Lloyd Austin's human rights, S-400 remarks struck jarring note to US SecDef's largely successful India visit
As the Pentagon chief on a mission to strengthen bilateral security and defence partnership, Austin could have done better than raising an issue that feeds into political partisanship in India
The recent trip to India by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first visit by a top member of the Joe Biden cabinet, came at an interesting moment. The timing of the visit and the immediate context said as much about the current geopolitical climate as the details of the Pentagon chief’s meetings with key members of the Narendra Modi government.
We have China, the aspiring global hegemon, give the incumbent a tongue lashing during the first in-person meeting with Biden administration officials. In the extraordinary public spat at Anchorage, Alaska, Beijing appeared as confident of its rise as of American decline, and its behaviour since is aimed at dominating early the dynamics of Sino-US ties.
Anchorage spat also revealed an evolution in Chinese thinking. Instead of trying to manage the relationship or showing hesitation in taking an overtly confrontationist stance — traits that marked Beijing’s behaviour for the initial and most part in Donald Trump years — China now appears self-assured, even brash in taking on the US, and particularly keen on testing the Biden administration’s resolve early on in its tenure.
Through its actions and rhetoric, Beijing is telling the new administration that it holds the advantage in balance of power, enjoys ideological ascendancy and its untrammelled economic power will be enough in mitigating the challenges that the US may throw at it.
Consider the optics leading to the ‘rage at Anchorage’. While China claimed that it is the US that had called for the meeting and it had acquiesced, Beijing made it clear that “the US side shall entertain no illusions as regards China’s firm position on upholding its sovereignty, security and development interests".
The US, on the other hand, went into an elaborate show of diplomatic strength ahead of the meeting, setting up a first-ever Quad leaders’ summit of Indo-Pacific democracies, held two-plus-two bilaterals with Asian treaty allies Japan and South Korea, and even as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken went to Alaska where he was joined by US NSA Jake Sullivan to meet China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and foreign minister Wang Yi, US Secretary of Defense Austin stopped by at New Delhi for a three-day visit — the final leg of his Asian swing.
While the Biden administration will portray this as an example of the US taking its “allies and partners along” in formulating pressure on China, to the CCP it appears as though Washington, the supreme global power, needs props to stand up to its strategic rival. And it has been quick to point out that the US has drawn a blank in its efforts to ensure that its allies and partners are “on the same page” on China.
Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin writes that “on the Asia tour by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin, only Japan completely coordinated with the US and released a joint statement which maliciously attacked China. This is the quality of the US’ efforts to construct an anti-China alliance in Asia. It would be day-dreaming for the US to mobilise Asia to contain China".
Hu is exaggerating, of course, but he has a point. The Quad had a joint statement, the first of its kind, but it nowhere mentioned China. Neither did the post-summit joint op-ed penned by Biden, Modi, Scott Morrison and Yoshihide Suga.
And, the US-South Korea joint statement was decidedly lame, compared to the fire and brimstone US-Japan readout, and it expectedly skipped the mention of China since South Korea is keen to protect its economic interests with Beijing.
Conversely, Washington would have noted that Beijing and Moscow — whose foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently completed a two-day China visit — appear to be on the same page when it comes to “balancing US hegemony”.
Critics would argue that Quad is not an ‘anti-China alliance’, or an ‘Asian NATO’, has a positive and affirmative agenda, is aimed more at burden-sharing between the partners and shaping Chinese behaviour in Indo-Pacific without being coercive. All of these are true.
However, the Biden administration has indicated that Quad will form a cornerstone of its Indo-Pacific policy — a position that enjoys salience in Washington and the sequential placing of the Quad summit within the larger arc of coordinated diplomatic pressure on Beijing makes it hard to argue that China isn’t central to the formulation of the grouping.
Amid these geopolitical cross-currents, Austin landed in India, the only country that has stood up to Chinese bullying in the Indo-Pacific — the most consequential theatre for the US in its strategic rivalry with China where the Biden administration has focused a flurry of diplomatic activity within months of its assuming office.
India is the only country in recent history to have militarily taken on the PLA, inflicting damage while suffering some, the only country to have announced a series of steps aimed at economic disengagement with China, the only country that has matched and even bettered Beijing in vaccine diplomacy and the only ideological counterweight to Chinese authoritarianism in Indo-Pacific in terms of its size, scale and influence.
A yet-to-be-published study — “Strategic Patience and flexible policies” — authored by (among others) former ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale in the wake of the Galwan clash and Chinese territorial aggression in Ladakh, suggests that India should “reset” its China policy and recommends three areas where New Delhi should reduce engagement with Beijing — restrict companies controlled by the Chinese state from having a controlling stake in sensitive infrastructure assets; avoid locking into Chinese-controlled technological standards and block Chinese state surveillance of Indian persons, according to a report in Times of India.
