S Jaishankar’s 'non-alignment' remarks reveal Galwan no inflection point, little sense in clinging to ideological purity

S Jaishankar’s call for ‘independence’ is at one level a careful attempt not to alienate Russia even more in a relationship that is clearly drifting.

Sreemoy Talukdar July 31, 2020 12:14:38 IST
S Jaishankar’s 'non-alignment' remarks reveal Galwan no inflection point, little sense in clinging to ideological purity

At a recent webinar organised by the Observer Research Foundation on the trajectory of India-US ties, scholars from both nations reiterated the consensus that the relationship has come a long way since the estrangement of Cold War days and despite some persistent irritants, the trend points towards greater military-strategic synergy and maybe even cooperation on crucial emerging global issues like climate change, underwritten by bipartisan political support in both democracies.

From terrorism to Kashmir, the Donald Trump administration has been in India’s corner and has backed New Delhi on its recent moves — be it Balakot air strikes or Article 370 — while US popularity among Indian public has seen a concomitant rise.

Nobody can dispute that India-US ties — boosted by overlapping strategic interests, deepening trade and overwhelming people-to-people synergy — have undergone a tectonic shift starting with the civil nuclear deal.

However, what’s interesting to note is the language of temperance and moderation that still defines mutual expectations. It gives an impression that the relationship, despite all the recent progress as well as the commonality, scale and urgency of Chinese threat, is still struggling with the tyranny of low expectations.

This caginess is not to be confused with the trade ties, where considerable differences exist, or deepening of military and diplomatic cooperation, where the embrace has been tightest.

India conducts more regular and increasingly complex military exercises with US than any other nation. Notable among these are the recently introduced amphibious tri-services exercise Tiger Triumph, Yudh Abhyas, the annual high-profile Malabar exercises also involving Japan; both countries have signed four of the five major defence-enabling agreements with a possibility that the remaining one, BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) could be inked this year; in terms of maritime security, India conducted group sail with the US, Japan, and the Philippines in South China Sea last year  projecting power deep into the area that China considers as its backyard while USS Nimitz, the world’s largest nuclear-powered supercarrier, recently undertook PASSEX with the Indian Navy in Bay of Bengal signaling Indo-US solidarity amid rising tension with China.

Thanks to the defence enabling agreements, US designation of India as a Major Defence Partner and the elevation of India to Strategic Trade Authorization-1 (STA-1) status — effectively bracketing India with NATO allies — Washington has opened the door for India to access advanced defence equipment and enjoy greater interoperability and information-sharing with US military.

On the diplomatic front, the progress has been at both bilateral and multilateral planes. The 2+2 mechanism has been elevated to ministerial-level, the quadrilateral security platform (also involving Japan and Australia) has received greater commitment and is inching towards a functional cooperative framework.

Also, speculation is rife that India may finally invite Australia to join the Malabar exercise.

During a recent event organized by the US India Business Council, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo called India a “trusted” partner and announced that the ‘quad dialogue’ among the “like-minded democracies in the Indo-Pacific” has been “reinvigorated” and he is “looking forward to (his) meetings in Delhi next week.”

The US, which backs India’s aim of getting a seat at UN Security Council, and which blocked China’s move at the UN on Jammu and Kashmir in January, is a facilitator for Indian membership in nuclear export control groups and also a conduit for India’s betterment of ties with partners in Indo-Pacific.

As author and Brookings Institution scholar Tanvi Madan wrote in India Today, “Multiple Indian prime ministers have, over the years, strengthened the country’s partnership with the US… The fruits of this cooperation are evident in the current China-India crisis, in American rhetorical support, diplomatic cooperation, the use of military equipment acquired from the US, and, reportedly, intelligence-sharing… And yet, despite the logic, there remains a reticence in India that has slowed the pace of the partnership.”

While China’s strategic opportunism and post-pandemic aggression has hastened the tempo of Indo-US strategic partnership, New Delhi still retains a fair bit of hesitancy in joining a US-led coalition against China.

India has been at pains to point out that its Indo-Pacific construct is not aimed at containing China, and New Delhi remains pointedly averse to publicising such a pro-US tilt even though an informal rationalisation of the security and geostrategic bond is evident.

This duality in India’s approach resists logical explanation. India would like the US to act as its bulwark against Chinese belligerence, just as Washington cultivates India to be the democratic counterweight to China, and yet New Delhi seems too constricted within the ideological straitjacket of ‘strategic autonomy’, the baggage of ‘Cold War’ and a fear of provoking China to talk openly about such an alignment.

It is one of those rare cases in bilateral relationship where rhetoric not only fails to match up to actions, even seeks to downplay the growing closeness. This raises questions about India’s intent, and emits confusing signals about its motives and aspirations.

