« Back to articlePrint this article

The power game needs nimble diplomacy

February 03, 2015 19:22 IST

Prime Minister Modi seems to be gradually ending India’s strategic ambiguity, says former Indian diplomat K C Singh.

United States President Barack Obama’s visit to India was unlike any previous presidential visit both due to the occasion -- his being the chief guest at the Republic Day of India -- and the personal rapport between him and his actual host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though invited by President Pranab Mukherjee. 

Recent history of Indo-US relations commences with India’s nuclear tests of May 1998, when they touched a nadir.

The credit for their resurrection goes to two previous prime ministers for their patient exorcising of entrenched suspicions and inserting of building blocks that are the foundation of today’s strategic convergence.

Prime Minister Modi, on the other hand, possessing the mandate and the vision, brings the energy to gather various strands and attempt weaving them into a sustainable partnership.

President Obama, during his Siri Fort meeting, re-christened the much used ‘natural partners’ by asking why it cannot be ‘best partners’. 

He was careful not to use the word ‘ally’, knowing that as India transitions from unadulterated Cold War non-alignment era to a ‘new type’ of engagement with major powers, against the backdrop of China’s rise and the shifting of geo-strategic global fulcrum to Asia, its partnerships may be quasi-alliances although called by some other name.

That is why even the joint statement of July 18, 2005, issued after then prime minister Manmohan Singh’s Washington visit, was titled ‘Global Partnership’.

Most themes discussed today were present 10 years ago: Economic issues, energy and environment, democracy and development, non-proliferation and security, and high technology and space.

Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President George W Bush initiated the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, introducing three critical elements: Civil nuclear, civil space, and high technology cooperation.

Bush understood instinctively that in the post-2001 world, with ascendant China and radical Islam, a stable and successful India was a factor of stability.

That opened Indian path to dual-use technologies denied via regimes crafted following India’s 1974 nuclear test.

The civil nuclear deal was as much about clean energy as to liberate India from the shackles of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australia and the Wassenaar groups.

However, despite India’s NSG waiver in 2008, the 123 agreement lingered till now.

While President Obama during his 2010 visit to India sounded all the right notes -- including permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council for India, besides characterizing Indo-US relations as the most ‘defining one’ of the 21st century -- both he and Singh allowed their domestic and international agendas to let their attention drift.

Concomitantly, the US corporate sector started feeding its frustration at Indian market opening too slowly into the US administration’s agenda.

Stakeholders on both sides started undercutting a strategic relationship. India stalled the Trade Facilitation Agreement at the World Trade Organization as it forced decision on its food stocks, and the US Trade Representative retaliated by Out of Cycle Review of Indian intellectual property practices.

Even bilateral defence relations, otherwise moving nicely with Indian acquisition of planes like C-17, C-130, etc, were stymied by an overly cautious and traditional Congress party man, A K Antony, as defence minister. Joint naval exercises with the US Navy were reluctantly conceded, but US troops on the ground were waived away.

The previous United Progressive Alliance government was constantly conflicted by both the desire to engage and fear of being seen as pro-US.

Justification for caution found support in strategic calculus that a tilt towards US tantamount to an alliance could force Chinese counter measures.

Like Deng Xiaoping’s cautionary advice to China, India needed to avoid military adventure to rise economically while militarizing gradually.

Prime Minister Modi arrived on the national scene with new confidence, a clear mandate and an Indian Dream.

His invite to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation leaders for his own swearing-in ceremony, the US visit opening with the UN General Assembly address, the Madison Square Garden theatrical performance involving the Diaspora, and finally his first interaction with President Obama hinted at new style if not content.

The strut in his walk, the confident stroll at the Martin Luther King memorial escorted by Obama, the controlled tweets and pictures spelt a leader unafraid of past shadows of non-alignment.

He was signalling a readiness to engage the US once again strategically, ready for fair trade-offs on specific issues.

