Checkmating the revisionist China with fellow-democratic America
A time comes in everybody’s life, whether as an individual or the State, to reconsider one’s deeds or policies and reshape them in tune with the changing times. For India, such a time has come. With the stand-off with China continuing at the Line of Actual Control(LAC) in Ladakh and that country proving over the years to be India’s “Principal Enemy” for its continued attempts to undermine India and India’s core interests, can New Delhi afford to continue with its traditional strategic worldview? Is it not time for India to rethink its foreign and security policies and raise the costs for China’s imperialistic designs at the LAC and in the India-Pacific? Should India avoid getting closer to the United States, the most powerful country of the world in both economic and military terms, and other democratic nations that are equally apprehensive of a rising but revisionist China and want to checkmate its advances? After all, after the then USSR’s support to India in the 1971-War against Pakistan, no other country has supported India so openly and so boldly in the present war-like situation with the way the United States has. In fact, the Indian Navy just has taken part in a military exercise called PASSEX with a US Navy battle group led by the USS Nimitz – a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the world’s largest – off the coast of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Viewed thus, my answers to all the three questions are “No”.
One is aware of two principal criticisms (particularly from the still formidable liberal and left establishment in the country) that will come against these changes, if and when they take place. One will be the standard argument that India, a nonaligned country, will lose its strategic autonomy by joining the camp what is essentially that of the “West”. Secondly, the United States has never been a reliable partner.
What precisely is the nonalignment? People may not believe it, but the hard fact is that nonalignment has never been defined in any nonaligned forum ever since its formal birth in 1961 at Belgrade, the capital of the then Yugoslavia. As a result, as the famous Yugoslavian scholarly diplomat Leo Mates had once remarked, “there are as many definitions of nonalignment as there are nonaligned countries and possibly even more”.
At its third summit at Lusaka in 1970, the NAM (Nonaligned Movement) declared its “aims” which sound like a summary of the “purposes” of the United Nations. But what is the point in explaining what one “will” do without describing what one “is”?
If one scans the vast literature on nonalignment (which I had done in my university days, since the NAM was then the most favourite topic in international relations for the teachers and students in Indian universities), it becomes quite clear that the concept is full of contradictions. On the one hand, one learns that the NAM intends to create “one world”, so much so that Jawaharlal Nehru and his overzealous defence minister Krishna Menon were never tired of saying that the movement was not “a third force” or “a third camp” ( after one camp led by the US and another under the direction of the then USSR). But this goal of “one world”, say the votaries of the NAM, cannot be attained as long “power politics” (pursued by the two contending blocks or camps) exists in the world. Therefore, so runs their argument, a nonaligned country should not be in the camp of any so-called superpower, should not have a security treaty with them or allow any military base to them in its territory.
At the same time, one is told that nonalignment is not a goal in itself but an instrument of foreign policy. But then as the goal of every country’s foreign policy is to promote and consolidate its national interests, it logically follows that a nonaligned country has got the same right to promote its national interests as anyone else. Therefore, what is wrong if by concluding a security treaty or lending a military base, a nonaligned country wants to promote its national interests (augmenting economic, technological and military power)?
The lesson, thus, is very clear. That is that one cannot apply uniform criteria to judge whether a country is nonaligned or not. Take the case of India, a founder member of the NAM. The nonaligned course, as understood by Indians, was the best that India could have followed then at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. There were three important reasons for this. First, by not taking sides, it could attract the economic assistance, so vital for the country’s upliftment from both the blocks.
Secondly, not being “against” any block, the policy could guarantee that there would be no security threat from either super power. And thirdly, which I consider to be the most important, at a time when there were many schools of political thought that prevailed in the country, the policy of not opting for either “imperialist” USA or “revolutionary” Soviet Union, facilitated some sort of domestic consensus.
