India in a double bind

Episodic foreign policy comes with more problems than solutions

India in a double bind

CORNERED: As if one provocative Quad were not enough, Washington has ushered India into a second one alongside Israel and the UAE. PTI

MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

INDIA since Independence had a many-splendored foreign policy, but the present government has steadily navigated it toward a quasi-alliance with America in a highly consequential paradigm shift. In turn, it spawned a narrative that China has ‘driven’ India into the US camp.

The Biden administration is clueless on China. The US binds India closer than ever militarily, but totally abandons it economically and leaves it to its fate.

The current slide in relations with China began in 2017 in Doklam. We were triumphalist that the Indian Army entered Chinese territory for the first time, but then, the denouement turned out to be that the PLA established a permanent presence close to our Sikkim border, and secondly, Bhutan decided to take matters into its own hands and deal directly with Beijing.

Triumphalism once again surged in 2019 in the full flush of election victory, when the new government in Delhi changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir and redrew India’s northern borders which now touch the Wakhan Corridor. In retrospect, the Valley bears the calm of a cemetery, but a prolonged military standoff has ensued in eastern Ladakh.

However, the narratives over these self-inflicted wounds eventually engendered the hypothesis that bandwagoning with the US is the only way left to ‘settle scores’ with China. This is a specious argument because Delhi already had an a priori reasoning for India’s foreign policy trajectory aligning with the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. The point is, paranoia can be dangerous, as the very assumption that a conflict is inevitable can create conditions for conflict. The late George Kennan, who scripted the containment strategy against the Soviet Union (and lived to regret it later when it morphed into Cold War) has written: ‘The assumption of the inevitability of a war is allowed to rest exclusively on the fact that ‘we’ and ‘they’ are both preparing so intensively for it. No other reason is needed for the acceptance

of its necessity.’

Now, as if one provocative Quad were not enough, Washington just ushered India into a second one alongside Israel and the UAE. Quad-2 snubs West Asia’s powerhouses — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Egypt — and is a ‘B’ team of America’s regional subalterns, as anyone who follows the geopolitics of Yemen and Sudan would know. How does India figure in it? In reality, Washington has created another vector of its anti-China front in the Red Sea and inducted India into it.

How far Quad-2 intimidates the Chinese ships passing the Bab Al-Mandab Strait remains to be seen, but it complicates India’s ties with Iran. Israel is planning to open a new consulate in Chengdu, its third in China, which is Israel's third largest trading partner globally and its largest trading partner in East Asia. As for the UAE, it is China's second largest trading partner in the Persian Gulf and gains out of being a regional gateway for China.

China has been a strong market for the UAE oil exports and the Emirates is set to play a major role in China’s Belt and Road projects regionally. The Emirati leaders hope to tap into Chinese technology and artificial intelligence for smart cities, armed drones, healthcare and renewable energy to modernise their nation. The indexes of markets, population projections, the global centre of gravity, economic gravity and so on are inexorably moving eastward.

In India, too, while there is a general acceptance that the country’s partnership with the US is important, there is pervasive scepticism about the US intentions or authenticity. Yet, Nikki Haley, the Indian-American politician, and Mike Waltz, the Republican Congressman and vice chair of the India Caucus, co-authored an article in the Foreign Policy magazine last week titled ‘It’s Time to Formalize an Alliance With India’.

They envisage India as a ‘swing state’ which could give the Pentagon access to strategic bases to protect American interests in Afghanistan and the broader region! When a Council on Foreign Relations news publication takes to kite-flying a fortnight after Blinken’s immaculate conception of Quad-2 — and in the run-up to the US-Indian ‘2+2’ ministerial in Washington in November — can it be coincidence?

Post-Afghanistan, the US is desperate that its regional strategies have become rudderless. The ASEAN summits last week witnessed the unease among its members that the new AUKUS alliance erodes their centrality and may fuel arms race. AUKUS has also dented the credibility of the trans-Atlantic relationship.

On the other hand, China is on track to exceed the US by 2025 in artificial intelligence, microprocessors, computers, electric vehicles, and other critical technologies. Technology provides munitions, and the war is fought in two theatres — defence and trade. China is building an impressive modern navy to claim dominance in the Pacific. The US fleet needs bolstering and reorientation toward smaller, more agile, and unmanned vessels, but this is unaffordable. The actual cost of Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill and American Family Plan would be closer to $5.5 trillion and with the annual federal deficit reaching $2 trillion, the US analysts anticipate that China’s industrial policy carrying that burden is becoming hard to beat. The less said the better about ‘defending’ Taiwan.

Trump’s tariff war simply burdened the American consumer. In a caustic assessment recently, Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria observed that the US is ‘now retreating to a cold, curdled view of international life, one that is dark and zero-sum, in which we search for villains to blame for our problems.’ America’s economic travails stem from systemic failures such as decades-long wage stagnation, crumbling infrastructure, and collapse of the manufacturing sector.

The Biden administration is clueless on China. This is what ought to make Indians wary. Washington binds India closer than ever militarily, but totally abandons it economically and leaves it to its fate.

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