP aims to reorientate the US's engagements with allies and partners from the traditional mode of 'regional priorities and interests' towards the new era of great power competition that is global in nature, which requires a "common set of priorities."

Pentagon has a 'tool kit' for this purpose, which consists of intensively and cultivating senior military officials in foreign militaries and the Foreign Military Sales programme.

IMAGE: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh greets US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper as he arrives to inspect the guard of honour, New Delhi, October 26, 2020. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The Foreign Military Sales is crucial insofar as it helps the US to better utilise its premier equipment, technology, and systems 'as a strategic tool' to help the partners' war-fighting capabilities as well as build interoperability.

In the process, of course, it also keeps the US arms industry innovative and competitive in the global marketplace.

Besides, the Foreign Military Sales also counters the Chinese and Russian State-owned arms industries, which are fiercely competing 'to expand their share of the world's weapons market', 'attract other countries into their security networks' and frustrate the US' sefforts to cultivate relationships.

Esper summed up that the 2+2 Dialogue in Delhi reflects 'our nations's ever-increasing convergence on the strategic issues of our time.'

He drew satisfaction that the trajectory of military exercises, defence cyber dialogue and so on through recent months 'will strengthen what may become one of the most consequential partnerships of the 21st century.'

Interestingly, Esper disclosed that last week there was a meeting of the so-called Five Eyes forum -- intelligence grouping of US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- where 'we talked about the challenges in the Indo-Pacific, and how do we--how do we cooperate together? How do we confront these challenges to sovereignty, to the international rules-based order, to freedom of navigation? So you see a lot more closer collaboration come out. And this'll be reflected in our meetings next week in New Delhi, as well, when we travel there.'

According to media reports, India and the United States are set to sign an intelligence-sharing agreement during the '2+2' security dialogue (external link) between their foreign and defence ministers in New Delhi on October 27.

The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement [BECA] is expected to provide India with access to the US' geospatial maps and satellite images that would help enhance the accuracy of weapons and drones.

This is seen as a 'force multiplier' for the Indian armed forces.

Everything has been handled in such a hush-hush manner that the public at large has no clue as to what is afoot.

Some military analysts caution that the new grid gives the US access to highly sensitive nerve centres of defence planning and operations in the Indian military establishment.

How our Russian friends would take all this remains to be seen.

Will they transfer advanced military technology to India if the Americans have a mole inside our system? The US objective is to deepen the "interoperability" between the two armed forces, which gives underpinning for the US-Indian military alliance.

To be sure, these processes by far predate the India-China border standoff.

But the standoff gives an alibi to push ahead the US-Indian military alliance.

The Indian analysts view the BECA as a matter of defence cooperation. But the visiting US Defence Secretary Mark Esper last week drew attention to a parallel track involving the famous Five Eyes alliance as well.

Esper said the Five Eyes alliance is also addressing the "'challenges in the Indo-Pacific' and, importantly, 'how do we cooperate together?' He added, 'So you see a lot more closer collaboration come out. And this'll be reflected in our meetings next week in New Delhi, as well, when we travel there.' This needs explaining.

Historically, the Five Eyes alliance emerged from spying arrangements forged during World War II and facilitates the sharing of signals intelligence [SIGINT] among the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The Five Eyes are to share, by default, all SIGINT they gather, as well as methods and techniques relating to SIGINT operations -- share 'continuously, currently and without request' both 'raw' intelligence and the 'end product' (that is, intelligence subjected to analysis or interpretation.)

Countering Soviet influence was the original charter of the Five Eyes but with the Cold War ending, focus shifted to the rise of China.

Since the beginning of 2018, Five Eyes began exchanging classified information with other like-minded countries as a mark of the broadening of the front against China.

The enhanced cooperation amounted to an informal expansion of the Five Eyes group on specific issues concerning China (and Russia).

The British press was full of reports earlier this year that the Five Eyes could be expanded to include Japan to form a cohesive political and economic alliance to compete with China.

Inevitably, what started as ad hoc discussions is now leading to more detailed consultations regarding China.

Early this month over a weekend, members of the Five Eyes reportedly sat down with representatives from Japan and India.

From the perspective of the Five Eyes, India holds many attractions.

India possesses impressive intelligence-gathering networks.

India is also uniquely located bordering Tibet and Xinjiang.

India has a long record of monitoring the developments in Tibet.