Now the question is: Could any other nationalist leader in place of Nehru have acted otherwise? The answer is a definite “NO”. None other than Nehru himself admitted this by saying, “ I am quite convinced that whoever might have been in charge of foreign affairs of India, they could not have deviated very much from this policy It is a policy inherent in the circumstances of India and inherent in the circumstances of the world today”. But what might not have happened without Nehru was naming this policy as nonalignment. Also, without Nehru, the internationalisation of the nonalignment as a concept might not have materialised.
And it is precisely here that one finds the inherent weakness of the nonalignment as a global phenomenon. It may be noted that nonalignment of the Indian variety could be sustained due to the prevalence of certain conditions. For a start, India has had adequate indigenous economic and military resources as well as technology to withstand external pressure. But how many of the 120 so-called nonaligned countries have this advantage? Therefore, it is not surprising that the movement has always been vulnerable to the pulls and pressures of the super powers and other lesser powers. We know how nonaligned Cuba worked in concert with the then Soviet Union. Similar examples mark the relations between Singapore and the United States, and Pakistan (or for that matter North Korea) with China.
The dichotomy between what countries preach at the NAM summits and what actually they practice has been evidenced by a study of the voting pattern in the United Nations. This study clearly indicates that the consensus arrived at during the NAM summits has never been reflected in the world forum. In fact, many aspects of the NAM declarations (pertaining to the new economic order, a global regime that ensures sovereignty of nations or a non-compromising battle against terrorism) undergo radical changes at the United Nations where, ironically enough, the nonaligned countries constitute a comfortable majority.
It is obvious that while not directly participating in the Cold War, most of the nonaligned countries had always committed to either the “East” (Moscow) or the “West” (Washington DC). And the results are there for all to see. Besides, despite the professed goal of attaining peace and disarmament, the fact remains that in the last 50 years, there have been nearly 200 conflicts within the nonaligned world itself, in every one of which the two super powers have been ranged on opposite sides (Russia still continues to be a super power in military-terms).
Similarly, behind the slogan in every NAM summit of “democratisation of international relations,” in which every country should be considered “free” and “equal”, is the ugly truth that the majority of the nonaligned countries are being governed by one form of despotism or the other. And notwithstanding the advocacy of the laudatory North-South cooperation, the South-South dialogue within the NAM itself remained a pipe-dream.
Considering all this, what has the NAM done other than indulging in empty rhetoric summit after summit? But if the membership of the NAM has still grown — there were just 25 members in 1961 — it must be due to some sort of glamour associated with it. The NAM may not have been “immoral”, as dubbed by the then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, but it has been a showy ornament that has no real use for its member countries. In that sense, the NAM has been nothing more than a Golden Zero.
Viewed thus, if at this point of time India’s national interests will be better served by closely coordinating with fellow democracies in the Indo-Pacific (Japan, Australia, Republic of Korea, among others) in general and the Unites States in particular, it should not be viewed as jettisoning Indian sovereignty. Doing so will be a superficial view. Being members of the NATO, France always and Turkey recently have displayed their strategic autonomy. Both have defied the US many a time. Turkey recently ignored the US warnings and went ahead with buying Russian weapons (S – 200 missiles). Similarly, Turkey refused to let the US troops use its territory to launch an offensive in northern Iraq in 2003. South Korea, which has a formal security alliance with the US, has not hesitated to talk with the Communist North Korea and do business with China, much to the displeasure of Washington. These examples are illustrative, not exhaustive.
Even otherwise, over the last 20 years in the sphere of defence, both India and the United States have come a long way ever since the two countries signed the New Framework for Defence Cooperation in June 2005. The summit meeting at Washington between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2016 resulted in India being designated as “a major defence partner of the United States”, thus adding teeth to the two countries’ 2012 creation of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). Being a major defence partner is a framework that is supposed to facilitate innovative and advanced opportunities in defence technology and trade cooperation between India and the US. In between, by surpassing Russia, the United States had become for sometime India’s biggest arms supplier.
