By M D NALAPAT
To many, a US-China conflict may seem to belong to the domain of fiction or Hollywood movies. But such optimism may be an illusion.
The mood in the capital city of Japan is sombre, and while the majority of his people cling to the hope that military conflict involving Japan is impossible or at least avoidable in the modern age, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe knows otherwise. The risk of conflict between US and Chinese forces is rising, and Abe is, therefore, working to ensure that the post-1945 legal limits on the Japanese military get removed, so that a robust defence or attack may speedily get carried out by his forces when and where needed. The “Self-Defence Forces” of Japan are a formidable force, especially the Navy, and Abe is fast-tracking operational congruence with India, so that the ease of joint operations becomes as smooth as that between the United States and Japan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was handed over a $75 billion currency swap agreement in Tokyo this week, so that he would be in better political shape to ensure closer working relations with Japan in a context where relations between Washington and Beijing are entering storm levels. The South China Sea; the Taiwan Straits; and the Korean peninsula are just three of the theatres in which an accidental or impulsive move by local military commanders on either side could trigger an exchange of fire between ships and between aircraft. As for the Himalayan frontier, Washington is impatiently waiting for the bureaucracy in India to go ahead with the signing of BECA (a geospatial data agreement) so that the legal decks get cleared for full scope cooperation between Washington and Delhi in the exchange of input on the activities of countries that both regard with suspicion. Subsequently, the question will be taken up of ensuring that the Indian Army be given the equipment needed to take on any comer in combat. The US is moving towards shifting some of its defence production facilities to India, but this is running up against opposition within the Lutyens Zone that is fanned by weapons dealers from countries such as France and Russia, who would lose out were India to source a high and rising proportion of its defence import needs from the US, a development that would make geopolitical sense. Another US effort could be to expand the “Five Eyes” signals intelligence alliance into the Six Eyes, so that India gets added to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Among the locations which are suitable for the setting up of tracking facilities capable of covering the Indian Ocean are some of the islands in the Andaman chain, while facilities on the west coast of India could keep a watch on the Arabian Sea.
INDIA MUST CHOOSE
In this militarily binary world, India needs to choose between the US and China as its preferred security partner. Beijing appears to have foreclosed the matter by continuing to expand its hugely expensive “all weather” relationship with the Pakistan military, while knowing from the start that the only two enemy targets of that force are Afghanistan and India. That Pakistan was for long a treaty ally of the US was of no concern to China even during the 1960s, well before the 1972 Nixon-Mao rapprochement between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the US. This was because Beijing was confident (through understandings reached in secret with GHQ Rawalpindi) that at no time—and despite Pakistan’s frequent promises to the US to “fight communism”—would the Pakistan military go on attack mode against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). However, Pakistan did provide facilities for US snoop mechanisms designed to look into China, on the condition that it would simultaneously be given data collaterally collected on India by such methods. Also, Pakistan army officers visiting the PRC would, on occasion, debrief their US counterparts on what they saw and heard in China, which at the time was a country judged as hostile to US interests. Thus, through being an “eye on China”, GHQ Rawalpindi was given a free pass by the CIA and the Pentagon in its increasing closeness with the Central Military Commission (CMC) in Beijing. Simultaneously, the Pakistan military routinely briefed the PLA on what they saw in the US, and in particular on training methods and equipment used by the world’s most powerful military in its exercises. By playing both sides for decades, GHQ Rawalpindi derived a double benefit (from both Washington and Beijing), a free ride that ended with the onset since the Trump Presidency of what is certain to be a period of prolonged hostility between the US and China.
Although both US commanders as well as their Chinese counterparts have publicly warned the forces under their command that the chance for war is no longer negligible, as yet a US-China conflict seems to many to remain confined to works of fiction or Hollywood movies. Such optimism may be an illusion. It needs to be remembered that during the five years prior to the 1914-1919 World War, at the close of which Germany was emasculated and Russia became Bolshevik, there were only stray (and almost invariably ignored) indications of the coming conflict. German, Russian and British elites met and partied together, while the Royals of all three countries were frequently in touch, being friends and relatives of each other. It was a stray event, the assassination by a Serbian group of an Archduke of the Hapsburg monarchy that tipped the balance towards war. Well before that, tensions that were being neglected by policymakers continued, in consequence, to fester. Finally, the perception that there was need for a “swift and decisive” war took hold, resulting in a conflict lasting five years, with global consequences, including for Asia. In many ways, the existing situation in Asia resembles that which was present in Europe during the years immediately preceding 1914. These days, both US President Donald J. Trump and President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) meet several times a year, and both Commanders-in-Chief of the two biggest militaries in the world take care to be as pleasant to the other as Tsar Nicholas was to Kaiser Wilhelm during their pre-1914 meetings. Around them, however, swirl disagreements and dissonance, based on the reality that the US administration (especially under Trump) will not accept falling behind China in matters of GDP and technological prowess, a situation that seems inevitable given the present trends. Actions get taken by government agencies that are logical only in the context of the other country being factored in as an enemy and not simply a rival. Given that the hold of the Chinese Communist Party over the administration and the people of the world’s other superpower is at the heart of China’s success, the Trump administration is making no secret of its efforts at weakening that hold to ensure through a multiplicity of means that the PRC’s growth rate falls to below 5% and counting. High growth rates over three decades have ensured social stability in China, and a decline as steep as what is planned could result in turmoil. That is, unless the people of that country believe that the hardships they may face are because of the hostile actions of countries jealous of China’s rise, specifically the US. And that armed conflict may be the only way forward in a situation where other methods seem devoid of results. Paradoxically, the weaker the Chinese economy and the more at risk the hold of the Xi-dominated “leadership core” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the country, the higher the risks of military conflict. Such a situation would be certain to dissipate emotions directed by the Chinese people towards the CCP as a consequence of disappointments and frustrations, and would make them endure hard times with patience and fortitude. As Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee discovered in 1999, even a war caused by one’s own errors of judgement (in this case, the decision of National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, together with Army commanders to abandon winter quarters along the Line of Control in the Kargil sector till weather conditions improved, thereby giving an opportunity for Pakistan’s irregulars to occupy the abandoned shelters) leads to a boost in popularity. The Kargil conflict ensured the return of Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha polls, for a fresh five-year term.
