Dis­turb­ing the Rhythm

China does not want the US to gain a strong­hold in South Asia.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Taha Ke­har

Con­ven­tional wis­dom would have us be­lieve that US De­fence Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter’s visit to In­dia in June her­alded a new chap­ter in for­eign re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. How­ever, like all diplo­matic ar­range­ments, the re­cently-re­vived part­ner­ship serves a dou­bled-edged pur­pose and rep­re­sents lit­tle more than a mar­riage of con­ve­nience be­tween the US and In­dia.

Ear­lier in the month, the news of Carter’s visit had set ru­mor mills turn­ing about what the out­come of the meet­ing would be. More of­ten than not, there was a wave of op­ti­mism sur­round­ing the de­fence

sec­re­tary’s ar­rival.

An­a­lysts be­lieved that if the talks were suc­cess­ful, In­dia would en­ter a new phase in its de­fence re­la­tions with Amer­ica. A large frac­tion of the media in­sisted Carter’s de­ci­sion to reach out to the coun­try would help bridge the gaps that had grown over the years.

Ini­tially, there were only a few peo­ple who ve­he­mently op­posed the de­ci­sion. It ap­peared as if the prom­ise of im­prove­ments in de­fence re­la­tions with the US had lulled peo­ple into a false sense of se­cu­rity. The main rea­son for this was Carter’s first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence in bu­reau­cracy. More­over, the fact that he had taken a gen­uine in­ter­est in ad­dress­ing the prob­lems which plague In­dia was welcome proof that he wanted to bring the coun­try back on the road to progress.

The In­dian gov­ern­ment had also hoped US as­sis­tance would help add flesh to the bare bones of its own plans for de­vel­op­ment and pros­per­ity in the coun­try.

For­tu­nately, the ex­pec­ta­tions were not en­tirely one-sided. Dur­ing his visit to Sin­ga­pore, Carter had promised en­hanced de­fence re­la­tions would in­crease prospects of mar­itime se­cu­rity, based on air­craft car­rier and jet en­gine tech­nol­ogy. Fur­ther­more, he said the United States was work­ing on cre­at­ing new av­enues to com­ple­ment In­dia’s “Act East pol­icy.”

How­ever, even be­fore the visit, there were nu­mer­ous stum­bling blocks in the US’s com­mit­ment to the In­dian de­fence strat­egy. For in­stance, there was – and still re­mains – an im­bal­ance of power over the ex­tent to which the In­dia-US De­fence Tech­nol­ogy and Trade Ini­tia­tive (DTTI) can go. Carter holds the reins and can make most of the de­ci­sions on the shar­ing of tech­nol­ogy and equip­ment.

The like­li­hood that In­dia will be able to reap any short-term ben­e­fits from the ar­range­ment is also lim­ited. In the past, the BJP-led In­dian gov­ern­ment has held count­less meet­ings with the US over DTTI. How­ever, the process is likely to take a year or more to reach fruition as the race for the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tions is likely to as­sume cen­ter-stage.

Carter’s visit came at a time when other coun­tries in Asia are threat­ened by China’s grow­ing dom­i­nance in the re­gion. Dur­ing his time in Sin­ga­pore, Carter had cas­ti­gated the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment for re­claim­ing land in the South China Sea to es­tab­lish mil­i­tary bases. Un­der these cir­cum­stances, the de­fence sec­re­tary is likely to act with the in­ten­tion of es­tab­lish­ing stronger ties with China’s neigh­bors to thwart the coun­try’s in­flu­ence.

On the face of it, Carter’s visit to In­dia led to the re­newal of a 10-year de­fence co­op­er­a­tion frame­work to guar­an­tee se­cu­rity and the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of a new de­fence pact. Un­der the part­ner­ship, co-pro­duc­tion and co-de­vel­op­ment of naval de­fence ca­pa­bil­i­ties will be en­hanced and the US will help In­dia de­sign an air­craft car­rier and jet en­gines. There are am­ple rea­sons to be­lieve Amer­ica’s mount­ing inse­cu­ri­ties over China’s in­flu­ences have fu­elled these de­vel­op­ments.

A few days be­fore In­dia signed an agree­ment with the US, Viet­nam also es­tab­lished a part­ner­ship with the lat­ter to seek suit­able equip­ment to im­prove and pro­tect its mar­itime as­sets. Some an­a­lysts be­lieve these pacts and height­ened co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the US and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials of var­i­ous coun­tries are welcome proof of an on­go­ing strat­egy to sabotage China’s plans to strengthen its mil­i­tary in­flu­ence.

Sim­i­larly, Dean Cheng, se­nior fel­low at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, has in­sisted China does not want to see the US gain a strong­hold in the re­gion as it could pose a threat to its ac­tiv­i­ties in the South China Sea.

Amid the grow­ing dis­trust be­tween both coun­tries, there is a lim­ited scope to de­velop a calm rhythm to for­eign re­la­tions. Un­til this sense­less blame game comes to a halt, peace and sta­bil­ity are un­likely to re­turn to Asia.

This re­cur­ring bat­tle for supremacy has raised the stakes of the US in most Asian coun­tries. Sen­a­tor John McCain, Chair­man of the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, has gone on record to say most Asian coun­tries are look­ing to­wards Amer­ica to es­tab­lish a firm lead­er­ship and strong part­ner­ship to deal with China’s alarm­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in the re­gion.

If Carter’s prom­ises to In­dia are an­a­lyzed in light of these de­vel­op­ments, there seems very lit­tle to re­joice over.

How­ever, In­dia is not a pas­sive vic­tim to this strug­gle for supremacy. To the con­trary, it has only agreed to these ar­range­ments be­cause there is a strong pos­si­bil­ity that they will bring progress and pros­per­ity to the coun­try.

At this crit­i­cal junc­ture, In­dia finds it­self in a weak po­si­tion in South Asia. Over the last few months, Pak­istan and China have been con­tem­plat­ing new av­enues for de­vel­op­ment. In April, the Chi­nese pres­i­dent vis­ited Is­lam­abad to chalk out the un­der­ly­ing ba­sis of the China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor. The $46 mil­lion megapro­ject, if it ma­te­ri­al­izes, is likely to change Pak­istan’s fate and strengthen ties be­tween both coun­tries.

Re­cently, In­dian Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj voiced reser­va­tions about the pro­ject and deemed it un­ac­cept­able. How­ever, the mat­ter did not end there. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate re­join­der from the Pak­istan gov­ern­ment, In­dia shifted its fo­cus to Bangladesh and raised the specter of the East Pak­istan imbroglio to win the heart of its neigh­bor. Both coun­tries col­lec­tively blamed Pak­istan for pro­mot­ing ter­ror­ism.

Much to its own dis­may, In­dia’s veiled as­sault at Pak­istan did not gen­er­ate the de­sired im­pact as the lat­ter has al­ready launched a se­ries of mil­i­tary of­fen­sives in North Waziris­tan Agency and Khy­ber Agency to stem the scourge of mil­i­tancy.

Faced with a grow­ing sense of in­se­cu­rity, In­dia might have per­ceived Carter’s visit as a means of restor­ing its strength in the re­gion. At this stage, it is dif­fi­cult to say if it blindly trusts the prom­ises made by the de­fence sec­re­tary. How­ever, the fact that the ar­range­ment serves the sec­tional in­ter­ests of both coun­tries speaks vol­umes about the un­der­ly­ing in­ten­tions be­hind this part­ner­ship.

In­dian Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj voiced reser­va­tions about the pro­ject and deemed it un­ac­cept­able.

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