Besides, India is now a country with which the United States conducts the largest number of peace-time military exercises bilaterally every year (nearly 70). All these have fitted well into their respective big schemes in the areas covering Pacific and Indian Oceans, which have been now named “Indo-Pacific”. It may be noted that the United States has been pressing India since 2004 to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) along with Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). COMCASA permits Indian military to function on high-end secured and encrypted communication equipment that are installed on American platforms obtained by Indian Armed Forces. These platforms include C-130 J, C-17, P-8I aircraft, and Apache and Chinook helicopters. This facilitates greater interoperability between forces and military hardware of the two countries, and also possibly with other countries that operate on US-origin platforms.
BECA would set a framework through which the United States could share sensitive data to aid targeting and navigation with India. BECA makes sure all kinds of information whether intelligence reports or satellite data inputs regarding the landscape of the battle field or any forms of information gathering methods are shared unconditionally between Indian and American militaries. That is why Americans argued that the Indo-US strategic partnership could be really meaningful and enhanced only when New Delhi signs LEMOA, CISMOA and BECA. Of the three, the LSA and CISMOA have already been signed by the Modi-regime in 2016 and 2018 respectively and the BECA is likely to be concluded sooner rather than later.
The then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Manmohan Singh was all for the conclusion of the LEMOA , but it did not have the courage to go for actual signing, afraid as it was that the opposition and Left-leaning experts will consider it as formalising a military alliance with the US by violating its traditional policy of not allowing foreign military presence (howsoever temporary it may be on its soil except for purposes of training and joint exercises) and that China will be angered in the process. Under this Agreement, the US agrees to provide Logistics Support, Supplies and Services (LSSS) to military forces to countries or organisations in return for the reciprocal provision of logistics support, supplies and services by such governments or organisations to the US military forces. The LEMOA would come into picture during joint military exercises, training requirements, deployments, unforeseen emergencies, exigent circumstances, peacekeeping and disaster relief operations, and wartime needs as well as exercises to correct logistic deficiencies which cannot be met by a nation on its own. It will provide military commanders’ “enhanced operational readiness and cost effective mutual support”. It means that the military personnel of India and the US can use each other’s equipment, including food, water, clothing, medical services, accommodation, transportation, petroleum, oils, lubricants, storage services, communication services, and base operations support. Importantly, all these are paid-services, that is, the country using other’s facilities will bear the economic cost.
LEMOA prohibits the exchange of major weapons and weapon-platforms such as fighter aircrafts, ships, missiles and bombs, let alone nuclear weapons. Also, every request of one party would be acceded to by the other only after a review. Thus, no party is bound to agree for every respect; it can say no if its national interests dictate so. What is also significant is that the LEMOA does not talk of permitting permanent base rights for the military forces in either country. Nor for that matter it compels one to commit its forces for the military operations by the other. In other words, contrary to what the critics say, under the LEMOA, India will not fight America’s wars and the vice-versa.
However, under the present circumstances, it will not be a bad idea if the above restrictions are reviewed and India decides to grant some base facilities, preferably somewhere in Andaman and Nicobar islands. It may be noted here that the Pentagon is looking for base-opportunities in the Indo-Pacific under its 2004 Global Defense Posture Review (GDPR) plans that are “for increasing the number of overseas US facilities by replacing and supplementing large Cold War-era bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea with smaller facilities known as forward operating sites, or FOSs (small installations that can be rapidly built up), and cooperative security locations, or CSLs (host-nation facilities with little U.S. personnel but with equipment and logistical capabilities), both of which can be activated when necessary. These FOSs and CSLs will be used against sources of regional instability”.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy report published by the US in 2019 describes China as its “biggest competitor”, the country which also happens to be India’s principal enemy. The report also describes China as a revisionist power; something India realises very well from its experiences with its northern “neighbour”, which China “became” by virtue of the latter’s annexation of Tibet ( historically, it was Tibet, not China, that was India’s neighbour across the Himalayas). This convergence between the US and India with regard to China is, no doubt, one of the reasons for this new nomenclature of the “Indo-Pacific” from its earlier one of “Asia-Pacific”. And interestingly, other major democracies of the region such as Japan and Australia have happily accepted the change, notwithstanding the public denunciation of it by China. All told, the Indo-Pacific region is one of the most critical regions for the future for the US, India, Japan and Australia. As much as 60% of the global maritime trade goes through this region.
