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After the Obama visit: India, the Swing State

By Rajeev Srinivasan
January 28, 2015 13:02 IST
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'As in the Panchatantra tale of the cat and the monkeys, it is possible for the clever swing State to play off the two competing powers,' argues Rajeev Srinivasan.

It was a single phrase that leapt out of the long diplomatese of the joint statement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and POTUS Barack Obama.

It summed up, pithily, one intriguing possibility: The arrival of India as the swing State, the one that holds the key to power equations.

If this interpretation is correct, India has finally buried the ghost of non-alignment, the crown jewel of Nehruvianism, and is declaring itself open to alignment, in various combinations thereof.

That phrase was buried deep in the bowels of the usual non-committal and flowery verbiage that diplomatic statements excel in, and it went:

'We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.'

This is in the section on the 'Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.' In other words, the US is acknowledging India as a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, and a putative partner.

And yes, the South China Sea, which China considers its private lake.

The Chinese reaction was immediate and loud: They got the picture, as geostrategist Brahma Chellaney pointed out in a tweet. They started screaming blue murder. (On the other hand, the Chinese habitually yell bloody murder at everything as a pre-emptive measure, so their theatrics have to be discounted a little.)

Obama has come a long way since his visit to China in his first term, when he in essence appointed China the guardian of the Indian subcontinent. Events have overtaken him, and his 'Pivot to Asia' must necessarily mean containing rampaging China, which threatens Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and pretty much everybody else on its borders.

The (external link) statement is so delicious, you must pardon me for quoting it again, in context.

Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.

We call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

We will oppose terrorism, piracy, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction within or from the region.

As part of these efforts, the United States welcomes India's interest in joining the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, as the Indian economy is a dynamic part of the Asian economy.

This is the first time the US has formally accepted India as an Indo-Pacific naval power (although there is a little cognitive dissonance in the US invoking UNCLOS which it hasn't ratified!).

In a sense, the US is following the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a 19th century admiral considered America's finest naval strategist, and the 'Rimland' concept championed by Nicholas John Spykman of Yale University. It may be abandoning the Atlantic (Europe is collapsing anyway, and NATO grossly miscalculated in Ukraine about Russian resolve) and seeking to secure the Indo-Pacific.

The Rimland, according to Spykman, is more important than the Heartland, partly because trade happens mostly on the rim. My friend Dr Kalyanaraman has long championed the nurturing of an Indian Ocean Rim community as India's geography dominates the entire rim, from the Cape of Good Hope through the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca, including the strategic Persian Gulf and the South China Sea. One corollary is that India must rapidly build up its blue-water navy, capable of projecting force over long distances.

The Heartland is declining in importance -- Russia is eclipsed already, and in China too, it is the coast that is booming.

The logical conclusion of such a concept would be the de facto establishment of a cordon sanitaire around China, that is, the reverse 'string-of-pearls.' That is precisely what Modi has been working towards: Note his bonhomie with the prime ministers of Japan, Australia and Vietnam, all of whom he has been wooing assiduously.

In particular, someone pointed out the PM's exuberant bear hugs of Obama, Shinzo Abe, and Tony Abbott, but the formal handshake with Xi Jinping of China: Body language speaks volumes.

The only piece missing is Russia's Vladimir Putin: The NATO crusade against him, first in Georgia and now in Ukraine and economic warfare by depressing the price of oil and gas, has unnecessarily forced Putin into China's arms -- which cannot help in the presumed containment of China that America wants.

India can and should play a role here in being a mediator, so that this foolish conflict can be brought to an end: It serves neither America's nor Russia's interests, only China's.

In addition, now that Obama is worrying about his legacy, the other big thing India can do for him is to mediate with Iran. After years of intransigence, Iran is making conciliatory noises, as it is beginning to chafe under the rule of mullahs and the pain of sanctions.

Iran is a counterweight to Saudi Arabia, whose usefulness to America has now diminished with shale oil. Once again, India can be an interlocutor so that Obama can make a grand gesture as he did with Cuba.

All this, in other words, makes India almost an American ally: That would make Nehru turn over in his non-aligned grave. But there is more to it -- this is the only way India can grow rapidly: Without economic, and thus military, might India will continue to count for nothing.

And that is certainly not the legacy that Narendra Modi wants to leave: He is doing all he can for growth and prosperity for India.

Thus, the pursuit of energy, essential for the 'Make in India' programme. On the face of it, the 'breakthrough' in the nuclear deal is just such a move, to enable India to get abundant energy.

However, as I (external link) said elsewhere, the fully loaded cost of nuclear power (including enormous cleanup and radioactive waste management costs) as well as the very substantial risks of accidents and terrorism do not justify a big investment in it, at the very moment that solar power is beginning to look promising. I really don't believe India will buy any American nuclear reactors.

I figured there was a second-order effect, which was in 'signaling.' In business, you give price signals to collude with others legally; a company may signal that it believes its stock price is low by offering a buy-back.

Similarly, this was a signal by Modi that India has now arrived on the world stage as a swing State, which can broadly tip the balance one way or another.

It is a mild form of alignment, and as in the Panchatantra tale of the cat and the monkeys, it is possible for the clever swing State to play off the two competing powers, the G2, against each other.

From this, it is only one small step to making it a G3: which should be India's medium-term goal as I suggested last year on

India should be the third pole, attracting others to align with it, in competition with the US and China. By 2025, if India grows at around 10 per cent per year, and China slows down, this G3 will be a reality.

There is, of course, the long-term goal of India becoming Number 1. If we succeed in the above, there is a fair chance that India will be a bigger economy than the US and China by 2050. It is certainly a stretch goal, but not an impossible one.

Thus, the nuclear deal and the joint statement are signals from India that it has ambitions, and the means to fulfill them: The second-order effect. This is far more useful in the long run than any American professions of eternal allegiance.

In fact, my early scepticism on about the Obama visit was borne out in reality: We are still stuck in the 'bad' scenario, and Obama's parting shot about religious freedom shows the 'ugly' scenario is a reality.

But if what I have outlined above can be achieved, it is even better than the 'good' scenario I outlined. The game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, and as columnist Ashok Malik (external link) pointed out.

To use another Holmes-ism, the beginning of a new alignment is the curious thing: The dog that did not bark in the night-time.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on January 25, 2015. Photograph: PTI Photo.

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