Geopolitical Notes From India
M D Nalapat
PRESIDENT W J Clinton twice declined an offer of alliance with India, first when P V Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister of India and later during the period in office of A B Vajpayee. This will count as a history-altering error by the 42nd President of the United States, of as great import as his refusal to craft a US-Russia alliance rather than continue with Cold War-era efforts at downsizing and humiliating Moscow, of course, after the pervasive influence on the Clintons on academic and journalistic life in the US reduces sufficiently to permit an accurate estimate of the 8 Clinton Presidential years and the nearly six “semi-presidential” years when either Hillary Clinton or her acolytes were in effective command of much of the Obama Administration. The later period was when geopolitical disasters such as the meltdown in the Middle East occurred.
It must be said to the credit of the 43rd US President (George W Bush) that he accepted the counsel of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and worked towards building up a 21st century alliance with Delhi, albeit mainly on US terms, a phenomenon particularly marked during the Sonia-Manmohan years, when essential initiatives such as the thorium fuel nuclear energy program and the indigenous nuclear submarine program were slowed down to a crawl. It was only during the last quarter of the Obama Administration that a more balanced alignment was agreed by Washington thanks substantially to the vision of Defence Secretary Ashton Carter. The Modi Administration accepted the judgment of the Washington Beltway (the traditional establishment) that Donald J Trump would first never win the Republican Party nomination for the 2016 presidential election, and after he succeeded in besting all other challengers, that he could not prevail over Hillary Clinton.
There is much talk of the Russians and the Trump campaign. The reality is that Russia, together with China, India, the UK, Germany, Japan and other major powers concentrated their attention on the Clintons, almost entirely ignoring the Trump campaign except for jokes and laughter at its expense. It was only on November 8, 2016 that Delhi, Tokyo, London, Paris and other capitals scrambled to establish closer ties to Team Trump, with Japan’s Shinzo Abe the first to do so. In the case of India, the official establishment kept Prime Minister Modi away from Candidate Trump for fear that Hillary Clinton (not to mention Barack Obama) would look askance at such moves. Members of the Trump campaign who visited Delhi since the close of 2015 until the close of the presidential campaign met far fewer (and far more junior) officials than did those visitors who were close to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Subsequently, however, Modi was able to establish a rapport with Trump the way he had with Barack Obama, who was among the few individuals the Prime Minister of India had a personal liking for. While Manmohan Singh understood the importance of ensuring a close security relationship with the US, he lacked the nerve to challenge the Cold Warriors in the Congress Party and sign in the military field the three Foundation Agreements with the US. Even Modi has so far been able to sign only a single agreement, that on logistics. Weapons lobbies have worked on the bureaucracy to prevent the other two from being signed, although it is likely that this may happen when President Trump visits India for the first time. The 45th US President is expected to make a visit to the world’s most populous democracy within a relatively short time, and is assured of a warm welcome throughout the country.
Prime Minister Modi understands the twin reality of (i) a close security relationship with Washington and (ii) deep economic ties with Beijing, given that the scope for bilateral trade between India and China is $ 300 billion within five years, in case synergies get tapped the way they should be. Concerning security, Modi has given his blessing to what was previously the “tsunami alliance”, so named because it came into effect as a consequence of that 2004 disaster. Australia, Japan, the US and India are coming together in a security alliance named as the Quad. However, in the years to come, it is likely that Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines will join the group, making it seven-cornered. Although it has a political system different from that of the other six members, Vietnam has close ties with each of them, and its military skills make it a valuable addition to the alliance evolving in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.
During Trump’s visit to India, it is certain that discussions about the Indo-Pacific will form a substantial part of the agenda, as will issues such as economic growth and terror. Although the Washington Beltway has been working at top speed to try and unseat Trump through resignation or impeachment, the brightening economic situation within the US is making it more difficult to convince the US public that the elected President should be sent out of office, presumably through a hatchet job on him conducted by Beltway personality Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Of course, Mueller has been working at a frantic pace to try and fulfil the hopes of Bill and Hillary Clinton. The formidable “Empress of the Beltway” still has hopes of making her husband the first “First Gentleman” ever to stay in the White House, although of course those women who had less than pleasant encounters with Bill Clinton may dispute such a description. Led by the US (which has by far the strongest navy in the world) and India (which has a position of vantage in the western reaches of the Indo-Pacific), the Quadrilateral Alliance between Australia, Japan, India and the US has come to stay. Joint sharing of intelligence and joint military exercises and training are certain to follow.
Such exercises will take place in the eastern reaches of this vast ocean as well, and not just in what is known as the Indian Ocean. However, the four powers that have already joined together need more partners if they are to do justice to their core mission of keeping the sea lanes of the Indo-Pacific safe for maritime commerce. After India, it is Indonesia that is the most important player in the western reaches of the Indo-Pacific, and it is therefore necessary for the Quad to invite Jakarta to join the coalition. It helps that Indonesia is a moderate state where extremists are under watch and are being dealt with so as to lower the risk such elements pose to the rest of society. The culturally vibrant Philippines is a significant player in the region in terms of potential, while Vietnam brings several security and other assets to the table. The sooner the Friendly Four expand into the Sincere Seven, the better it will be for overall security in Asia.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.