President Obama, confronting a Congress controlled by his political opponents and into his last two years of presidency, was also looking to secure his legacy and seemed to sense an Indian leader with whom he could rewrite old scripts.

His accepting to visit India a second time, and as chief guest at Indian Republic Day -- again a first for a US President -- were public signals of a deeper Obama-Modi understanding.

While they were picking up old threads, they were also striking new compromises.

Three documents emerged from the visit. First is a US-India Joint Strategic Statement for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region.

The clarity and range of this understanding is immense. It advocates peace, prosperity and stability in the entire region: Central, South and South East Asia.

It suggests energy transmission, free trade, people to people contacts, maritime security, countering piracy, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, etc.

Effectively, it is pushing back the Chinese overland and maritime ‘Silk Routes’.

By recommending trilateral and regional dialogues it is crafting a future Asian security order that is open and transparent and rejecting the Chinese use of threats, force and allurements to weave its network.

Second is the Delhi Declaration of Friendship, which states that the partnership is rooted in ‘shared values of democracy’. It goes onto the breath-taking resolve to obtain sustainable development, clean environment, achieve regional peace, security and stability for the ‘larger benefit of humankind’.

Some will say that this is more like a Nobel acceptance speech than declaration by the two largest democracies of the world.

Probably it was this vision of India as a beacon of liberal, democratic values in Asia, and thus a counterpoint to Chinese authoritarian state capitalism, that emboldened President Obama, in his final speech at Sri Fort, to remind Prime Minister Modi of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Indian Constitution, including the freedom of faith.

Finally is the joint statement, excessively lengthened by a tabulation of working group meetings held during the period between the two Obama-Modi summits.

The themes of the past are re-crafted to reflect the desire for implementation while linking some to Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative.

Considering that India cannot start emulating the Chinese route to low-cost production of consumer items, the supply chains being already established in the Association of South East Asian Nations region and Bangladesh/Sri Lanka, India will have to look at medium-technology products that it has cost advantages with.

For instance, the co-production of a new rifle or the A 10 Warthog plane that the US may be phasing out demonstrate how US technology and Indian production can marry for win-win solutions.

In the area of trade, the US is negotiating two major agreements: One, the Trans Pacific Partnerships, and another similar one with the European Union.

India cannot afford to be locked out of those markets or caught in the US-China rivalry. Unlike in 1980 when trade was a mere 15 per cent of Indian Gross Domestic Product, it is today almost 50 per cent.

It seems this was discussed with President Obama, as there is mention of the US sponsoring Indian entry to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

Two hurdles that were blighting the relationship have been addressed. One is the US corporate sector reservations about India’s nuclear liability law.

While the US withdrew its insistence on ‘tracking’ their material to be used in India, as India was unwilling to accept inspections beyond those already available to the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors under the Additional Protocol, India suggested an Indian insurance pool, supplemented by Indian ratification of the Convention on Supplementary Compensation.

It is possible that the arrangement, the details of which have been largely cloaked, may yet receive legal challenge or political backlash.

Second was President Obama’s desire to move India beyond the Kyoto mantra of ‘shared but differentiated responsibility’.

Prime Minister Modi has correctly begun moving India towards accepting that its position was too dogmatic and static.

The whole issue of climate change, clean and abundant energy and pollution-free India are interlinked.

Overall, Prime Minister Modi seems to be gradually lifting India’s strategic ambiguity or even reluctance to offend China.

Some will say it is perfect payback as China has never shown such sensitivity when operating in Indian periphery.

Nevertheless, with five major powers in play in Asia -- Russia, China, Japan, India and the US -- New Delhi is a swing power.

It goes with Russia and China (and South Africa) in BRICS and RIC, or with Japan and the US in bilateral or trilateral meetings.

This balance of power game needs nimble diplomacy; or, like the big five in Europe at the beginning of 20th century, Russia, Austria, Germany, France and Britain, it can result in a conflagration like the First World War.

Hopefully, in Asia, wisdom will prevail and the Asian century will not be like the European one that ended a decade and a half ago. 

K C Singh