The US has gone even one step forward in this regard. It has changed the name of one of its most important military units, known as the Pacific Command (USPACOM), to “Indo-Pacific Command” (USINDOPACOM) in 2018. It is said that that the US Navy now plans to deploy 60 percent of its surface ships in the Indo-Pacific. That being the case, it is but natural that the US Navy wants safe territories in or adjoining Arabian Sea, Andaman & Nicobar and Bay of Bengal for refuelling and other logistic support.
It is all the more so in the wake of the reported uncertainties over American presence in Diego Garcia, arguably America’s most important — and secretive — overseas assets in the Indian Ocean. And that is because this base was given to America in 1965 by the UK, then colonial ruler of Mauritius, whose territories include Diego Garcia. Last year the UK lost its claim over Diego Garcia in the International Court of Justice. London had cleaved it from Mauritius and renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory, a move that the United Nations’ highest court in 2019 ruled was illegal under international law.
Secondly, policy makers and analysts in the US now prefer closer military relations with democratic countries willing to host the military facilities for the American troops with base facilities to those that are authoritarian. The US is fast realising that nondemocratic regimes are inherently unreliable hosts, though entering into alliances with them is much easier. But then not only the longevity of these regimes are suspect because of their very nature (always vulnerable to democratic pressures from below), thus raising questions over their successors’ commitment to the alliance; their rulers, when strong and stable, also renege on their liability to the alliance in the absence of the restrictions of a constitution, an independent judiciary, and an elected legislature in a true sense.
In fact, it is much easier for authoritarian regimes to violate treaties. We have the glowing example of how Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov literally cheated the Americans after entering an agreement with the then Bush regime in March 2002 to set up the Karshi-Khanabad air base (also known as K2) in southern Uzbekistan for launching operations into Afghanistan, but not before grabbing US assistance, both direct and indirect, worth of nearly $ 400 million. Similarly, America’s weary military alliance with Pakistan that has cost the Americans nearly $40 billion since the September 11 attacks is too well-known for an elaboration.
On the contrary, security alliances or interactions among democracies are much more enduring. There may be occasional hiccups because of domestic developments of the democratic partners, but despite all that the governments do continue to honour their security commitments because those deals are guaranteed by an established legal order. That explains why notwithstanding the differences among the leaders from time to time, America’s security relations with Germany, the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea are fundamentally sound.
In fact, the alliance with the US has majority support of the people in these countries. A survey conducted in 2018 in 14 countries that have hosted large US military deployments, including Japan and South Korea, with approximately 1,000 respondents in each, has found that people in the host country generally feel positively or have neutral attitudes toward the US personnel stationed in their country. In Australia only 11 percent people were against the alliance. The respective figures were 15 percent in South Korea, 19 percent in the UK, 16 percent in the Netherlands, 20 percent in Portugal, 26 percent in Germany and 27 percent in Japan. In other words, overwhelming majority in democracies is in favour of a stable security alliance with a fellow democratic America.
Security alliance with America has also been economically beneficial to the host countries, helping their investment, trade, political development, and economic growth, directly and indirectly. According to recent report, the US currently has approximately 174,000 active-duty personnel deployed to overseas locations in approximately 140 countries. The Department of Defense Comptroller’s Office estimates the total cost of overseas bases and deployments at US$24.4 billion in fiscal year 2020. These figures generally exclude the costs of ongoing combat operations.
I have already argued how it is superficial to view that countries having security treaty commitments, including base-facilities, with a powerful country lose their independence or strategic autonomy. It is not perhaps well-known that apart from providing military facilities to the US on its soil as a NATO member, Germany hosts also a base to the UK. At its peak, the UK had more than 55,000 personnel stationed in West Germany with the potential to amass up to 150,000 in case a conflict had broken out. Now the number has considerably come down but the UK still maintains its Ayrshire Barracks in Mönchengladbach with the capacity to store 2,000 vehicles, with access to munitions. Does that mean Germany follows always the US in its global interactions or for that matter does it agree with the UK on the latter’s BREXIT policy?
