India has Washington’s attention but will China stay quiet?
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at the start of the 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi.
Trust the retired general of the US Marines to be statesmanesque. James Mattis told an Indian audience in the presence of Indian minister for external affairs (MEA), Ms Sushma Swaraj and the defence minister, Ms Nirmala Sitharaman, “India and the US are co-equal democracies.” For two nations that were categorised in a book title by a former American diplomat, Dennis Kux, as ‘Estranged Democracy,’ this was some path to traverse.
The 2+2 format of meetings between the two countries’ was decided by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald J Trump in June, 2017. But the occasion of the meetings showed that the Indo-US relationship has gone beyond the vagaries of a Trump White House and installed itself into the processes of State and Defence, even at the policymaking level. And that is reassuring.
For too long had the bilateral relationships of the country been hostage to ideology; and in the post-Cold War phase – realpolitik. The primary votary of the USA’s Cold War ally, Pakistan, had been the Pentagon that had only looked at India’s neighbour for being in a geostrategic location. The US Department of Defence virtually made the triangular matrix of these tangled relationships into a zero-sum game of two binaries. On the other hand, ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, Indian foreign and security policymakers were trying to get Washington’s attention, shorn of any baggage. India emerged on the radar as more than a blip when the rise of China became apparent. So, if George W Bush administration had assumed office with a plan to develop New Delhi as a regional hedge to Beijing’s break-out, they did not anticipate the enormity of 9/11.
Yet, as is history now, Bush II administration could look at Indian priorities substantively only after the US government could get a handle in Afghanistan. Thus was born the civil nuclear agreement. That was the first time India was brought out of the box the Americans Establishment had put it in. Now, as the Indian economy becomes the fastest growing economy of the world, and the US is emerging out of what they call a ‘Great Recession,’ the motivation for US business is the modernisation process the country is undergoing. One of the key drivers of the opportunities American commerce is looking at now is the Indian defence modernisation programme – its very own Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), really. India is variously expected to spend $ 200 billion annually for about 10 years on this ‘transformation’. That is just too big a pie the world’s biggest war materiel manufacturing nation can ignore.
For now, the hotline that is to be placed in MEA HQ in South Block connecting it with US State Department, or the defence ministry residing in the same sprawling architectural marvel on Delhi’s Raisina Hill, having another such connection with Mattis’ office, will soon start crackling. But is it late for Washington for making this outreach? The regional line-up where Thucydides’ have taken a pause – India, China, with Russia seems to hold the promise of a new, rules-based international order that would provide a larger tent for the world’s developing nations.
A two trillion USD economy can find it more advantageous to join up with a five trillion USD GDP nation than some other country with 18.5 trillion USD behemoth. The sheer market opportunity with another nation of middle-income range is a matter of pent-up, unmet demand than the advanced, fully formed economy, with a consumptive culture at the end of an enormous supply chain.
In that light the outcome of the current trade war is important. While India holds off from pledging its bets to China or the US definitively, it is calculating the comparative gains not just in economic terms. The country, pitching for a larger portfolio, is also computing whether the competitive edge between those two countries can afford it the advancement its own agenda.
Under those circumstances, Mattis’ announcement about India being made a part of discussions of the US Central Command is a master-stroke. But that is again balanced off by India and Pakistan exercising militarily together, for the first time in their conjoined histories within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) rubric, under the watchful eye of China, is a potential big deal.
New Delhi will have to be careful not just about how to deploy its geopolitical pieces but also its timing. Already, the US MNCs based in China have started complaining that Trump tariff hikes are affecting their bottom-line. And they may have to look outwards of the Pearl River delta.
If they come ashore in India, should New Delhi be welcoming or think these are the other bargaining chips in its vast expanding bag of tricks, is still in the realm of imagination. We know there are no permanent enemies or friends. Let Beijing and Washington decide what each of them wishes to do? PM Modi has more hugs to dole out. His policy planners were faster in taking Henry Kissinger’s advice of a ‘philosophical engagement with China’ than Trump’s team. Wuhan summit between Modi and Xi Jinping is barely fixing the cobblestones of a completely new path between the two countries. After all, both are civilizational-nations. They take life slow and easy.