It needs to be stressed what the core objectives of India should be. An obvious desideratum would be that no South Asian country act in a manner that degrades the core interests of India. Another would be to ensure that no single power become empowered enough to dominate the Eurasian landmass, for such a power would then be a short step away from world domination. In the decade ending 1945, Japan sought to dominate East, South and South-East Asia and was defeated. The US sought to become the dominant power in Eurasia during the 1960s the way the British Empire had been in the past, but confronted obstacles that it lacked the methods and resources to overcome. Washington is now a much diminished power, and needs new allies in order to ensure not dominance but primacy, especially in the most consequential theatre of the 21st century, the Indo-Pacific. Within the Indian Ocean segment of this body of seawater, India is an indispensable partner for the US, hence the outreach to Delhi. However, this country’s 19th century colonial-minded bureaucracy has a very expansive view of itself coupled with contempt for the people of India, and hence routinely misses not just opportunities, but opportunities for opportunities. Surprisingly for those who believed he would act on the “Minimum Government” pledge made during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi is as respectful of the bureaucracy as his idol Sardar Patel was, with the consequence that the many speed brakes placed by well-placed babus along the path to fulfilment of the Prime Minister’s plans have ensured that several have moved ahead at much slower speed than anticipated by those who voted for Modi in 2014. A full scope defence and strategic relationship with the US is essential for both that country and India, if they are jointly to ensure primacy over the Indian Ocean and subsequently, retain primacy in the Pacific Ocean as well, a task in which Japan would be key, while a friendly Taiwan would be an incalculable asset. In such a process, it is clear that countries such as the Seychelles, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar should ensure that the core interests of the US-India alliance not get adversely affected through their actions. Of course, such moves will meet with opposition from China, which is focused on keeping the US out of the oceans to the maximum extent it can, so that a vacuum gets created that can get filled by the PRC and its powerful military. While continuing to make purchases of petro-products from Iran makes sense for India, the purchase of S-400s from Russia in place of seeking a combination of THAAD and Patriot Pac 3 missiles from the US does not. It is not a question of narrow technicalities, but of broad strategy, as the US-India defence relationship will approach its potential only when India sources most of its defence imports from that country, while at the same time ensuring that hotheads in the US Congress not succeed in imposing conditions that would wreck the US-India military relationship and thereby open the door to Chinese primacy in the Indian Ocean Region. Certainly, any Senator or Representative seeking sanctions on India will become the toast of the powerful PRC lobby in Washington. Apart from the seas, the US and India need to partner against the more violent manifestations of Wahhabism, wherever these be found, although the latter must take care to ensure that it does not get embroiled in Team Trump’s repeat of Ariel Sharon’s 1982 Lebanon blunder. By inserting the Israeli Defence Forces against the Shias on behalf of a Maronite Christian armed group, Sharon made Israel the only country in the world which Shia terror groups routinely target. Given its grievous errors while dealing with the Shia situation in several locations, the US is likely to be the second. India must not go down that path, and Modi should make it clear to Trump that good relations with Tehran will remain a priority for Delhi even while mil-mil ties with the US get ever closer.
Primacy and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific; joint operations against Wahhabi terror groups and to safeguard the stability of the GCC; prevention of any single country gaining dominance over the Eurasian landmass; the promotion of the values of tolerance and inclusion that are the foundation of democracy. Such are among the objectives of an India-US defence and security alliance, and it is hoped that progress in this direction will be much faster in the coming years than it has been since the previous decade. This will take place in a context where the US will ignore what it sees as China’s efforts to have a veto over policy over matters such as Taiwan. It may even be that in 2019 Vice-President Mike Pence may visit India, perhaps early in the new year, and may even make a brief refuelling stopover in Kaohsiung in the Republic of China (Taiwan) en route back to Washington. President Tsai Ing-wen of RoC (Taiwan) may be permitted by Prime Minister Abe to make a refuelling stopover and thereafter another in a US city while on her next visit to the Vatican. The Hudson Institute speech by Vice-President Pence (which has been compared to the Fulton speech of Winston Churchill about the Soviet Iron Curtain across Europe) indicates that Team Trump is determined to use the tools at its command to reverse what seemed before his 8 November 2016 victory to be an inexorable climb to the top by the PRC. Armed conflict often begins by accident and thereafter may take on a momentum difficult to restrain. The good news is that even a brief military encounter between the US and China is likely to push southwards not just stock but commodity markets, thereby once again sharply lowering the price of oil. The bad news is that the all-powerful bureaucracy in India seems clueless as to how to navigate the country’s way through increasingly choppy times, and seems destined to repeat mistakes of the past that we in the present are still suffering the consequences of.