This unique convergence of interests has allowed a tightening of the security and defence partnership — the engine that drives the India-US bilateral relationship. Austin’s visit, therefore, was simultaneously aimed at reinforcing the levers, ensuring that there are no visible gaps in ties, while also sending a message to China (and perhaps to New Delhi as well) that Biden administration isn’t Obama 2.0 whose failure at measuring up to the China challenge allowed Beijing the bandwidth to claim and consolidate its gains in the South China Sea, “tilting the balance of power across Asia in its favour”, as Ely Ratner had pointed out in his essay for Foreign Affairs in 2017.
Austin was allowed access to Prime Minister Modi and Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, apart from his scheduled interaction with Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh — indicating the seriousness with which India was treating the first in-person visit by a key member of the new administration in the US, and the Pentagon chief made mostly the right noises.
Austin is a retired four-star general, not a diplomat, and his words betrayed the point of his trip — securing a robust partnership with a state that values its strategic autonomy as a key element of its policy of prioritising the Indo-Pacific.
Austin said his “concern is that they (India) prioritise their relationship with us and their willingness to work with us at the very top of their list of priorities here. So, again, in my engagements here I walk away very encouraged... by the forward thinking and forward leaning that we witnessed with the Indians".
In the solo news conference post his meeting with Singh, Austin added, “We consider India to be a great partner and again I think we have done a number of things to work well together. There’s just a lot of opportunity there to strengthen that partnership and to do some things, additional things to make sure that we’re promoting peace and stability in the region and providing for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, as well.”
For his part, Singh announced that India has “agreed to pursue enhanced cooperation with the US Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command and Africa Command. Acknowledging that we have in place the foundational agreements, LEMOA, COMCASA, and BECA, we discussed the steps to be taken to realise their full potential for mutual benefit".
The Indian defence minister, in a joint news conference, added that his discussions with SecDef Austin "focused on our wide-ranging defence cooperation and expanding military-to-military engagement across services, information sharing, cooperation in emerging sectors of defence, and mutual logistics support.”
Also notable are Austin’s comments where he said that India is “an increasingly important partner” and “a central pillar of our approach to the region”, also stressing that elevating the India-US major defence partnership “is a priority of the Biden-Harris administration” and “we’ll do that through regional security cooperation and military-to-military interactions and defence trade".
Also worth noting are the “new areas of collaboration”, as Austin put it, that includes “information sharing and logistics, artificial intelligence, and cooperation in new domains such as space and cyber".
These speak of a comprehensive approach and a willingness on the part of the US to equip India with the capabilities “required to defend itself and act as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific,” as Heritage Foundation research fellow Jeff Smith writes in his essay.
However, two issues introduced a jarring note into Austin’s largely successful engagement. Austin could have avoided or glossed over the topic of “human rights” during his media interaction. To a question, Austin said “did have a conversation with other members of the Cabinet on this issue... And I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions".
As the Pentagon chief on a mission to strengthen bilateral security and defence partnership, Austin could have done better than raising a highly subjective, political and sensitive issue that feeds into political partisanship in India. India had to issue a rebuttal that “there was no specific discussion with Austin on human rights in India at his meetings with defence minister Singh or EAM Jaishankar. Human rights and values were discussed as shared strengths of the two countries".
If Austin was responding to the views of US senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee — who had demanded that Austin raise the issue of “human rights” during his trip to India — then it doesn’t speak much of US Secretary of Defence’s authority. Moreover, if it is the Biden team’s policy that 'human rights' and values be discussed in private with partners, the raising of that topic during news conference defeats that purpose.
It's worth noting that Austin, in his solo news conference, had said, “India and the US are the largest democracies in the world. There’s clearly some shared values there that we’ll continue work together to — we can build upon that and we are building upon it in an economic interest.” In the event, his stance appeared confused and contradictory.
The second note of discord was Austin’s mention of possible US sanctions on India under a law named CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) for New Delhi's impending acquisition of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. Austin would be aware that any sanctions imposed on India for the deal (the negotiations for which precedes the emergence of CAATSA in 2017) would deal a crippling blow to the US-India partnership, reopen old wounds about American unreliability as a partner, and raise questions again whether American partnership comes at a cost of eroding strategic autonomy.
These secondary US sanctions, which are more in the nature of a blunt instrument, instead of persuading India from moving away from Russian systems, would be counterproductive. It would also feed scepticism about the US in India and make ties vulnerable to manipulations by Russia and China.
Austin did clarify that since “there has been no delivery of an S-400 system. And so that conversation — the issue of sanctions is not one that’s been discussed”, but he did mention in the presser that he raised the topic of sanctions with Singh (another demand of India-baiter Menendez) and said: “We certainly urge all our allies and partners to move away from Russian equipment.”
As former foreign secretary of India Kanwal Sibal writes, “Austin’s comment on the S-400 keeps the fuse of potential sanctions on India lit when good sense would dictate that the matter should be quietly closed and not allowed to rock bilateral ties just when defence ties are on the upswing and stronger cooperation and understandings are needed to counter the China threat.”
Perceiving the US-India partnership as a relationship of equals towards tackling shared concerns and pursuing common goals may allow Biden administration the insight in avoiding pitfalls of sounding morally superior, patronising, or imposing restrictions that would limit the scope of engagement. Investing in India’s rise could be the best China policy for Washington.
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