Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
PRESIDENT Donald J Trump has been the first President since the Atlantic era ended towards the close of the 1990s to acknowledge that it is no longer the Atlantic ocean but the confluence of the Pacific and Indian oceans (the Indo-Pacific) that is at the core of global geopolitics. This has resulted in a fightback from the well-funded Atlanticist establishment in the US, which interestingly includes several think-tanks and universities based on the West Coast of the US as well. They have in unison sought to ensure a speedy exit for Trump through encouraging Special Counsel Robert Mueller to concoct a case against his target that would convince enough lawmakers to ensure the impeachment of the 45th President of the US.
The problem for them is that Trump is a businessperson and therefore a realist, which means that he would like to reframe foreign and security policies in a manner that is congruent with the needs of the Indo-Pacific century that the world is now witnessing. Such a change in policy would lead to new alliances as well as the downgrading of some of the current partnerships the US has, such as with NATO, a military alliance that is “all dressed up but without a serious conventional enemy to fight”. Given altered realities, what the Pentagon needs is an Asian NATO ( or North America Asia Treaty Organisation) that would link the US in a defensive alliance with Asian powers such as Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam. Already, a Quadrilateral Alliance has taken shape whose area of operation will be the waters of the Indo-Pacific.
The four countries in the Quad (the US, Australia, Japan and India) need to include Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, thereby forming a Heptagonal Alliance. Such an expansion should take place once the navies and other armed units of the Quad familiarize themselves with each other and protocols and processes get formulated and tested that would ensure cohesive and effective functioning, especially in crisis or in conflict situations. There is no everyday place for NATO in such a grouping, although should a conflict take place, that alliance may get called upon to assist, in view of the treaty relationship that the other NATO powers have with Washington. Surveilling and patrolling the Indo-Pacific is a stupendous task, and this would be rendered difficult if regional powers such as the Maldives, Sri Lanka or Indonesia were to become hostile to the Quad.
Of the three, the Maldives is the smallest in size, but in the western waters of the Indo-Pacific, it has a strategic significance that is equal to that of the Republic of China (otherwise known as Taiwan) in the east Asian waters of the Indo-Pacific. The loss of the RoC (Taiwan) as friendly territory would be a severe blow to the ability of the Quadrilateral Alliance to operate off the east coast of Asia, and consequently, this would be a development that would be so unwelcome to Quad members as to ensure that strenuous action will get taken to keep the RoC (Taiwan) as friendly to Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and Delhi as it now is. Looking at India in particular, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government headed by Dr Tsai Ing-wen has initiated a Southbound Policy that has made India a primary focus, and the relationship between Taipei and Delhi is warming up substantially as a result.
The DPP has from the start been close to Tokyo, and this relationship endures, while in the US, several scholars appointed to high positions by Trump are well known and liked in Taipei, as indeed are several scholars (though not as many policymakers) in Australia, the well-known professor, Bruce Jacob, being an example. In the western waters, the location and geography of the Maldives makes that small but significant country a must to remain a friend in the calculus of the Quadrilateral Alliance. Which is why there has been much attention paid in these four capitals to recent developments in the island nation, where the Chief Justice and others have been incarcerated. There is no doubt that ousted Head of State Mohammad Nasheed has far more supporters in Delhi than the present incumbent, Abdulla Yameen. However, in a self-goal, the Ministry of Defence has hurt the relationship between the Indian establishment and Nasheed by unnecessarily controverting a tweet of the latter about a meeting that he had with Nirmala Sitaraman, the sedate but steely Minister of Defense who is trusted by Prime Minister Modi and the second most important minister in the present Union Cabinet, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.
Unnamed officials in the ministry went to the press to say that the interaction between Sitaraman and Nasheed “lasted less than a minute”, and that it was “not a scheduled meeting” but a “chance encounter. The ousted Head of State of the Maldives had tweeted that he had discussed the situation in the Maldives with the Union Minister of Defence at Bangalore, and he was well within the bounds of fact in doing so, as Nasheed had mentioned (albeit briefly) the Maldives situation to the minister. The intentional rubbing of salt into the psychic wounds of a consistent friend of India has been taken as a gesture of appeasement towards Yameen, and an effort to please him at his rival’s expense. The episode may create a perception among India’s many friends in the region the Government of India is but a fair weather friend who will delink itself from any individual (no matter how strong the previous record of friendship) and seek to ingratiate itself with any other individual at his expense, if the other person were in a position of authority.
Hopefully Defence Minister Sitharaman will pull up the official who gave such unworthy and unhelpful anti-Nasheed quotes to publications in India. It is unlikely that Yameen will change his country preferences as a consequence of the snub in Bangalore to Nasheed, even while the latter must be unhappy at such unexpected and wholly uncalled for rudeness from a friend. After such a transparent effort at pleasing Yameen, officials in Delhi who are opposed to doing anything more than talk so far as the Maldives is concerned may be believing that the government in Male will become closer to India than to any other country, as Yameen’s predecessors were. In the case of another country of great strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific, Sri Lanka, similar bureaucratic missteps seem to have been made, such that the relationship between Delhi and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been the subject of controversy. Of course, in this case, while there may some questions about the degree of warmth between the Modi government and the Rajapaksas.
The two while in power were instrumental in resisting pressure from a host of countries led by Norway to ease up the campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Rajapaksa brothers refused, and unlike their predecessors, continued the battle until the LTTE was wiped out. Sri Lanka is today a tourist haven as a consequence, and in recent civic elections, former President Rajapaksa has re-established his popularity. Should he return to power in Colombo, the Quadrilateral Alliance will need to ensure his friendship, as Sri Lanka has a very critical geographic position within the Indo-Pacific, and needs to be an ally, as does the Maldives. Given the importance of the Indo-Pacific, it is easy to see why President Trump called Prime Minister Modi to discuss the situation in that very consequential country. The weeks ahead will show how far the Quadrilateral Alliance will go to protect its interests in a fluid political situation.