Forget about Germany, which is one of the leading and developed countries of the world. Even a tiny African nation Djibouti, which is strategically placed at the entrance to the Red Sea , is home to more foreign bases than any other country in the world. Linking Africa and the West Asia (Middle East) and opening out to Europe via the Suez Canal in the north, the Red Sea is of particular interest to the global markets; it is also the main passage-way for Gulf oil to reach North America. Since rising to power in 1999, President Ismael Omar Guellah opened up the economically fragile country to foreign powers seeking to lease land for military bases. In return, the autocratic leader, who reformed the constitution in 2010 to expand the powers of the presidency and remove term limits, gained people’s support for the country’s economic gains from these bases that guarantee a level of stability and generates more than $300 million for the country annually.
As the former colonial power, France still has one of its largest concentrations of its overseas forces stationed in Djibouti. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States also established Camp Lemonnier—its only permanent military installation in Africa—in order to combat terrorist threats in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The Italians also have their own base, while troops from Germany and Spain are hosted by the French. Japan’s only foreign military base is also based in the capital Djibouti and is now set for expansion as a counterweight to China’s increasing influence. However, ironically, in 2017, China became the latest country to open a military base in the Horn of Africa nation. President Guellah must be a man of great talents to manage all these contradictions!
If anything all the above examples underscore then that is the point that entering into a more active security alliance with the United States will not mean India giving up its strategic autonomy and sovereignty. On the other hand, it will prove to be a great deterrent like nothing else to the Chinese hostility. Of course, there can be legitimate questions on America’s reliability as an ally. But then, as I have argued earlier, America has rarely ditched a country that is genuinely a democracy.
India and the U.S. ceased to be “Estranged Democracies” (the famous book written by former U.S. diplomat Dennis Kux after the end of the Cold War). Irrespective of who has been power in Delhi and Washington since then, the two countries have been moving forward. Indo-U.S. relations are no longer a hostage to U.S.-Pakistani and Indo-Soviet relations. Indo-U.S. annual trade is now worth more than $100 billion a year. Strategically speaking, the two countries share concerns over the Islamic fundamentalism, global terror networks, unending conflict in Afghanistan and a truculent China. There is now increased cooperation between the two countries’ military and intelligence establishments. High-level visits have become commonplace.
All these things have happened under both the Republican and Democratic Administrations and in times that have seen both the Congress and BJP dominated governments in New Delhi. I do not see any scenario in near future that will reverse this trend irrespective of whether Modi remains in power in India or Trump loses to Biden in elections in November. And here, one factor has played a significant role –the ascendancy of the Indian- Americans both in number and profile in the United States. Indian- Americans have been continuously outpacing every ethnic group socioeconomically to reach the summit of the US Census charts. They have attained the highest educational levels of all ethnic groups in the US. According to Wikipedia, 71 per cent of all Indians have a bachelor’s or high degree (compared to 28 per cent nationally and 44 per cent average for all Asian American groups). Almost 40 per cent of all Indians in the United States have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree. After all, the best and brightest students in India emigrate to America.
A study from Pew Research Centre has shown that 80 per cent of Indians were holding college or advanced degrees, surpassing the previously Taiwanese average figure of 74.1 per cent. In fact, the percentage of the number of Indian- Americans who have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree is five times the national average in America. What all this means is that these high profiled Indian -Americans, having best professional jobs, constitute a huge constituency for India in the US which no American government or business can ignore.
Thus, India and the United States have everything to gain as close partners, given their shared ideals of democracy, pluralistic ways of life, equality and justice, not to speak of their shared concerns over a revisionist China.
(This essay is simultaneously appearing in Geopolitics magazine)
By Prakash Nanda