By M D Nalapat
If the U.S.-India relationship is to move into high orbit, there will be need for India to begin a process of replacement of Russian weapons platforms with U.S. alternatives, now accessible to India where they were out of bounds in the past.
New Delhi: Just as the US and China arrived at a historic understanding in 1972 as a consequence of the meeting of minds and interests between President Richard M. Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald J. Trump are poised at the cusp of what could be an equally consequential geopolitical shift. This would involve a defense and security partnership between the US and India designed to ensure dominance in the Indo-Pacific as well as in Space and the Virtual World. Because of the Belt & Road Initiative, China is well on the way towards gaining primacy within the Eurasian landmass. Efforts are on to extend such control to the oceans as well, through the Maritime Silk Road. In both these endeavours, Russia has emerged as the key ally of China, and the two have come together in a Sino-Russian security and defense partnership. Given the close association between Islamabad and Beijing, the prospects for India joining hands with China and Russia in the security and defense sphere are small. In contrast to the past, the US is now strategically growing ever more distant from Islamabad, Beijing and Moscow, and in the process, coming closer to India. However, within the Lutyens Zone, the past has continued to impact the policies of the present, in the shape of a continuation of the tight bonds between the Russian defense industries and the military in India. If the US-India relationship is to move into high orbit, there will be need for India to begin a process of replacement of Russian weapons platforms with US alternatives, now accessible to India where they were out of bounds in the past. After the just concluded Pompeo-Jaishankar and Trump-Modi meetings, there has been talk within the Lutyens Zone about how India has “stood its ground” on the proposed purchase of S-400 defensive missile systems from Russia. Some reports even had it that the issue was of such small significance that it did not even figure in the Osaka bilateral parleys between both the principals on the US and Indian side, as well as between key officials. As matters stand, it would appear that the Government of India has reduced to zero oil purchases from Iran while still going ahead with the S-400 deal in the belief that the concession on purchases from Iran would compensate for the Russian transaction. The reality is that (as first reported in The Sunday Guardian article titled “S-400 deal may shatter India’s Indo-Pacific advantage” on 5 May) purchase of S-400 systems by India would shut the door on a comprehensive strategic partnership with the US. It would shut the door on the transfer of advanced US weapons systems to India, a stand that was conveyed to the Indian side during the Pompeo visit. Although not a “deal-breaker” the way the S-400 purchase would be, the choice of Huawei as the partner for rolling out 5G in India would also be a limiting factor in India-US security linkages, given the intrusive nature of the technology in the lives of citizens. However, for India to look elsewhere, the alternative would need to be as efficient and cost-effective as that offered by Huawei.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his interactions with President Barack Obama and now with President Trump, has ensured that both sides have reached a stage where both countries are standing on the cusp of a fundamental security and defence re-alignment that could change global geopolitics the way the 1972 Nixon-Mao understanding did. Today, the world has once again been divided into two competing blocs, one led by the US and the other by China. In 1972, the two blocs were led by the USSR and the US, a situation that ended with the meltdown of the former by 1992. During much of the US-USSR “Cold War”, in effect India was on the side of Moscow rather than Washington. Since the beginning of the 21st century, while the strategic goals of the US and China have begun to visibly diverge and continue to do so, once again (as during the 1950s) Russia and China have become the closest of security partners. Should India decide in Washington’s favour in the matter of a 21st century security partnership, that would more than compensate for the accretion of strength that has been gained by China as a consequence of the China-Russia security alliance. Both President Vladimir Putin as well as President Xi Jinping are looking at whether a newly rejuvenated (by the poll landslide) Prime Minister Narendra Modi will move closer to President Trump in his second term or return the country to the traditional Nehru-era policy of keeping away from Washington-centred alliance systems, both formally as well as in practice. Both Xi as well as Putin are aware that the commissioning of the S-400 system by India would free them of any anxiety that a comprehensive security partnership would develop between Delhi and Washington. Both will make intense efforts to convince Prime Minister Modi that India’s security interests are safe even without having to enter into a close relationship with the US, a stance that several within the Lutyens Zone concur with, given their memories of past situations. However, the reality is that in a world once again divided into two competing blocs, “non-alignment” would result in a loss of both extant opportunities as well as relevance.
The decision for India as to which bloc to get linked to has been made easier by the fact that for decades, Beijing has prevaricated on coming to an agreement on the border with India on the lines that took place between China and Myanmar and between China and Russia. Even on a matter as low down the food chain as India joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, thus far there has not been a green light from Beijing, despite the gains of the Modi-Xi summit in Wuhan. The accretion of geopolitical heft consequent to a definitive understanding on security between Washington and Delhi may ensure that India gets taken more seriously by China.
