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Despite blooming bromance between US and India, dissonance over tackling the China threat is glaringly evident

India-US bonhomie is in the air. Donald Trump got into a slight (needless) controversy over a Diwali tweet but everything else has been all sugary sweetness. The US president felt both countries are “very close, closer than ever before” and proclaimed that he is “grateful” for his friendship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He even went to the extent of calling Indians “very good negotiators” which in Trump’s book must be the highest form of praise.

His deputy, Mike Pence, has been similarly gracious during his recent meeting with Modi in Singapore. He praised Modi for providing “strong leadership” and called India a “positive factor in regional and international relations.” For his part, Modi thanked Trump for hosting Diwali event at White House and called Washington India’s “time-tested friend” — a moniker that New Delhi has historically reserved for Russia.

Not quite in the league of “higher than the highest mountain” yet but clearly, optics and rhetoric have not been in short supply. However, for all the stress on “shared values”, “shared commitment to democracy”, “shared commitment to a rules-based order” and shared “commitment to constitutional processes”, a fundamental, stubborn dissonance between the two remains evident over tackling the threat of China.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US vice-president Mike Pence in Singapore. Image/@MEAIndia

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US vice-president Mike Pence in Singapore. Image/@MEAIndia

While the Trump administration has recast its China strategy to adopt a more confrontationist posture to mitigate Beijing’s belligerence and craft, India, of late, has been more circumspect, and the post-Wuhan sentiment is now hardening into a policy.

Expression of this change in policy is subtle yet unmistakable. While the US has blown the Cold War bugle and has promised not to back down until it succeeds in effecting a change in Chinese behavior, India has been cautious almost to the point of paranoia in trying not to rub China the wrong way. The post-Doklam aggression has turned into Wuhan ‘spirit’. Ghosts apparently carry a lot of weight.

There are plausible reasons behind India’s shift in policy (not the least because we have a general election coming up and it helps to have some quiet at the border). China has been turning on the charm offensive, carefully avoiding India’s red lines. Beijing’s motivations range from trade war against the US  to a realisation, as ORF points out, “that Western opinion is turning against it rather rapidly” and it needs “partners which can help it alleviate some of these challenges.”

India is keen to introduce a modicum of stability in ties with China. The fulcrum of its engagement with China rests on an assumption that a “reset” will provide it the “space to reduce its asymmetries with China, including by enhancing its military and economic capabilities,” according to Warontherocks.com.

That said, the structural asymmetries in India-China relationship are likely to stay, the capability gap won’t erase in a few decades. India’s threat perception vis-à-vis China has not undergone any revision. It still forms the logic behind India's close strategic embrace of the US. This calls for a diplomatic equivalent of walking on water, and this exactly what India has been trying of late.

As officials from “like-minded democracies” Australia, India, Japan and the US held the third meeting of Quadrilateral (Quad) 2.0 on Thursday on the sidelines of the East India Summit in Singapore, all four nations stressed on the need for “connectivity, sustainable development, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and maritime and cyber security.” But while India’s mention of the need for a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” was comparatively understated, the US and Japan were more upfront about it.

Let’s take a look at the three different press statements released by the US, Japan and India. Washington’s readout of the ‘quad’ straightaway makes it clear that “senior officials” from the four nations “reaffirmed a shared commitment to maintain and strengthen a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in which all nations are sovereign, strong, and prosperous. They further highlighted the complementary visions for the region held by their four countries, grounded in a shared support for a free, open, and inclusive region that fosters universal respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and sustainable development.”

There are several references to the word ‘good governance’ in “strengthening the rules-based order”. The references to regional economic development, cooperation on maritime, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, and cyber issues and centrality of ASEAN come much later.

The statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan on quad takes a similar approach in mentioning that “senior officials” from Japan, Australia, India and the US “reaffirmed a shared commitment to maintain and strengthen a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific in which all nations are sovereign, strong, and prosperous. They further highlighted the complementary visions for the region held by the four countries, grounded in a shared support for a free, open, and inclusive region that fosters universal respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, and sustainable development.”

There is equal stress on “good governance” and reference to maritime, counterterrorism, non-proliferation, and cyber issues as well as support for ASEAN are pushed down the order.

 

The statement released by India's external affairs ministry, however, takes the opposite approach. It did not refer to officials as “senior” and stated upfront that discussions (were) focused on “cooperation in areas such as connectivity, sustainable development, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and maritime and cyber security, with a view to promoting peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly interconnected Indo-Pacific region that the four countries share with each other and with other partners.”

The delicate placing of the words and the lack of emphasis on Indo-Pacific are evident. The statement then goes on to refer to reaffirming the “ASEAN centrality as the cornerstone of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. They agreed to partner with other countries and forums in the region to promote a free, open, rules-based and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific that fosters trust and confidence.”

There is an almost deliberate attempt on India’s part to play down the security angle of the quadrilateral meeting and place it within the larger context of ASEAN primacy. The subtext is clear: any third nation (read China) need not feel threatened.

This motif is also reflected in the Modi-Pence interaction and subsequent reactions from the leaders. While the US vice-president stressed on the “Indo-Pacific vision” and highlighted “shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific”, Modi’s tweet, mentioned above avoids the reference.

In the subsequent news conference after the Modi-Pence meeting, India’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale mentioned it in passing, as: “Obviously the Indo-Pacific did come up for discussion. (The) prime minister referred to his speech here in Singapore in June at the Shangri-La Dialogue in which he had outlined India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific. We conveyed to Vice President Pence that this vision of Indo-Pacific was gaining acceptability and that we should utilise the upcoming East Asia Summit to further build up on that.”

India’s paranoia on linking the quad to a security architecture on Indo-Pacific is so acute that Raveesh Kumar, the official spokesperson of India’s external affairs ministry, refuted a report during a media briefing that referred to quad as the meeting between “leaders of four nations”. Kumar’s reaction was: “The report is factually incorrect. No such meeting is taking place. As has been the practice on the last two occasions, India, Australia, Japan and the United States will hold consultations on issues of common regional and global interest at the level of Joint Secretary in the respective Foreign Offices.”

He was, of course, not denying the quad meeting, but stressing on the fact that it will be just another multilateral meeting between “joint secretaries”. The subtext, once again, is meant for China. It remains to be seen if India’s approach works. Pandering to China’s sensibilities is a bottomless and quite often a non-reciprocal exercise. New Delhi must not overdo it.


Updated Date: Nov 16, 2018 11:23 AM

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