(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)
Challenges, Options and Choices: India faces extraordinarily incredible strategic challenges in today’s international geopolitics. Options are limited with the Chinese breathing down the Indo-Tibet border and also in the Indian Ocean Region: either join the “QUAD – US-Japan-Australia-India” or persist with the Strategic Alliance with Russia or “Stand Alone” to face the burnt and fury of the “Chinese Dragon”.
The more one reflects, the more one is convinced that India is caught between the “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”. In retrospect, India faces “Hobson’s Choice” in making the choice to align with USA or Russia. Naturally, the scale tilts in favor of strategic equi-distancing or autonomy or tight-rope balancing act between the two.
For Clausewitz, war is merely an extension of politics. For him, the objectives of war are always political objectives, and that war must always be subservient to politics. General Colin Powell also stated that “War should be the last resort of politics.” One must always remember that wars are always destructive for all players involved. And, they are open ended.
Furthermore, in today’s “Technology Age”, wars should not also be viewed from the narrow prism of “battles waged by military forces” or covert and clandestine violence sponsored by state and non-state actors.
Wars today are waged on multiple fronts: trade/investment wars in the economy dimension, information/influence campaigns and culture wars on the social front, political interventions during elections in democracies, diplomatic wars, energy, technology and military. Political destabilization of democracies is a means to achieve end objective of disintegration of rival nations by authoritarian regimes.
Choices have to be made in all the above fields in confronting rivals attempting to disintegrate modern India – China-Pakistan alliance is hell bent upon disintegrating India.
Cool, calculative and calibrated intelligence of the highest order is vital, both in domestic and external dimensions, to counter the nefarious designs of our strategic rivals. Mere jingoistic rhetoric or bull headedness exposes intellectual bankruptcy only. At the same time, rivals should not view diplomatic parleys as meekness borne out of weakness.
What does it imply for India? Simple! “Prepare to wage wars in all fields by proactive-cum-offensive into rivals domestic turf or Perish”. For doing so, “Unity” at home is most critical, which is an anathema to the warring political leaders whose only pursuit and obsession is somehow to regain or cling to power.
Be that as it may, the outcome of US elections in November 2020 and the US foreign policies thereafter are difficult to predict as of now that are bound to influence and shape India’s postures.
Understanding the foreign policy course followed by the USA after World War II and the current policies are considered vital to appreciate future portends. The “Concept of Containment of Communism at the door step” was adopted by President Roosevelt and Truman in the aftermath of World War II. Also, the USA spearheaded the establishment of a host of international organizations, which included the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the forerunner to the World Trade Organization). It shaped the course of international relations until the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989 that heralded the end of the Cold War and emergence of the USA as the sole superpower and “global policemen”.
During the above period, instead of joining the Western sponsored Cold War Alliances, India spearheaded the Non Aligned Movement that was drubbed as “International fellow travelling”. Next, the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship prior to 1971 war resulted in India being classified as the “Second Most Hated Nation” by the USA after the Soviet Union; and Pakistan as the “Frontline Strategic Ally”. At the same time, China-Pakistan strategic alliance got consolidated to checkmate India’s rise in South Asia.
Not only there are military ‘trip wires’ all over but also trade war, digital wars, information wars and digital wars being wages by all sides.
So, what are the options and choices available for India in today’s geopolitical context?
Most importantly, it is difficult to predict USAs foreign policy postures. Undoubtedly, the lesson of mankind’s history has made a credible impression on USAs domestic audience: “Over extension Trap beyond Economic and Human Resources overstretch”. Almost all USA interventions have failed to achieve end objectives. Violence in Iraq, Syria, Balkans and elsewhere like Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have failed in which the human and economic costs have been hurting. USA is suffering from exhaustion due to it’s overstretch. Lest USA too succumbs to “Overstretch trap”, reverting to “isolationist” posture is but natural.
Add to it, the trends or frustration on the domestic front especially after the 2008 financial crisis and now the COVID-19 Pandemic. Due to neglect of interests and welfare of its people, there is simmering and widespread anti establishment building up. Middle-class wages are stagnated and widespread job losses and factory closings have created a narrow but intense hostility to trade.
“Trumpism” (America First; Make America Great Again) is, therefore, reversal to its 19th century ideological construct of nationalist unilateralism and isolationism, which is a dramatic shift from multilateralism through alliances or treaties or institutions. For example, Trump has either withdrawn or threatens to withdraw from various treaties. For example, the list includes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Council, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Open Skies Treaty. Trump’s United States also refused to join a global migration pact or European-led efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
Even from hotspots like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan etc., Trump is slowly and abruptly withdrawing support to allies or threatens to withdraw support undermining the objectives set out by his predecessors. “Sharing the Burden” is Trump’s advocacy. Its consequence is simple. Its allies view the USA as an unreliable ally. Seeds of doubt have been sown: if it could happen once, it could happen again.