RISING THREAT LEVEL
Where India is concerned, despite the fact that the Pakistan economy is far smaller than India’s, the robust manner in which China has boosted the capacities of the Pakistan military has raised the threat level from GHQ Rawalpindi to very high levels. Given that the only target of the Pakistan military is India, there is a disconnect between the rising pitch of declarations of Sino-Indian friendship coming from Beijing and the steady acceleration of material and other assistance to the Pakistan military. The progress of work on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (the nomenclature of which remains unchanged even in the segment which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) is another indication that Pakistan has been given by far the highest priority by China within South Asia. The “all weather” linkages are visible even in capitals such as Colombo, Kathmandu, Male and Dacca, where the envoys of China and Pakistan meet frequently with each other in a context where GHQ Rawalpindi has given no sign of any letup in its asymmetric war against India. Now that Russia has joined hands with China as that superpower’s primary security partner, Moscow is coming ever closer to Islamabad, and is in the process of beginning sales of weapons systems to the forces commanded by GHQ Rawalpindi. Given the nature of much of policy formulation in India, there is still a propensity to ignore the immense changes in the geopolitical environment that have taken place just during the two decades of the present century, in particular the cementing of the Sino-Russian defense and security alliance. India is no match for China so far as the interests of Russia are concerned, except that Moscow would like to retain its dominant position within the military in India in the matter of weapons supplies, not just for reasons of commerce, but to ensure a comfortable (to Beijing and Moscow) distance in military matters between Washington and Delhi. President Putin has had the benefit of the fact that Moscow has been a reliable defense partner of India since the 1970s, despite a few hiccups along the way, especially during the Yeltsin period. During this period, the US has been unwilling to transfer advanced weapons systems to India, while Russia handed over even a nuclear submarine, besides providing what is at present the only window open to India to enter the age of hypersonic weaponry through modifications in the BrahMos missile. While this has been the past and remains the current reality, the trend line has shifted. The reason for such a change is the accelerating pace of the Sino-Russian alliance. This, taken in conjunction with the long-established China-Pakistan military nexus, opens the possibility of a diminution of future advanced military supplies from Russia to India. In contrast, the need for an alliance with India to counteract the density of the Sino-Russian partnership has cleared the path for the US to make India a platform for the manufacture of advanced weapons systems, the way China has made Pakistan a platform for the manufacture and assembly of advanced weapons systems, including sophisticated aircraft and missiles. However, such collaboration between Washington and Delhi would be stillborn, were Prime Minister Modi to give final approval to the plan for purchasing S-400 defensive missile systems from Russia.
‘ZERO SUM APPROACH’
While the US and India, given their compatible political systems, are potential security partners, in matters of trade, the “Zero Sum” approach of President Trump calls for India to stand its ground on a variety of issues, such as oil supplies from Iran to inter alia protect its investment and opportunities in Chabahar, which could shift China’s way in case India stops all oil purchases from Iran. Whether on the issue of pharmaceutical prices or the demand to give preferential treatment to US manufactures, a much closer fit on the defense and security side would result in the Pentagon counter-acting calls by the US Trade Representative or Department of Commerce to levy sanctions on India. To retain dominance in the Indo-Pacific and maintain primacy in space, cyber-space and underseas, a partnership with India is a necessary force-multiplier for the US. The friendly tone of the Pompeo visit as well as the friendly atmosphere that surrounded the Modi-Trump meeting indicate that this lesson has been clearly understood in Washington. However, both sides will need to make adjustments and compromises that are at odds with earlier policies. There are likely to be an increasing number of high-level contacts between Washington and New Delhi, including a much higher frequency of meetings between Trump and Modi than has been the case thus far, the bilateral summit meeting on the sidelines of the G 20 taking place after a gap of seventeen months. In the 1950s, India lost the chance to become a US ally. Both in the 1992-96 during the Narasimha Rao period as well as during 1998-2002 during the time when A.B. Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India, it was Washington that failed to take advantage of the opportunity for a strong strategic relationship, preferring Pakistan to India on both occasions. In the era of two forceful leaders, Narendra Modi and Donald J. Trump, once again the door has been opened towards a close partnership in matters of defense and security between the US and India. Will this chance too repeat the dismal history of the past, or will history be made on a scale last seen in the Nixon-Mao handshake in 1972?