The recent border clashes with China lifted the veil on a shadowy force of ethnic Tibetan fighters who have been trained in India.

All this cannot be lost on the Five Eyes alliance.

Additionally, if Nepal also can be 'persuaded' to cooperate, a very long stretch of China's 'soft underbelly"'along the disputed 4,000-kilometre India-China border could become hunting ground for the Five Eyes.

Indeed, the foreign policy implications are very profound.

Unsurprisingly, the US is desperately keen to get India on board its anti-China Western alliance.

The unseemly hurry to schedule the '2+2' security dialogue just a week before the US election is self-evident.

IMAGE: From left: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, US Secretary of State Dr Michael Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Dr Mark Esper in Washington, December 18, 2019. Photograph: Kind courtey Dr S Jaishankar/Twitter

Unfortunately, Indian policymakers are open to American persuasion that the international system is in transition from the post-Cold War unipolar world to another bipolar world.

In reality, though, the rise of China is leading to the emergence of a kaleidoscopic multipolar world order, as many countries, including some former US allies, have begun refusing to take sides in the rivalry between the US and China.

Such countries -- Turkey, Indonesia, Philippines, South Africa, Germany, Mexico -- prefer to seek their own national interests separately, maximising their national autarky.

Clearly, attempts to create military spheres of influence or regional economic blocs will not produce enduring results in such an international milieu.

As China's economy grows in real terms and provides economic opportunities to its neighbours, even America's two East Asian protectorates are facing such a predicament.

Japan's top trading partner today is the US (19.9 percent of exports) but its second top trading partner is China (19.1 percent). South Korea traded twice as much with China (25.1 percent of exports) as with the US (13.6 percent of exports).

This trend can only become more pronounced.

Why should these East Asian allies of the US agree to eliminate their trade and investment with China? Yet, how can a strategy of military containment of China succeed without that country's economic isolation?

Clearly, instead of the risky gambit to align with the US, India has an alternative option to optimally tap into the international environment for meeting its development needs by pursuing a policy of 'dealignment'.

The Indian strategic planning blithely overlook that in a foreseeable future, contradictions are bound to arise in the US-Indian relationship when India and the US begin to compete opportunistically for markets, raw materials and contracts for their firms.

According to the consulting firm PwC, by 2050 -- within just another thirty years from now -- India could be the second largest economy [behind China] with the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and Japan trailing behind it in that order.

The gap between the economies of China and Japan may be greater than between the US and Mexico today!

In a conceivable future, too, as the world's most populous country, surpassing China, India could have the world's largest economy.

Now, what would be India's outlook on the 'Indo-Pacific' in such a scenario a generation or two from now?

Just as China hopes to evict the US from East Asia today, India's nationalists may also have their 'nine-dash line' in the Indian Ocean, eyeing Diego Garcia from the Ascension Island in Seychelles. Setting aside their current differences, the US and China may even have shared interests in 'freedom of navigation' in the Indian Ocean.

The lessons of modern history are chastening.

The US aligned with the USSR to defeat Germany and Japan in World War II, and thereupon, it aligned with Germany and Japan to contain the Soviet Union through the Cold War era.

Again, the US aligned with China against the Soviet Union late in the Cold War, but once the Cold War ended, the US switched to a dual containment strategy against rising China and resurgent Russia.

Sadly, India lacks a strategic culture.

The Indian strategic planning is still predicated on the Cold War model, whereas, what India should prepare for is not a bipolar world of tight Cold War-era alliances, but the multipolar order that the rise of China and the relative loss of US hegemony is already inducing in the world order today, in which power diffuses and more and more countries seek to avoid taking sides in the US-China rivalry.

What stands out from Esper's talk at the Atlantic Council on October 20 is that the US grand strategy is still riveted fundamentally on the Cold War model -- based on unilateral US military protection and a shared economy.

But the geopolitical landscape of the Cold War era cannot be recreated.

The old order of deeply integrated core bloc of allies is vanishing.

The cost of failure to comprehend this can be very severe for India.

The period ahead is going to be volcanic, unstable and fragmented and requires to be navigated through spheres of influence and trading blocs, created and managed by both lesser powers and major powers.

The perversity of seeking American protection from a largely imaginary threat of Chinese invasion and occupation is too obvious to be denied.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, who served the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, is a frequent contributor to

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