Trump has shown little interest in advocating human rights, advancing democracy, alleviating humanitarian hardship, or addressing global challenges such as migration, climate change, or infectious diseases. When it came to Saudi Arabia, he did not allow blatant human rights violations to get in the way of arms sales. And he has been reluctant to respond at all to Russia’s military intervention in Syria, its interference in U.S. politics, or recent evidence that Russian agents paid bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers.
Add to it, Trump’s pandering to right wing white supremacists and evangelicals. Joe Bidden-Kamala Harris, as per opinion polls, pro Muslim, is heading for triumph over Trump. How the USA will move ahead in global affairs will dictate on who really emerges the winner?
In contrast, due to authoritarian governance, Xi Jinping and Putin have been maintaining a stranglehold over their respective societies and voices of domestic dissent muffled and stifled. Now, with rise of China and resurgence of Russia, the geopolitical scenario has rapidly undergone seismic changes. Admittedly, China has emerged relatively stronger, more assertive and even aggressive also against the USA what to talk other actors on its periphery. The USA think tanks view China as posing threat to global peace and stability due to its aggressive expansionist designs and forays all over the globe and even in the space domain, Arctic etc. War clouds are hovering on the horizon everywhere – Pacific, South Asia, West Asia etc.
Due to past flawed economic policies, India has allowed China to gain access to Indian markets. Ironically, Indian manufacturing depends on Chinese primary materials, particularly in drugs manufacturing but also in a wide range of electronics and mobiles, to fuel its production. Not only in manufacturing, even in military, space, cyber war and digital technologies, India remains laggard.
India’s trade deficit with China came down by $10 billion, from $63 billion in 2017-18 to $53 billion in 2018-19. But, China’s GDP is at $14.34 trillion in 2019, that is, nearly 5 times over India’s.
Yet another significant factor that cannot be brushed aside in a cavalier manner by indulging in jingoistic rhetoric is India imports around 70 percent (by value) of its high-tech defense hardware such as aircraft, ships, submarines, missiles etc. mainly from Russia, Japan, Israel and United States.
During 2014-2018 India was the world’s second largest defense importer behind Saudi Arabia – 12% arms exports reach India. On paper, it has excellent domestic manufacturing policies. In reality, India remains a laggard in critical military hardware. The Defense Industry has dismally failed to do even reverse engineering of rifles what to talk of aircraft engines, state of the art shells for guns, rockets etc. India continues to depend on Russia for the S-400 Missile Defense System, MIG-29s, SU 30 MKIs and even AK 203 rifles, besides its INS Chakra Attack class submarine on 10-years lease in service from 2012.
Geographically China is the aggressive neighbor for India. Let none nurture doubts on the above score. No more, China can be viewed as a competitor to collaborate; but a rival to counter.
Viewed in the above strategic mosaic, out of the three options available and their complex dynamic fluidity, it is not easy to opt for a choice out of the three options outlined above.
India can ill afford to suddenly de-link or estrange its enduring strategic partnership with Russia by forging strategic partnership with the USA or vice versa. To pick sides or finding middle ground is not easy. India needs support from both Russia and the USA in all fields.
Indian diplomacy has to raise its diplomatic “Antennas” both in Moscow and Washington D.C. and manage them with tremendous intellectual dexterity to counter the Chinese aggressive and assertive postures. On the diplomatic, economic and technology fronts, India needs to pro-actively counter Chinese forays to wean away friends and partners. With S. Jaishanker, former diplomat turned Foreign Minister, one can expect the power play in safe hands.
The talk of the analysts in the media is “India must prepare for a long haul militarily” in the Eastern Ladakh. It is also a “tunneled or myopic” view. In retrospect, India must be prepared for a “long haul” not only militarily on the entire Indo-Tibet border in the Himalayas, but also from all other dimensions of national security and power, particularly trade, investments and technology.
In sum, the current geo strategic environment favors persisting with maintaining “strategic sovereignty” in all dimensions of national security. Absolute resoluteness and resilience is the need of the hour and not appeasement and meekness which would only embolden the rivals to become more aggressive and assertive. As an emerging power, India must prepare to “wage its wars in all fields” on “Stand Alone” mode.