Worth noting that while ‘quad’ nations have shown no inclination towards developing the platform into an ‘Asian NATO’, the US has been talking up an alliance of “free world” against China.

Washington has been quite forthcoming and vocal about its support to India on the ongoing Sino-Indian military standoff in Ladakh while pushing back against Beijing’s maximalist efforts to turn South China Sea into a Chinese lake. 

It is evident that US policy towards China is turning decidedly hawkish and the Trump administration may even be laying the roadmap for an era of economic, strategic and ideological confrontation but this repositioning also carries consequences for India.

As the stand-off in Ladakh continues with China showing no signs of vacating the Line of Actual Control spots it had occupied, high-ranking US officials in the Trump administration from Pompeo to secretary of defence Mark Esper have offered a steady stream of support — a departure from US stance during the 2017 Doka La stand-off when backing for India was muted and subtler, possibly in line with Indian requirements.

Moreover, US support for India on this issue has been bipartisan, wide-ranging — also covering India’s economic countermeasures against China such as banning Chinese apps — and sustained.

On Wednesday, a top Trump administration official said the US is “willing to accept more risk” and build alliances in Asia to check Chinese aggression in a keynote address where India was mentioned several times.

At a webinar organized by Brookings Institution, Lisa Curtis, US national security council’s senior director for South and Central Asia, said “India demonstrated that it has the will and the capabilities to stand up to China… it played the economic card by banning the Chinese apps and putting a hold on Chinese investment contracts. And I think the rest of the Indo-Pacific region is watching this very carefully” and the region would be “encouraged by India’s resolve.” 

Additionally, the US-Australia joint statement following their 2+2 dialogue in Washington on Tuesday mentioned India as a key partner alongside the ‘Five Eyes Partners’ “to strengthen” the “networked structure of alliances and partnerships to maintain a region that is secure, prosperous, inclusive, and rules-based.”

These signals indicate that the US wants to create an atmosphere of trust so that New Delhi can shed some of that reticence. India’s coyness and graduated approach, however, arises at least partially from its status as a middle power that seeks to manage the relationship with a revanchist neighbour that also happens to be the world’s presumptive superpower.

Along with internal and external balancing strategies, India also spends considerable effort in engaging, competing and cooperating with China to de-incentivise Beijing’s coercive behavior.

However, as should be evident by now, this policy needs a revision. It has been evident for long, most certainly since Doka La, that India-China ties are in need of a complete reset to reflect China’s growing might and the changing power dynamic in Asia.

Yet India had carried on with the old modus vivendi, hoping to manage China’s territorial revanchism with ‘quiet diplomacy’ unless we reach a point of no return.

Galwan was expected to be that inflection point.

When the PLA ambushed Indian soldiers and killed 20 of our jawans, a rare congruence was evident in the reaction of public and policymakers that a return to “normalcy” after this watershed moment is impossible.

In a telephone call with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, external affairs minister S Jaishankar warned that “this unprecedented development will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship.” 

While economic nationalism was on the rise with a call for boycott of Chinese goods, the foreign policy establishment called it a “a very hostile and violently assertive face of China” and Beijing “has effectively destroyed the edifice of bilateral relations so painstakingly built post the Chinese aggression of 1962.” Gautam Bambawale, former ambassador to China, wrote that it is time to give a military angle to quad.

Among strategic commentators, a hardening of views was equally palpable. Nitin Pai, director of Takshashila Institution, called for deploying naval power to acquire leverage over China, JNU professor Rajesh Rajagopalan argued that India cannot afford to be defensive and risk-averse this time, ORF distinguished fellow Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan saw it as a game-changer for New Delhi while Yusuf Unjhawala, editor of Defence Forum India, called for an open alignment with the US in “India’s economic and strategic interests.”

The US is one among India’s many partners for external balancing of China, but the most consequential. The call for a formal deepening of the relationship, if not within an alliance structure, has gathered pace.

The latest to air such a view has been Lt Generael (Retired) DS Hooda, the former Northern Commander of Indian Army who has argued strongly in his News18 column in favour of “an open alliance with the US aimed at checking China’s hegemonic ambitions.”

According to Lt Gen Hooda, “In countering China’s ambitions, the US faces the difficulties of traversing the Pacific Ocean and therefore needs Asian partners like India. For India, US support could be crucial to prevent us from reaching a position where we are forced to deal with events on China’s terms. Thus, there is mutual benefit for both India and the US to align more closely.”

This clear-eyed assessment challenges India’s axiomatic notions about alliance and partnerships and seeks to allay its post-colonial historical experience.

If India’s internal balancing options are limited and engagement with China hasn’t brought deterrence, a multilateral external balancing through an amorphous coalition of democracies is an idea worth exploring.

If nothing else, the old rhetoric of strategic autonomy, that has failed to achieve strategic gains or autonomy in decision-making, must go. Independence cannot be an end in itself. It is only the means to an end.

