Bharat Matters ki Jai
US defence secretary Ashton Carter’s visit to India has renewed the debate on whether a deepening partnership with the US is worth the risk of irking China, alienating Russia and losing strategic autonomy. Some fear India might become a ‘client state’ like Pakistan. This, when India has the fourth most powerful military and is the fastest-growing economy today. Others have asked for more debate before India is eventually conned into playing American games.
Yet, others see closer ties with the US as a lazy substitute for a strong, coherent vision about India’s place in the world. This is baffling because Prime Minister Narendra Modi has clearly said he wants India to graduate from a “balancing” to a “leading role”. The foreign secretary in several speeches has also elaborated on how the government sees the world and India’s place in it. How India gets there with so much domestic dysfunction is the real question.
Yes, Modi is gambling big on America. But he is neither going in blind nor ignoring other major or minor partners. There have been ministerial-level visits to more than 100 countries, including those long neglected. There is both ambition and activity to expand the circle of friends.
It’s a bolder India less afraid of power games: if you don’t play, you can’t win. A stronger relationship with the US improves the odds. Modi doesn’t want India to sit out the game and hope for the best.
Carter’s trip to India is an important piece in the new dynamic set in motion with Modi’s September 2014 visit to Washington. Also recall Barack Oba- ma’s Republic Day visit last year when both sides issued the ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’, calling for a “roadmap that leverages our respective efforts to increase ties among Asian powers, enabling both our nations to better respond to diplomatic, economic and security challenges in the region”.
The roadmap text has been negotiated and approved over the past year. The overarching idea is to strengthen India’s leadership and capabilities in the region. India has argued for clear actions from the US in three broad areas: political, military and economic.
While progress on the military front is the most palpable with Carter forcefully pushing the agenda and India more willing to see the gain rather than just the pain, the same can’t be said of the political and economic fields where clear leadership is lacking.
From all accounts, John Kerry is not interested enough in India to push his bureaucracy. India doesn’t seem to animate him. He once kept a Cabinet minister waiting while he gave a substance-free interview to an Indian television channel.
Thus the recent flubs by both Obama and Kerry during the Nuclear Security Summit wrongly equating India and Pakistan, and ignoring the South Asian nuclear reality. Officials who prepare the one-page brief for the president are responsible. But still, Obama is supposed to ‘get’ India. This American attitude of bracketing India and Pakistan infuriates New Delhi and feeds scepticism.
Over the last year, the Obama administration has approved nearly $1.7 billion in military sales to Pakistan, including F-16s and attack helicopters. It’s another matter the US Congress has blocked the F-16s for now. But the administration’s intent is clear.
The roadmap attempts to address this problem through more consultation, especially on Washington’s Af-Pak policy. India, speaking more plainly than before, wants its interests accommodated. But for that, US policy in South Asia has to be better harmonised.
On counterterrorism, Indian officials have asked the Americans see Pakistan’s terrorist enterprise in its totality and not merely focus on groups that attack the West.
On the economic front, New Delhi has asked the US to actively work for India’s membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Again, the lead has to come from Kerry. It seems the idea hasn’t resulted in action since Obama and Modi’s joint statement. The regional bureau dealing with East Asia is blasé about New Delhi’s interest.
Most of the activity is in the realm of defence cooperation. The roadmap talks of maritime security and how India and the US can ensure freedom of navigation and over flights throughout the region, including South China Sea. The idea is to increase each other’s awareness of what’s happening in the oceans around, divide the work and share the information. More eyes mean more security.
The roadmap as envisaged is mutually beneficial. An American trap, it is not. Even in the hardest of times, India didn’t walk into one. So why would it now as a stronger and more confident nation?
And there’s always a back-story