If India’s aim is to secure national interest — as it should be — then India must ask itself whether national interest is best secured in accepting restrictions imposed by so-called “strategic autonomy”, or will it be best served by aligning in letter and spirit with a major power where interests overlap.

Recent comments by India’s external affairs minister, however, signal a return to the tired old strategy of risk-averse, careful hedging. Speaking at a recent virtual conference, Jaishankar said non-alignment was a term of a “particular era and geopolitical landscape” that no longer exists, and in an increasingly multipolar world India must take “risks” and more proactive stance on the “big issues” of the day such as connectivity, maritime security, terrorism, climate change and terrorism.

But he was equally clear that one element of ‘non-alignment’, independence, is a “factor of continuity for India” and India “was never part of an alliance system and we will never be.” 

The EAM expanded on this at another forum where he observed that the US “really has to learn to work ...with a more multipolar world, with more plurilateral arrangements, go beyond alliances with which really it has grown up over the last two generations.”

It is easy to see where Jaishankar is coming from. In a speech at Council on Foreign Relations last year, India’s external affairs minister — a career diplomat — explained India’s objective of “multi-alignment, which is you keep your relationships well-oiled with all the major power centers, and the country which does that best actually has political positioning in the world which may be superior to its actual structural strengths.”

Jaishankar’s recent comments can be interpreted in two ways. First, Russia remains a crucial factor in India’s diversification strategy, an important cog in India’s wheel in balancing China and a provider of advanced defence equipment as well as a facilitator of India’s defense capabilities.

Jaishankar’s call for ‘independence’ is at one level a careful attempt not to alienate Russia even more in a relationship that is clearly drifting.

As Tanvi Madan observed in The Asan Forum, “Strategically, Delhi has seen Moscow as a key part of its strategy to balance China, both as a supplier of military equipment and potentially as a counterweight. A Russia that perceives and treats China as a rival helps shape the regional balance of power in a way that benefits India—it means one more power that could prevent a unipolar Beijing-dominated Asia.”

Russia’s importance in the India-China dynamic was evident in defence minister Rajnath Singh’s recent visit to Moscow where he finalised an emergency purchase of 33 fighter aircraft at a cost of Rs 38,990 crore and urged Moscow to quicken up the delivery of S-400 air defence missile system at the risk of triggering US sanctions.

Worth noting also that India has reportedly invited Russia to join the Indo-Pacific framework to allay notions that it is a US-centric grouping aimed at containing China.

Second, India retains the Cold War era-distrust of alliance systems fearing that such an alignment will happen at the cost of restricting policy options. Here, India and the US, despite their security and defence cooperation, are essentially pulling in different directions.

While the US works best within the normative framework of an alliance structure, India wants to avoid the trappings of commitment at all costs.

We can see this in Pompeo’s recent speech at the Nixon Library in California — an address that generated much debate — where he admitted that the US cannot face the challenge of China alone and called for “a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies” because “if the free world doesn’t change, communist China will surely change us…”

As Singapore-based academic C Raja Mohan has noted in Indian Express, “Delhi will certainly demur at Pompeo calling the group an “alliance.” It would rather have it described as a “coalition of democracies.” 

And yet India’s touchiness over joining an alliance system or a coalition is illogical. Japan, an American ally, has been far more cautious about antagonising China than the US, initially even failing to join the US, Australia, Canada and UK in criticising Beijing’s draconian national security law.

Australia, the ‘five eyes’ partner of the US, released a joint statement after the AUSMIN consultations criticising Chinese aggression over South China Sea, announced a scaling up of their joint military efforts and vowed to carry out more regular joint exercises in the South China Sea to counter Beijing’s increasing militarisation.

However, Australian foreign minister Marise Payne also clarified that “Australia would seek to promote its own national interests” and declined to echo Pompeo’s strident rhetoric against the Chinese Communist Party.

She added that though Australia and the US were close allies, they “don’t agree on everything.” 

This punctures the contention that greater alignment with a major power restricts strategic independence. As Lt General Hooda pointed out in his column “international politics is also not a zero-sum game, and an alliance with the US does not mean abandoning all ties with China or a reset in relations with countries like Russia.”

India would have noted that despite its elaborate efforts to distance itself from an alliance system — as much a post-colonial insecurity as a signaling mechanism aimed at Russia and China, Beijing already believes that India is little more than a US lackey.

As its State-controlled media noted, “India says one thing, but does another. Even though India claims not to part of any alliance, its practice shows that it is inclined to the US.”

When the net result of a carefully calibrated policy is negative, it makes little sense to show dogmatic adherence to it to pass an ideological purity test. The task is not difficult. If a closer alignment with the US in a multilateral framework achieves deterrence, India should be open to the possibility instead of peremptorily closing its mind.

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